Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Staring Into the Abyss: The Cultist, Silver Surfer, and Court Jester

We instinctively fear the unknown and the alien. The ancient way of coping with the world’s palpable indifference to our hopes and dreams was to personalize natural forces, to think of the world as a society of spirits who are only hidden from view, like dear friends who have gone off to foreign lands but with whom we can still keep in touch (with prayer or animal sacrifices). The world became one big family and no one was left homeless, kicked to the curb as an alienated and demoralized outsider. Instead of having to be horrified by the world’s strangeness, we extended our delusions about our personhood onto the manifestly impersonal world, and so instead of looking natural reality in the face, we surrounded ourselves with distorting funhouse mirrors. There were no more alien forces, because fellow people were everywhere! See that lightning strike? That was a sign of Zeus’s fury. Here that volcano? That was bubbling from the underground abode of the dead.

Modern science came along and shattered those mirrors. Descartes captured the urgency of the moment when he distinguished between the outer and the inner worlds, and thus between the horrifying impersonality of matter and the comforting familiarity of the ego. Modern egoism itself, though, has come undone in our postmodern limbo, and so now we’re unknown even to ourselves. Our spirits have fled us in our unbelief. Not only is the universe far too large and alien to be anyone’s home (not even a sociopathic plutocrat’s), but we’re no longer even like snails with their portable shelters. We’re alienated from our bodies, as scientists naturalize more and more of us. We too are just mammals, evolved machines obeying natural laws, which are really not laws at all, but alien rhythms of the undead god’s decay.

When cognitive scientists come to master the brain within the next few decades, the disenchantment will be complete and our homunculi will be banished from our carapaces. The world will be only a monstrosity of interlocking shells, of former homes of shiny, happy spirits holding hands, now known to be undead machines, some of which have control mechanisms and even the capacity for false hope for escape from the grotesque corpse of nature. We cynical and selfish dupes replace the theist’s longing for the spirit world to show itself in the afterlife, with the technoscientific civilization’s re-engineering of the wilderness. We wield our second-order machines to infuse our values and other delusions into the original skeletons that dance all around us to the Halloween doom metal which is the music of the spheres, recreating natural processes in our hallucinated image. Thus are we sophisticated postmodernists still arcane animators of the undead.

Here, then, are three Western portrayals of this relationship between the self and the terrifying impersonality of the disenchanted world. These portrayals aren’t exhaustive, but perhaps they’re instructive.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Ironies of Political and Economic Freedoms

Democracy and capitalism are both about freedom, right? In a democracy, the majority controls its government by electing or casting out the politicians with its votes, while in a capitalistic economy, people are free to buy and sell almost whatever they like. So you’d expect a modern, free-thinking society to be both democratic and capitalistic. And yet it turns out that these two systems foster very different kinds of freedom, and liberals and conservatives are divided in their defenses of them.

The conflict between democracy and capitalism is well-known. In a democracy, everyone has only one vote per election. This way of establishing a government is inspired by the Enlightenment ideal that people who control themselves by thinking rationally thereby earn for themselves equal rights. The Scientific Revolution gave rise to the classic liberal idea of freedom, which is the idea of autonomy: in so far as people are self-aware and rational, we liberate ourselves from certain natural forces, controlling our emotions and instincts and thus choosing how we want to act. That freedom gives all people equal dignity and the same human rights. That’s why in a democracy every rational person deserves a vote, but only one vote per election. Instead of needing a monarch or an upper class of elites to dictate how lower classes should live, rational people are all sovereign over themselves and so they can and should govern themselves through their elected representatives.

Although the modern philosophical roots of democracy are secular and largely science-inspired, the assumption being that democracy and science are both progressive, democratic egalitarianism hearkens back to the ancient religious dream of a supernatural kingdom of God. For example, Jesus is said to have used shocking hyperbole to reverse expectations, proclaiming that the first would be last and the last would be first, that the poor will inherit the earth. The point was that despite manifest natural inequalities between social classes, races, and genders, supernatural forces would reshape everything on Judgment Day and everyone with religious faith would be welcome in the new order that would reflect spiritual truths rather than natural illusions. Although some would go to heaven and others to hell, this premodern worldview assumes that everyone is equal in their freedom to choose either path or else in their inability to save themselves. Modernists naturalized those religious ideals, replacing faith with reason, supernatural spirit with rational self-control, and God’s sovereignty with democracy. God apparently wasn’t returning to Earth so fast, so we’d have to build utopia by ourselves. Thus, science-centered rationalism, democratic self-governance, and equal rights were the modern reboots of ideologies deriving from the spiritual revolutionaries of the Axial Age.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Scientism and the Artistic Side of Knowledge

Here are the first few paragraphs of an article of mine on scientism in the narrow sense, which you can read in full on R. Scott Bakker's blog (through the above link). The article gets into the aesthetic aspect of knowledge and the horrors of scientific progress.


How should someone who accepts the scientific picture think of the relation between the arts and the sciences? By “scientific picture” I mean the content of scientific theories, of course, but also the scientific methods of explanation and the questions that can be answered by those methods. One option, which I’ll call “scientism,” is to say that scientific explanations are the only stories worth telling, that if a statement can’t be tested or translated into precise, mathematical language, the statement should have no part in our view of what’s real. I’ll call a defender of scientism a scientific absolutist, since this defender says the scientific picture of reality is complete in that it exhausts everything we should say about the world; plus, “scientific imperialist,” which is sometimes used here, is pejorative and “scientist” is taken. Scientism is opposed to what I’ll call “pluralism,” to the view that scientific methods aren’t the only worthwhile ways of talking about the real world.

Is Scientism Coherent?

There’s some reason to think that scientism isn’t a stable option, after all. The question is how exactly the scientistic thesis should be formulated. Let’s assume, for example, that the scientific picture includes Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory or at least some theory in cognitive science that fulfills our worst fear about the conflict between what scientists say we are and what we intuitively, traditionally assume we are. In particular, let’s assume that the folk ideas of meaning and values are incompatible with science. That is to say, symbols don’t relate to the world in the way we naively think they do and nothing is really good or bad. On the contrary, let’s assume that cognitive scientists will soon be able to explain precisely how these folk illusions arise, in terms of biochemical processes. And we can even assume, then, that that knowledge will be disseminated in the business community, enabling the elites to exploit those processes as far as the law will allow. Just as scientists have no need of the God hypothesis, there will be no scientific reason to speak of the meaning of symbols, the truth of statements, or the value of anything. These folk ways of speaking will be deflated. To be sure, they might persist, just as there are still theists long after the dawn of the Age of Reason, but the folk concepts won’t add to the scientific picture of reality, they’ll make no sense within that picture, and they’ll be undercut by the scientific explanation of their appearance.

Notice that were the scientific way of speaking of the folk concepts to presuppose those concepts, scientism would undercut itself more than anything else. By “presuppose” here I mean to assume as part of scientism’s story of what’s going on. A scientific absolutist can grant that so-called meanings and values exist (as well as consciousness, freewill, and the other elements of the folk view of us), but the absolutist can’t endorse the folk way of speaking of these things. (In philosophy of language jargon, the absolutist can grant the extension but not the intension of “meaning,” “value,” and so on, which is to say that she can grant that those words apply to something, without subscribing to the way those words picture that thing.) So instead of saying that a symbol’s meaning is its representational relationship to what the symbol’s about, the absolutist might say that that relationship is an illusion caused by the brain’s ability only to caricature its real, neurological processes when the brain resorts to intuition or to any discourse that posits something other than a field of causally interacting material bodies.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Clash of the Atheists

The word “atheism” was originally like “barbarian,” “gringo,” “gaijin,” or other such labels for types of foreigners. “Atheism” was defined negatively by certain religious people to mark some group as not belonging to that religion. Thus, the early Christians were called atheists by the Romans and then Christians called pagans unbelievers. As the well-known new atheist Richard Dawkins has noted, “atheism” is a peculiar term since there aren’t similar names in circulation for many other sorts of outsiders, such as “agoblinists,” meaning those who lack belief in goblins, or “aliberals” meaning those who fail to be liberal. Clearly, this is because “atheism” was originally a pejorative label that meant asymmetric opposition to a certain powerful force within nearly all societies. There’s no powerful institution that takes the existence of goblins for granted and so there’s no need for “agoblinism,” and although there are opponents of liberalism, such as conservatives, their opposition isn’t asymmetric, because conservatism is just as powerful an ideology. After the modern revolutions in Europe, however, opponents of religion in general earned cultural credit and so “atheism” lost its pejorative connotations. Only in special cases within the last century or so, such as during the Cold War when Americans spoke of communists as “godless,” has the lack of theistic belief been assumed to be bad. The conventional definition is value-neutral and so whereas a foreigner to Japan wouldn’t proudly call himself a gaijin, atheists have taken over their disparaging label. But confusion remains, because “atheism” still doesn’t identify what anyone actually believes; the label means merely the lack of belief in gods or in the supernatural.

Atheistic Subcultures

If we ask what the positive ideology of atheists is, we find there are some interesting divisions between atheistic subcultures. First, there’s the tradition of skepticism, going back to Voltaire, David Hume and even to the ancient Greeks, but which is now fuelled more by hacker culture, libertarianism, and the internet. Atheists like Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette, and the YouTube stars known as The Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t are atheistic only in passing. More positively, they’re debunkers on all fronts, zealously opposing any trace of irrationality since they fear the mob mentality. They subscribe to the modern ideal of the critical thinker who earns her freedom by using her rational power as a defense against attempts to manipulate her with fallacious rhetoric and pressure tactics. For the modern critical thinker, freedom is autonomy, the ability to choose how to act due to your control over the contents of your mind. Self-awareness, logic, and the pragmatic pruning of your concepts to match the real world are the tools that carve out your independent self in the first place. Rationality thus liberates you from your instincts and from the natural forces that make you a mere animal. The skeptic’s moral task, then, is to doubt all statements until she’s assured that they’re well-supported by evidence and logic. This moral imperative of skepticism derives from the libertarian (classic liberal) link between freedom and rationality, which was forged during the Enlightenment by the early modern humanists.

There’s another aspect of current skepticism, though, which is a technological one. After all, the internet is a boon to anyone who feels duty-bound to check and to double-check facts, to learn about every topic under the sun, to err as little as possible, because the internet contains all the information in the world at the touch of a button. If the equivalent of a snake oil salesman badgers a skeptic on a street corner, the skeptic can whip out her handheld computer, search the salesman’s name and commiserate with others in a chat room, sharing each other’s doubts and findings of fact. The libertarian wants freedom of information and this is what the internet is supposed to achieve. Of course, the internet can spread nonsense and demagoguery as easily as it can the light of reason, but skeptics choose to wield this weapon to challenge all claims and all systems. Not just ancient religions fall by the wayside, but so too do conspiracy theories, paranormal claims, tribal superstitions, urban legends, and even conventions of political correctness. 

This last barrier to rational self-control, the political imposition of codes of conduct on the libertarian skeptic, puts the skeptical atheist at odds with what I’ll call the postmodern liberal humanist. According to the latter sort of atheist, the skeptic’s rationalism is rather retro, since scientists from Darwin to Freud and from Einstein to Heisenberg to the mathematician Kurt Gödel have shown that the dream of perfect rationality is misplaced. We are animals, after all, and the modern myth that we transcend natural forces is comparable to ancient religious conceits. We’ve entered a postmodern period in which we must cope with moral relativism and with the historicity and value-ladenness of everything we say. Whereas libertarianism looks back to early modern liberalism, postmodern liberalism is an academic game in which the liberal employs the old-school humanistic rhetoric without being able to religiously commit to the modern faith in social progress through the work of individuals who’ve been liberated by their knowledge.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Hidden Divide between Conservatives and Liberals

The internet showers us with information and because we fear the unknown, we try to string together as many pieces of information as possible to form meaningful patterns. Thus, conspiratorial thinking is rampant on the internet. Instead of thinking critically about our glut of data, we may resort to imagining the most entertaining fictions to tie up the loose ends. One popular conspiracy theory is that the political division between the right and the left is a sham, because there’s some third group, some amoral, even superhuman elite that secretly rules modern societies, bent on establishing a totalitarian world order. But the various speculations about how such a minority controls the world shouldn’t interest us as much as the sense many people have that something is fishy about the way the mainstream media present the split between conservatives and liberals--especially in the US where there are only the two official parties. The consensus narratives about how the two sides of the political spectrum differ on policy questions are caricatures, at best. It’s worth examining, then, a couple of those narratives, to get at the real, hidden political differences in modern democracies.

Tradition and Progress
If you were asked how you think the Western media portray the political differences, you might say that conservatives defend tradition while liberals are progressive in that they embrace the new and deride traditions as dogmas and delusions. You can see from this distinction how the American culture war rhetoric emerges. From the conservative viewpoint, conservatives are the real, patriotic Americans and liberals are elitist, decadent traitors. The assumption here is that nationalism requires faith in the myths and ideals that are foundational to your country, so while a conservative can meaningfully swear allegiance to the flag, since she conserves precisely some traditions made up of just such myths or ideals, the restless liberal has no faith in anything but is always looking forward to the next frontier. The conservative has a moral code, while the liberal is ambivalent about the values needed for morality; to compensate and to keep the peace, the liberal merely obeys the politically correct rules that serve special interests. Meanwhile, from the liberal viewpoint, the liberal lives in the reality-based world while the conservative is mired in the past, wallowing in fantasies about how the world works. The liberal’s the hero, not the flag-waving conservative, since the former struggles to live in the real world while the latter is shamelessly opposed to reason.

So much for the caricatures, but where did the distinction between tradition and progress come from and what’s at the root of it? In the classic sense, “liberalism” is pretty much synonymous with “European modernism.” Skepticism about tradition and optimism about progress are defining features of early modernity, beginning with Renaissance humanism and continuing with the Protestant Reformation, which set the individual at odds with the Catholic institution; the Scientific Revolution, which overthrew the Thomistic synthesis of Aristotle’s worldview and the Bible; the American and French Revolutions which fulfilled Enlightenment ideals and established democracy and capitalism as the official expressions of the new faith in the sovereign individual; and ending in the Enlightenment’s science-centered, positivistic philosophy which set the stage for the postmodern period in which The Simpsons and Jon Stewart, for example, mock the Western culture that’s the fruit of all of that progress.

Early modern conservatives, that is, the monarchists and aristocrats were defending medieval traditions that were dashed by classic liberals who proclaimed the equal rights of every person. Now, in the medieval period, conservatism was genuinely heroic, because the choice was to have faith in tradition or to suffer the chaos left after the fall of the Roman Empire. But then a new world order emerged, thanks to the historical events just listed. The feudal lords were no longer needed as protectors, since advances in technology and in exploration were producing a globalized world in which the majority could make their own way as merchants and free workers, as opposed to living as serfs. Individualism became the rallying cry, and what made the individual special was his freedom, meaning his ability to choose how to act based on his rational, conscious control of himself. Eventually, this rationalistic appreciation of the worth of the sovereign individual was expanded to cover not just white males, but women and people of other races, such as African-Americans.