Monday, September 30, 2013

Mythopoesis and the Consolation of Technology

Before the forerunners of modern science and objectivity, in ancient Greek philosophy and Eastern naturalism, there was mythopoeic thought. This was a very different way of understanding the world, some principles of which we can glean from the ancient myths. “Mythopoeia” means myth-making, and in modern times the word was picked up by J.R.R. Tolkein, who was interested in the myths that express the distinctive forms of thinking associated with each language and historical offshoot. Tolkein famously fleshed out the British worldview with his hobbit mythos. In the 1940s, the Egyptologist Henri Frankfort and his wife applied this word “mythopoeic” in their case for the thesis that the ancients had a distinctive, non-modern mode of cognition.

As far as I can tell from the Frankforts’ The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, they don’t subscribe to the Enlightenment conceit that history proceeds in progressive stages; that is, although they speak of a development from mythopoeic thought to modernism, they don’t assume that ancient cognition is inferior to the modern kind or that the former can be understood only with reference to what came afterward. When we modernists do congratulate ourselves in that fashion, we see ancient myths as just botched attempts at scientific explanation. Auguste Comte, for example, is explicit about the teleological assumptions of this progressive theory of history. No, in line with the 20th C. postmodern denunciation of modernist overreach, anthropologists came to insist on cultural relativism and on the merit of studying civilizations with a minimum of cultural bias. Whether anthropological objectivity is possible is another matter, but Frankfort et al, Ernst Cassirer, Clifford Geertz and others aimed to describe how foreign cultures work, by laying bare the internal coherence of those cultures.

Phenomenology and the Logic of Myths

Here I’d like to critique the Frankforts’ fascinating discussion of the development of mythopoeic cognition. What, then, distinguishes the ancient, non-modern way of understanding the world? According to the Frankforts, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians (Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Akkadians) had little interest in explaining things in the modern sense, although they had some conceptions of logic and of empirical reasoning. The ancients experienced the world holistically, meaning that they didn’t distinguish subject from object. As the Frankforts put it, borrowing from Martin Buber, the ancients experienced the world as a Thou, not as an It. The Frankforts distinguish this from animism, if the animist is understood as someone who personifies inanimate things by imagining spirits being injected into lifeless matter, since there was no process by which the ancients dissolved any such dualism; they just experienced events as extensions of their mind, just as they experienced themselves as extensions of the world’s volitional forces, gods, and other spirits.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"God Decays" is coming!

I've just uploaded my first novel, God Decays, to Amazon's CreateSpace printer. In a day or so I'll order a copy to check how it prints and after that it will go up for sale! If you enjoy my writing on this blog, you haven't seen anything yet. I'm very proud of this novel and it's only the first of a projected four-volume (minimum) series of novels. The series begins with my philosophical, action-packed take on the zombie post-apocalypse, and then it will get into some fantasy and science fiction. Check out the attached version of the first book's cover. And here's the book's description.



At the end of history, our epilogue will be epic

But first we'll be dethroned within the animal kingdom and left to rot...yet not to die

Howard Rhodes, an NSA cryptanalyst, engineered the zombie apocalypse. So said the President of the United States in his shocking final address to the nation, which served as the nation's epitaph. Four years later, the old world is in ruins and is stalked by the living dead. Some of the survivors keep journals to record their travails in the hope that their lives still matter.

There's Jenna, a sardonic loner who is forced to care for others; Douglas, a young boy who wants to see the world outside his bomb shelter and make his dead mother proud; an old vagabond who has made his peace with the harsh truths he learned living in the margins of society; Thaddeus, a family may who will nevertheless do anything to see what comes after humanity; Hernando, who sees the dark humor in the new world; and Eric, Hernando's mentally ill neighbor in Richmond, VA, who yearns for an adventure to shake up his routine and who just might know where to find the world's most profound secret, hidden in the bowels of NSA headquarters, a secret from another star, the secret of why the world ended...of why God decays.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Why is Canada So Boring?

If you’re an American, here’s a mystery for you: there’s a good chance you’re bored to tears when you hear that Canada is often ranked a better place to live than the US. For example, in the 2013 OECD Better Life Index, Canada ranks third while the US ranks sixth in quality of life; according to the 2013 UN Human Development Index, Canada ranks thirteenth and the US sixteenth when the results are adjusted for inequality; in a 2006 study, the US was found to have the ninth lowest social mobility among nine developed countries, while Canada was among the four countries with the highest social mobility; and for five years in a row, Canada topped the WEC’s ranking of countries’ banking systems, which helps explain why Canada withstood the 2008 housing market crash better than most developed countries.

There are many reasons Americans may have not to take such rankings seriously. National pride explains why you would prefer not to hear about how some foreign country is in some ways preferable to yours. Also, many Americans distrust the global institutions that run these studies. In any case, the US scores higher than Canada in certain areas, so the studies might be thought to cancel each other out. Moreover, a militarily superpowerful country like the US might be expected to brush off praise of much weaker countries like Canada. Also, Canada depends on the US for trade, since most of Canada’s exports go south across the border, so the US helps support Canada.

But the mystery remains why there’s not just skepticism here, but sleep-inducing boredom and why Canada specifically is felt to be so boring. After all, numerous European countries also typically score higher than the US in these sorts of studies, but they don’t have a reputation for being so dull. Indeed, this reputation precedes Canadians wherever they might travel around the world. If you Google “Canada boring country,” you get 17 million hits. In fact, there’s a global meme that Canada is, hands down, the world’s dullest country. If the name “Canada” is heard any place in the world, there’s a good chance listeners will yawn or offer some excuse to leave, whereas if “United States” is uttered, people will gather around, raise their voice and shake their fists. So why is the world so bored with Canada? And does this reaction prevent countries like the US from emulating Canada in certain respects or does it at least ensure that Americans won’t appeal to Canada as an example when they discuss their social issues?

Modern and Postmodern Liberalism

A number of reasons for the boredom come to mind. Canada is relatively safe and peaceful, and so Canada doesn’t often make international headlines, because the media prefer stories about conflict. So Canada is less famous than the US and not just because the US is home to the world’s most powerful entertainment industry. Canada is also a relatively young country whose history is less eventful than the American one. Also, much of Canada is snowy and that restricts options for outdoor activities. But the reason for Canada’s reputation that intrigues me is a political one, which has to do with the country’s relatively liberal values.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Nihilism and the Re-enchantment of Nature: A Reply to Scott Bakker

I’d like to thank Scott for his article, Man the Meaning-Faker, in which he analyzes my views and lays out more of his take on Brassier’s way around science-centered nihilism. The more you write on a topic, the more you can benefit from someone else’s formulation of your ideas, so that you can look at them from a different angle. For the most part, Scott has very well represented my viewpoint in his analysis, although there are a few important points that he misses. I’ll concentrate on those, largely by way of elaborating on what I had in mind in my article on Brassier’s nihilism.

Science as a Constraint on Meaning

Scott rightly says that on my view, science constrains meaning. In part at least, irresponsible faith is indeed when we trust in stories that make us vulnerable by merely deluding us. By contrast, science enlightens and empowers us, although as Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice poem illustrates, there’s such a thing as having too much power. Anyway, Scott wonders how science can constrain meaning when the two are incompatible. How, he asks, can science “constrain something it simply cannot cognize as real in any manner we find intuitively recognizable?”

To answer, I have to point out that I wouldn’t say science is the only constraint. Aesthetics (good taste) is another. So what makes some faith irresponsible isn’t necessarily just the falseness of the story; it could also be dereliction of our aesthetic obligation to avoid clichés. Scott observes that there can be a variety of original meanings, including insane or evil ones, so the newness of creations won’t suffice as a worthwhile standard. There’s certainly a big problem here of how to squeeze ethics out of aesthetics, but the relevant point is that I needn’t rely just on science to do the job. Indeed, science would explain both natural and artificial parts of the world as equally meaningless, since science objectifies, dehumanizes, and disenchants. So it’s not science exactly that constrains our creations, but the harsh facts themselves; necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. As the messenger that shows us the world’s physicality and undeadness, science is only indirectly a constraint.

This constraint begins with a yearning: we feel we must regain the comfort level we had in our ancient mythopoeic days, when our ancestors had no objective conception of nature, but perceived everything in the world as flush with personality. Our response to the loss of that childlike sense of wonder is to do away with nature’s undeadness, to transform the facts of the wilderness into artificial environments which literally embody our ideals. We make manifest the so-called manifest image, by creating vessels for our presumed subjectivity, in the form of our artifacts which extend our body and realize the ideal mind as it’s naively conceived, along with our other fantasies. So science and natural facts limit our creation of meaning, in that our artifacts must succeed in keeping up our spirits in light of the threat of nihilism from the modern worldview. Our fictions shouldn’t merely paper over nature’s meaninglessness, since one of their apparent evolutionary purposes is to allow us to live well despite the knowledge that makes for our existential predicament.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Scott Bakker on "Brassier's Nihilism and the Creation of Meaning"

Scott Bakker has written an article called Man the Meaning-Faker in response to my article on Brassier’s Nihilism. Scott challenges both Brassier’s and my explanations of how meaning comes into the world that’s scientifically revealed to be meaningless. I’ve already begun writing my rejoinder!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Comedy of Theism

The phenomenon of Western monotheism over the last couple of centuries belongs in a Twilight Zone episode. Few seem to appreciate the depth of absurdity in the persistence of exoteric theism after the Age of Reason, because those that do are faced with the real prospect of going mad. The danger isn’t just that outsiders in the minority may naturally feel more anxious and lonely; the threat, rather, is that the ongoing popularity of preposterous theistic beliefs is the rearing of nature’s ugly head, an appalling demonstration of the world’s tendency to unfold in bizarre ways. The strangeness of ordinary monotheistic beliefs and behaviour should humble the rest of us.

Beatniks, hippies, punks, goths, potheads, and other overt rebels against society were never the truly subversive ones; no, those who should be arrested on sight for threatening our sanity and our confidence in our freedom to rationally and creatively transcend our animal nature are ironically those credited as being the most normal: the secularized Jews, Christians, and Muslims who attend their religious ceremonies, watch pandering or self-righteous televangelists, smugly close their eyes in prayer, and shake their heads and mutter “Tsk, Tsk” when thinking of the dire supernatural fate of nonbelievers; who send their children to Hebrew school to keep alive fantasies of how Jews lived in the ancient past, as though the Jewish scriptures weren’t garbled appropriations of Babylonian and Sumerian myths, and as if Hebrew or the noble lie that laws derive ultimately from God means anything to materialistic and pragmatic secular Western Jews; who lack the courage to admit that Islam’s emphasis on submission to God played into the last century’s abysmal history of the Muslim world in which the majorities were conned into submitting instead to brutal dictators that ran their countries into the ground; who indoctrinate their young with religious toys and cartoons about Noah and Jesus; who talk casually about how they speak to God, how they walk with the Lord Jesus as though God’s voice would be a comfort rather than a mind-shattering alien blast of transformative data from another realm and as if the Gnostic and Essene Jesus wouldn’t personally behead 85% of extant Christians for their effrontery in claiming to be his followers; who proclaim that the Bible is different from everything else in the universe because that library is God’s Word, as though God wouldn’t be indirectly responsible for absolutely everything in Creation and as though God would have a mouth to speak or hands to write; who talk nonchalantly about miracles, as if the suspension of natural law weren’t the most terrifying prospect imaginable, and who boast that Christian or Muslim dogmas are supremely rational, as though these ingrates don’t hypocritically enjoy the material benefits of secularism and naturalistic technoscience and as if their creeds differ significantly from the ten thousand others they themselves dismiss out of hand; who walk around pretending to be serious, civilized adults, sitting in their offices or strapping on their high-heels, using three-syllable words as though the centerpiece of their belief system weren’t equivalent to a kindergartener’s chaotic finger painting, and as if they don’t falsify every idealistic word of their scriptures when they copulate like animals, taking care to keep the lights off so they can pretend their unseen bodies aren’t getting the better of them; who in fact betray their religious principles at every turn, rationalizing their worldly ambitions and double-talking their way out of conceding that their religion’s foundational prophecies are manifestly false. Yes, these average Western citizens are the true hooligans, because their inanities are hardships on the nontheistic outsiders who must square off against hostile nature not only without the protection of fantastic delusions, but with the extra burden of being alienated from their species. In this respect, as in several others, Western cultures are flat-out Kafkaesque.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Brassier’s Nihilism and the Creation of Meaning

Ray Brassier is associated with the speculative realist movement in continental philosophy, the movement being a reaction against what Meillassoux calls “correlationism,” in After Finitude. Kant was an Enlightenment philosopher who found a way of condemning dogmatic, anti-scientific thinking while leaving room for philosophy and for religious faith. He did this by making the relation between mind and the rest of the world foundational in his worldview. For the Kantian, mind and world are interdependent: the world we perceive is preconditioned by our ways of understanding it, that is, by the innate cognitive faculties we bring to bear, and in so far as the mind is this cognitive system, it requires input from something outside itself, obtained by the senses. On this transcendental basis, Kant could say that all knowledge, whether empirical or necessary, has objective (universal) and subjective aspects. Science deals with the real world, but only in so far as things in themselves are humanized, as it were, and philosophy deals with the epistemic grounds of that humanization. Meanwhile, religion and morality are preserved, because they have to do with the world as it is prior to our mental processing of it, and reason must be agnostic about that hidden dimension of all things.

Speculative realists think the subjective aspect of this Kantian compromise between science and religion has been disastrous for continental philosophy, beginning with Hegel and continuing with Husserl, Heidegger and the postmodern relativists and antirealists whom many think now give philosophy a bad name. The realist denies that the relation between mind and world is fundamental; instead, the world of objects that science explains is at the base of everything and minds must answer to that world. We know the things in themselves, not just shadows we project onto them due to our methods of understanding. Now, it’s hard to see how philosophy remains relevant, given this realism about objective things in-themselves. In short, there seems no need for speculation (in “speculative realism”) if everything is objective and scientists and mathematicians have their hands full investigating the nature of all objects, including ourselves or at least our bodies, social systems, and everything else that can be objectified.

Meaning versus Truth

Well, Brassier ends his book, Nihil Unbound, by saying that philosophy ought to be “the organon of extinction” (“organon” means an instrument of thought). What Brassier does, you see, is draw out the nihilistic implications of this realism about objects, which is to say more broadly, this philosophical naturalism. In an interview in which he summarizes his view, Brassier says he’s a nihilist because meaning (purpose or value) is opposed to truth and he sides with truth. The more we know, the more meaning seems unreal. By contrast, he says, Nietzsche saves meaning by denying there’s any truth. When people claim to know the facts, they’re only trying to empower themselves, says Nietzsche. Truth claims are manipulations of people with words. Thus, after the death of God, it’s up to us to cherry pick the fictions that serve us best for psychological, ethical, or aesthetic reasons.

You might think it’s obvious that Nietzsche’s antirealism about truth is incoherent, since he presupposes his truths about the prevalence of power games, about God’s nonexistence, and so on. But Nietzsche’s view is subtler than this would suggest. He called himself a perspectivist; he adopts different ways of looking at an issue, without committing to belief in any truth. Moreover, he’s a great literary stylist and aphorist, not a systematic thinker, so I think his writings were intended as quasi-fictions, not as straightforward theories. Thus, when he talks about power, manliness, and so on, his remarks should be read as hypothetical. Nietzsche creates fictional worlds and explores their implications, rather than trying to confirm his writings correspond to reality. In short, Nietzsche is interested more in the existential or ethical coherence of a modern or postmodern perspective than in the empirical or necessary truth of his propositions.