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The new anthology is 574 pages and it includes a previously unpublished introduction called "The Anthropocene: When the Universe Disgusts Itself," but otherwise the articles are all drawn from my blog.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