Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Individualism and the Sexual Attraction of Opposites

In Plato’s dialogue “Symposium,” Aristophanes delivers a humorous speech that provides a mythical origin of sexual attraction. Aristophanes explains the romantic seeking for our complement in someone else, for our so-called soul mate, by imagining that humans were once physically very different: each member of an earlier form of our species had two heads, four arms, and four legs. As in the biblical Tower of Babel story, these creatures tried to storm heaven, and so the gods punished them, not by fragmenting their language, but by splitting each prehuman in two, condemning each of us now to long for reunion with our other half.

Indeed, human sexual attraction is ripe for such satire, partly because of sexuality’s conflict with the modern ideology of individualism. On the one hand, there’s a natural heterosexual instinct, which causes most men and women to bond hormonally with a member of the opposite sex. The differences between the sexes are psychological as well as biological: notoriously, men and women think differently, thanks to our different hormones and evolutionary social roles; moreover, these gendered thought pattern are often opposed to each other. For example, while some female politicians, such as Margaret Thatcher, are just as capable of masculine vices as male ones, women are often noted for their disinclination to fall into the same traps as men when exercising political power. While testosterone-filled, often sociopathic men aggressively compete for selfish advantage in a power hierarchy, estrogen-filled, baby-bonded women use their greater capacity for empathy to cooperate with their opponents to reach political compromises. The point, though, is that most men and women, who are psychologically at odds with each other, are naturally compelled to be yoked with such opponents, to live together as we fulfill our biological “function” of raising a family and preserving our genes after our death.

On the other hand, modern men and women are beholden to the values of individualism, believing we’re each sovereign agents with rights of ownership over our private property, including our own bodies. This ideology is a secularized form of Western monotheism, substituting the rational, technoscientifically creative human for the divine Creator of the universe. Modernists believe that our intelligence, freedom, and consciousness dignify us, giving us intrinsic value and inalienable rights. This atomistic view of human nature glorifies the ego, the self-conscious, logical, and pragmatic side of ourselves that was so instrumental in the Scientific Revolution and that’s celebrated in capitalistic democracies. According to the commonplace selective reading of Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand, for example, social Darwinian capitalism is supposed to unleash the unintended altruistic consequences of the practically necessary vice of egoism (selfishness). The legitimacy of this ideology has come into question in our so-called postmodern period, due to hyper-skepticism, feminism, the hollowness of utopian rationalism, and the familiar oligarchic reality of individualistic societies. Nevertheless, the myths of secular individualism are the most influential replacements for those of anachronistic theism. (See Modernism and Postmodernism.)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Can Evil Derive from Atheism?

I’ve argued that for propaganda purposes, many New Atheists whitewash the social consequences of atheism, ignoring more pessimistic forms like Nietzsche’s existentialism and Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Moreover, scientific atheists lack respect for philosophy and thus have low standards of argument in nonscientific debates, including the inevitably philosophical debate between atheists and theists. These two deficits combine to produce the howler that is the New Atheist’s frequent response to the theist’s tedious rejoinder to the Problem of Evil, the rejoinder being that in the last century atheists are responsible for their own horrifying measure of evil (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc). This response to the classic theistic problem of evil, that a benevolent God wouldn’t allow so much natural and human suffering and therefore doesn’t exist as defined, takes the form of the Tu quoque fallacy, amounting to the childish outburst, “Yeah? Well so are you!” The problem of evil for theists isn’t just the pragmatic one, that religion has caused much violence and is thus especially dangerous given advances in weapons of mass destruction. The heart of the problem is that exoteric definitions of God, which rely on weak metaphors, are bound to be absurd. The facts that not all evil derives from religion and that atheists too can be evil have no bearing on that problem.

But one New Atheistic response to this counter-charge is highly revealing and annoying. The response seems to originate from Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in which he says that even were Stalin and Hitler both atheists, their atheism would have been as causally relevant to their evil as the fact that they both had moustaches. “What matters,” he says, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does” (309). And at the end of that section, Dawkins, the brilliant writer that he is, might have birthed the meme so often repeated in these discussions, that “Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism” (315, my emphasis). 

Note the difference in Sam Harris’ handling of the issue in his book, The End of Faith, in which he blames evil on faith in irrational dogmas. Either secular or religious ideologies, he says, can turn people into depraved killing machines, but this just testifies “to the dangers of not thinking critically enough” about either sort of ideology (231). Indeed, Harris avers, “Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately” (79). In its own way, this response is just as wrongheaded as Dawkins’.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Philosophy and Social Engineering

Most of what’s said in public consists of various kinds of lies, including half-truths, spin-doctoring, lies of omission, self-delusions, exaggerations, equivocations, evasions, distortions, white lies, frauds, and other pretenses. Often, a professional or public figure has no beliefs on some issue but only uninformed opinion, and merely pretends to know what she’s talking about to save face or to manipulate an audience. There’s an old distinction, originating in Plato’s dialogues, between the philosopher and the sophist. The philosopher loves knowledge more than opinion, while the sophist makes a business of selling or otherwise persuading with useful works of rhetoric. The sophist doesn’t lie exactly, but merely denies that truth is relevant to business. Regardless of whether Plato’s distinction was biased in favour of Socrates, there’s a very important, similar difference between two present-day characters, which I’ll call those of The Philosopher and of The Social Engineer.

Philosophy, Humility, and Truth

By “philosopher,” I don’t mean an academic necessarily, whose profession is to teach philosophy; I’m speaking rather of philosophy in a psychological sense. Psychologically, some people are preoccupied with the task of creating a perfect map of reality. This sort of philosopher may be intellectually curious or perhaps possessed of a religious faith that promises a convergence of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Alternatively, the philosopher may have a sort of death wish, a suspicion that the ultimate truth will be horrible to know, but that we should annihilate ourselves with that knowledge like moths rushing to the flame.

Whatever her motivation, the philosopher assumes there’s a special relationship between the rational mind and the rest of the world: such a mind can know the facts. Although rational knowing here isn’t the biblical kind of knowing, which is to say a sexual experience between persons, the philosopher assumes that the rational mind does possess a sort of key that unlocks nature’s door or a mirror that reflects the world. Just as convention dictates that men and women have a functionally correct relationship between their sex organs, the philosopher assumes that the rational mind can be properly or improperly related to the external world. Moreover, just as sexist cultures dictate that men are active while women are passive, the philosopher’s metaphor implies that the rational mind is masculine in aggressively seeking to know the world, while the known world passively awaits our attentions (or seduces the scientist with tantalizing clues to solving its mysteries, etc). The key or mirror in question is just the symbol, the word or thought that carries a meaning. Put a set of symbols in the correct order and the key unlocks the door, the mirror captures the light and the Truth shines forth; that is, the sentence or thought agrees with an objective fact.