Friday, December 23, 2011

Mental Disorder and Monstrosity

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) defines “mental disorder” as “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress...or disability...or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. In addition, this syndrome or pattern must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one...Neither deviant behavior (e.g. political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual, as described above” (xxxi, my emphases).

The American Psychiatric Association currently proposes to change this definition in DSM-V to a “behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual, that is based in a decrement or problem in one or more aspects of mental functioning, including but not limited to global functioning (e.g., consciousness, orientation, intellect, or temperament) or specific functioning (e.g., attention, memory, emotion, psychomotor, perception, thought); that is not merely an expectable response to common stressors and losses (for example, the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals); and that is not primarily a consequence of social deviance or conflict with society” (my emphases and semicolons). 

The APA explains that the proposed changes in the definition are meant mainly to shift the focus to the underlying cause and symptoms of a mental condition, leaving the condition’s consequences to the treatment-planning rather than to the diagnostic stage. But as I’ve emphasized, both definitions (1) use quasi-normative language of “disability,” “dysfunction,” “loss,” “decrement” (that is, loss from diminution or decrease), or “problem,” and (2) specifically rule out socially deviant behaviour as mentally disordered unless that behaviour is caused by a dysfunction. These two parts of the definitions conflict with each other.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Televised Political Debates in Postmodern US

On Dec 12, 2011, something astonishing was seen on American television: not a UFO, not the Loch Ness monster, not Bigfoot, but an actual political debate between presidential candidates, the first one broadcast in decades in that country. Granted, the debaters, Gingrich and Hunstman, agreed on virtually every issue, so the event wasn’t a debate in content so much as in format. And granted, the debate was shown on C-SPAN and even though it’s on YouTube as well, relatively few Americans will view this debate and so discover the difference between an actual political debate and a press conference disguised as one. Still, this Lincoln-Douglas format in which--of all things!--the moderator hardly speaks at all, there are no commercials, and the debaters speak for long periods of time with no time limits or sound bytes was miraculous to behold--not because this type of event is revelatory, but because it was held in the postmodern US.

If Gingrich wins the nomination and Obama is forced to have several of these Lincoln-Douglas style debates with him, shutting out the journalist moderators as the irrelevancies that they are, those debates might be harbingers of an apocalypse in 2012 or perhaps bizarre manifestations of an approaching techno singularity. At any rate, if this format is used by presidential candidates who actually disagree on most issues and so, well, debate, and the debate is broadcast on American television, where will the American news anchors and earlier candidates hide from the pitchforks and flaming torches carried by the embarrassed masses, who will have then realized that they’d been for so long infantilized by their political process?

A much more likely scenario is that this debate format will be discredited due to a failure to distinguish between the format and the participants: the Gingrich-Hunstman debate was boring because they agreed on most issues, but this lack of excitement may be wrongly blamed on the unmoderated format itself. At least two factors conspire to make this the more likely outcome. First, the television networks are likely pressured to hold out the overly-moderated format as the price for broadcasting the event, since they profit most by selling infotainment, which requires that their news anchors be stars with gigantic egos that must be regularly fed with the spotlight or the anchors’ oversized heads will explode. Second, most presidential candidates don’t want to be forced to publicly demonstrate whether they possess substantive knowledge of foreign and domestic affairs, because a stealth oligarchy attracts lower-quality politicians, as befits their role as figureheads or as double agents of private industry.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nietzsche and Secular Liberalism

Secular liberals face a dilemma. Liberal values, such as individual liberty and compassion, derive from monotheistic religious institutions, but these institutions are dysfunctional and their theological rationales are no longer credible. Meanwhile, secularism promotes oligarchy and regressive consumerism, much as Nietzsche predicted. So warns Chris Hedges in his article, After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck with Nietzsche.

More specifically, the problem is that western secular assumptions--informed by science and the capitalistic drive towards plutocracy--are that we’re all just clever beasts with no intrinsic worth, who struggle for power with no divine oversight, but who are able to create our own values. As Nietzsche contended, the most appropriate standard by which to rank these values is the aesthetic, not the moral one. Universal western morality is the creation of the early Christians, of conquered Jews who, in their resentment towards the more powerful Romans, articulated a myth to trap their oppressors. According to this myth, whatever helps the weak is right and whatever hurts them is wrong. What helps them chiefly is the Golden Rule that everyone should be treated as if they were the same, that people have rights just by being people, regardless of their personal weakness or social status, since rights flow from something other than natural ability. Instead of having the willpower and the strength of character to confront their world in an ennobling way, Christians delude themselves by trusting that animals aren’t driven mainly by their will to power. As a product of the creative will, Christian morality is ugly and ignoble, according to Nietzsche.

The amoral secularist affirms, instead, the sad truth of our belonging in the gloriously violent physical universe in which stars and whole galaxies are created and destroyed by the exercise of power, not by intelligence or benevolence. Hedges writes that the results of this secular affirmation are the cultures of the Übermensch and of the Last Man, which in our case are those of the power-intoxicated, financial and military oligarchs and of the passive, apathetic mob of debt slaves, respectively. The Wall Street titans, castigated by politicians and mocked by comedians for their amorality, are actually the Nietzschean heroes who understand and personally accept that with God’s death falls the whole monotheistic edifice, including morality. From a Nietzschean viewpoint, says Hedges, the ruthless and hedonistic oligarchs stand tall as impressive beasts, not just because of their vast wealth, but because of their creativity and their courage in living as though the world were so horrible that sociopaths such as them could come to dominate in it. From a scientific point of view, the world is indeed so horrible, and there’s no escaping that horror except by succumbing to some delusion or other, such as a stale monotheistic myth. (See Cosmicism.) But a delusion is just an aesthetically displeasing product of the imagination. By comparison, in its affirmation of natural life, Nietzsche’s myth of the glory of conquering heroes is an ennobling work of art.

Hyperrationality and the Two Cultures

The physicist and novelist C. P. Snow is famous in academic circles for distinguishing between the cultures of the arts and sciences. When he wrote on the two cultures in Britain, in 1959, academic scientists lacked the prestige of those in the arts or humanities, whereas now the situation is reversed, with English, philosophy, and other arts programs closing down in North American business-oriented colleges, and economists and other social scientists emulating physicists by attempting to quantify their subject matters. During the Scientific Revolution, Newton, Galileo, and other great scientists had to glorify reason in their war with the faith-governed Church, which was dominant at the time in Europe. Thus, as mathematician Mike Alder points out in his recent article, Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, Newton laid out an austere scientific method according to which no statement should be accepted unless it’s directly testable or it follows logically from a testable statement. The skeptical philosopher David Hume zealously defended this empiricism, for the sake of his assault on intellectual elitism, going as far as to say that if a book contains statements that aren’t based either on observation or on logic, the book should be tossed into the flames. The philosopher Karl Popper took the main point of empiricism to be a falsification criterion of meaning: if there’s no way of showing how a statement could be proven false, the statement is at best pseudoscientific and cognitively worthless. Thus, all knowledge is derived from this broad scientific method.

To clarify some terms, empiricism is hyperrational compared to rationalism, or to the claim that reason arrives at fundamental truths without the use of observation or of logic, because the so-called rationalist contends that reason processes other inputs besides sensations, such as those from “intuition” or faith. According to the empiricist, intuitions and leaps of faith are unreliable, to say the least, and deductions on their basis, such as those in systematic theology, are pseudoscientific and ultimately irrational.

The Empiricist’s Disdain for Philosophy

Midway through twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy, this extreme empiricism was rejected as self-refuting. After all, the definition of empiricism itself is philosophical, not scientific or meaningful in the empiricist’s own terms. In their zest to champion science against the forces of irrationality, empiricists put forward an anti-philosophical philosophy so worshipful of science that it destroys itself, like Douglas Adams’ god that proves its own nonexistence and "promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.” But as Mike Alder points out, mathematicians and scientists still adhere to the spirit of empiricism and for that reason they loathe philosophy in particular. The problem with recent, so-called analytic philosophers, from this viewpoint, is that they pretend their discipline is serious and rational, whereas their philosophizing consists of time-wasting, fruitless word games that go nowhere. So-called postmodern philosophers merely waste time with word games as well, although instead of pretending to analyze concepts, they obfuscate with pompous rhetoric. At least the theologian openly declares her irrationality when she speaks of the need for faith and revelation, but the philosopher pretends to possess a form of rationality that stands apart from scientific methods. According to friends of empiricism, modern scientists showed what the rational search for knowledge is, so there is no rationality apart from gathering data from the senses, testing hypotheses to explain the data, and following the implications with mathematical logic. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Curse of Reason

Reason is a double-edged sword. Our abilities to model reality in our minds, to detach from our immediate sensations and experiment on mental representations, to apply abstract categories with language, and to think logically or holistically and so discover how our environment works, are largely why humans presently flourish. We’ve mastered much of the world because of our cognitive powers; indeed, the wonder of reason is the godlike power it places in a beast’s paws. But knowledge can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what there is to be known. As it turns out, we’ve learned that our naïve, anthropocentric preferences are mostly false. The universe doesn’t care about us; we’re not at the center of things; our ideals count for nothing in the cosmic cycles; we’re not immortal, nor as conscious, free, or even as rational as we assume when we childishly compare ourselves to a divine source of the whole natural universe. Reason makes us godlike but only compared to the unknowing beasts that struggle alongside us; we’re still beastly, given the potential for evolution of intelligent species over millions of years. 

How Reason makes Human Life Absurd

As the philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out, reason makes life absurd in other ways. When we think objectively, seeing things as they are and not as we might wish them to be, we take up what he called a “view from nowhere.” We can view a situation more or less impersonally, ignoring our feelings and following the data or the logic wherever they lead. The danger in this is that we can view ourselves objectively as well, and when we do so it’s hard to avoid a destructive sense of irony. Take any highly specialized form of complexity, like a biological adaptation. The giraffe’s long neck makes sense from the giraffe’s limited perspective, but were the giraffe able to view itself dispassionately, from a neutral, non-giraffe viewpoint, it would surely regard its specialized neck as a ridiculous albatross. Granted, the adaptation enables the giraffe to survive by affording it access to highly-placed food, but the narrowness of that way of life simultaneously takes the giraffe out of countless other races. The further a species evolves in a single direction, the less flexible its members become and the more absurd their behaviour when they’re removed from their comfort zone.

Language and culture, too, become absurd when viewed by an outsider. The symbols that carry meaning to a speaker are so many noises or curious squiggles to anyone else. Taboos, rituals, and social conventions can appear as extravagant follies to anyone who isn’t invested in the culture. The rules of games or sports are relatively arbitrary and so the player’s strenuous exertions to follow them are comical: were the rules changed, the player would have to play the new game instead, rendering his or her earlier efforts meaningless. Relative to the perspective in which a set of rules matters, the game makes sense and fans can even become obsessed with a game’s vicissitudes. But someone who views a game objectively, from the position of nowhere in particular thereby prevents herself from identifying with its dynamics or its symbols. Instead of personal involvement, then, there’s ironic detachment and a sense of the futility of complex developments due to their narrowness and transience. Complex forms are often inflexible and thus unstable.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?

There are at least three pressures to procreate. First, there’s the lure of pleasure from sex hormones that are released during sex. Humans have learned to control that pressure by separating the pleasure from procreation, with birth control techniques. Second, there’s a limited time in which reproduction is biologically feasible, so that if you’re interested in having children, you’re pressured to do so within only a certain number of years. To some extent, humans have learned to control this pressure too, by setting up infrastructures for child adoption or for raising children by the extended family. Plus, you may not be interested in having children in the first place.
Procreation and the River of DNA

But the third pressure pertains to that question of interest, although this pressure is so mind-shattering that it’s seldom consciously considered. Every animal is chemically connected to what the biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book River Out of Eden, calls a river of DNA that stretches back to the origin of life on this planet. This is to say that we’re each alive not just because of the obvious facts that our parents reproduced and that their parents did as well, but because a continuous stream of our ancestors did so, including the evolutionary ancestors of our species and the ancestors of those ancestral species, and so on back to the simplest sexually reproducing organisms. This is a biological fact rather than just a metaphor and the point isn’t merely the abstract one that humans descended from other species; rather, each one of us, and each animal currently alive, is alive only because that animal’s germ cells were produced by its parents’ sperm and egg, which themselves were produced by their germ cells, which in turn were produced by that animal’s grandparents' sperm and egg, and so on, going back countless generations and thousands and millions and billions of years. Each one of us, therefore, was literally produced indirectly by certain dinosaurs, for example, who stomped around on prehistoric Earth long enough to procreate.

The third pressure, then, is that when an animal fails to reproduce, for whatever reason, that failure is the termination of a multibillion-year-old chemical process that created millions of generations of creatures that necessarily succeeded in sexually reproducing. There’s the sense that although most of our ancestors, including our nonhuman ones, can’t know when we fail to pass their genetic material to a new generation, we nevertheless let them down when we fail in that regard, since we render their struggles ultimately inconsequential. When a person dies without reproducing and raising a child to be able to carry on the genetic legacy, the person is a dam blocking the river of DNA from flowing onward. Did the river flow for countless miles and for billions of years, through its dinosaurian and mammalian host organisms, only to be stopped by Joe Blow, who slips on a sidewalk and dies prematurely or, even worse, who chooses not to have children even when he has the resources to honour his ancestors’ victories by letting their river of DNA flow through him as well? There’s the feeling that life is precious and that if everyone ceased reproducing, ending life on this planet, the loss to the universe would be unfathomable. Thus, when even a single person takes a step towards realizing that possible lifeless future, by failing to procreate, the person sins against the sacredness of life.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Abuse of Light in the Films of Michael Bay and Spielberg

Much can be learned about American culture by comparing the abuses of light in the cinematography of Spielberg and Michael Bay films. In most of his movies, Spielberg works with the cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, who favours an overabundance of natural, white light. His shots are often overexposed so that the milky white light washes out all of the surfaces in the scene. Given the attributes of Spielberg’s movies, including the sentimental nostalgia for childhood, the touchy-feely morality of secularized Judaism, and the over-reliance on storyboarding, this prevalence of white light represents God’s immanence and the religious imperative to make Earth resemble Heaven.

Meanwhile, Bay’s movies are conspicuous for their aversion to natural lighting, especially in indoor scenes: there’s almost always a fully-saturated, candy-like blue or yellowish-orange light source somewhere offstage, casting an artificial glaze over everything. Given the features of his movies, including the militarism, the jingoism, the crass subservience to macho stereotypes, the predominance of production values and the lack of artistic vision, this artificial light represents hollow, amoral materialism and the secular imperative to make all places resemble Las Vegas.

Spielberg’s Compromised Judaism

With these two iconographic uses of light, you have the worst of American religious and secular cultures. American Judaism and Christianity are so cut off from their mystical origins, so drained of their spiritual purposes, and so compromised in their integration with the secular forces of science, democracy, and capitalism, that their myths and moral messages are hideous, grating imitations of healthier versions. It goes without saying that a secularized Jew or Christian has no legs to stand on: they can chant their creeds incessantly only because they’ve mastered the art of compartmentalizing their thoughts and feelings, having now adapted to an environment consisting largely of computers, which have readily-inspected separate directories to store their information. These moderate religious folks don’t share the theistic mindset needed to breathe life into their creeds, because they’ve at least unconsciously absorbed the scientific, secular worldview. Accordingly, they save their myths only by interpreting them in literary rather than in theological terms. Morality and families are sacred, the moderates will say, because God carved his commandments into stone and handed them to Moses--except which of these moderates can explain why that religious metaphor should be regarded as any more special than the metaphors that are a dime a dozen in the thousands of novels published each year? Does the old age of a tradition sanctify its content? Obviously not, since the moderate religionist freely cherry-picks which religious tradition to observe and which to discard as the obsolete labour of ancient, uninformed yokels.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lovecraftian Horror and Pragmatism

I’ve referred to Lovecraftian horror a number of times in this blog and this calls for some explanation. To see the relevance of Lovecraft to the philosophical issues I’ve been ranting about, you need to be aware that there are roughly two kinds of secularists, the Nietzscheans and the non-Nietzscheans. The Nietzscheans, including American horror author H. P. Lovecraft, British writer John Gray, and existentialist philosophers, warn that what Nietzsche called the death of God, which is to say the ascent of modern science and of secular powers, was a revolution that demands a reassessment of our values. Nietzscheans stress the illegitimacy of those traditions and institutions that presuppose theism. By Contrast, the non-Nietzscheans, including most New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Jerry Coyne, believe that the rise of secularism doesn’t have such radical consequences. For example, these secularists often assume that the liberal value of a person’s sacredness is sustainable on an atheistic basis, even though that value derives from theistic myths. The non-Nietzschean secularist usually responds to the Nietzschean by saying that theists acquire their values in turn from the use of their own reason as they cherry-pick from scriptures, and from our prehistoric ancestors’ evolved social instinct.

Lovecraft's Cosmicism

Unlike the more optimistic secularists, Lovecraft worried about the philosophical implications of modern scientific findings. He dramatized his worries in weird short stories featuring super-powerful gods or aliens, whose motives are as unfathomable to us as are ours to ants. These extraterrestrials symbolized for Lovecraft the cosmic forces of nature which are just as alien to us, given that they’re not creations of a familiar, humane parent figure like God. The point is that modern science discovered not just the universe’s inhuman scope, but its impersonality and thus its inhumanity. Lovecraft used the existential abyss between his scientific characters and the inhuman universe to produce in his reader a sense of the truly strange. By “existential abyss” I mean our alienation from the rest of nature, given science’s disenchantment of it and our own need to enchant what we perceive by projecting anthropocentric categories wherever we go. Science is the eating of the apple and the source of our expulsion from Eden, and once we’re on the other side of the barrier, lost now in postmodern self-consciousness and skepticism, we’re no longer at home anywhere. To paraphrase what Milton says about Satan in Paradise Lost, hell travels always with us, since it’s a state of mind (see Book IV, line 20).

Lovecraft called his philosophical outlook “cosmicism,” using the inhuman aspects of the natural order to drive home the insignificance of our own ideals and pet projects. Our ambitions are pathetic vanities next to those of intelligent creatures who may well have prospered for billions of years and even now direct the course of galactic development. Even were there no such elder, squid-faced gods, the natural forces themselves have proved to be inhuman and thus alien to us, operating as they do on vast time scales, from subatomic particles to galaxies and perhaps even across multiple universes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Theism vs New Atheism Farce

The current incarnation of the dispute about whether there’s a god is a perfect storm of confusion.

The Players

On one side, there are the New Atheists, those who see themselves as zealous defenders of reason and of liberal values against fundamentalist religion and terrorism. Atheists proclaim that religion is thoroughly irrational and dangerous.

On the opposing side, there are the literalistic monotheists, sometimes called fundamentalists, who see themselves as conserving revealed transcendent truth against the demonic distractions of science and of liberal society. They maintain that faith or intuition accesses deeper truth than does reason, and that the liberal’s so-called defense of liberty is actually an excuse to sin. The literalists are joined by religious moderates who see no conflict between reason and faith, science and revelation, or liberalism and theism.

Then there’s the public’s misunderstanding of this controversy, as caused by the old media that profit by entertaining consumers with stories of sensational, ideally-endless conflicts. Journalists tend to report the social and political battles between atheists and theists, and also the latest scientific finding that has only ambiguous or tangential consequences for religion. Rarely do journalists investigate what’s really at stake in the controversy.

Finally, there are the cloistered professional philosophers who have lost credibility with the anti-philosophic public. Despite frightening signs of civilization’s collapse and despite their being equipped to shed light on issues that concern everyone, these philosophers prefer to practice a pseudoscience that’s equivalent to the counting of angels on a pinhead. They thus cede the floor to ideological partisans, to New Age hangers-on, and to profit-driven, bar-lowering journalists.

Buddhism and Existential Angst

In Happiness, I argued against the popular belief that our ultimate goal should be happiness. Our tragedy, I said, is that we’re equipped with high degrees of consciousness, reason, and freedom, which enable us to appreciate what I called Our Existential Situation (OES). This situation is roughly equivalent to our worst nightmare, implying that life for most of us is effectively hell on earth. Our situation as intelligent animals, thrown into the world, as the existentialist philosopher Heidegger said, is defined by ironies, by the world’s being different from how we’d prefer it to be. For example, theistic and New Age fantasies are all wildly off the mark, logically and empirically speaking. Those differences between our naïve, anthropocentric picture of the world and the modern scientific picture of it, are results not of any demonic design, but of the inhumanity of the natural forces that put us here in the midst of cosmic evolution.

In short, this is the worst possible world, from a humane standpoint. A Satanic dominion over the universe would be preferable to dominion by mindless natural forces, because Satan would at least be a person, albeit an evil one, and were personhood at the root of reality, we could at least take comfort that the universe and thus life and our position have meaning. Our purpose would be to serve as Satan’s playthings. Were this the case, we might even succumb to Stockholm Syndrome and come to approve of that demonic plan. As it stands in the Lovecraftian, scientific picture, though, there’s no such meaning and no such cold comfort. We’re alienated from reality and thus from ourselves, because we view the world through the filter of our ideals, which project onto the world what isn’t there, such as the ultimate propriety of our pursuit of those ideals. Our values are either means by which natural forces drive us to perpetuate some stage in a natural process or are free-standing creations of our imagination. Either way, our confidence in their propriety is usually wrongheaded.

Our most popular goal is to be happy, to be successful and contented with the pleasures we earn. This goal is certainly attainable to some extent or other, but we’re aesthetically, if not also ethically, obligated not to seek happiness as our ultimate good. Instead, we ought to be anxious and saddened as a result of our knowledge of OES. The existentialist’s remedy, of hopeless rebellion in the alien face of inhumane nature, is nobler and more aesthetically compelling than the Aristotelian reduction of our ethical purpose to our narrow biological function. Our biofunction is to stop investigating what’s really going on and to merely survive and sexually perpetuate our genetic code. If we do that, as most people in fact do, raising a family and committing ourselves to various delusions that serve that biological end, we become more or less happy, whether we’re rich or poor or whether we’re born beautiful or physically disabled. We then live at peace with ourselves and with the world, despite the fact that that peace is as obscene as the peace of slaves in the Matrix or in the philosopher Robert Nozick’s Happiness Machine (a thought experiment about a virtual reality simulator that caters to our fantasies, enabling a person to live successfully in a dream world that may differ drastically from the real one). 

The Buddhist Critique

So I averred in that article on happiness. There is, however, an interesting Buddhist critique of this grim existentialism, which runs as follows. My talk of OES, of a gulf between the conscious, free, intelligent person and the rest of nature assumes that that person is an independent, self-contained essence, detached from the world. Instead, according to the Buddhist principles of Interdependent Arising (IA) and of emptiness, there are no such essences anywhere in the universe: everything is in flux, ever-changing and interdependent. Instead of things, there are phases of processes. A person’s mind consists entirely of such flowing transitions, from one mental state to the next, with no unified self tying them together. There is no immaterial spirit or essence that is the bearer of particular thoughts and feelings. Therefore, there can be no gap between a person and the rest of the world; on the contrary, a person is interconnected with the world, since both are bound up in natural processes that unite them. For example, we breathe oxygen from the outer environment and exhale carbon dioxide which plants in turn absorb.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Embarrassment by Sexual Ecstasy

There's a paradox of human sexuality. On the one hand, wealthy, modern, secular countries are obsessed with sexuality in public places, meaning that references to sex are found in most messages carried in all forms of media, including books, magazines, movies, news reports, and advertisements. The obvious explanation is that sexuality is central to human nature, and so naturally sex is much discussed in open societies. But on the other hand, even in these liberal places, people are averse to divulging the concrete, personal details of their sex lives. Again, on the one hand, romantic love and sexual intimacy are ideals praised literally in most songs, poems, and paintings ever produced, and the marriage industry celebrates monogamous unions which are considered legally void without sexual “consummation.” On the other hand, while the value of romantic love in general is publicly affirmed, only arid signs of affection between partners are tolerated in public places. Even public kissing is scorned. You can hold hands or dance with your partner, but actual sex in public is, of course, typically illegal. You can carry a picture of your spouse in your wallet and wear a wedding ring to symbolize the exclusivity of your romantic love for your partner, but were a stranger to approach you and inquire about your spouse’s favourite sexual position, you would probably punch that stranger in the nose. So we praise sexuality and romantic love in the abstract, but we hide the actual sex. Why the discrepancy?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Political Correctness: Spellbinding the Masses

In Scientism, I argued that the modern science-centered worldview is religious rather than strictly secular. This religion, which I call scientism, isn’t just academic positivism or behaviourism, but the popular worship of technoscientific power and the divinely creative forces revealed or enthroned by that power, such as natural selection in the minimally-regulated (mostly uncivilized) market. Pitiless Mother Nature reigns in capitalistic oases, as in Edenic jungle paradises, intervening in human affairs by separating winners from losers in every wild, entirely unchristian struggle for profit. The god of the free market, which must be the very same cosmic creativity that evolves solar systems and galaxies, is omnipresent in modern economies, at one with our vices that compel us to compete in a short-sighted, self-destructive fashion, leading presumably to our eventual extinction and replacement by some other chosen species. All hail Cosmic Creativity! And until that glorious future, when we’ll likely sacrifice ourselves for the sake of mindless evolution, a handful of mandarins, tycoons, magnates, and other lords of commerce rule as demigods, prophets and champions of that model sociopath, the creative force of natural selection. These oligarchs are elevated by the free market and so chosen by Mother Nature to rule in her social order, which is the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order. Thanks to their cunning, modern wealthy societies protect that underlying hierarchy with façades of democracy and with bribes of technologically-achieved pleasure. 

How could scientism be religious, though, without some scripture recited in holy places, causing knees to bow in reverence for the revealed Word of the Almighty? Where is the so-called secularist’s holy book of divine wisdom, if so-called secularists really are closet religionists? My answer: the verses of scientism’s scripture are repeated hourly on the mountain tops of television and radio airtime; they're the politically correct slogans, the spin-doctored and market-tested rhetoric, and the instrumental talking points for the Pavlovian training of human cattle. Were that scripture confined to a single book, its title might be Political Correctness: Sacred Verses for Spellbinding Consumers; instead, scientism uses modern technology to piggyback its messages on those of popular entertainments so that you hear them even when you think you don’t. Remember that scientism is a paradoxical faith, a religion that pretends to be opposed to all religious follies. Just as an oligarchy can disguise itself as a democratic republic, pagan worship of nature can disguise itself as scientific rationalism and as postreligious humanism. To see the religious aspect of so-called secular society, you have to step back from it and ask yourself whether there’s any reason to believe that our innate tribalism and creative urge to speculate, which are primary causes of religion, were shut down by modern forces of progress. Sure, in the name of that progress, the old gods of supernatural monotheism were dethroned and the perennial religious philosophies of mystics were ignored or ridiculed, but since religions are found in all times and places occupied by human beings, due to innate causes within us, we should expect that modern naturalists deify whatever’s left to replace the outmoded objects of worship.

Taboo and the Sacred

What is political correctness? Officially, politically correct speech and attitudes are conventions that respect social discoveries, such as the existence of civil rights due to the equality of humans as free, rational persons. It’s merely good manners in the face of the facts to tell the truth, for example, about the dignity of the poor and the rich alike. The social discoveries are like mathematically necessary truths, and the student can just tick the appropriate boxes in the Quiz of Life, thanks to regular tutoring from the authorities, such as politicians, pundits, celebrities--indeed, virtually anyone performing her public function (her job) and certainly anyone on mainstream media. Your private thoughts are more or less your own, but there are rules for public behaviour, besides those recognized in courts of law, and the penalty for disobeying them is to be shunned or ostracized.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion

Traditional religions were holistic, uniting normative and empirical speculations in a mytho-poetic vision of the world. Eastern religious philosophies are still holistic, whereas dualism dominates in the West, and not just because of Descartes’ attempt to reconcile the scientific picture of nature with the intuitive picture of ourselves. Monotheism itself has contributed to Western dualism. By centralizing divine power and elevating God above all conceivable forms, the monotheist effectively kicks God out of the rationally explainable domain, which is the domain of nature or the cosmos, the order of which corresponds to our conceptual grid. The supreme form of rational understanding is the modern scientific kind, but precisely because science is supremely impersonal and objective, its methods don’t provide direct answers to normative or subjective questions.

But ethical and aesthetic values, intuitions, and the subjective appearances of things have been central to the human experience. And so rather than giving them up, despite the lack of forthcoming answers to those questions from science, which reigns supreme only in a limited field of inquiry, religious people externalized those ghostly intangibles along with God. God is supposed to sustain everything, and while scientists have discovered more and more of how the physical world sustains itself, dualistic monotheism saves the subjective, intuitive, value-laden, faith-based appearance of the world, by locating this in the deity’s supernatural domain and in the earthly fragments of that domain, in our so-called immaterial spirits. After all, according to monotheists, God originated our moral perspective, by inspiring prophets to gain insights into divine commandments, and we’re able to think in terms of what ought to be done, instead of slavishly following natural law, because our immaterial spirits are supernaturally free.

Skeptics would contend, though, that the true originators of official moral laws were the human rulers who codified our instinctive sentiments, to hold social groups together, maintaining their elevated position in the pecking order by attributing society’s laws to gods who are just grandiose versions of those human rulers. Far from being supernaturally free, we’re just social animals who are subject to natural control systems, such as the system of monotheism. And of course, the more scientists have been able to explain empirical facts without appealing to God or to the supernatural, the more theism has declined in most informed parts of the world. Many early Western scientists inhabited the halfway house of deism, and most educated people currently living in relatively wealthy countries in Europe and Asia are nontheistic in both word and deed. Even in the US, which is an exception to that rule, nontheism has grown more popular due to the so-called New Atheist movement.

Such is a common way of contrasting traditional Western monotheism with modern secularism. But I want to consider another interpretation, according to which nontheistic naturalism has itself developed into a religion that can be called scientism. Narrowly speaking, scientism is the belief that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, that if a question can’t be answered using scientific methods, the question is meaningless or otherwise illegitimate. In this respect, scientism is just radical empiricism, or positivism, deriving from the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein, and David Hume. While positivism has since been mostly rejected in academic philosophy, for being self-refuting and for ignoring studies of how the sciences are actually practiced, most analytic philosophers still subscribe to naturalism. Naturalists assume that even if some legitimate questions can’t be identified with scientific ones, everything that exists depends on things that are scientifically explainable.

That's how scientism has played out in rarified academic circles and it's the meaning I've had in mind in these blog rants, such as when I referred to "scientistic liberals," in Liberalism. But there's also a more popular form of scientism, which has to do with the way technoscientific progress has shaped the capitalistic social order. The main social effects of that progress are anti-philosophical pragmatism and the ideology of materialistic consumerism. In this broader sense of the centrality of science, scientism serves as a religion that we dare not name.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Theism: Does its Irrationality Matter?

Theism is the belief that there is at least one supernatural god, a perfect (all-powerful, all-knowing) person who created the natural universe and who intervenes in that universe, particularly in human affairs. Theism is the philosophical content of religions which is almost never discussed in mainstream journalistic coverage of religions, whether on the radio or TV, in newspapers or magazines. In the West, addressing the philosophical merits of theism would inevitably call the monotheistic religions into question and alienate consumers of news, most of whom pretend to follow a traditional religion without actually doing so. In short, monotheistic religions are currently farcical.

The farce begins with the theist’s erroneous notion that theism can and should be rationally supported, as though theism were something like a scientific theory. The scientistic blunder here is monumental and often motivated by comically misplaced arrogance, as in the case of Catholic pomposity or the militant Islamist’s woefully perverse delusions of grandeur. A monotheist’s condescension towards a nontheist or an Eastern mystic is like an ant’s deeming itself to be taller than a giraffe. (I’ll speak of nontheism rather than atheism, because “atheism” has negative social connotations which are irrelevant to the core issue I mean to address.) However, the farce ends when we see that theism’s irrationality may not matter and that the theist may have the last laugh. The rational case against theism may itself rest on a category error. Indeed, the rational ideal that our philosophical beliefs be logical and attuned to the evidence conflicts with the more Humean reality confirmed by cognitive scientists, that humans are not as rational as we might prefer to think. I’ll provide an overview here of why theism is indeed irrational, but then I’ll turn to what I’ll call the existentialist’s nonrational case for theism. 

Mysticism and Literalism

First of all, we need to observe the split in all religions between their mystical and exoteric traditions. The mystic seeks transcendent experience of the divine, not a rational justification for intellectual beliefs. She understands that language and logic simplify and thus to some extent falsify reality as they map it, and that in any case those tools evolved to provide us with practical knowledge of how to get by in the natural world, not to contact anything that might lie beyond that world. The mystic prefers a direct, intuitive grasp of supernatural reality, but if she’s forced to speak of what she thereby grasps, she often resorts to myths and metaphors which she knows shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Mysticism is central to Eastern religions but marginalized in Western, monotheistic ones. What replaces mysticism at the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is a colossal misunderstanding, called literalism, which is the mistaking of exoteric knowledge for the esoteric, mystical kind. Literalists err in literalizing the mystic’s metaphors. So while a mystic may compare God, that which transcends nature, to a loving parent, the literalist falls in love not with God but with the image, succumbing to our primitive, tribal inclination to worship an idol. From the mystic’s viewpoint, the literalist’s ego gets the better of her; like Narcissus she’s captivated by her own reflection, in this case by an image poured out of a mystic’s mind to provide a sketchy map of what transcends our rational comprehension. So one of the initial mistakes made by Western theists, at least, is the elevation of their anti-mystical tradition. Thus, Christians persecuted their Gnostics and Muslim jurists have a strained relationship with Sufis. 

Indeed, when theism is reduced to literalistic idolatry, the contents of theistic beliefs become ridiculous. The images contradict each other or are otherwise preposterous, leading the indignant literalist into a web of falsehoods as she has to rationalize the absurdities that inevitably follow when she naturalizes and anthropomorphizes something that’s supposed to be supernatural. For example, how could God literally have thoughts and feelings with no physical brain or other substrate? If a substrate is needed for psychological states, who made God’s? Needless to say, if God evolved, he’s not the creator of everything. Literalists have traveled far, looking for Eden or Noah’s ark, always ready with a spurious explanation when they fail to find any archeological evidence for the biblical tale’s historicity. And literalistic theology becomes the proverbial tennis match played without a net. So-called systematic theology tomes are written to map every nuance of theistic imagery, arriving at creeds that purportedly specify God’s attributes--including, no doubt, what God had for breakfast the other day.

Oligarchy: Nature’s Inhumanity to Humans

In my rants on liberalism, conservatism, and happiness, I contrast some myths we live by with unsettling natural realities. Liberals believe we’ve progressed socially as well as scientifically and technologically, that we’ve discovered civil rights and the superiority of capitalism and democracy over all other economic and political systems. Unfortunately, liberals borrow their unidirectional, teleological notion of history from monotheism, and while modern, secular humanistic societies have “moved forward” in that they’ve developed--which is virtually a tautology--they’ve entered a postmodern stage of decline by way of nihilism. Oswald Spengler may have been correct when he observed that, much like an organism, a culture passes through inevitable stages, leading from energetic growth, when the citizens believe fervently in an ideal that distinguishes their culture, to corruption and extinction when the people lose confidence in that ideal. Mesmerized by technoscientific advances, liberals assumed that scientific methods can be applied to social problems. But science can’t tell anyone what ought to be done. When social progress failed to materialize as expected--witness the many wars and holocausts in the last century--liberals lost their faith even in their substitute religion, which is scientism. And so liberal myths have become mere shibboleths, empty, politically correct slogans and talking points that no one would die for.

Conservatives have two myths: theism and social Darwinism. Science and philosophy have demolished the rational basis for theism, a point to which I’ll return in my next rant, and social Darwinism is both internally and externally inconsistent. The libertarian faith in the wild market commits the naturalistic fallacy of inferring that because natural selection actually makes use of brutal competitions in the biological sphere, economies ought to be similarly structured. Moreover, the evidence shows that a wild market simply clears the way for the default social order, for the dominance hierarchy, which is what the religious and libertarian conservative actually defend, whether that oligarchy takes the form of a theocracy (on Earth as in Heaven) or of a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or kleptocracy (rule by the vicious). Unlike the narrow liberal myth of scientism, which captivates only Philistines in certain scientific circles, conservative myths are still powerful. Most westerners think of themselves as monotheists, although their behaviour shows clearly that their true religion is the libertarian’s faith in the economist’s god, in the creative force unleashed by a free-for-all of human vice. A consumer’s true faith is that when we’re at our egoistic worst, society is miraculously at its best, because of the invisible hand of natural selection. Again, though, while this myth still enchants, the myth is a noble lie rather than a spiritually uplifting narrative, since the myth rationalizes the gross, natural inequalities that inevitably result from vicious competition.

Consumerism and Oligarchy

Most people want to be happy, but the worthiness of happiness as our ultimate goal is another delusion, one which ought to be replaced by the nobler goal of creatively overcoming the knowledge of where we stand in nature. In Western, pseudodemocratic oligarchies, happiness is also misconstrued: the rich are presumed to be happier than the poor, because money buys pleasure and contentment indirectly, with the purchase of material goods such as high tech gadgets, luxury cars, or even fast food. Studies show that the rich are just as stressed as the poor, if not more so, but the materialistic delusion persists because of its usefulness in stabilizing society. Materialistic happiness is quantifiable: the more private possessions someone has, the greater his or her happiness; indeed, money is countable, so following the myth of happiness through to its absurd end, precise judgments can be made about degrees of happiness depending on the consumer’s calculable net worth. Tangible status symbols, like bank accounts, home appliances, fashionable clothing, home square footage, and so on, indicate a person’s place in the pecking order. If happiness is pleasure, everyone has the capacity to be happy, but if pleasure is caused by ownership of material products--as associative advertisements fallaciously suggest 24/7 on most surfaces of modern cities--there’s a happiness hierarchy. Now, the money that buys those products also buys power, and so the happiness hierarchy corresponds to the dominance hierarchy, which is the shape of an oligarchy in which the many are ruled by the few.

Happiness is Unbecoming

Many people profess to be confused about the question of life’s meaning, of whether there’s a best way of life: the question is a philosophical one, and since philosophy has so little cultural prestige, people suspect that the question is idle. These people are doubly mistaken, since their behaviours if not their words indicate that they typically accept not just the question, but the hedonist’s answer to it. The best way of life is assumed to be the one filled with the most happiness, which is to say the most contentment and pleasure.

But should happiness be the ultimate goal of a person’s life? There’s a clue in the fact that people are widely thought to be perfectly happy only in heaven, when God shows his face and directly rules over creation. The myth of heaven, in which disembodied people feel ultimate joy on a spiritual plane, implies, of course, that there are presently obstacles to feeling happy. In theistic terms, the main obstacle is God’s remoteness from the world, which permits the inhumane forces of nature to dictate the course of our lives. Some people win the lottery, others get hit by lightning, while nothing of lasting significance happens to the majority.

In nontheistic terms, there’s no God and there’s just the frigid, impersonal universe, evolving along its alien trajectory. Far from being at home in nature, we live in one of the few, relatively miniscule spots that aren’t perfectly lethal to us; were we to try to explore the outer reaches, we’d be snuffed out. We can take pockets of the Earth with us in spaceships, but we’d die within them before passing much beyond merely the neighbourhood of our own solar system. Most of the universe is thus effectively hostile towards us, has no mind that can be changed on the subject, and seems far beyond our power to modify to our benefit. Even on Earth, our oasis, the universe rears its alien head in the frugality of natural selection, which equips species with barely enough adaptations to survive, if even with those, so that shortages of resources are commonplace and many people suffer rather than flourish. A meteor could destroy us all as one wiped out the dinosaurs, making nonsense of any pretension to our cosmic importance. I’ll call the set of such obstacles to our happiness, whether they be characterized theistically or nontheistically, Our Existential Situation (OES).

OES, then, necessitates the myth of heaven in an afterlife, on the assumption that happiness is the ultimate good in life. We can’t be perfectly happy here and now, and some of us are prevented from being even remotely happy, but there will be a time and a place in which everything will change for the better. I’d add, though, that when our response to OES is weighed by an ethical standard, we’re left with the normative implication that happiness should not be our ultimate goal in the first place. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Conservatism: Myth-Making for Oligarchy

What does the conservative believe, deep-down, if anything? While liberalism is rooted in the Scientific Revolution, conservatism has a much more ancient pedigree, stretching back to ancient monarchies and aristocracies, to prehistoric nomadic tribes, and even to the dominance hierarchies in most social species, from fish to birds to mammals, in which a minority of elite members rule over the majority by force, for the group’s stability. Prior to the advent of capitalism and the rise of modern science and the middle class, resources were lacking to educate the majority of people to make them fit to rule; the majority had to work tirelessly on the farm and had no time for more intellectual pursuits. Elites and predators arose to occupy the power vacuums, and the paths they carved established pecking orders. Myths accumulated to rationalize those unequal social arrangements, associating the leaders with gods and positing the wickedness of human nature that’s overcome either by the will of God bestowed on the king who’s given the divine right to rule through his bloodline, or by intensive training in a religious or secular institution.

The British conservative, Edmund Burke, argued that this traditional form of minority government is the most prudent and shouldn’t be tampered with by rationalist radicals, such as the Jacobins who were to do just that in the French Revolution. Conservatism is thus opposed to scientism, to optimism about the prospect for social progress that mimics the scientific kind, making government out to be social engineering. According to Burke, traditions that stand the test of time have more authority than an unproven abstract theory of how a society might be designed from scratch. Moreover, democracy is an unwise system for the above reason having to do with original sin. Whereas liberals trust in human nature, replacing God, angels, and other supernatural forces with human technocrats, conservatives are pessimistic about human beings: we tend to behave wickedly because we’re innately depraved. We’re lucky that some few of us manage to control their beastly impulses, excel in their education, and act for the general welfare by taking up the thankless task of government.

Elitist Conservatism

Talk of original sin is, of course, the oldest form of monumental fear-mongering for narrow political advantage. Granted, there must have been nomadic tribes or villages whose ignorant members were indeed thankful that they’d been blessed with leaders who stood out from the crowd by being not just more intelligent but more virtuous. The majority then would have benefited from the work of that elite minority, and the inequality between them would have been not just real but relevant to the different tasks for each social class.

Liberalism: from Scientism to Nihilism

The story of liberalism, in my view, is that of the fall from Enlightenment to postmodern versions of that value system. This is the story of a loss of confidence in the myths of the old atheistic, science-centered religion of secular humanism.

Enlightenment Liberalism

To get a sense of this decline, imagine how a liberal would answer this question: What do you believe as a liberal, deep-down, if anything? The old liberal answer to this question derives from Enlightenment humanism. Inspired by world-shaking progress in science, humanists became confident that similar progress could be made in human affairs, that societies could be greatly improved through our own effort, using institutions such as government. Following science, humanists elevated Reason over faith and religious dogma. Whereas religious faith divides people, exacerbating our tribal instincts, reason unites us. Reason leads to consensus in science and is a basis for universal values and rights: in so far as we’re all rational, we’re equally precious as self-guiding beings.

Thus, the liberal believes in the equality of human beings and in human rights, including the rights to life and to pursue our own goals as rational, free persons. These rights are thought to follow from the dignity of rational persons. Whereas in a religious society, rights come from God’s commands as revealed in some holy text, in a liberal, humanistic society, rights are discovered by the power of human reason. Just as scientists learn how nature works by objectively testing hypotheses, we learn about ourselves by reflecting on our distinguishing features: we’re sentient, free, intelligent, social creatures, and those qualities dignify us, elevating us above the other species, but only to a degree; as science shows, we’re part of nature. But we have skills that make us special, and what the old liberal believes, as a humanist, is that we can use these skills to improve our situation on this planet. We can use government to help the poor, who have just as much dignity as rich people due to their shared humanity. We can think our way out of crises, negotiating and compromising for the common good.

Above all, then, the liberal used to be a rationalist. But the liberal can no longer afford to be such, because the history of western rationalism has moved from a modern to a postmodern stage. The modern stage is what I just described: people were inspired by scientific advances and trusted that any species that could win for itself so much control over nature can learn to control itself. Like the technoscientific kind, psychological and social progress lay in the hands of reason, hands we all possess just by being members of our species. In this way, modern rationalists were scientistic, trusting that societies could progress by extending scientific methods or at least science’s general rationalistic approach to problems.