Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Varieties of Mysticism

Mysticism is the doctrine that the hidden wisdom of monistic theology, according to which all souls are united with God, can be proved by direct experience of that unity, through meditation or an altered state of consciousness. If we define “God” loosely, to cover the pantheism that identifies God with nature’s impersonal creativity, we see that atheistic mysticism is possible; indeed, Buddhism is another kind of atheistic mysticism. But besides the difference between theistic and atheistic mystics, there’s that between what I’ll call optimistic and pessimistic ones. The former promises a happy ending for all, while the latter laments the fact that our time on the stage of life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and that our grand finale is ignominious extinction along with the clueless animal species. I’ll explore here the ramifications of this latter distinction.
Optimistic Mystics

Mystics claim to have secret knowledge of the world’s unity. Buddhists, for example, say that everything is interdependent and thus united, from an enlightened perspective, whereas without that perspective, everything appears independent and that illusory disunity is the overall cause of suffering. When we recognize that what seems a highly heterogeneous world is actually united by causal and logical relations, for example, we no longer draw absolute distinctions between the self and the rest of the world, or between selves. Those apparent differences are mere illusions, and when the mystic replaces that naive perception with an experience of reality’s oneness, she feels bliss instead of disappointment, alienation, or the many other forms of suffering.

In practice, though, optimistic mysticism takes two forms, depending on whether the oneness of reality is identified with the individual ego or with the underlying state of the unconscious. In the former case, mystical monism becomes a kind of obnoxious solipsism, such as we find in feel-good, materialistic New Age ideologies. Oprah Winfrey’s cult, for example, based as it is on the alleged spiritual law of attraction, according to which we get what we most want (because our desires are like magnets that attract what complements them), is individualistic in the Western, American sense. In this comedic mysticism, reality consists of the infantile ego and its toys, all else being illusory nuisances. So the chief virtue is Ayn Randian selfishness and this pseudo-spirituality becomes propaganda in the service of the beastly economic competition that naturally produces oligarchy.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Science and the Matrix Metaphor

When the Matrix movies were at the height of their popularity some years ago, philosophers were ecstatic because those movies popularized some canonical Western philosophical ideas, reaching back to Descartes’ handling of the evil genius form of skepticism, and to Plato’s Cave metaphor. Those films also have Gnostic and other religious themes. Less well-known, I think, is that The Matrix is useful as a way of popularizing what are now becoming scientific conventions, especially in biology and cognitive science. In fact, the core idea of The Matrix, as opposed to the movie’s plot, is shown to be almost literally true by those sciences. I’ve alluded a few times in this blog to The Matrix, and so I’ll explore here the relevance of especially the first of the three movies to Rants Within the Undead God.

First, I need to summarize the movie’s premise. The movie supposes that what most people perceive of the world is actually a mass hallucination, a virtual reality constructed by anti-human, artificially intelligent machines and employed to keep most people docile so that the machines can use their dormant organic bodies for fuel. The hero, Neo, wakes up from the dream world, into the harsher reality and fights the machines, eventually sacrificing himself and rescuing his fellow liberated, enlightened allies.

Genes and Mental Models

Now, there are two scientific theories that The Matrix seems to popularize, one from biology, the other from psychology. The former is Richard Dawkins’ gene’s-eye perspective on natural selection, and the latter is the theory of the self as the brain’s model of its inner processes. To begin with Dawkins, he went as far as to resort to science fiction tropes in pushing his point that natural selection can benefit the replicators at the expense of their “vehicles” or “hosts.” On this view, that which is primarily selected by the environment is a genetic lineage, and the phenotype--with all of its physical and mental adaptations--piggybacks on the fitness of the genes, much as Ayn Rand and plutocrats maintain that relatively poor people survive and enjoy many privileges only because of the greatness of their financial superiors who create civilization in the first place.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Darwinism and Nature’s Living-Deadness

Following the principle called Occam’s Razor, scientists seek simple explanations of phenomena, meaning explanations that refer to as few theoretical entities as possible. So instead of thinking of the Earth as somehow special and separate from the rest of the universe, Newton unified the two by positing the universal force of gravity, a force that works the same everywhere. Maxwell unified magnetism, electricity, and light, showing that they’re manifestations of a single force (the electromagnetic field). And Einstein unified space, time, and gravity with his theory of spacetime. In each of these unifications, a complex way of speaking is reduced to a simpler way, and depending on the complex discourse's mix of strengths and weaknesses, the reduction may entail the elimination of that discourse’s frame of reference so that the simpler theory alone is thought to correspond to reality.   

I think Darwin’s theory of natural selection is another case of unification, but some of this theory's philosophical implications aren’t as well appreciated. What Darwin showed is that nature can do the work of an intelligent designer, in creating species of living things. Prior to Darwin, the difference between life and death was usually explained in dualistic terms: natural life derives from God who is separate from all of nature and who implants a spirit, or transcendent, immaterial essence, within certain material bodies, while nonliving matter lacks any supernatural core. Here we had an absolute distinction between life and death, much like Newton’s sharp distinction between space and time. But after Darwin, scientists no longer regard the source of an organism’s distinguishing features--its consciousness, agency, pleasures and pains--as supernatural, which is to say that Darwinian biology is monistic with respect to the difference between the living and the nonliving. Darwin’s theory of how members of a species come to possess their traits is simpler than the theistic, dualistic explanation. Instead of having to refer to two types of things, a Creator God and the created material form, we need refer only to material forms, such as the environment, genes, and simple physical bodies which reproduce themselves from one generation to the next, migrating, occupying other niches, and becoming more complex and specialized in the process.

Darwinian Life

Those repercussions of Darwinism are familiar to most educated people. But when we ask again, “What is the difference between the living and the nonliving, given the naturalistic, nontheistic theory of natural selection?” we might be surprised to learn that we’re no longer entitled to the commonsense dualism between spirit and matter. When we understand life scientifically, after Darwin, we can no longer rationally justify any talk of immaterial spiritual essences that derive from a supernatural realm inhabited by a perfect person who somehow precedes the natural universe. But if there are no immaterial spirits, what makes life metaphysically different from nonlife? Moreover, take what are intuitively thought to be nonliving things, like the environment, DNA, proteins, and chemical reactions, and take also relatively nonliving things like bacteria and viruses, which are the precursors to higher organisms. If these elements--and not some supreme living thing, like God--are responsible for the origin and the evolution of life, again, what’s the metaphysical difference between the living and the nonliving?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Subtext of the First Romney-Obama Debate

The consensus of pundit reaction to the first debate between Romney and Obama is that Romney won on “style” if not also on substance. Liberal pundits point out that Romney lied over and over again in the debate, flip-flopping or shaking his Etch A Sketch; these pundits concede, though, that while the Republican nominee was smug, condescending, and arrogant, smirking and squinting at Obama, Romney showed much more enthusiasm. Conservative pundits gloat that Romney stood toe-to-toe with the President and delivered the policy specifics that Americans allegedly requested. Obama was “professorial,” making solid, well-worn points against Romney, but with atrocious delivery: the President didn’t dumb-down or speak in punchy, pithy sound bites, and he kept looking down while writing notes instead of maintaining eye contact with his opponent, as though he were physically submitting to Romney; moreover, Obama missed all sorts of opportunities to go after Romney, to vanquish his unworthy foe, to speak the truth about the abysmal state of the Republican Party. 

Arguably, Romney had more to lose so he came better prepared in addition to having more recent debating experience--albeit with the clown car of the other Republican contenders, like Bachmann, Cain, and Perry. Obama may have been distracted by pressing political matters like Syria or Iran, he may not like debates, and he may have been coached to sit on his lead in the polls and thus to not take any chances. But as psychologist, Drew Westen, pointed out a year ago, Obama’s lack of passion throughout his time in office has been not just disappointing but baffling to liberals. While still a senator, Obama campaigned for the presidency with such fervor that Democrats thought he was the anti-Bush Messiah. In reality, it turns out that anyone with even minimal acting ability can read a teleprompter with a fiery tone; plus, most of Obama’s memorable campaign rhetoric--“Change!” and “Yes, we can!”--was amorphous. Obama wanted to restore bipartisan sanity to Washington and was rewarded with the descent of the GOP into an apocalyptic cult that brooked no compromise with the Democrats, and was bent on annihilating liberalism and ensuring that Obama was a one-term President. Republicans would vote even against legislation they themselves proposed, to deny Obama a legislative victory. 

The biggest lie Republicans now tell is that such vitriolic hatred of liberals is justified by Obama’s socialist extremism. Republican leaders have learned from cognitive science, as well as from the New Testament, that the best way to sell your policies is to couch them in opposition to a mortal enemy, to activate your minions’ fight-or-flight instinct. When Republicans distort Democratic policies, pretending that American liberals want to impose a communist dictatorship on the US, outlawing capitalism, and so forth, they not only demonize their opponents but reinforce an equally stark definition of what it means to be a Republican. This is the underlying reason why Romney was so energized in his first debate with Obama. Even though Romney is personally a moderate, pragmatic centrist, which is to say a nihilistic, Machiavellian sociopath who will say anything to get elected, he’s immersed in a miasma of Republican myths, in the so-called Fox News bubble, which inspires him to pretend that Obama has a diabolic plan to steal from hard-working, job-creating capitalists to further spoil the 47% of do-nothing moochers. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Beauty

Beauty: in the human form, the biological equivalent of a backhanded compliment.

One of the biological markers of facial beauty is averageness: those faces that stray from the human or from a racial average are considered plain or ugly, while faces that are most average are the most beautiful--and by “average,” I take it, the finding is that a beautiful face is the one whose measurements occupy middle positions and are thus average in the sense of the median rather than the mean or the mode. For example, most noses are either large or small, round or thin, whereas the beautiful nose falls somewhere in between.

Of course, there’s also a qualitative aspect of beauty, which is that the most normal face is commonly identified as the most desirable. This teleological aspect seems strongly influenced by Plato, the point being that normality reflects ideality: the most normal face, for example, stands as an exemplar of the abstract Form of the perfect face, a face that doesn’t exist in nature, like the perfect circle or the perfectly straight line; meanwhile, actual faces strive to embody that ideal, as imperfect copies. Thus, we sometimes say someone is “achingly beautiful,” and the ache is due to the reminder when we behold such a face that the whole natural order is flawed compared to a more ideal realm that taunts most of us with such blatant evidence of our deficiencies.

A similarly curious reaction to a beautiful body occurs when a male sees a curvaceous female and feels compelled to exclaim “Damn!”--short for "God damn that ass!" Often, the man who's struck by those curves is left with his eyes squinting and mouth agape from exasperation, as though he'd been punched in the gut. Why the apparent anger or frustration with such a beautiful sight? There are mundane reasons, such as the fact that seeing a woman’s extreme curves can cause a man to have an uncomfortable erection and may compel him to think, at least, of going through the time-consuming and humiliating rigmarole of wooing her. He may also be jealous of the shapely woman’s boyfriend or husband. 

But there’s a deeper reason for the oddness of any hidden hostility to beauty, which is that we dread the prospect of an alien, supernatural realm that surpasses our understanding. Whereas facial beauty is largely a matter of the face’s abundant normality, the parts of a woman’s body most likely to arouse a curiously mixed reaction from a heterosexual man, which is to say her large and round, or “phat,” buttocks, are recognized for their strangeness. The man’s reaction to a woman’s phat rear is similar to how a person would respond to the sight of an extraterrestrial creature: with shock, incomprehension, and even annoyance that the sight is so apparent even as it defies familiar categories. And so physical beauty can be otherworldly, symbolizing the limits of our understanding and thus the absurdity of our way of life from an objective or foreign perspective that transcends those limits. Thus, beauty can repel even as it attracts, like a backhanded compliment.