Thursday, February 27, 2014

Answer to Sam Harris's Moral Landscape Challenge

At the start of his website’s FAQ for the Challenge, Sam Harris summarizes what he calls his book’s central argument. That summary is clearly invalid: he slides from the assumption that moral values “depend on” facts having to do with conscious creatures, to the conclusion that morality itself has scientific answers. This is like saying that because land-dwelling animals depend on ground beneath their feet, biology reduces to geology.

As for the implicit argument in The Moral Landscape, as I interpret it, that argument is also flawed. Harris thinks that because morality has to do with the facts of how to make conscious creatures well, and these facts are empirical, there’s a possible science of morality. Putting aside the question of what exactly counts as science, let’s consider whether any kind of reasoning tells us what’s moral. Take, for example, instrumental reason, the efficient tailoring of means to ends. If we want to maximize well-being and we think carefully about how to achieve that goal, we can, of course, help to achieve it. Is that all there is to morality? No, because instrumental reason—as it’s posited in economics, for example—is neutral about the preferences. This kind of rationality takes our goals for granted and evaluates only the means of achieving them. So we can be as rational as we like in this sense and the question will remain whether our goals are morally best.

Russell Blackford makes the same point and Harris replies that a utopia in which well-being is maximized is possible, and so if a bad person’s preferences stand in the way of realizing that perfect society, we might as well change that person’s way of thinking, even by rewiring his brain. Presumably, we could do that—just as we could turn an altruist into a psychopath. Reason alone doesn’t tell us which would be the superior person, so Harris’s response here merely begs the question.

For another example of reasoning, take the basic scientific aim of telling us the probable facts, through observation and testing of hypotheses. Conceivably, scientific methods could uncover facts of how Harris’s utopia would work and they might even lay out a roadmap for how to perfect our current societies. As Harris says, some present societies might be better than others, given the ideal of maximizing well-being. If empirical reasoning could tell us that much, would that answer the central moral questions?

No, because as Harris admits, science wouldn’t thereby show that the maximization of well-being is factually the best ideal. Rather, a science of morality would presuppose that utilitarian ideal as being self-evident, just as medicine presupposes the goal of making people healthy, as Harris says. This analogy is flawed, though, because doctors can fall back on the biological functions of our organs, whereas moral aims needn’t be the same as what we’re naturally selected to do. Medical doctors try to make our bodies function in the way that maximizes our species’ fitness to carry our genes. Note how much harder it is to explain what counts as mental health. This is because the question of which mind is ideal is partly a normative one, and science apparently doesn’t address it.

So is our well-being self-evidently what we all ought to pursue? No, for at least two reasons. First, we may not deserve to be happy or we may be obligated to suffer because too much well-being would be unseemly in the indifferent universe that we have no hope of altering. This is roughly the point of the Christian doctrine of original sin—which may be neither here nor there for secularists, but this doctrine also reflects the ancient Eastern religions’ pessimism about natural life. Instead of trying to be happy, says the Hindu or Buddhist, we should ideally resign ourselves to having a detached and alienated perspective until we can escape the prison of nature with honour. Robert Nozick makes a similar point with his Happiness Machine thought experiment: living in a computer simulation might maximize well-being in terms of our conscious states, but people tend to feel that that narrow flourishing would be undignified, under the circumstances.

Second, “well-being” is a vacuous placeholder that must be filled by our personal choice of a more specific ideal. Harris says otherwise, because he thinks his Good Life and Bad Life illustrations point us in the direction of the relevant facts. But notice that his heroine leading the good life is on a slippery slope to suffering in the way that Oskar Schindler suffers at the end of Spielberg’s movie. “I could have done more,” Schindler says in horror. The fact is that the more empathetic we feel, the more we must personally suffer because in that case we must suffer on behalf of many others. So a world in which we prefer to maximize collective well-being is simultaneously (and ironically) one that maximizes individual suffering, and that’s so even though many people would come to our aid in such a world. A selfless person can’t accept aid or even compliments that could just as well go to other, more needy folks. Indeed, those with altruistic motives intentionally sacrifice their personal well-being, because they care more about others than themselves.

Thus, in so far as the ideal of well-being includes the goal of personal contentment, this ideal is opposed to the moral one of altruism, of maximizing (other) people’s happiness. Which goal is preferable isn’t up to pure reason of any kind. Rather, as with all our core values, we must ultimately take a leap of faith that our personal stamp is worth putting on the world. And in so far as so-called rationalists would presuppose Harris’s utilitarian ideal, they’d clash with pessimists, existentialists, world-weary misanthropes, melancholy artists, esoteric Hindus, Buddhists, and the like. Moreover, in light of how extroverted Western norms have tended to become more global, not reason but force and a crass lowering of standards would likely settle the matter.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Debate with YouTube Antinatalist, Inmendham

This written response to Inmendham's (INM's) aborted response to my video "Nihilism or Transcendence?" will finish up my exchange with himfor the time being, at least. Here's his video:

And here's my point-by-point reply, written in note form (the times given from the video are approximate):

1:00 INM: Living things are merely machines competing to replicate the DNA molecule; that’s our natural function; BC: that is what animals tend to do, at some level of explanation, but there’s nothing objectively right or wrong about that function; this is why INM’s anthropomorphic game metaphor is misleading; in any case, humans are clearly unlike other animals in that we’ve gained more self-control so that we’ve partially transcended that primitive function; INM commits the genetic fallacy when he reduces all human behaviour to its evolutionary origin in some primitive function; “magic” isn’t needed for this transcendence, since natural forces and systems plainly add levels to themselves through evolution and complexification; INM fails to understand the implications of nature’s evident creativity

1:30 INM: some animals are also conscious and so they feel pleasure and pain and the ratio of those mental states is unfair; BC: here INM commits the naturalistic fallacy, since he hasn’t shown that pleasure and pain are really good or bad; his reductionistic naturalism implies only that animals subjectively care about their pleasure and pain, but that’s just another natural fact that has no normative implications; what INM needs is a normative axiom or principle that isn’t identical to any statement of mere fact, but that would be tantamount to conceding my point about how nature transcends itself—in this case by adding a normative dimension to the factual one

2:20 INM: BC says life is worth living, but he has the “right” to say that only because he’s an “arrogant optimist”; BC: INM hasn’t shown how anything in nature is right or wrong, so his talk of anyone having the right to do anything is vacuous, as far as his worldview is concerned; until he comprehends how nature transcends itself, thus falsifying his reductionism, his moralistic naturalism will be incoherent and he won’t be logically entitled to his AN (i.e. to his condemnation of procreation)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fame and the Comedy of False Gods

Before the objective mode of inquiry became a systematic method in the modern age, during the Scientific Revolution, thanks especially to Isaac Newton, science was one with philosophy and so even the less fanciful cosmologies, such as those of ancient Greece, India, or China, were speculative and visionary. For example, the Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus put forward an argument for atomism based on philosophical reasoning which was more logical than the folk religions that posited personal deities, but which still expressed what Kant would have called our subjective, albeit universal cognitive forms. In any case, philosophical reasoning isn’t the polar opposite of the sort of exoteric irrationality that you find in folk or mass religions. This is because philosophy is partly a matter of interpretive art. As Spengler says in the introduction to The Decline of the West, “the great questions are made great by the very fact that unequivocal answers to them are so passionately demanded, so that it is as life-symbols only that they possess significance” (XV, vol.1). However, after the Scientific Revolution and the modern technological transformation of much of the planet, the choice between the systematic assimilation of cold, hard facts and the subjective imposition of our biases onto those facts has been made all the more stark. Thus, those who are informed about the modern world, who understand that the reasons for such sweeping technological advances are the near-automation and mass production of objective knowledge, inevitably judge the theistic alternative as archaic and childish by comparison. Scientific understanding of nature is a booming business, whereas theistic religion seems more like a giant con.

The Sin of Anthropocentrism

What, then, is the root folly of theism? I believe it’s anthropocentrism. We’re most familiar with ourselves and so when we try to understand something foreign we do so by stretching our experience and using our self-image as the foundation for analogies, almost as if we were looking in a mirror. We do this both individually and collectively, and when our species as a whole contemplates the apparently inhuman universe, we’re faced with the fact that expanding our minds to encompass a thoroughly impersonal world is as disconcerting as the thought of our personal death. In either case, we come up against the limit of ourselves, whereas we’re social beings and thus we’re most comfortable in social worlds that revolve around us. In Breaking the Spell, the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains how our innate skill in explaining each other’s behaviour in psychological and social terms is overextended in theism or in animism, when we personify all natural processes. But the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes saw the same absurdity long ago, pointing out that if cattle or horses or lions had gods, they would worship gods that look like them. This is the essence of anthropocentrism. What begins as an evolutionary advantage and as a sustainable way of life for social mammals is abused when the mammals learn to control themselves with language and reason, so that they experiment freely with their traits and are then mesmerized by their fictions.

Theists turn this around and say that the similarity between us and our gods is due to the fact that the gods create us in their image and implant in us the ability to worship them for our benefit. However, Occam’s razor compels us to discount this hypothesis. In the atheistic scenario, we begin with our social instincts and we reason that those instincts can be abused, leading to anthropomorphic metaphors that beguile us as they’re literalized over time. In the theistic scenario, by contrast, an all-powerful, transcendent and thus nonhuman deity presumably could create a great variety of creatures, but decides to create people that are somehow especially similar to him, making them God’s children. Putting aside the incoherence of assuming that God is both transcendent and yet especially similar to part of his creation, the theistic scenario is much less probable, because we begin with God’s ability to create anything at all and are left with the coincidence that we resemble God in our sentience and rationality. If God could have created anything, why didn’t he create only things that are utterly unlike him? If we say that God created us because he’s generous or because he wanted to be loved, we’re just reaffirming the coincidence since we assume that God had such human qualities in the first place. The fact is that a transcendent and all-powerful being would have absolutely nothing in common with any part of “his” creation, in which case theism is tantamount to atheistic mysticism. Such a deity might create an infinite variety of things, none of which would have a special connection to God. But when the theist contends that God is partial to us, she assumes that which is very unlikely, which is that we happen to be the part of the entire universe which is (somehow, impossibly) godlike. The simpler scenario is that vain and terrified primates looked out at the alien and hostile cosmos and personified its ultimate cause to feel less alienated.   

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Morality, Living Art, and the Undead Muse

Moderns who are heirs to the science-centered way of looking at the world sometimes find themselves wringing their hands about the lack of morality without God. Nietzsche feared that after the masses came to lose the need for God, modern societies would become nihilistic. More recently, liberal New Atheists assure agnostics and moderate theists that there’s no such threat, that we can just lay aside the irrational beliefs in God, divine revelation, and miracles and get on with enjoying our life. Christian apologists like William Lane Craig argue that morality logically depends on theistic beliefs: atheists can be moral, but their goodness will be irrational and gratuitous, as far as their philosophical assumptions are concerned. Were there no God, as Dostoevsky said, everything would be permitted, so we would be smart to care more about ourselves than others and to pursue our narrow self-interest even at other people’s expense, because we’d live for only a handful of decades, with no reason to worry about our eternal condition in an afterlife.

Atheistic Morality as a Farce

However any of those lines of argument turns out, those who have passed through the Age of Reason without covering their eyes and ears and backlashing against the naturalistic worldview, and who therefore think that traditional monotheism is now anachronistic, do have a serious problem fitting morality into their way of living. There’s no need to consider the more abstruse philosophical arguments that line up on either side of the issue, because it suffices to recognize one indubitable fact. When people could take for granted that a personal God or divine pantheon exists, because beliefs were generally driven by a na├»ve anthropocentrism that was unchecked by the systematically impersonal scientific methods of investigation, the human concern with morality had metaphysical standing. After all, the universe then was God’s kingdom and everything was artificial and regulated by God’s intentions, just as we assign purposes to nearly everything we create. After the rise of modern scientific naturalism, the default view is that the universe isn’t artificial or governed by anyone; at the metaphysical level, natural “laws” have replaced teleological functions or divine moral commandments. This means that as scientists view the world, even the talk of natural “processes” or “mechanisms” determined by natural “laws” is tainted by metaphors that bear traces of the obsolete, personifying model of the ultimate stuff of reality. Natural events just happen. In the most general, metaphysical terms, there is no good or bad in nature. As long as nature is no one’s kingdom or artifact, but is instead a thoroughly impersonal domain that’s evolving and complexifying for no reason, our concern with right and wrong is anomalous and without metaphysical justification.

A short way of saying this is to say that atheistic morality is subjective rather than objective. An atheist may be inclined to be nice to strangers, but were such a person to feel morally bound to be nice, that would be a matter of emotion, instinct, or taste which could just as well go the other way. A nice atheist could be retrained to be selfish and cruel, and the atheist can give no grand reason why one sort of character is better than another. All the nice atheist could say in her defense is that she feels niceness is better than cruelty or that niceness is more useful to her under some set of circumstances. Morality becomes an arbitrary matter of taste or else a changeable psychological mechanism or a tool with more or less utility.

In the atheist’s big picture, morality means nothing because everything is fundamentally physical and impersonal. Morality is part of the pointless evolution of life, with no deeper grounding in the nature of the universe, whereas a monotheist is assured that our thoughts of right and wrong have the greatest possible importance. God put those thoughts there and by fulfilling some divine moral purpose, the whole universe redounds to God’s majesty. Indeed, theism implies that there are no accidents, that everything happens for an ultimate, absolute reason, and that our preoccupation with personal and social goods indicates that we belong to the world in the same way as children who feel at home in their loving parents’ house. All of that is dubious, at best, in the modern age. Instead of feeling pride in our way of life, we’re left with the existential fear that our moral inclinations are absurd, that we either know too much about the world’s godlessness, in which case we come to feel alienated from everything including ourselves, or we distract ourselves with daydreams to play out our years as clowns pretending to be happy.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Nihilism or Transcendence? A Reply to Inmendham

Here's my video response to Inmendham's four-part response to my video critique of his radical pessimism and antinatalism. And below you'll find the first part of his multipart response and my point-by-point response I typed up but didn't go into fully in this nevertheless long video reply.

Update: below you'll also find Inmendham's embarrassingly impatient and ignorant video response to my "Nihilism or Transcendence" video.


My Written Reply to Inmendham's Four-Part Response:

Clarification of and apology for my Radical Pessimism video’s definition of AN: AN is the view that procreation is normatively wrong, but I defined AN at the start of my video in a confusing and contentious way. I had a reason for doing so, namely an argument in an article I’d written months before making that video, which argues for the view that antinatalists are on a slippery slope to being opposed to life more generally; incidentally, some of INM’s comments in his reply support that slippery-slope argument and thus my extended definition, even though he also criticizes my definition for being misleading. Moreover, not one of my video’s objections to ultra-pessimism or AN depend on the extended definition (those objections being about consequentialism, the ratio of pleasure to pain, and transcendence in culture, given what Inmendham (INM) presupposes, namely objective reason and normative values). Still, that was my bad.

INM’s method: INM employs the point-by-point method (where you reply separately to every single point—or even sentence or sentence fragment—made in some text or video)—but with a YouTube twist, since YouTubers have a sentimental fetish for first impressions; those impressions are important in mating, but not so much in philosophy; written debates or at least discussions in which each side thinks about what the other has said before responding are far more useful; ideally, you’d want a synoptic view of some part of an argument and then you’d want to prioritize your responses based on your understanding of the logic of the overall argument; even better, you’d want to respond to opposing arguments like a philosopher, engaging in a constructive and cooperative dialogue to discover the truth, even going so far as to help build up your opponent’s argument, which is what I try to do in the first 18 minutes of my video on radical pessimism and AN; this is, of course, the opposite of the bullying, pwning style that produces anti-philosophical competitions, catering to teenaged YouTubers with their infantilized attention spans

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Commiserating in the Undead God

Hi Benjamin,

I'm writing to express my sincere gratitude for the work you've done on your blog. I discovered it a few weeks ago and have since spent a great deal of time combing through your intelligent, thought-provoking, and often challenging pieces. I apologize for what might prove to be a whiny or indulgent message here, but I feel the need introduce myself and some of the issues that brought me to your blog, at the very least to illustrate my gratitude for your writing and also to selfishly ask for some advice and clarification, which I could truly use at the moment. I appreciate your time in advance and hope this isn't inappropriate or a large inconvenience.

I'm an 18 year old college freshman who began this school year generally content with life and operating within the typical atheistic secular-humanist philosophy of life you frequently target in your pieces, inspired by a convenient reading of Camus in my 10th grade English class and some baseline philosophy reading. College and the general change in social and environmental context quickly got me reevaluating my perception of life, and soon a whole host of grave existential dilemmas began finding their way into my thought; questions of value, meaning, consciousness etc. that I thought I had figured out in high school, but whose rationalizations seemed to be quickly deteriorating--suddenly, I was finding scathing critiques of Camus's and Sartre's philosophies, describing them as childish and wholly inadequate to the true challenges posed by existentialism and nihilism. My reasonable justification of my morality and sense of purpose quickly fell apart. My resulting obsessive research demonstrated that older thinkers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer were onto the same ideas I was, which I found momentarily comforting, but the questions of suffering, suicide, and whether there might be any possible way of rationally justifying my continued existence weighed like hell on me, and for every piece I found describing some fix to these philosophical problems, I found another contradicting it.

Thus far, my year has been a continuous series of existential crises. They've been marked by alternating periods of some vague hope and debilitating despair while I attempt to maintain my grades and a normal disposition for friends and family, most of whom can't seem to understand why I think the way I do, excluding a few who do but don't take their thought processes to these extremes. As a friendly, cynical-yet-idealistic kid who loves the Colbert Report, absurdist literature, Talking Heads, and was hoping to finally kiss a girl at some point in the near future, I have never felt so terrifyingly alone. I did begin seeing a school therapist last semester (to pacify the worries of my parents), who ultimately hasn't been much help with these particular philosophical issues (I identified quite a bit with your article on psychiatry, her professional assumption seems to be that angst is bad regardless of the philosophical justification). Our discussion about the philosophical debate over suicide has, as you might expect, been completely unhelpful. I've spent countless hours in the last several months huddled over my laptop trying to find answers, frantically bouncing around countless links and websites and forums, in the process becoming acquainted with a basic groundwork of philosophy, which led me down the ropes into nihilism, naturalism, materialism, pessimism…the works--Google and Wikipedia are wonderful and terrible things. At this point, finding motivation every morning is a struggle, and the daily anxiety is constant and overwhelming.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Critique of Inmendham's Radical Pessimism

Here's my newest YouTube video, Critique of Inmendham's Radical Pessimism. It raises different objections to antinatalism from those you'll find in my article on the subject. This video was supposed to be up a few days ago, but I had to perform Herculean labours to overcome the software obstacles that were thrown in my way. I shan't bore you with the details of that saga. Needless to say, I performed those labours because I'm proud of this videoit's 57 minutes too!and I wanted someone other than me to see it. 

My main source of info on Inmendham's extreme pessimism is a two-part YouTube dialogue between him and someone I call "the psychologist," because I couldn't remember his name. This other person is Corey Anton and he's more of a philosopher than a psychologist. He works in communication theory, semiotics, and phenomenology, among some other areas.

Also, I define "antinatalism" (AN) early on in the video. Strictly speaking, AN is just the view that we shouldn't have children, because doing so is immoral, given that the suffering which is produced outweighs the pleasure. The essence of AN, though, is extreme pessimism on all fronts and this pessimism has some other implications. For example, it should be just as immoral to allow all of the other animal species to go on reproducing, since they suffer too. So as long as we could find some way to kill all life relatively painlessly, that immoral act would produce the superior good of ending all of the future suffering that would have otherwise happened. Thus, AN is really about the purposeful termination of all life, as I see it. That's what's at stake when we contemplate this most extreme kind of pessimism.

Lastly, at around the 32 minute mark the video got divided into two parts and I lost a half a second of audio. The full sentence that gets partially cut out there is "No one knows whether there's more pain than pleasure."

I've also added a way to register with this blog so you'll get emails alerting you to new posts. I've tested it out and it works. You get the email sometime on the day there's a new post, but not as soon as the post is up. The registration box is located just below the Facebook icons on the right and above Recent Comments.

Update: Inmendham has responded to my critique with a four-part video beginning with this one:


Oh, and here are the notes of mine that I drew from in preparing for this video discussion, which were too long to add below the video on YouTube:


Inmendham’s Argument for Antinatalism:

Intelligence vs nature:

Intelligence informs us of the truth, thanks to science and philosophy, but reason comes with emotion and motive (thus Inmendham gets angry and doesn’t present mere logical arguments or calculations)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Ironies of Modern Progress and Infantilization

I have an article, called The Ironies of Modern Progress and Infantilization, that's up on Scott Bakker's blog, Three Pound Brain. The article follows up on what I say about consumerism at the end of my last article there, called Ancient and Modern Enlightenment: from Noosphere to Technosphere. This follow-up article is a real doozy, if I do say so myself. I connect oligarchy, consumerism, postmodern infantilization, technoscience, naturalism, and mythopoeic reverie, among other things. The first few paragraphs follow, although I think it really gets going in the second section. 

But I also want to point out that I've added a way of subscribing to RWUG by email (hopefully this widget works). It's located just above the recent comments on the right. For readers using mobile devices, I think I've set up this blog now to feed my Facebook page with updates, so if you follow me on Facebook you'll hopefully receive word about updates to my blog (again, assuming I've set this up correctly).

It’s commonly observed that we tend to rationalize our flaws and failings, to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance, so that we all come to think of ourselves as fundamentally good persons even though many of us must instead be bad if “good” is to have any contrastive meaning. Societies, too, often exhibit pride which leads their chief representatives to embarrass themselves by declaring that their nation is the greatest that’s ever been in history. Both the ancients and the moderns did this, but it’s hard to deny the facts of modern technological acceleration. Just in the last century, global and instant communications have been established, intelligent machines run much of our infrastructure, robots have taken over many menial jobs, the awesome power of nuclear weapons has been demonstrated, and humans have visited the moon. We tend to think that the social impact of such uniquely powerful machines must be for the better. We speak casually, therefore, of technological advance or progress.
The familiar criticism of technology is that it destroys at least as much as it creates, so that the optimists tell only one side of the story. I’m not going to argue that neo-Luddite case here. Instead, I’m interested in the source of our judgment about progress through technology. Ironically, the more modern technology we see, the less reason we have to think there’s any kind of progress at all. This is because modernists from Descartes and Galileo onward have been compelled to distinguish between real and superficial properties, the former being physical and quantitative and the latter being subjective and qualitative. Examples of the superficial, “secondary” aspects are the contents of consciousness, but also symbolic meaning, purpose, and moral value, which include the normative idea of progress. For the most part, modernists think of subjective qualities as illusory, and because they devised scientific methods of investigation that bypass personal impressions and biases, modernists acquired knowledge of how natural processes actually work, which has enabled us to produce so much technology. So it’s curious to hear so many of us still assuming that our societies are generally superior to premodern ones, thanks in particular to our technological advantage. On the contrary, our technology is arguably the sign of a cognitive development that renders such an assumption vacuous.

Animism and Angst
One way of making sense of this apparent lack of social awareness is to point out that there are always elites who understand their society better than do the masses. And we could add that because the modern technological changes have happened so swiftly and have such staggering implications, many people won’t catch up to them or will even pretend there are no such consequences because they’re horrifying. But I think this makes for only part of the explanation. The masses aren’t merely ignoring the materialistic implications of science or the bad omens that technologies represent; instead, they have a commonsense conviction that technology must be good because it improves our lives.
In short, most citizens of modern, technologically-developed societies are pragmatic about technology. If you asked them whether they think their societies are better than earlier ones, they’d say yes and if you asked them why, they’d say that technology enables us to do what we want more efficiently, which is to say that technology empowers us to achieve our goals. And it turns out that this pragmatic attitude is more or less consistent with modern materialism. There’s no appeal here to some transcendent ideal, but just an egocentric view of technologies as useful tools. So our societies are more advanced than ancient ones because the ancients had to work harder to achieve their goals, whereas modern technology makes our lives easier. Mind you, this assumes that everyone in history has had some goals in common, and indeed our instinctive, animalistic desires are universal in so far as they’re matters of biology. By contrast, if all societies were alien and incommensurable to each other, national pride would be egregiously irrational. And most people probably also assume that our universal desires ought to be satisfied, because we have human rights, so that there’s moral force behind this social progress.