Saturday, December 28, 2019

On Medium: The Dark Reality of Self-Help Therapy

This article is about our preference for the social Darwinian, pseudoscientific, totalitarian and infantilizing pablum of the self-help industry to the harsh truths of Western philosophy.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

On Medium: The Man-made Gods of Monotheism

This article is about how basic history deflates the monotheistic myths, and it's a reworking of a longer article by the same title.

Monday, December 16, 2019

On Medium: Future History and Fear of the Transhuman

How would a cynical future historian interpret our present collective behaviour? Read this article to explore some possibilities.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

On Medium: The Full Monstrosity of Trump

This article is about our collective blame for Trump's rise to power, and how humankind as a whole is at least as narcissistic and monstrous as Trump.

Monday, December 9, 2019

On Medium: The Fictions of Moralists and Hypocrites

This article is about the inevitable unworkability of moral or religious principles, because of their basis in myths and fictions. So if we're moral, we end up lying to ourselves and if we're unprincipled, we lie to others to avoid being cast out of society. Either way, fictions rule.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

On Medium: Helpless Passengers of Automated Progress

This article is about how we're disinclined to be moral in our private life, because we assume that modern society automates progress.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

On Medium: Why Write Anything Anymore?

Why Write Anything Anymore? This article is about how the internet trivializes all its contents and how something similar happens in large societies, since civilization trivializes the members of its population. So why create content? And why go on living as a stranger?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

On Medium: The Forgotten Obsolescence of Faith

This article is about secular progress, faithfulness to a sacred covenant and the animistic roots of religious faith.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Monday, November 25, 2019

Saturday, November 23, 2019

On Medium: Marquis de Sade versus the Buddha

Here's a dialogue between the Marquis de Sade and the Buddha, about which is best, sadism or Buddhist compassion. I wonder who wins.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

On Medium: Some Basics of Cynical Sociology

Here's an article that uncovers the universal social order hidden that's often hidden beneath our cultural obfuscations. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

On Medium: Why God is a Lovecraftian Monster

This article of mine on Medium is about the meaning behind the question of whether God exists. The article returns to some themes of From Theism to Cosmicism: Toy Gods and the Horror of the Supernatural, which I wrote in 2012. 

Friday, November 15, 2019

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

On Medium: Femininity and Masculinity in American Politics

Here's an article I posted on Medium about how the difference between feminine and masculine traits helps explain the cultural divide in American politics, and how that division came to be in that country. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

On Medium: Do Theists and Atheists have the same Deepest Experience?

Here's an article of mine on Medium that compares the fear of God and the fear of nature, and looks at how the theistic fear degenerates into love of God and ultimately into the loss of an invigorating relation to the Other, as in the case of Christian idolatry. 

Friday, November 8, 2019

On Medium: Why Theism and Atheism are both Laughable

I've posted on article on Medium, called Why Theism and Atheism are both Laughable, about the presumption that we're entitled to a complete explanation of everything, and the counterintuitiveness of theistic and naturalistic cosmologies.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

On Medium: Is President Trump a Tool of Tribal America?

I've posted this article on Medium, Is President Trump a Tool of Tribal America?, and it's about what we can learn of the country's structural problems from Trump's unconventionality. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

On Medium: Is Philosophy a Con?

Here's an article I posted on Medium, about whether the academic job prospects for philosophy grads are grim because Western philosophy itself is somehow flawed. The link I just provided should get you past the paywall.

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Medium: "Woke" Hollywood and the Dark Web

Here's another article I posted on Medium, called "Woke" Hollywood and the Dark Web. It's about whether we can learn about the nature of art from the battles between the increasingly-progressive pop cultural establishment and the populist backlash.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

On Medium: The Meaningful Life is Storied

In addition to the articles I'll be posting here, I've decided to write articles for a more general audience, on philosophy, pop culture and politics at Medium. I'll include links on this blog to those articles, but you'll be able to read them only on Medium. 

The first of my Medium articles responds to Jared Bauer from Wisecrack, the great YouTube channel, on whether we should think of human life as a story. My article's called The Meaningful Life is Storied. You can follow me on Medium at @benjamincain8.

Cheers! 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nihilism, Cosmicism, and Nishitani’s Buddhism

In “Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering,” I question how the Buddhist gets around the problem of nihilism or how she motivates altruistic choices from the enlightened standpoint, from which conventional life is illusory or wrong-headed, arising as it does from egoism or the attachment to the self. One Buddhist response to that question can be gathered from the Kyoto School, which was an early twentieth-century movement in which Japanese philosophers at Kyoto University grappled with Western philosophy, including existentialism. Specifically, Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness includes some instructive responses to my criticism of Buddhism.

Nishitani on Emptiness and Selflessness

Keiji Nishitani
Nishitani follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in pointing out that nihilism is the core problem for modernity. Western modernity is based on technoscientific progress, which threatens religious and moral dogmas, and that culture is also individualistic, which is to say self-centered. The human individual replaces God and regards all else as subordinate and comparatively insubstantial. Descartes provides the paradigmatic formulation of this dualism: given the philosophical foundation of self-consciousness, we have solipsism on the one hand and empty, soulless matter and mechanism on the other. With no divine source of prescriptions, the self-centered individual objectifies everything outside the self, treating them as means to fulfill the self’s goals, but those goals become arbitrary, or “subjective” and “relative,” as late-modern philosophers show. Eventually, the self, too, is objectified as the self-as-worker or as some other functionary becomes a tool of an amoral social system, such as a corporation or government. The Western modern is thus faced with the problem of nihilism. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, why value anything at all? What should the modern Western individual do?

Here Nishitani swoops in with the Eastern way of handling nihilism, and specifically with insights from Zen Buddhism and from a Zen critique of modern Western philosophy. Nishitani argues that Sartre’s atheistic humanism, for example, founders on his mere egoistic construal of the emptiness at the root of everything presented to consciousness. Here’s Nishitani on Sartre:
Nothingness in Buddhism is "non-ego," while the nothingness in Sartre is immanent to the ego. Whatever transcendence this may allow for remains glued to the ego. Sartre considers his nothingness to be the ground of the subject, and yet he presents it like a wall at the bottom of the ego or like a springboard underfoot of the ego. This turns his nothingness into a basic principle that shuts the ego up within itself. By virtue of this partition that nothingness sets up at the ground of the self, the ego becomes like a vast and desolate cave…Nothingness may seem here to be a denial of self-attachment, but in fact that attachment is rather exponentialized and concealed. Nothingness may seem here to be a negation of being, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness in representative form—in other words, as long as the self is still attached to it—it remains a kind of being, a kind of object. (33)
Nishitani calls that superficial nothingness “nihility,” distinguishing nihility from the nothingness encountered by the Buddhist who negates nihility, taking nihilism to its furthest limit and finding at that point not the arbitrary choice I posed, between despair and altruism, but an inevitable personal transformation into a benevolent being. Nishitani’s sense that nothingness is a wall for Sartre may mistake a methodological constraint for a moral failing, since Sartre is doing phenomenology, a rigorous description of how things appear to consciousness. In any case, for Nishitani, a more thoroughgoing encounter with nothingness than Sartre’s nihility
must rather be something that points to the realization of a "new man," that originates from the absolute negation of the "human." Our individual actions get to be truly "absolute" activities only when they originate from the horizon that opens up when man breaks out of the hermit's cave of the ego and breaks through the nothingness at the base of the ego; only when they become manifest from a point at which the field of consciousness, where actions are said to be "of the self, " is broken through, while all the time remaining actions of the self. (35)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Failure of Democrats to Defeat Trump’s Evil with Heroism

What are the chances that one of a country’s two political parties could be as odious as the Republican one without the other, the Democratic Party being just as execrable, albeit in different ways? Besides their positions on a handful of social issues, for some decades, at least, the main differences between those two parties have been their different flavour of badness. Both parties are rotten, because the American culture and Western liberal democracies in general are rotten, for reasons spelled out by the likes of Nietzsche, Thomas Frank, Matt Taibbi, and Yuval Harari. Consumerism, in particular, infantilizes the majority of citizens; moreover, those with the healthiest cognitive faculties, who are least susceptible to fake news, namely young people, don’t vote, whereas old people who suffer from cognitive decline and are thus the most manipulable are also the most reliable voters. Therefore, the political parties have to cater to their constituents’ delusions or ignore them and delegate decision-making to lobbyists and other elites who inevitably become corrupted by their insider knowledge and power over the lower, often most vulnerable classes. This form of decadence is comparable to that which undermines aristocratic societies, the primary difference being that in feudalism, for example, the hard-working peasants were infantilized by the Church, whereas the working poor of a capitalistic democracy are degraded ultimately by cynical corporations.

The kneejerk reaction to any criticism of the Democrats, given the monstrousness of the Republicans under Trump is that such a criticism would be a case of dangerous whataboutism or a centrist allegation of moral equivalence between the two parties. Indeed, if you define political badness as cartoonish evil, the Republicans but not the Democrats are bad. But there are other forms of the pertinent badness. As I explain elsewhere, there are roughly two kinds of political badness, those that arise from masculine and from feminine vices, respectively. The Republicans are obviously more masculine than the Democrats. Partly this is because there are significantly fewer women in the former party, but there also cultural differences at work. Republican culture is shaped by patriarchal Evangelical Christianity and by a social Darwinian cult of pseudo-capitalism, the latter being one of the American plutocracy’s main rationales.

By contrast, Democrats define themselves more as consumers and as professionals or technical elites. To be sure, there are Republican engineers, lawyers, and doctors, but they won’t likely be rationalists, meaning that they won’t be optimistic about the progressive potential of collective rationality. Instead, conservative professionals will subscribe to some philosophy of what’s been called the “intellectual dark web.” Democratic professionals, though, will be optimistic in that respect, and that confidence lends itself to effete snobbery, which is a feminine, passive-aggressive, bloodless attempt at social domination. (South Park satirizes the latter in their episode, “Smug Alert!”)    

In any case, the charge that the criticism of Democrats means to ascribe a (false) moral equivalence with Trump’s Republicans would presuppose a masculine notion of badness, according to which only psychopathic evil could be appalling. What I’m saying is there’s a feminine (Democratic) form of political badness that is just as outrageous as Trumpism. Moreover, to point that out isn’t to give the Republicans a pass. On the contrary, the implication is that radical change to the entire American political system is needed.

Myth-Making and the Cultural Judgment of Politics

Republican badness is obvious, largely because we’re familiar with evil from the monsters and villains depicted in our many forms of entertainment, including novels, movies, and television shows. Not only that, but we’re more interested in the villains than in the protagonists—just as hell often seems more interesting than heaven. These stories act as warnings about what not to do, because it’s easier to prohibit destructive acts than to know which constructive pursuits to recommend. (Most of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions, the main prescription in Christianity being the Golden Rule; Judaism and Islam have many more detailed prescriptions, and their arbitrariness tests the participant’s loyalty.) Still, for over two millennia, fictions and myths have presented us with stock villains and good guy characters. When we’re faced with real evil, therefore, we expect a hero to rise up and defeat the villain. What happens, then, when there’s no such actual hero who resembles the storybook kind in the way the real-world villain resembles its fictional counterpart? What happens when Republicans find deep inspiration for their evil from myths (from the sordid Evangelical reading of the Bible and from the social Darwinian, libertarian, quasi-anarchic ethos of egoism), whereas the Democrats have no such fervent commitment to lessons from fiction, because their elites take themselves to be hyperrational? What you’ll have in the latter case is the lower-class, non-elite Democrat, who is influenced more by Hollywood values, who longs for a liberal hero and who is perennially crestfallen by the evident absence of any such figure.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Pragmatic Argument for Functional Atheism

New Yorker image by Seb Agresti
Elsewhere I’ve considered the moral argument for God’s existence. A much more plausible argument is the one laid out below, the argument for effective atheism from the immorality of theistic belief. After formulating the premises, I’ll discuss them and consider some possible objections.

(1) Theism causes or exacerbates myopia (including arrogance, self-righteousness, xenophobia, and tribalism) in the believer, which is bad.

(2) The obligation to be good can outweigh the epistemic obligation to believe only what’s true.

(3) Even if theism were true, everyone would have an ethical obligation to reject theism, to avoid the theistic vices of myopia.

(4) Therefore, in the best society there would be no theistic belief and everyone should live as though there were no God.

A corollary:

(5) If theism were true, God would have been aware of the causal relation between theistic belief and vice.

(6) Since the major religions prescribe both morality and theistic belief, theism is incoherent, which means there’s no such thing as theistic belief in the first place.

Religion and Morality

This argument might strike you as dubious because of the prevailing myth that religion is needed for morality. “If God is dead, everything is permitted,” as the aphorism goes. In reality, not religion but the evolution of our biological traits is the basis of morality, because ethical standards of conduct spring from the instinct to cooperate in forming a family and, by extension, a society. We have a conscience because parents feel compelled to teach their children well, because parents are genetically driven to care for their offspring. Clearly, parasitic parents are possible, which means they might think the best lesson to impart to their children isn’t to empathize with strangers or to help others in need, but to take advantage of their weaknesses and to be as selfish as possible while only seeming to be altruistic to fit into a society of suckers. But that evolutionary strategy—a rationalization of the mutation of psychopathy—can be translated into theistic or naturalistic language, so that becomes a wash in the present context.

The point here is that we needn’t fear that morality is impossible with theistic belief or that morality emerged only because religions developed. True, the formulation of moral principles depended historically on the rise of religions and on revolutions in religious thought, such as on the Axial revolutions in the first millennium BCE. Those historical developments have amounted to a self-undermining of religion, by way of a mystical critique that’s been furthered by philosophical analysis and scientific investigation. Monotheistic religions begin with a childlike imposition of commandments supposedly revealed by God, but end with pragmatic or mystical agnosticism, as the literal interpretations of scripture are no longer trusted as being adequate or worthy accompaniments to religious experience. Either way, if intuitions hadn’t been led astray by theistic projections and speculations, the parent’s biological impulse to care for the weak (for the child) and to cooperate with fellows to survive, by hunting and protecting each other from predators could have inspired nontheistic formulations and commentaries in sophisticated secular cultures—as has anyway happened over the last few centuries.

Moreover, although religions such as Christianity have been instrumental in motivating moral behaviour, such as by positing in each person an immortal soul with freewill, that religious motivation is undermined by anachronisms in the religious stories. For example, the Christian emphasis on morality is due to Jesus’s failed prophecy about the imminent end of the world. We were meant to raise our moral standards in ecstatic expectation of God’s intervention, fuelled by signs that the natural order would “soon” be overthrown by divine forces and God’s justice would reign forever afterward. That never happened and the Church swept the failure under the rug. Also, the theist’s appeal to the immortal soul as the ground of our dignity counts for nothing if that theist also anticipates that God will punish some (and perhaps most) human souls for eternity in hell. If God “respects” these souls by honouring their wayward choices and allowing them to be tortured without end after physical death, the theist’s respect for others might as well be just as paper thin. In addition, the monotheistic justifications of morality end up being tribal rather than universal, since these religions are geared towards separating the believer from the nonbeliever. Likewise, the Eastern religions are quick to distinguish between the enlightened and the deluded. So once you realize that such justifications of theistic morality are faulty, you can credit the religion with being, at best, a cause of rather than a reason for moral behaviour. Based on certain theological delusions, Christians can act morally, such as by feeding the hungry and giving money to the poor, but that behaviour loses its moral value unless you’re interested only in the consequences of actions, not in their intentions. At any rate, moral behaviour can be caused just as efficiently by atheistic worldviews, such as by totalitarian mechanisms of instilling terror or of cultural brainwashing.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Grim_Bard Poetry on Instagram

I’ve started a page on Instagram under the name of “Grim_Bard,” where I’ll be posting poetry. I aim to post at least five poems a week there, including a series that will comprise an epic poem based on the rants of Rashad the Cackler. Here are a few of the poems I’ve posted.


The Mouse on the Sidewalk

On a quiet suburban street,
Brick houses arrayed
Along the twisting road,
A little grey mouse
Lay on the white concrete,
The body not yet decayed
Though flies buzzed to goad
The furry form or rouse
Its soul to leave its load;
The arms stretched ahead
To the adjoining house
As if the mouse had meant to greet
The owners who’d have crushed it dead
And unseen up in their jeep;
Perhaps the tourist instead
Sought to reach its retreat
In the earth by the wall to sleep
But lagged on this beachhead
With its last heartbeat.

No person could be so estranged
In lying down to die:
Whether in the cities ranged
Across the continents’ lands,
On a plane that streaks the sky,
A vessel on the rippled sea,
A dune in the desert sands
Or frozen on a mountain peak,
No humble mouse has the key
To outgrow its old clique;
No rodent is such a freak
As to incessantly seek
A perfect place to be.


The Late-Night Jester

Behold the late-night jester,
The neutered talk-show host;
Never a fan to pester
The landed superstar,
Let alone to roast
Her for ladling caviar,
He’ll fawn all over the rich,
Spoil them with praise,
Slobber and scratch their itch;
If the grovel could be bottled,
Mr. Bootlick Fallon
Would pour no less than a gallon
Of the syrupy glaze
Over their perfumed skin,
Down their throats with a grin,
Wouldn’t stop until he’d throttled
The pretty movie stars.
But like Poe’s dwarf, Hop-frog,
Who tricks the king’s retinue,
Wraps them up and chars
The tainted upper crust,
Does that boyish lapdog,
Too, ignite a barbecue?
While the pampered players are trussed,
Bewitched by the fickle spotlight,
Could the host be as shrewd
As to flatter out of secret spite,
To butter them up to be stewed?
Who could keep an adult’s grace,
Propped up and viewed
By a fame-hungry crowd,
Fed by a raving oddball?
When a fresh idol will replace
The last and each, unbowed,
Is stuffed for their downfall?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Objectivity and the Inhuman

At first glance, the nature of objectivity looks straightforward. Objectivity is the opposite of subjectivity, at least, and taking a subjective view of something means imposing idiosyncratic, personal, or somehow noncognitive elements onto the thing itself. So a subjective representation of a dog, say, would be something like an artistic or otherwise biased statement that expresses how the speaker feels about dogs rather than how dogs really are, regardless of anyone’s attitude towards the animal.

But the philosopher Immanuel Kant showed that this intuitive distinction is incoherent, because even the most so-called unbiased or neutral representation of something requires some cognitive processing which stands apart from the represented thing itself. All we can know or understand is the “phenomenon,” Kant said, the thing as it appears to a creature with our human modes of conceptualization, not the thing as it is independent of any human or nonhuman form of understanding. Indeed, as Kant pointed out, even to speak of the “noumenon,” of how a dog would be even if there were no one else to perceive the dog or to construe the dog’s nature is empty. Perception, understanding, and knowledge all presuppose a mental format brought to the matter by the subject. All cognition, then, has a subjective element. Kant differed from metaphysical idealists such as Berkeley, in denying that knowledge is purely subjective. The nonsubjective part of the world contributes something to the content of our experience. But instead of thinking of objectivity as the absence of subjectivity, Kant argued we should reformulate that distinction as one between the universal and the idiosyncratic. The objective elements of experience are the universal, “transcendental” ones that speak to our human cognitive conditions, those that Kant considered the structures of our mind as far as epistemology is concerned.

Emotions of Objectivity

However, I don’t think this is all there is to objectivity because, contrary to Kant, our conception of the thing in-itself isn’t empty. Where Kant has it right, I think, is in inferring that the more parochial our analysis, the more it speaks only to phenomena, to how things seem subjectively to us. Concepts formulated in natural languages, in particular, are largely metaphorical and anthropocentric. For example, the concept of “objects” itself derives from the Latin word, objectus, which means thrown down towards or thrown down in opposition. Natural things aren’t literally thrown down by any hand, so that initial conception must be analogical or archaic. Presumably, the general idea would be that it’s as if things-as-objects were thrown down before us, because their objective element is that which we have no choice but to address. To have something literally thrown at you is to be forced to deal with it or to have the thing imposed on your perceptual field.

Interestingly, “ob” in “objectus” can mean towards but it can also mean against, as in the Latin root of “oppose.” However, this speaks not to an early cosmicist intuition, but to the role of objectivity in the social practice of disputation. The objective evidence was thrown down not against the initial observer, but an opponent in an argument, so the paradigmatic case of objectivity would be that deployed by the lawyer at trial who dramatically slams the exculpatory piece of evidence on the table before the astonished jury and opposing counsel. Either way, then, objectivity was initially conceived in the West as part of human behaviour, as something done in social interaction, not as whatever speaks more to the nonhuman side of experience, to things as they are independent of how we’re built to think of them.

To return, though, to the criticism of Kant, the point is that if we have in mind anything like that Latin, anthropocentric conception when we claim we’re being objective in thinking of X, we’re likely dealing only with the makings of a phenomenon in Kant’s sense. To get at a more universal, transcultural cognitive element, we’d have to analyze further that practice of throwing down X, to find a more general feature. Notice that such an analysis needn’t be restricted to issues of semantics, categorization, and logic. As phenomenologists have subsequently shown, how things seem to us includes an emotional component which may likewise be idiosyncratic or universal. The real question of objectivity, then, is whether being objective in capturing the noumenon could coherently amount to being indifferent or passive in forming the representation. Kant’s point would be that the notion of any such attempt is incoherent. To form a mental representation is to impose some structure onto the perceived or known thing; otherwise, you’d have just the thing itself, not any cognitive act or representation. Laying aside any such claim to neutrality, though, there’s still the potential for recognizing something’s objective significance with the fitting emotional response. Here we’re talking not about the semantic meaning of arid concepts, but a universal value-laden meaning. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Are All Real Values Aesthetic?

Our life would not be worth living if we valued nothing. Indeed, that’s a tautology, because to speak of life as worth living is, of course, to speak of life as having a (positive) value. If we were to take the physicist’s view of the universe as sufficient for knowledge or if we were to adopt an eastern mystical perspective on the natural world of changing events as being wholly illusory, we would be nihilists. In that case, we’d have to believe that values are unreal, that all that exists is either an amoral, inhuman flow of matter and energy or some transcendent realm in which human values are meaningless. To value something is to assess the thing as being good or bad. If nothing is really good or bad, if the assessments of value are, at best, self-indulgent conceptual tools we use to accommodate ourselves to living with many strangers in civilized society, we’re poised to lose faith in whatever we’re doing as human creatures. As the Bible likes to say, our heart might grow as cold and heavy as a stone when, instead of humanizing the inhuman wilderness, the opposite influx happens: the physical object’s indifference and pointlessness infiltrate our cultures and worldviews, bypassing our mental defenses, and we objectify ourselves and each other. Human life takes on the aspect of an absurd game, a grotesque folly, a blasphemous outrage.

Nietzsche declared that nihilism would be the inheritance of the “Last Man” who would lack an authentic culture, after the death of God and the surrender of theistic value-systems that are obsolete after the modern discrediting of organized religions. Only if we’re saved by the grace of a superhuman act of value-creation by some ingenious artist might we discover a worthy faith for our time, one that’s fit for the real world. Late-modern art, however, is arguably as dead as God. The art world is a con exploited by the wealthy few in China, Russia, Europe, and the US to launder their ill-gotten profits. Digitization, the proliferation of free data on the internet, and the democratization of the paraphernalia of musicians, visual artists, and film-makers have degraded the outputs of those media. Anyone now can be an artist, which means art can no longer be revelatory. To the extent that art is ubiquitous and consumed like the air we breathe, we take art for granted, and artists themselves can be expected to die off—especially as they’re replaced by machines and software.

The codes of civic morality, too, are arguably disgraced along with neoliberalism (the colonization of all areas of culture by free market principles) and social democracy, given the recent global rise of populism. If the coda of the American century is the farce of Donald Trump’s presidency, we might wonder whether anyone can trust that our secular institutions have real merit. By way of illustration, consider that if the Christian myth is that Jesus took on the sins of the world and was punished to wipe away their stain on God’s creation, President Trump evidently stands as an anti-Christian figure, as an unholy parody of Jesus’s sacrifice; after all, Trump embodies practically half the sins that have ever been committed by humanity and avoids punishment for any of them. Should we play by the rules, then, when the justice system of the most powerful country—which drew up the plans for the global world order—is evidently a sham? Should we bother to vote when the leading democracy can elect a Trump or when Britain can be duped into destroying itself with Brexit? Should we continue to participate in our economies, when consumerism threatens to destroy the planet’s ability to support life?

There are roughly two kinds of nihilist, the informed and the uninformed. The former deliberately sets out to believe in nothing, due to her hyperskeptical antipathy to traditions, institutions, and other sources of value. The latter, unknowing type of nihilist, however, is far more common since while this type believes she has plenty of ideals and goals, these are in fact debased; that is, even if you think you’re trying to be good and you have a religious or philosophical story to justify your value judgments, you’ll be effectively a nihilist if those accounts and judgments put you in touch only with nothing in the reality outside your small-minded frames of reference. You’ll be a nihilist except that you won’t know it; you’ll be one of the walking dead, enthralled by some empty bits of propaganda.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What Crazy Nonsense will replace Trump on Mainstream News Outlets?

Dateline: WASHINGTON, DC, Year 2025—After President Trump left office in 2024, the mainstream news channels were deprived of their primary source of ratings. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other major players compensated for that loss by showcasing the ravings of psychotic individuals, which the news channels broadcast from mental hospitals.

“We lost most of our audience right after Trump left,” said a CNN news producer. “It was tough there for a while. We had to scramble for equivalent footage, since Trump built up an expectation for the highest caliber of insane, clownish rants, of wildly-deluded braggadocio, and of childishly-petty revenge schemes. We had nowhere else to turn for that level of entertainment once Trump left Washington, since all of the remaining politicians naturally are adults who function at normal levels of human cognitive capacity.”

However, the news team realized there’s an untapped supply of Trumpian entertainment to be mined in mental hospitals.

The news producer outlined the new daily news-gathering process: “Instead of waiting for President Trump’s laughable tweets or his spouting of crazy nonsense with all of that helicopter noise in the background, we wire the rooms of the loony bin and pipe the twaddle to the editors at CNN headquarters for broadcast. We take the juiciest bits of wacko pronouncements and use them as platforms for our evening editorials.”

News anchors Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon used to ridicule President Trump’s embarrassing signs of mental unfitness. Now, with Trump gone, the anchors take on the arduous challenge of critiquing the mouth-frothing madness of a hapless sicko strapped to a gurney in a padded cell. 

“The aliens are here,” cried the patient, named Bradley Mayhew, on CNN. “The aliens live in my teeth and armpits. We’re plotting to rob a Las Vegas casino with straws and empty tissue boxes. Plus, if I flap my arms I can reach Mars by midnight. Watch me fly away and away and away…”

“Intriguing!” cried Don Lemon, analyzing this breaking story on his nightly program. “Once again, can we trust that Mr. Mayhew? Day after day it’s the same thing from him. His craziness belittles his station—on the gurney in that padded cell.

“But don’t take my word for it! Here’s a Harvard physicist to explain why you can’t get to Mars by flapping your arms. Mr. Physicist, take it from here and set the record straight for the listeners, because I’m tired of having to deal with these insane rants. I’m embarrassed for that patient, I really am.”

“Indeed, Don,” said the physicist. “If we fact-check those remarks, it shouldn’t take us long to realize that Mr. Mayhew’s plan of flying to Mars in such a fashion doesn’t hold water. No, I shouldn’t expect him to get far by flapping his arms. Probably not even out of his cell and certainly not beyond the confines of the lunatic asylum.”

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Kleptocrat Playsets (Batteries not Included)

Dateline: NYC—Researchers have solved the mystery of how Donald Trump and Boris Johnson could have simultaneously come to exist.

“The clownish incompetence, the superhuman feats of narcissism, the shameless, pathological lying—Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson share these traits as populist politicians,” said news analyst Ms. Newsy. “Both demagogued their way to leadership positions in their respective countries, trashing those countries in the process, and they do so at almost exactly the same time.”

That might just be a coincidence, but what astonished political experts and the media is the other telltale trait that the President and the Prime Minister have in common: the baffling mops of blond hair.

“How could Boris have come to power just after Trump?” asked Ms. Newsy. “One literal clown right after the other; both are obvious con artists, both are cartoonish villains that have the deepest contempt for their followers, and both have similar inexplicable hairdos. How do you explain the similar strangeness of even their hair? Something weird is going on.”

Erwin Touchyfeely, a Jungian psychologist, posited that the pair rose to power “by way of a synchronicity, a metaphysically-significant coincidence or clue to the deep structures of human life.”

According to Mr. Touchyfeely, “Boris Johnson was able to become prime minister of Britain at the same moment his counterpart was in office in the US, because larger forces wanted to send the Western world a signal: our vulnerability to hostile nonsense is no accident.”

But a team of intrepid researchers from Embarrass, Minnesota tracked down the more likely source of Misters Trump and Johnson.

“There’s actually a company in New York, called Travesties R Us, that manufactures demagogues and kleptocrats,” said the lead researcher, Winston Rakmucker. “They clone humans and program the clones to conform to our worst expectations. In other words, they create stock characters—for entertainment purposes, you understand.”

Archibald Stone, CEO of Travesties R Us, confirmed that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson came off his company’s assembly line.

“Someone must have ordered a couple of those Kleptocrat models,” said Mr. Stone, “and then dispersed them and wound them up, and poof: you have two populist revolutions, or ‘Travesties’ as we like to call them—and that’s trademarked.”

The company also carries the complementary social phenomena known as “the Idiotic Masses,” which complete the “Kleptocrat Playset.” 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Paradox of Secular Holiness

Euhemerism, a way of reducing religious references to natural ones, goes back to the ancient Greek skeptics. In the third century BCE, Euhemerus argued that belief in the existence of immortal gods is based on a confusion arising from the passage of time. The gods were originally just powerful humans, especially kings or emperors who were deified out of the subjects’ respect and fear, as in the celebratory process of apotheosis. Over time the memory of such exaltations was forgotten, as was the connection between gods and human rulers, and the divine characters took on their own life in people’s imagination.

For most skeptics, the point of this reductive explanation is to undermine religion. The colossal error of confusing a human king with a creator of the universe must have been the most embarrassing blunder ever to have occurred. The carnage from religious wars and persecutions, the wasted lives in ascetic follies, the oppression of gullible masses in theocratic dominance hierarchies—all of these damages occurred the world over for thousands of years. That could entail that the human form isn’t capable of perpetrating a greater embarrassment than the one responsible for theistic religions.

But there’s another way of looking at the general naturalization of religion. If religions really refer only to familiar natural phenomena, as in the case of the social reality of heaven and hell, the world should be re-enchanted, not deadened by scientific scrutiny and technological manipulation. Instead of just laughing at religious folks for possibly forgetting that gods have only ever been just powerful humans, we might marvel at the reality of those persons, at the natural emergence of creatures that run empires and live as gods in luxury. Moreover, the intrinsic dubiousness of theistic propositions opens up the possibility that the deflationary knowledge is esoteric. That’s to say that religions might become fraudulent, complete with the secret understanding of the insiders, that religious contents are all-too familiar rather than transcendent. To understand what religions are really about, to see past the conventions and appreciate the depth of our foolishness and the brazenness of our schemes might provide an honourable, albeit an ironic religious experience.

Fame, Envy, and Holy Ground

Here, then, is a deflationary analysis of a particular aspect of religions, namely the concept of sacred or holy places and items, in the sense of those felt to have a spiritually pure quality. If you asked a religious person what makes her temple holy, she’d say it’s because God is present in that space. God’s spirit enters the world and inspires the congregants while they worship in that building, or else the temple is indirectly sacred because of its historical connection to the miracles that founded the religion. A classic example of a holy place would be Mount Horeb from Exodus 3:1-5, where Moses climbs the mountain to find God, and God appears as the miracle of the burning bush, and instructs Moses not to investigate the miracle: ‘When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from within the bush, “Moses, Moses!” “Here I am,” he answered. “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” ’ The same explanation would be given for why scriptures are deemed to be opposed to mundane reality and imbued with a spiritually pure quality: God wrote or inspired the writing of the words on those pages.

If we dismiss such theistic explanations as both confused and spectacularly embarrassing for humanity, we should still search for the root of that real experience that some places and objects are so special that they’re worth killing or dying for. The phenomenon of fame should provide us a clue. Secular celebrities are idolized and worshipped as if they were divine beings. Fans stand in line for days just to look at their favourite movie star and when they’re in the celebrity’s presence, the fans often break down, weeping with joy, jumping and carrying on as if possessed. Indeed, the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” from fanaticus, meaning that which pertains to the temple and is inspired by orgiastic rites. In short, “fanatical” was originally used as a pejorative term for frantic religious behaviour. But the point is that we have an obvious secular version of that phenomenon. So we can imagine the paradox of the secular equivalent of a holy place, such as the celebrity’s home or other private area.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Scripture from the Future: Who Represents Humanity?

[The year is 2240 and a dark new religion has arisen, drawing inspiration from the writings of a legendary twenty-first century occult philosopher and cult leader, Jurgen Schulze. Only fragments of his literary output remain and these form that religion’s scriptures, known to worshippers as The Cosmic Horrors. What follows is the third chapter of that sacred work.]
***
A voice thundered from the starry heavens, which the world as one heard: “Humans of the earth, four chances I give you to choose your representative. One of you must stand for the rest, embodying what you all have been, are, and will always be. Should none of those proxies prove true, I shall send a cleansing fire to incinerate your kind for your failure to know yourselves.”

The nations deliberated and voted, and their first choice to represent them was the president of a leading democracy, an educated, wealthy, young politician, handsome and popular.

“Voice from the stars,” said the president, fearless in his tailored business suit, “I have come to stand for all men, women, and children. In me they have their champion, for my record proves I can lead my people to a bright and shining future. Forward, ever forward we must go as one, for we were favoured by God to rule this earth.”

Once more the voice from above boomed across the entire planet, ranging from the largest metropolis to the most isolated hut: “You have chosen a cheery mask worn by a child playing dress-up; a smooth persona to throw the wolf off your scent; a voice like candy, sweet and poisonous, signifying nothing; a smug predator gulling you with platitudes and empty promises; an idol you cling to for fear of seeing what you really are. Choose again!”

For the second time the nations drew together, tearing out their hair and racking their brains, for their first choice had been soundly rejected. After weeks of contemplation they called upon a great saint to stand for them, a kindly old woman whose hands were gnarled from years of feeding the poor and healing the sick.

Dressed in a modest frock, the saint addressed the alien terror: “Though I’m unworthy, I offer my services, meager as they are, to help however I can, even if it’s to clean your floors or toilet, O great and terrible voice from the stars, if only you’ll spare my species. Take me if you must, burn me to ashes, but leave the rest be.”

“Now you’ve established what you fervently wish you were,” answered the voice, “a selfless wretch who tends to the injured after your rampages and debauches, a wisp of a creature who couldn’t even lift your swords or rifles and who would sooner starve to death than dominate the planet as you’ve done. Choose again!”

The nations pondered for months and nominated their most honoured wise man, a scientist who was widely read in philosophy, history, and religion.

“Show yourself,” said the wise man to the voice from the heavens, “so that we can rationally discuss this conflict. Lay forth your arguments against us so that we can learn from them and change our ways if change we must.”

“A lonely owl you’ve picked,” answered the voice, “an observer, hiding behind his books; a copyist, spinning tales of the world as it passes by and is rationally directed by no one. Wise apes you may be, and your reason gives you power, but no argument drives you to rise above the animals and be masters of your fate. Choose again and for the last time.”

A year passed before the nations decided to elect a drunken, stinking, homeless man, maddened from loneliness and abuse, and accustomed to telling rambling tall tales to hapless bystanders.

The vagrant hiccupped, tripped, dropped his cheap bottle of wine, and said, “I ain’t no hero, that’s for sure. But if it’s alright with the pretty folks, I’ll wager I could silence that there angry voice in the sky with this story of mine. I was a ship’s captain once in my young’un years. Sailed the seas, I did, catching fish. One day, I tell you, a mighty storm brewed, and in the wind and the rain the cargo holds broke open and I lost a week’s haul of fish. Back into the sea they went, though now as dead as doornails. I lashed myself to the wheel to stay aboard as the ship rocked this way and that in the tempest. The storm passed, my ship was a wreck, and a school of flying fish passed by, jumping in and out of the sea. One landed right on the deck and smacked its head, I reckon, ‘cause it skipped around awhile and bounced off the mast some before I caught the sucker and threw it back in the deep. How does that grab you, big ol’ voice from nowhere?”

The alien terror answered, “Homeless and alienated you’ve been and will always be, cast out, alive and awake in the wilderness; crazed and vain and wretched you are for knowing too much and for dreaming up more goals than you could possibly achieve; sad and pitiful, immersed in your fictions and your robotic refuges, knowing the earth will one day swallow them and their godlike denizens. With this fourth choice you’ve finally found the heart of you.”

The voice from beyond was heard no more, and the vagrant was celebrated and awarded with riches for saving humankind.

One month only it took for the homeless saviour to squander his prize and find himself back on the street, alone, forgotten, and raving.