Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Horror for the Codes of Creation

Optimists and pessimists about the Digital Age are usually practical in their praises and fears of computers and the internet. We’re looking at either the potential for more technological wonders, for more creative endeavours and for greater control over our lives or else an emerging apocalypse, the end of life as we’ve known it and perhaps the conquering of our kind by our machines and totalitarian systems. There’s much to be said about the benefits and risks of digital technology, but we should also consider the existential revulsion for our virtual worlds. We’re amazed at the preliminary stages towards what many hope will be the Star Trek holodeck, these stages including computer animation, 3D movies, holograms, and virtual reality, and we’re addicted to the internet and to our handheld devices with their thousands of apps for every conceivable whim.

And yet there’s a philosophical cost of knowing that computers exist. During the Industrial Revolution, mass production already humiliated artists and craftsmen and depersonalized their creations, since not only did machines take over the role of production, if not yet that of design, but they showed that art and handiwork can be systematically copied, leaving only negligible differences between the copies. Implicit in mass production was the seed of digitization: the algorithm or recipe for generating inevitable effects by the taking of simple steps. (Rube Goldberg famously depicted the logic of mass production in cartoon form.) To live in the virtual world, then, the fruits of our imagination must be digitized, which means our pictures, songs, games, novels, and other such creations must be converted into the binary code of ones and zeroes. This is like saying that the price of entering heaven is that first you’ve got to be dead. Most people aren’t properly horrified by this conversion because of the magical aura surrounding high technology which steeps its users in blissful ignorance.

The revelation that’s nevertheless becoming harder to deny has crept up on us over millennia, ever since our ancestors indulged in artistic reproductions. There were warnings, as in Plato’s Republic, which condemns the falseness of art and the folly of producing mere copies within material copies of abstract reality. There are the legends that native cultures believe that a photograph of a person steals the person’s soul. But from the ancient cave paintings of animals and sculptures of voluptuous women, to the orally recited poems and mythical tales, to the written word and the Renaissance flowering of art in Europe, artists have nevertheless translated experience into other forms. The animals which our nomadic ancestors hunted became smudges of charcoal and of other pigments on a dark cave wall. The outpouring of the gods’ wrath in thunderstorms or diseases became tales of woe which were both venerated as scriptures but which also robbed the gods of some of their power, by allowing worshippers to manipulate the texts and the prayers like voodoo dolls. The essence of the gods itself was thought to be captured in a shrine or a statue which likewise trapped the dread supernatural forces and empowered the elders who knew the incantations to mesmerize them. As paintings became more and more realistic, the illusion of reality in the artistic rendering was uncanny long before computers, because you could always walk up to the painting and marvel at the brush strokes that somehow added up to the image of a building, a tree, or a person.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Atheistic Morality Despite Life’s Absurdity

In his debate on whether God is necessary for morality, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig argues that for the naturalistic atheist, human life must ultimately be insignificant, because in the end the natural universe would destroy itself and all living things would die. Thus, morality must be illusory and so that atheist should be prudent rather than altruistic. By contrast, theism implies that human life and morality are fundamental to the real world, since they would depend on God, and the spirits of moral individuals would be united with God for eternity. Craig’s opponent, Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan, retorts that the question of whether our life is cosmically or ultimately important is irrelevant. Our values and duties can be objectively meaningful, he says, even if we’re not important in the grand scheme of things. Kagan asks Craig why we should think that objective meaning must be on a cosmic scale if it’s to amount to anything at all. Even if in the end everything winds up being the same, say in the heat death of the universe, both the atoms that produced Hitler and Gandhi, what we do on our way to that final destination can have real, if limited importance—and Kagan adds that this importance needn’t be merely subjective or illusory. The importance of our choices and experiences can be real even if that importance isn’t cosmic or everlasting; moreover, the reasons to be moral can be objective even if those reasons won’t affect the outcome of the entire universe. Kagan says that if you save a human life, the moral significance of that action isn’t diminished one iota by the fact that our sun will eventually explode and destroy our planet. (See the beginning of Kagan’s interrogation of Craig, starting at around 53:20 in the YouTube video of their debate).

As usual, Craig tries to reduce naturalistic atheism to its most extreme form. He thinks atheism implies nihilism or at least subversive existentialism, but because Craig’s only using the dark atheistic argument about our status in the cosmic scale as a means to his Christian end, he doesn’t seem to understand this argument and so he doesn’t deal effectively with Kagan’s objection. At one point, Craig says in exasperation that he just doesn’t understand why Kagan can’t see that all our deeds become trivial in light of the cosmic doom that awaits us all (see 1 hour and 15 min. into the debate). Now, I actually agree with Craig and disagree with Kagan regarding the question of whether we should be concerned about our cosmic insignificance. We should be so concerned. I also disagree with Craig, though, because I think atheistic morality becomes worthy precisely when that morality deals well with our cosmic insignificance.

The Relevance of Our Cosmic Irrelevance

Here’s how Craig should have explained to Kagan the relevance of our cosmic doom. For the naturalistic atheist, there’s a conflict between natural and social processes. Metaphysically, she thinks all processes are natural, of course, but in our daily lives we prefer to live in society, not in the wilderness. Scientists want to understand how nature works so that we can prevent nature from intruding on society. We want to predict or control the weather, to tame or eliminate wild animals, to combat diseases, and so on. We prefer our artificial, social worlds made up of human relationships and technological luxuries, because we matter in those human-made bubbles. In fact, in society we’re of central importance; everything in society points to us, because society is filled with artifacts whose functions are designed by people to serve people. Perhaps we’ve always been vainly anthropocentric for as long as we’ve been self-aware, and we satisfy our infantile urge to be at the center of the universe, by building our artificial worlds within the natural world.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

William Lane Craig's Christian Philosophy: A Tale of Exploitation and Betrayal

For centuries European intellectuals were Christians as a matter of course, because the Catholic Church replaced the imperial Roman army as the unifying social force in that part of the world, and whereas ancient Rome was polytheistic, the Church was nominally monotheistic. Then the Protestant Reformation shook up the Church’s cultural monopoly, the Scientific Revolution eliminated the Church’s mystique, and Renaissance individualism and the colonization of North America paved the way for the transferring of political and economic power from the Christian theocrats to the merchants, the middle class, and the voters. In Western intellectual circles, Christians have been on the run since David Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Feuerbach, and other Enlightenment thinkers demolished the rational basis for Christian belief, while scientists like Darwin, Freud, and Einstein continued the non-Christian march of scientific progress.

But a funny thing happened in the last few decades in the United States: a Christian invasion of the atheistic stronghold of academic philosophy. In spite of the New Atheist’s counterattack against the religious fundamentalist’s backlash against modernity, atheists no longer have their way even in formal debates that test the merits of opposing sides in a dramatic format which should nevertheless offer no advantage to theists. As Nathan Schneider reports, William Lane Craig, the philosopher, professional Christian debater, and organizer of the Christian resurgence in American philosophy, holds his own against Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and numerous other top atheist thinkers. Indeed, Craig often appears to win those debates! Schneider lays out Craig’s modus operandi:
In the opening statement he pummels the opponent with five or so concise arguments—for instance, the origins of the universe, the basis of morality, the testimony of religious experience, and perhaps an addendum of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Over the course of the rebuttals he makes sure to respond to every point that the opponent has brought up, which usually sends the opponent off on a series of tangents. Then, at the end, he reminds the audience how many of his arguments stated at the outset the opponent couldn't manage to address, much less refute. He declares himself and his message the winner. Onlookers can't help agreeing.
But how is such a feat possible? In light of the modern historical developments I’ve summarized, why shouldn’t any hapless proponent of Christianity in the 21st century be forced to run for the hills? Granted, formal debates require some stagecraft and other extraneous skills. Nevertheless, how could a Christian stand any chance of coming off as a respecter of rational norms, let alone be capable of beating skeptics and atheists at their game? Is some miracle afoot? Have Christians been right all along and skeptics were just too proud to appreciate the evidence that lay right in front of them? Schneider ventures a justification, if not an explanation: Christian philosophers like Craig, J.P. Moreland, and Alvin Plantinga are doing what Socratic philosophers are supposed to be doing, which is to cater to the public. As Schneider puts it,
Philosophy was never supposed to be a narrow discipline, fortified from the argumentative swells of the agora by specialization and merely professional ambitions. That was for the Sophists whom Socrates regaled against. Philosophy was supposed to serve the polis, to educate and embolden its young, to raise up leaders. Whether one likes their preconceived conclusions or not, today it is evangelical Christians, with William Lane Craig in the lead, who are doing so better than just about anyone else.
This isn’t so convincing, though, because Western philosophical elitism goes back at least as far as Plato’s distinction between the philosopher king and the Nocturnal Council, on the one hand, and the noble lies for the masses on the other. As Leo Strauss explains, philosophical questionings tend to be socially subversive, which is why Socrates was executed, and so those who prefer knowledge to happiness wisely hide their doubts, withdrawing into the Ivory Tower and feeding the masses pablum to encourage them to keep working hard to support the elites, who have more refined tastes. Whether Christian philosophers now fulfill the esoteric or the exoteric functions of Socratic philosophy, or whether Christianity is true or just useful, is one of the questions at issue here. Moreover, Craig in particular is closer to a Sophist than a Socratic philosopher, because he’s a professional debater who needs to rely on rhetoric and salesmanship, which can come at the expense of intellectual honesty.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Authenticity and the Cost of Self-Creation

“Know thyself,” said the ancient Oracle of Delphi. Most of the world’s major religions and esoteric traditions teach that wisdom and happiness require self-knowledge. For example, Gnostic Christianity, which taught that Jesus Christ is a symbol of everyone’s potential for godhood, not a literal, single person who alone became posthuman, agrees with the Hindu and Jain teaching that the inner self is divine, that Atman equals Brahman, that the God who controls the world lies within. Now in the last century, Western philosophers abased themselves before science, turning philosophy into the pseudoscientific analysis of concepts, rushing to get their hosannas in before the start of postmodernity would make their scientism embarrassingly naïve and self-sacrificial. Science-centered, “analytic” philosophy became highly academic and so irrelevant to the masses that turned to social scientists and to charlatans in the self-help and New Age movements, for direction in their practical affairs. Postmodern philosophers now dance on the moribund body of analytic philosophy, celebrating the infantile freedom of artistic self-expression that’s left to those who lack any rules for intellectual discourse. But the World Wars united our species in a vision of human-made hell. The Western philosophical school that took that experience to heart was existentialism and that school echoes the ancient imperative to know yourself. The fruit of existential self-knowledge is personal authenticity.

However, the philosopher Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, a psychoanalyst, write in the NY Times that the ethic of authenticity has become an egocentric search for happiness through consumption and work. As they say,
a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith--and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.
More specifically, “The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!”

Self-Discovery as Self-Creation

Critchley and Webster imply that the ethic of authenticity itself is dangerous and ought to be abandoned. However degraded the connotations of “personal authenticity” may now be, though, I think the distinction between authenticity and its opposite is ethically crucial. So what’s the distinction? I’ll leave aside here the technical discussions among existential philosophers. The word “authentic” derives from the Greek “authent” in “authentikos,” meaning original, primary, or literally one who does things himself (auto + hentes = self-doer). The ethical distinction, then, is between the self-doer and the passive self to whom things are done. And the point about self-knowledge is that your inner self can be born only after you discover what you are. If you’re ignorant of your true identity, your self lies dormant while other forces direct your life. In naturalistic philosophy, as opposed to the ancient theism of the world’s religions, you liberate yourself with self-knowledge, because the thought patterns you establish in your endeavour to know yourself set up the mental feedback loops that produce a more self-controlling agent in the first place. The cognitive process of self-discovery is really one of self-creation, and what you discover is largely your power of creativity. Without philosophical self-reflection or empirical knowledge of where we stand in the world, we’re less self-aware and more like animals than people in an ethical sense.