Thursday, February 28, 2013

Second PDF Installment of RWUG

For those who prefer to read in PDF format, here's the second PDF installment of this blog, hosted on Scribd. This installment and the following ones will also be available somewhere on the right side of this blog.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Kazantzakis and The Saviours of God

Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek philosopher and author of Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. Some readers of this blog alerted me to the fact that he also wrote a sort of epic prose-poetic rant that’s on the same wavelength as the philosophy/religion I’m exploring here and similar in particular to a summary of this blog I wrote, called The Rant Within the Undead God. Kazantzakis’s epic rant is called The Saviours of God (SG). After reading it, I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between our views. What follows are some of my thoughts on that text, so fair warning: this commentary contains spoilers. If you haven’t yet read SG, you might want to do so before reading this article. And if you do read it, I found that the second half, beginning with the section, The Vision, is the more important one. But the whole piece is full of rich, idiosyncratic and darkly poetic imagery so I do recommend all of it.

The Saviours of God

Kazantzakis poetic rant is about life, the universe, and everything. It’s just the sort of writing that I most prefer: it’s inspired, which is to say that it reads like the author was possessed when he wrote it. The writing seems to flow directly from the unconscious, bypassing the ego censor and tapping into deep truths. This is how I try to write in this blog’s rants and it’s why I call them rants, although I try to mix more argumentation with the poetic or comedic tangents. The ideal would be to produce a piece of writing that reads like it was written by an alien force, by some transcendent power from the future that gets to the heart of the matter, blasting past all obfuscation, social games, and politically correct conventions. In other words, the goal is to read or to write prophetic, religious scripture, a text so powerful that people wrongly idolize it and invent myths to explain its origin. What’s called divine revelation in textual form is just an inspired work of rhetorical art, nothing more. But the fun of consuming or of producing this art is that you feel swept away, like your blinders are torn off and you catch a glimpse of the code behind the matrix. That’s what I aim for and SG feels inspired to me. As Kazantzakis himself says,
You shall never be able to establish in words that you live in ecstasy. But struggle unceasingly to establish it in words. Battle with myths, with comparisons, with allegories, with rare and common words, with exclamations and rhymes, to embody it in flesh, to transfix it! 
God, the Great Ecstatic, works in the same way. He speaks and struggles to speak in every way He can, with seas and with fires, with colors, with wings, with horns, with claws, with constellations and butterflies, that he may establish His ecstasy.
SG takes the form of a prophet’s plea to change our conception of God so that we can live better. Kazantzakis assumes there’s a difference between the esoteric and the exoteric, between the unknowable mystical truth and the mere masks of God. And Kazantzakis’s vision of divinity is quite peculiar. It reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. Whereas the mainstream monotheistic idea is that God is a flawless person, Kazantzakis says that God is imperfect, that he’s a vagabond who struggles between two eternally opposing forces, one pulling him down into entropy and lifelessness and the other raising him up to freedom.
My own body, and all the visible world, all heaven and earth, are the gravestone which God is struggling to heave upward…God struggles in every thing, his hands flung upward toward the light. What light? Beyond and above every thing!...
God cries to my heart: "Save me!"
God cries to men, to animals, to plants, to matter: "Save me!"
Listen to your heart and follow him. Shatter your body and awake: We are all one…
So may the enterprise of the Universe, for an ephemeral moment, for as long as you are alive, become your own enterprise. This, Comrades, is our new Decalogue.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Is the Devil a Hero?

The fictional character Satan is a rebel against God. In mainstream religions, the devil is the personification of evil, but these religions have a dubious understanding of the deity. Our best idea of what God would be like is that God would be rendered insane by his uniqueness, isolation, and perfect knowledge; that he'd be spiritually lifeless due to his immortality and corrupted by his omnipotence. In short, as far as we could tell, the monotheistic God’s character would be that of an infantile tyrant. Rebellion against such a God would be existentially obligatory and tragically heroic, but the mythical rebel Satan has, of course, been demonized because the conventional myths serve a questionable political function as well as the theological one of explaining away evil.

Theodicy and Dominance Hierarchy

Whether you think God made us or we made God, our conception of God is taken from our experience of more familiar things and thus that conception is analogical. We’re most familiar with ourselves and with our social structures. Biology imparts one of those structures: the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, in which those who are genetically fittest symbolically dominate the weaker members of the group to stabilize the group and to avoid what Hobbes called the war of all against all. In our species, this natural hierarchy produces monarchs, plutocrats, kleptocrats, or oligarchs at the top who enjoy godlike power that no one is equipped to handle. Thus, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, according to which the larger the group, the more the group can be efficiently managed only by concentrating power, should be combined with Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts. And so we’ve always had models for the ruler of the universe, namely the human rulers of our societies.  

There’s been, therefore, an ambiguity in theistic myths, since these myths can be told from the ruler’s perspective (the 1%) or from that of the ruled (the 99%). If we add to the above axioms the aphorism that history is written by the winners, we needn’t be surprised to learn that the most popular myths implicitly legitimate our power inequalities. Whether a myth is written or edited directly by the rulers, their underlings, or those trying to ingratiate themselves and fit into the society, the myth becomes conventional only if it serves the biological imperative of preserving relative social stability. Thus, the image of God in monotheistic religions, for example, is of a tyrant who we’re nonetheless supposed not just to tolerate but to love. In the Jewish and Islamic scriptures, God is obsessed with promulgating a moral code that enslaves us to him. Rebelling against God’s laws is punished by hellfire; after all, in the supernatural social order, God is stronger than we are and so for what are actually biological reasons, we should know our place and bow to our master, allowing God to peck us at will. In short, there’s apparently the interdimensional version of the dominance hierarchy, which we project onto the possible relationship between nature and something that transcends our comprehension, and that version justifies the more local, purely human inequalities. 

Then there are the subversive myths, such as the original form of Buddhism and Gnosticism or authentic Christianity, as well as various mystical traditions in Islam, Judaism, and in many other great religions. Christianity was originally a religion for losers, but some of its leaders sold out Jesus’ teachings for worldly power, reinterpreting or editing out Jesus’s uncompromising anti-naturalism, and scapegoating the Jews to let the Romans off the hook for executing Jesus. The Christian Bible came to consist of books that allowed Christianity to survive because they made peace with the natural order and the prevalence of dominance hierarchies, whether the rulers were Romans, Spaniards, Britons, or Americans. But the point is that a myth that projects the idea of a dominance hierarchy onto the relation between our world and a supernatural one can be told from the perspective of those who are poorly served by that arrangement and who are thus open to rebelling against both human society and God’s plan.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Medal for Cowardice

As of mid-February, 2013, the US military is honouring drone pilots with the Distinguished Warfare Medal, for their “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but do not involve acts of valor or physical risks that combat entails.” As this article points out, the new medal is more prestigious than the Bronze Medal or the Purple Heart, meaning that someone who sits in an air conditioned basement playing the equivalent of a video game can receive a higher honour than someone who risks his life as a soldier in the field, getting shot at by the enemy.

A spokesman for a US veterans group called the decision to honour drone pilots in this way “boneheaded.” I think this adjective is unintentionally revealing. What’s boneheaded about Leon Panetta’s decision to award the medal is that it indicates the extent to which a leader of a decadent military, whose fighting is done for the soldiers more and more by machines, comes to think himself more like a machine. 
My explanation of why the US military would praise drone warfare follows from what I've said elsewhere. In a decadent society, actual courage and other martial virtues mean less, because human life itself is trivialized by the population’s high-tech environment. People lose in their competition with machines. For example, many manufacturing jobs are currently being lost. And guns and drones kill more efficiently than swords. Assuming efficiency is your greatest concern, because you’re a postmodern liberal who’s lost faith in your Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom and rationalist utopia, and so you’ve been reduced to a nihilistic, pragmatic systems manager, you’ll be in favour of winning wars regardless of the moral cost to your society. You’ll think less of old school martial virtues and you’ll scientistically assume that heroism can be measured. Because drone strikes are more precise, because they kill the enemy without endangering friendly soldiers, because drones are relatively cheap to produce--for those utilitarian, Philistine reasons, you’ll really think that drone pilots are heroic. Your notion of heroism will have thus been warped by the environment you’ve been stewing in. You’ll mistake decadence and mere usefulness for heroism. The cowardly act of killing with impunity, with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety, will be honoured with a medal as though the act were an “extraordinary achievement.” This is Orwellian and our first task should be to appreciate the dark humour in it. 

[Note: this post was added as a PostScript to The Vileness of Guns and of Just Wars.] 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Medium Articles

The following is a clickable reading list that maps out this blog’s more recent articles, the ones I've been posting on Medium, and this list will be updated as I add new ones. I’ve tried to arrange the readings in a logical order so that the more general, central, or background readings come before the others in each category. The older articles can be found here.


Monday, February 11, 2013

Introversion and the Esoteric

People are evenly split between introverts and extroverts and yet for various reasons, some societies marginalize either personality type. Psychologists tell us how those personality types differ, but I think we inevitably interpret those findings from our philosophical and religious perspectives. After laying out the psychological distinction, based on psychologist Laurie Helgoe’s article, Revenge of the Introvert, I delve into some philosophical and religious interpretations.

Introverts vs Extroverts

In Revenge of the Introvert, Helgoe explains the psychological differences between introverts and extroverts, and speaks to the conflicts that can arise between someone of either personality type and her society, depending on whether that society is friendlier to one type or the other. Part of her introduction summarizes her article, which I’ll quote here:

“Although there is no precise dividing line, there are plenty of introverts around. It's just that perceptual biases lead us all to overestimate the number of extraverts among us (they are noisier and hog the spotlight). Often confused with shyness, introversion does not imply social reticence or discomfort. Rather than being averse to social engagement, introverts become overwhelmed by too much of it, which explains why the introvert is ready to leave a party after an hour and the extravert gains steam as the night goes on.

“Scientists now know that, while introverts have no special advantage in intelligence, they do seem to process more information than others in any given situation. To digest it, they do best in quiet environments, interacting one on one. Further, their brains are less dependent on external stimuli and rewards to feel good.

“As a result, introverts are not driven to seek big hits of positive emotional arousal--they'd rather find meaning than bliss--making them relatively immune to the search for happiness that permeates contemporary American culture. In fact, the cultural emphasis on happiness may actually threaten their mental health. As American life becomes increasingly competitive and aggressive, to say nothing of blindingly fast, the pressures to produce on demand, be a team player, and make snap decisions cut introverts off from their inner power source, leaving them stressed and depleted. Introverts today face one overarching challenge--not to feel like misfits in their own culture.”

So introversion isn’t the same as shyness. The shy person wants more social interaction but lacks the knowhow, whereas the introvert isn’t even interested in that interaction. As Helgoe’s headline says, “introverts would rather be entertained by what’s going on in their heads than by seeking happiness.” Introverts prefer thinking to action. Science shows that the introvert cognitively processes more of what she perceives than does the extrovert, and so the introvert needs time and silence to think about that deeper experience. The introvert has “a preference for solitude, reflection, internal exploration of ideas vs. active engagement and pursuit of rewards in the external/social world.” Scientists theorize “that given their higher level of brain activity and reactivity, introverts limit input from the environment in order to maintain an optimal level of arousal. Extraverts, on the other hand, seek out external stimulation to get their brain juices flowing.” The extrovert doesn’t analyze her thoughts as much as the introvert, and so is stimulated more by what’s going on in her environment; in fact, the extrovert has larger “brain structures responsible for sensitivity to rewards,” and so seeks out external stimulation to satisfy her need for social validation. By contrast, “Introverts are collectors of thoughts, and solitude is where the collection is curated and rearranged to make sense of the present and future.”

Monday, February 4, 2013

Islam and the Secret of Monotheism

The major Western religions are monotheistic, at least in principle, but in both theory and practice Islam is the world’s purest form of monotheism. However, I believe monotheists keep a secret about their God from others and also from themselves. They worship one supreme God, or at least they claim they do, but they don’t think through the psychological implications of any theology that holds as axiomatic God’s oneness and supremacy. Most monotheists, then, find themselves exotericists, meaning that their understanding of monotheistic teachings is superficial. The esoteric meaning of monotheism, which I’ve laid out elsewhere (see here and here), was unraveled by a German philosopher, Philipp Mainlander, and by Gnostics before him. The inner meaning of monotheistic religions is mostly forgotten, ignored, or misunderstood, because when you put the implications into words you can’t help but thereby say the worst thing that can ever be communicated. The secret of monotheism is darker than a black hole; it’s blacker than black, the worst, most depressing thing you can imagine, and for that reason we should test our mettle and our reserves of creativity, by conceiving of ways of sublimating the horror stirred up by this secret. Even if there is no God, atheists can benefit, in the Nietzschean manner, from contemplating monotheism as a challenging work of fiction.

In what follows, though, I’d like to test my hypothesis, if you will, by analyzing the basic distinguishing features of Islam, since if any religion offers clues that monotheists generally repress the meaning of the idea that there’s just one God, that religion is Islam. I’ll summarize first the forgotten secret, then the basics of Islam, and then I’ll show how Islam whispers the secret to those heroic or twisted enough to want to hear it.

The Dark Secret

Monotheism is the idea that if there are many gods or at least impersonal forces, one god reigns over them all and this is the only god worth worshipping. This god is The God, and because this supreme deity stands alone, God transcends our comprehension. For example, since God isn’t part of any society or lineage, having no parents, children, or lovers, God is neither male nor female. God is the creator and sustainer of all natural kinds and thus is supernatural. So far, monotheism is consistent with the sort of mysticism that in turn is consistent with atheism. Where monotheists depart from mysticism, and where they construct an exoteric worldview that allows most people to live happily, albeit with existential inauthenticity, is by nevertheless personalizing and idealizing this transcendent source of everything we can know. Thus, God is supposed to be good, mighty, wise, just, and merciful. The familiar contradictions follow, and these have been laid bare by skeptics at least as far back as Xenophanes.

But the secret of monotheism isn’t that this idea of God is incoherent. No, the secret is that if we accept the idea that this transcendent source of nature is somehow personal, or at least best thought of by us as such, and we apply some rudimentary psychological analysis of any person in that divine position, the finding must be that God is the most horrible monster and that the main theme of monotheism is one of destruction, not creation. You can read a sketch of the analysis through the above links, but the gist is that an almighty God would become corrupted by his concentration of power as well insane by his isolation. The upshot is that if we entertain monotheism, we’re thinking of a tyrant that hopefully would have destroyed himself--perhaps precisely by turning himself into the natural universe and so “creating” it--even if by doing so this God would have doomed us all to our existential predicament.