Monday, June 25, 2012

Christian Crudities: An Aesthetic Condemnation of Christian Myths

Christian theological assertions are illogical and highly improbable, but those faults have almost no place in a proper denial of those assertions. Religion is the irrational core of every worldview, of every belief system, mindset or way of looking at the world. It’s currently fashionable for so-called New Atheists to castigate mainly Christians and Muslims for the palpable irrationality of their religious beliefs, as though the issue that separates so-called secularists and theists were the Manichean conflict of Faith versus Reason. No non-autistic or otherwise sane atheist is a hyper-rationalist, a Data-like figure who turns solely to reason in all her affairs, never speculating, feeling, intuiting, trusting, or caving to higher powers. A viable defense of atheism doesn’t reduce to the following argument: (1) A worldview should be fully rational; (2) Theism is irrational; (3) Therefore our worldview shouldn’t be theistic. A person does not live by Reason alone. As the sociologist Emile Durkheim explained, you’re bound to form a religion around what you hold to be of ultimate importance. I’d add that only a machine truly cares about nothing, which implies that all people, all clever animals with primitive emotions and instincts are religious, although our religion needn't be theistic.

Indeed, those atheists who rest their case by showing that theists commit various fallacies and that their key assumptions are preposterous, reveal their irrational commitment to certain unexamined philosophical assumptions of their own, be they pragmatic, positivistic, or scientistic. The issue, then, isn’t whether a person should reject all religions as foolish, but rather which religions should be discarded. When you appreciate that logic and science stop short of fully justifying a worldview, that a human brain’s perspective on the world should be coherent, which means that a worldview should satisfy all of our cognitive faculties, including the rational and irrational parts of our mind, you should find yourself adopting subtler criteria in choosing what to believe at the philosophical or religious level. (For more along these lines, see Theism, Scientism, and Scientific and Philosophical Atheism.)

Now, Christianity happens to be execrable, but the pseudo-rationalist underestimates the religion’s inadequacies, by banally demonstrating that Christianity isn’t perfectly logical or scientific because, after all, the Bible contradicts itself and Jesus allegedly performed miracles. Proving as much shows only that Christianity fails as a mathematical proof or as a scientific theory, and such a demonstration would thereby in turn amount to a category error. Christianity contends for people’s religious commitment, and thus the religion’s inconsistencies and improbabilities are relatively insignificant.

The more loathsome aspects of the religion, to my mind, are ethical and aesthetic. What I mean is that the religion fails now, in modern and postmodern times, to uplift as a work of imagination; on the contrary, in the present context, Christian belief degrades a person’s character. When combined with modern myths and values--as every current, responsibly-held worldview must be--Christianity’s shortcomings are outrageous. The point, though, isn’t just that Christianity contradicts modern truths that should be taken for granted, which it obviously does, but that a synthesis of Christianity and modernism would make for an atrocious, wildly incoherent work of art that disappoints rather than fortifies. This is the Nietzschean point. What appalled Nietzsche wasn’t some assortment of petty cognitive defects of the religion, but the anachronism of Christian values, the anticlimax of the Christian narrative, the unethical effect of the religion which is to reconcile the gullible masses to secular excesses rather than energizing people with stories (myths) worth trusting.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Case Studies of Aesthetic Morality: Abortion and Gay Marriage

In Morality and Aesthetics, I argue that an aesthetic conception of what we ought to do should replace the moral view, since morality is as defunct as exoteric theism. The aesthetic conception includes the distinctions between ugliness and beauty, and between cliché and originality. The former distinction identifies ugliness as a startling reminder of our existential situation, including our mortality which horrifies us. The latter one amounts to the difference between conformity and rebellion, prescribing that we should resist degrading natural processes and social traditions instead of succumbing to them with no creative vision. From a broader aesthetic standpoint, each side of an issue should be appraised according to artistic standards, and then a judgment should be made as to which side is aesthetically preferable, just as though the appraiser were evaluating two paintings side-by-side in a gallery. To clarify further how the aesthetic norms would work outside of aesthetics proper (painting, sculpture, music, etc), I’d like to apply what I said to two hot-button issues: abortion and gay marriage.

The Mediocre Art of the Pro-life and Pro-choice Positions

According to what I’ll call the Rule of Infotainment’s Antithetical Relation to Philosophy, the more a philosophical issue appears in the news, the more the discussion of that issue is characterized by confusion. There are at least two reasons for this. First, when an issue is discussed not just once but repeatedly in the mainstream media, especially on the American 24-hour cable news stations (Fox, MSNBC, CNN), this indicates a high public interest in the issue, but since the majority are opposed to, or ignorant of, philosophical standards of argument, those people will degrade the discussion with their biases and fallacies. To please their audience, the news stations will dutifully reflect the public’s cognitive deficiencies, because of the second reason which is the following. As is well-known, the corporate media are currently in the business mainly of entertaining rather than investigating or educating, and so the media are more interested in pleasing the intellectually lazy members of the public than in challenging them with rigorous analyses. Both abortion and gay marriage are highly controversial and thus popular subjects of conversation, especially in socially conservative places like the US, which means that, as these issues are sliced and diced on the major cable news shows, the quality of the public discussion of them is bound to be appalling. This is certainly the case regarding abortion.

The moral issue of abortion is whether parents should be able to terminate their fetus or whether the fetus has the right to live, in which case abortion amounts to murder. Now, the expression “pro-life” is an abuse of language, one which is more clumsy than bold since the abuse is unintentional. Obviously, the issue isn’t as general as the question of life or death, since most of the anti-abortion folks are in favour of killing nonhuman animals for food and don’t contend that all animals have a moral right to live. Even the slogan “pro human life” would be a misnomer, since the anti-abortion side tends to favour war and capital punishment. The slogan “pro innocent human life” would be counterproductive, since it would call attention to the fact that whatever you think of a fetus, it’s far too early to speak of whether a person has lived well or badly, before the person has done anything. A fetus isn’t innocent as much as morally neutral, since the fetus could develop into a saint or into an evil-doer.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Politics

Politics: the secret application of vices in preserving group cohesion; in professional circles, politics features the art of telling noble lies to convince people, in effect, that Sartre was wrong when he said that hell is other people.

When many people choose to live together in cities and nations, a dominance hierarchy emerges as the most stable social structure, as it does in most social animal species. However, most people are too vain to consider themselves animals whose lives are governed largely by power relations. From a genetic viewpoint, our great intelligence is a byproduct that leads us astray, filling our heads with diversions and delusions of grandeur. Whereas many kings, emperors, tsars, and dictators have foregone the political enterprise, preferring to rule as unashamed beasts with displays of absolute power, modern rulers are forced to resort to Machiavellian maneuvers. This is because modernists preach secular humanism, which inspires people to think of themselves as heroes, boldly confronting the forces that hinder our progress. Spreading that myth and then undermining it with brutal oppression of the masses would obviously be counterproductive, and yet modern myths hardly prevent the emergence of dominance hierarchies. Thus, modern politicians apologize for and exploit power imbalances with covert rather than with open forms of corruption.

Politics is a charade in which leaders and followers pretend to be rational and virtuous while demonstrating the opposite at every opportunity. After all, politics isn’t just for professional politicians; no, whenever people interact socially in a group of whatever size, we resort to political maneuvers to maintain the power dynamic while distracting ourselves with our group’s loftier stated purpose--lest we break our social bonds, since we’re too vain and clever to sustain transparently-degrading group dynamics. With political posturing, spin-doctoring, white lying, backstabbing, double dealing, flip-flopping, gossip, and brinksmanship, we concede that we’re animals vying for power while maintaining the legend of our nobility.

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Conservatism

Conservatism: a paradigm of shamefulness.

Conservatism is a cynical rallying cry against what liberals have wrought, when powerful conservatives pretend to favour premodern traditions while relishing the modern way of imposing the eternal dominance hierarchy. However, when preached by the poor, social conservatives, conservatism’s a preference for premodern myths that please, at least, compared to the modern ones that evoke horror and angst. Either way, conservatism is the sheerest chutzpah, the most appalling concatenation of noises by those with the least capacity for shame. Theoretically, a retrograde mindset is a check on the excesses of modern liberalism, but in practice the conservative either approves of the modern form of social engineering, worshipping the apex predators who emerge triumphant from the social Darwinian struggle, or else actually espouses a preposterous premodern worldview (Christianity, Islam, etc), as though she arrived from a time machine, skipping over the European Age of Reason. Conservatives pretend to cherish ancient wisdom, but they embrace either the stealth oligarchy, which deploys modern methods of social control, or else ancient theistic drivel.

The United States was founded by deistic hyper-rationalists who wanted to build a New World, free from Old World religious tyrannies. Today, the U.S. is perhaps the most conservative and thus the most confused modern Western society, reveling in the military power and wealth that flow from technoscience and from individualistic institutions (democracy and capitalism), while paying lip service to old time, authoritarian religion. “Freedom” and “liberty” are American shibboleths, but Americans have managed to make liberalism taboo. Liberalism, says the American conservative, is socialism, a form of tyranny in which the individual serves the State. But a stealth oligarchy can also be officially individualistic, as in the U.S since its founding. American conservatism is thus a colossal distraction, a carnival of follies that prevents many Americans from appreciating where they actually stand as victims of scientistic, self-destructive modernism.  

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Liberalism

I’m starting a new series of mini rants at this blog, defining an array of relevant terms in around three hundred words or fewer per entry. This series will amount to a sort of snarky personal dictionary, inspired by John Ralston Saul’s The Doubter’s Companion and Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary

So, to begin...

Liberalism: modern ideology of individual freedom, now anathema to the United States, the so-called land of the free.

Originally, liberalism was the salvation of modernists from the Dark Ages, a celebration of Reason, Freedom, and Progress. Liberals were grim secular humanists, scientists, and renaissance men, God’s blood staining their faces as they set about creating a New World, free from superstition, oppression, and squalor, with each liberal serving as her own rationally self-controlling and creative sovereign. Now liberals are reduced to effeminate, vacillating, double-talking managers of the new form of dominance hierarchy they created, the stealth oligarchy in which the strongest and most vicious use democracy and free markets to enslave the mob. Ironically, liberal myths of our potential godhood have backfired, thanks to the liberal’s science-centered philosophy which corrodes all grand delusions, leaving the postmodern wasteland in which liberals know enough to be miserable and are free to endlessly consume as an oligarch’s branded cattle.

The very instrument that modern, classic liberals considered sacred, namely technoscience, has been used to control society and not just nature, and so armed with market research and cognitive science, American demagogues have demonized liberals, counting on the public’s ignorance of the liberal’s role in the birth of modern civilization. Liberals armed and unleashed a new breed of human predator and parasite, whose ill-gotten wealth co-opts liberal governments against the majority’s interests or whose perfected demagoguery creates the modern dictatorship. Thus has liberalism demonstrated our gross inequality, making nonsense of the liberal’s myth of universal human dignity. Liberalism was a paean to the end of the Old World, directing the modern experiment in social engineering which didn’t eradicate kings and other pseudo-gods but merely improved their methods of control. Liberalism is the myth of human progress, but liberals have shown that sometimes change is an illusion.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Morality and the Aesthetic Conception of Life

In a numerous writings for this blog, I’ve distinguished between moral and aesthetic standards, and referred to Nietzsche’s argument that slave morality becomes obsolete with the embarrassment of theism by modern science and that this morality needs to be replaced by a new, aesthetic conception of the ideal life. But what is the aesthetic perspective and how is it superior to a moral one?

Morality and the Naturalistic Fallacy

Instead of following Nietzsche’s atheistic reason for abandoning what we think of as morality, I’d like to give a different one. The problem I have in mind is that morality comes to suffer inexorably in comparison with scientific knowledge. Here’s how this has come about. In the first place, morality in the sense of rules for what people ought to do or to avoid doing, arose in a social context, as people found themselves living in larger and larger groups (as hunting and farming methods were improved, and so on). Resolving conflicts by violence, prompted by each individual who deems himself wronged, would defeat the point of living in society as opposed to the wild, which is precisely to escape what Hobbes called the “war of all against all” in which each creature’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And so members of society stipulate certain modes of conduct to govern group behaviour. Note, for example, that the Ten Commandments presuppose a set of social circumstances: what’s forbidden is the killing of another, the stealing of another’s possessions, the worship of other gods, and what’s prescribed is the honouring of your parents and the performance of the religious rituals that bind the society together (the Sabbath, for the ancient Jews). In this respect, morality and religion functioned together, as ways of maintaining social cohesion.

As cognitive scientists such as Jonathan Haidt point out, reason evolved as a way of measuring status in a social hierarchy, of persuading others in a Machiavellian, egocentric fashion, as opposed to being a matter of impartial, objective logic or science for discovering the absolute Truth. Just as religions were terribly biased in favour of each self-interested tribe, reason was biased in favour of each individual who must balance the tribe’s interests with his or her own. This state of affairs was eventually unsettled by human curiosity, which led to the discovery of cognitive methods that undermined rather than upheld social institutions such as the Catholic Church. With the ascent of modern science, European rationalists elevated pure Reason as a precondition of social progress, which is to say that these rationalists duly ridiculed social conventions and overturned traditions. Modern rationalists learned how nature actually works and developed technological means of applying that knowledge, which created modern civilization, typically held, according to the scientistic fallacy, to be an unqualified improvement on primitive, benighted ways of life.

Shortly after these developments, hyper-rationalists (empiricists, positivists, skeptics) took modern science to be the standard for all beliefs, which means that, as David Hume said, nonscientific writings should figuratively if not actually be set to the flames, including metaphysical and theological texts. With progress in view--which is to say liberalism in the classic sense, relative to which current “centrist” liberalism is a cover for postmodern nihilism and a pragmatic ideology for enforcing the oligarchs' control of the mob--rationalists thus became aware of the startling paradox that while the science-centered worship of Reason generates social progress at one level by enabling higher degrees of happiness, with greater control of natural processes, this progressive society threatens to destroy itself.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How Godlike Oligarchs Train Consumers

Personal liberty is mythologized by two kinds of people, whom I’ll call oligarchs and consumers. I focus here on the psychological sense of the word “oligarch.” Economically, an oligarch is someone in the minority who has undemocratic political power over the majority, due to wealth, social connections, or some other special strength. But oligarchs tend to share a social Darwinian mindset, according to which the most powerful people are, as Nietzsche said, beyond good and evil and thus above the law. The advantage of being more powerful than most isn’t just that you can afford the best lawyers, who give you practical immunity from prosecution; no, in the first place, the oligarch arrogantly assumes that no one has the right to judge him, that social laws are for those who are forced to be interdependent because they’re not completely independent. Those who can care for themselves without anyone else’s aid are gods, and gods are lawgivers not law-abiders.

Historically in Europe, Catholic oligarchs lost their political power to modern, rationalistic ones. The Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment replaced the medieval rationalization of aristocracy with the modern rationalization of stealth oligarchy by way of democracy and capitalism. In the medieval scheme, peasants served lords as more divinely blessed thanks to their blood relation or social connection to the royals whose privileges were sanctioned by the utterly-compromised, anti-Jesus Catholic Church. As money fell into the private hands of merchants and as scientists discovered more and more discrepancies between Christian theology and natural reality, the Christian myth became obsolete and modernists duly replaced it with secular humanism. According to the new myth, the individual human has the potential to be a god, depending on whether he has sufficient empowering knowledge. Eventually, this myth was extended to women, but initially faith in mortal reason and freedom was both sexist and class-based. Moreover, modernism combined elements of what are now called political liberalism and conservatism: modernism was liberal in requiring faith in human progress from the unrestricted and thus untraditional exercise of reason, as demonstrated best by the likes of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin; but modernism was conservative in requiring a naturalistic view of human nature, according to which inequalities in rational self-control entail unequal rights to happiness or political power. In these ways, modernism was at least implicitly scientistic and social Darwinian.

In medieval terms, social progress is senseless, since God supposedly already revealed the blueprint for the perfect society, for the so-called kingdom of God, millennia ago. Modernists lost faith in that theistic metanarrative, owing largely to the Church’s elaborate betrayal of Jesus for secular power, but were inspired by demonstrations of human creativity in the Renaissance and of the power of technoscience in the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Freedom of thought evidently empowers people, which raises the standard of living and is thus socially progressive. That scientism, which reduces the improvement of values to increases in knowledge and power, is at the heart of political liberalism. But this very science-centered, naturalistic perspective entails class divisions between those who are naturally smarter or stronger and thus better equipped to enhance society in the scientistic manner, and those with natural and thus scientifically recognizable deficiencies, who depend on charity for their survival. With the death of God in the modern age, charity becomes much less motivated, and so the modernist tends to be either a libertarian, economic conservative; a warped theist who pretends to follow a humane ancient tradition but instead cherry-picks from that tradition with the impunity of a modern individualist whose trust in her apelike ego substitutes for fear of God; or a postmodern liberal, whose liberalism is only a mask for nihilistic instrumentalism.