Monday, August 26, 2013

Daoism, Nature’s Tragedy, and the Existential Hero

The dominant religion of those living centuries from now will likely be pantheistic, because pantheism best reconciles atheism and theism and thus also our rational and irrational sides. But pantheism is actually an ancient form of religion, as exemplified by Daoism, a religion that seems understood best in relation to Confucianism. Confucius was a humanist who believed that peace can be obtained by cultivating our personal qualities. Confucianism is thus similar to ancient Greek virtue theory. But instead of “virtue,” the supreme value for Confucius is ren, a kind of love and respect for human nature. How is ren cultivated? By modifying our behaviour according to rules that allow us to express our desires within moral limits.

By contrast, Daoism is meta-ethical. Instead of engaging in debates about which social conventions best express our nature, Daoists say we should appreciate that human beings are part of much larger systems, subject to their own rhythms. There are the vast cycles of the cosmos, as explained by scientists, as well as the ineffable way of the whole of being. According to the Daoist meta-ethical perspective, the problem with Confucian humanism is that by focusing on the individual and on society, this humanism separates us from the rest of nature. Our moral rules may have the laudable purpose of helping us find peace, but Confucius offers a council of despair, the ego’s desperate strategy of dealing only with the symptoms of inner and social discord. The root of the problems of suffering and of evil is the dualism that walls us off from nature. When we lose sight of the larger dao, or ways, we live out of alignment with the wholes of which we’re parts. For example, we have excess desires which can’t be fulfilled, because they’re born of myopia. Daoism’s overall solution is wu wei, the paradoxical action without intention, a sort of simple, spontaneous, and natural going with the flow of things. Forrest Gump and the Dude from The Big Lebowski exemplify this sort of unexpected sage who lives in harmony with the world largely because he doesn’t overthink or become preoccupied with the arbitrary rules of social games.

Pantheism and Aesthetics

My main interests in Daoism are twofold. First, there’s the question of pantheism that arises from the unification of human and natural ways. Second, there’s the issue of wu wei. Beginning with pantheism, then, Daoist monism collapses the distinction between artificial rules and natural regularities, and thus both naturalizes us and humanizes the world. The big question is this: What are natural regularities, the nomic relations or patterns that are the facts of which natural laws speak? By calling these regularities ways, the Daoist compares, say, a star’s orbit to the path you might take while walking through a forest. But can something be a path if it has no destination? Suppose you start walking along a sidewalk, but the sidewalk goes on forever. Are you still on a path? Is this infinite “route” to nowhere a way at all? As we first come to understand them, paths and ways are teleological because they’re our artifacts. We bushwhack through the forest and lay down pavement to produce unmistakable pathways. So even when there’s only natural order there’s the appearance of intelligent design which invites us to engage in anthropocentric projection. Thus, it’s because there are cycles in nature, finite and contingent patterns with beginnings, middles, and ends, that we can compare natural regularities generally to ways or paths down which things journey. And where there’s the appearance of intelligent design, there’s the extended anthropocentric metaphor: not only are there ways throughout the universe, but there are natural functions, systems or mechanisms that can go right or wrong, in or out of harmony with each other. In this way, we can compare any natural system to an artifact that works according to a purpose.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

RWUG Poems on Twitter

I’ve started to use Twitter to try to convert the ideas on this blog into haiku form and I’ll try to add at least one haiku per day. I’ve added the Twitter feed to the top right of this blog. Feel free to tweet me your own haiku, blog topics you'd like to see me cover, or other RWUG-related comments. Your tweets should show up on the feed, although I think it takes a minute or so for them to appear.

Also, I've added a Contact form just below the About section on the right, in case you'd like to send me a message. 


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Humanization and Objectification: Why the World Doesn’t Speak for Itself

In the Age of Reason, we usually think objectivity is better than subjectivity. When we speak subjectively, we say more about ourselves than about anything else, telling how something makes us feel or revealing unintentionally how our bias filters our perception. Either way, subjective thinking seems self-indulgent, since we assume that few people are interested in our emotional states, that we should save our personal confessions for those who are part of our private life. By contrast, we think objectivity is a noble, eminently practical and even selfless discipline. Critical thinkers, mathematicians, and scientists are the knights of rationality, circumventing their personal preferences to understand the real world, the one that doesn’t depend on how we feel about it.

Take, for example, our taste in politics, art, or food. In these cultural areas, there are no objectively correct answers. George Lakoff, Jonathan Haidt and others have shown that liberals and conservatives have different gut reactions to moral questions. Different kinds of people prefer different things, depending on environmental pressures and people’s past experience which affects the development of their neural circuits. So when someone who prefers Thai food speaks about it, she’s expressing herself rather than talking just about the independent reality of Pad Thai. In fact, when we think objectively, we usually think the real world is value-neutral, that how things seem to us, as interpreted and filtered by our memories and moods, is an illusion. Fundamentally, the world is very different from how it seems to us when we’re mentally processing it, because we project meaning, purpose, and value onto everything—unless we’re attempting to be objective. We anthropomorphize impersonal regularities and even random fluctuations like the shapes of clouds, because we normally prefer to be social even when there’s no one else in sight.

How, though, do we learn the objective facts? We might think that objectivity is a matter of quieting the internal noise we generate, to let the real world speak for itself, as it were, as though logic and science were comparable to Buddhist meditation. But this isn’t how objectivity works. Were you to silence your inner narrative, to ignore your intuitions and dispositions, and then to look around at the world, you wouldn’t suddenly behold the mind-independent facts. On the contrary, your brain would subconsciously process information carried in light rays and in the vibration of air molecules, for example, producing the apparent world you perceive. The brain automatically transduces ambient signals into neural patterns that stand in as mental representations of the world. These representations are so interconnected that we move easily from one thought to an associated one, and are able to overlay our value-laden mental map onto the real world, which is why quieting the mind is such a challenge. Moreover, without our concepts for classifying things, we wouldn’t understand our sensations.

This was the main point of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of knowledge. We don’t deal directly with mind-independent reality, because wherever we go we carry with us ourselves and thus our filters, habits, methods, and so forth. Even objectivity is a kind of knowledge and knowledge doesn’t just fall out of the sky, but lies at the end of a mental process. There would still be a world were there no living things, but that world would differ even from how it’s objectively represented. The world doesn’t speak for itself, after all; instead, it speaks through us, regardless of whether we’re being subjective or objective.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Fourth PDF Installment of RWUG

The fourth PDF installment of this blog is now available here and also lower down on the right side of this blog, just above the Links I Like.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dialogue with R. Scott Bakker

The following is an email exchange between Scott Bakker and me that took place in response to my article Mechanists and Transcendentalists. I think this dialogue sheds much light on our agreements and disagreements about the impact of the scientific picture of human nature on our intuitive self-image. The dialogue’s quite long, but it becomes more and more focused about a third of the way in, and by the half-way point I think we each come to insights about each other’s views and how they interrelate. Note that Scott summarizes his take on the discussion here.


SCOTT BAKKER: Hey Ben. I finally had a chance to read this piece. I like the writing, but I think you mischaracterize my position in some pretty obvious ways--glaring even. Characterizing BBT as transcendental is well and fine, but then you need at the very least to consider its diagnosis of transcendentalism as a kind of cognitive illusion. The bit about the self-refuting nature of scientism really doesn't engage the position at all: nowhere do I argue that cognition is an all or nothing affair, only that where competing theoretical claims are concerned, TI [theoretical incompetence] requires we defer to science, no matter how painful that might be. Now if you had an argument against TI, that would be something, but you don't (and how could you, short of turning all of cognitive psychology on its ear convincingly?). The fact that I'm trapped talking out of my ass as much as you or anyone else I'm perfectly okay with. I'm a skeptical naturalist after all! This means saying that BBT is a speculative theory isn't saying anything really, and it makes the equivocation of 'speculation' with 'philosophy,' well, hinky. BBT is no more or less speculative than any other unconfirmed scientific theory. And like any scientific theory, it can be read as 'presupposing' x, y, and z--what have you. The real question is, So what? Hume's problem of induction, for instance, is no more a problem for BBT than it is for Darwinian Evolution. More specifically, so long as the question of metacognitive accuracy is one that can be answered empirically, I'm not sure how you're doing anything more than stomping your foot by declaring it 'philosophical.' It seems to me that Darwinian Evolution is even more 'philosophical' than BBT by your lights, given that there is a good deal that it supposes that cannot be empirically resolved one way or another. By the same token, it explains a myriad of phenomena that are absolutely mysterious otherwise--like BBT. 

Saying that BBT remains speculative is simply saying it awaits scientific arbitration. Given this, why should BBT's consilience with TI do anything other than count in its favour? As I say over and over, with BBT at least things will get empirically sorted. Your argument only makes sense if you think TI rules out all speculation as absolutely errant or that BBT lies beyond the pale of empirical arbitration. The first simply misrepresents my views. The latter requires some kind of substantial argument, which you do not give.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Art of New Age Myths

After the secularization of modern societies, Westerners increasingly lost confidence in their traditional religious institutions, but they still wanted answers to their existential questions. They became seekers and sought answers in both ancient and Eastern traditions, deemed heretical or blasphemous by the Church, and in modern science. So began the New Age movement over the last couple of centuries, in which modernists combined mystical or esoteric teachings with contemporary scientific formulations so that they could be unashamed of their spirituality.

You can find numerous New Age gurus on YouTube. For example, with their mellifluous delivery, the young and beautiful MaNithya Sudevi (20,000 subscribers) and Teal Scott, called the Spiritual Catalyst (45,000 subscribers), teach all manner of radical contentions. Sudevi says she’s a starseed, an alien being in a human body sent to Earth to enlighten us about the nature of reality. She speaks of the power of crop circles, of the harm that fluoride does to the third eye, and so forth. Scott applies the New Age cosmology to practical questions of whether we should worry, whether happiness is selfish, or how to manifest money.

The New Thought Fiction

Here’s the basic New Age cosmology, as far as I can tell. God or Source energy is the fundamental reality. God created a world in she could lose herself in projections, in beings who are misled into believing that they’re merely material, alienated individuals. Matter isn’t a domain of impersonal spatial and temporal dimensions but is a machine that serves God’s purpose of teaching her projections about their true, divine identity. That is, God wants to know herself, but to do this, she has to fragment and delude herself to test whether she can regain her self-awareness. One such delusion amounts to philosophical naturalism, the worldview in which mindless matter is fundamental, we’re merely individual animals that evolved accidentally, and there is no God or perfect self that unites all things and guarantees a happy outcome for us.

The truth, according to New Thought proponents, is that material things are projections of our thoughts, so that we create our reality by means of the law of vibrations or attraction. Depending on our vibratory frequency, we attract certain experiences that match us and repel those that don’t. We can co-create experiences if we have similar vibrations, but each person as a projection of Source energy literally lives in his or her own world. As Teal Scott says, physical reality is a mirror hologram that reflects our thoughts. Instead of a multiverse based on quantum fluctuations, we have an ideational multiverse based on the frequencies that distinguish us as unenlightened individuals, or individuals who don’t yet fully identify with God. For example, as Scott says in the last cited video, when a murder happens, both the murderer and the murdered person create the act in that they’re vibratory matches to it. Or to take another example, when we worry, we ironically bring about the dreaded event, because we focus our mind on it and thus attract that which matches our vibration.

This worldview is an eclectic mix of mystical ideas from Hinduism and of scientific concepts, like the concepts of a natural law and of a quantum mechanical vibration. Curiously, gurus like these two women display absolute confidence that their worldview is correct and they seem to pity naturalists and traditional theists for not waking up to the truth. A new atheist would respond by going line by line through their metaphysical doctrines and showing that they’re illogical and contradicted by science. But this would be a mug’s game. New Age is a religious movement and New Thought is a collection of myths, not arguments or scientific theories. To the extent that speakers like Teal Scott maintain that their worldview is factual, empirical, and logical, they too are mistaken and are bound to be disappointed. As a challenger to naturalism on philosophical or scientific grounds, New Thought is glaringly inadequate. For starters, New Thought is unfalsifiable; New Age gurus have an answer for everything because they’re free to reinterpret their teachings at will or to add or subtract from them, and their terminology is metaphorical rather than quantified. For example, Sudevi was influenced by a Hindu sect which critics called a cult, but then she came under the influence of a Catholic priest and so she added some Christian theology about Christ consciousness to her New Age synthesis. Is Christianity consistent with Hinduism? Of course--when you’re free to ignore parts of the religions. And were Teal Scott to take her talk of vibrations to an actual quantum physicist, the physicist would toast her over an open fire, as it were; the pwnage would be epic. But were the physicist to think that refuting New Thought on those grounds is scientifically useful, she would have badly missed the point.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mechanists and Transcendentalists, Kant we all just get along?

Scott Bakker’s article, Necessary Magic, is a trenchant rejoinder to my article, Scientism and the Artistic Side of Knowledge, (SASK). In the following response, I’ll try to clarify some of the relevant issues in our discussion and then I’ll address the central points of disagreement. As indicated by this article’s title, I think that, a scientistic interpretation of cognitive science notwithstanding, BBT’s mechanistic self-image is consistent with a transcendental interpretation of how we appear to ourselves through introspection. We are not factually what our intuitions say we are, but that matters most to those who assume a scientistic conception of knowledge. If we act as good mechanists and ask what the intuitive self-image is efficient at doing, we should be led to agree with Scott when he says that that self-image is a lie. So we’re good at lying to ourselves and indeed we’re naturally built to do just that, perhaps because we can’t stomach the natural facts. We retreat to the matrix of illusions, as it were, and because scientists are bent on discovering the underlying facts, we could use a strategy for heroically dealing with both perspectives, since both seem inevitable for machines like us. That’s where aesthetic, ethical, and existential standards can come into play, and so I think Scott’s project and the philosophy I call existential cosmicism are largely harmonious.

Scientism and Transcendentalism

Now, then, to the preliminaries. SASK was motivated by the debate between Scott and Terence Blake. Blake contrasted scientism with pluralism, and I was interested in how far the scientistic line can be pushed, so that’s why I wrote about scientism in the context of BBT. But is BBT scientistic or not? “Scientism” has a nonpejorative core meaning, but also pejorative connotations. According to the core definition, scientism is the belief that the sciences are the only disciplines that supply us with knowledge. Scott says that “humans are theoretically incompetent, and that science is the one institutional prosthetic that clearly affords them some competence.” This seems scientistic in the core sense, although he also says that true claims can “drift about” in nonscientific philosophy. So if “scientism” is tweaked to mean that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, Scott’s view is scientistic, for whatever that nonpejorative characterization is worth.

The reason the word is usually read as pejorative, though, is that philosophers have reached some consensus that scientism refutes itself. After all, scientism is a philosophical rather than a scientific proposition. Just ask yourself, then, whether the claim that science is the only reliable source of knowledge is itself reliable. If not, we needn’t trust that all knowledge comes from the sciences, and if so, we have the paradox of knowledge that comes reliably from a nonscientific discipline (philosophy). Either way, scientism is unstable. So is BBT scientistic in this pejorative sense? This raises the issue of presuppositions which is perhaps my main point of disagreement with BBT.