Sunday, November 29, 2015

Terrorism and the Metaphysical Innocence of Civilians

After the ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, liberals have been quick to push what they consider the adult interpretation, empathizing with the culprits, protecting them from “Islamophobia” and laying much of the blame with the American government’s military involvement in the Middle East. So-called conservatives in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere instead demonize Muslims, turning the attacks into a very different kind of teachable moment. Liberals have feminism-fuelled empathy as well as technocratic interest in the facts, and so they call upon the United States and its allies to stop meddling in other countries, whereas right-wingers seized the opportunity to further dumb-down Westerners, reducing the conflict to a religious war between Good and Evil; Americans, for example, must be blameless, whereas all Muslims are in league with the savage terrorists who serve the devil even as they consider themselves martyrs for the true God Allah.

Lost in these exchanges is a logically prior question, which is whether civilians in a modern democracy could even potentially deserve blame or punishment for the deeds of their government and military. Putting aside the question of whether in the case of the 911 attack or the Paris one, ordinary Americans or Parisians deserve blowback, we should consider whether modern democratic citizens in general could ever, under any circumstance be responsible for their nation’s actions. Given the political and economic structure of such a society, are such citizens necessarily innocent of whatever might be done in their name? Indeed, we should reflect on what’s actually meant by calling victims such as those in the ISIL attack “innocent civilians,” as in “The bloodthirsty barbarians targeted innocent civilians in their cowardly terrorist attack.”

The Corruption of Modern Democracies

Before we begin, note the difference between direct and indirect democracies. Modern democracies are almost all indirect, meaning that the citizens don’t directly select their nation’s policies. Instead, they elect representatives who then decide how their country should be governed and how their military should be used abroad. This means that the citizens in question are at least somewhat removed from the high-level decisions that could invite international praise or condemnation. Also, because the terrorist attacks are supposed to be about punishing Westerners, I’ll focus on this negative side of the issue, although the analysis will also apply to the positive side, to whether the citizens might ever deserve praise for decisions made at their governmental level.

It might still look as though the answer were obvious, especially when there’s a stark choice between candidates in an election. To the extent that voters marginalize extreme candidates, such as bigoted xenophobes or radical environmentalists, the voters could logically be held accountable for steering their country in a more moderate direction, if not for any specific policy fulfilled by the elected representative. But because public relations has become something of a science, this account of democracy which likely informs the terrorist’s rationalizations is woefully na├»ve. What we discover in elections in so-called advanced democracies like the U.S. is that the nominees for high office learn to hide their actual opinions, to campaign from the so-called center so that they all appear moderate. The result is that it’s hard to tell the candidates apart. Their political debates, for example, revolve around micro-issues because the candidates are smart enough not to inflame the electorate with divisive rhetoric on the big, controversial issues. Indeed, those candidates who differ from the mainstream consensus are precisely the ones who are marginalized by the mass media and by public prejudice. The candidates who attain their party’s nomination and are poised to run a powerful democratic nation are always groomed by political consultants, their appearances stage-managed, their speeches and talking points market-tested, and their policies themselves more and more dictated by large campaign contributors who typically dominate mainstream thinking so that both the liberal and the conservative politicians end up governing as neoliberals. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Causality: The Unhidden Face of God

While scientists study God, priests and theologians tell us flattering fictions. Theistic religions are about superpowerful people, but God isn’t personal. God is the supreme creator. God is obviously, then, nature which creates and develops itself before our eyes at every moment. God or Nature does so by means of causality. God has a vast, sprawling body but no mind. God is therefore monstrous. God is the natural universe, since natural forces and materials comprise methods for actualizing every possibility. We are therefore surrounded by an abomination that reaches out to distant galaxies and dimensions that we can never hope to reach, and our bodies are made of the same monstrous stuff. By a quirk of the monster’s evolution, however, our minds are free to impose a supernatural, which is to say artificial, order to replace the natural wilderness. God acts through causality, the satanic rebels like us through ideality, through purpose and intelligent design and existential resentment. To know God, we needn’t pray or read preposterous and outdated scriptures; instead, we must understand causality. What is it for one thing not just to come before another, but to cause it?

Three Approaches to Causal Knowledge

Aristotle famously answered that question by basing all causal explanations on the explanation of a sculpture. We can inquire, then, into material causes (how what something’s made of changes it), formal causes (how a thing’s structure or type changes it), efficient causes (how other things interact with it to change it), and final causes (how the thing’s end changes it, such as by drawing it towards that end). Only two of these causes turned out to be objectively natural, the material and the efficient. Formal causes depend on the concepts we bring to bear, and final causes apply only to artifacts, not to nature. To be sure, we can inquire into the purpose of rain or of sunshine, but in so far as we’re philosophical, we shouldn’t trust mass opinion since most people don’t love knowledge. Knowledge is a burden since most of what’s there to be known is horrific, and most people prefer to be happy than to be acquainted with the elementary facts. Artifacts are created by minds and natural creations are monstrous precisely because they’re produced by no mind at all.

We know now that matter as well as time and space themselves evolved, that most types of particles spread like seeds from exploding stars which in turn flicker into being from nebulas, the earliest of which emerged soon after the Big Bang. Prior to those “stellar nurseries,” the universe was practically immaterial. This is to say that material explanations aren’t essential to natural ones; nature isn’t necessarily material, just as it’s not necessarily made up of stars and planets and empty space. The universe evolves and there may even be a multiverse encompassing all quantum possibilities. So-called efficient causation is closer to the core of nature’s divine creativity—except that “efficient,” like finality (Aristotle’s final cause), is tainted with teleology. We speak of efficiency as a kind of best performance according to the criterion that time and effort shouldn’t be wasted. Applying that criterion to nature is ludicrous since the universe is maximally wasteful. In the fullness of time and in the evolution of universes, everything comes to be, so there’s obviously no effort taken in nature to discriminate, to discard possibilities, to favour one eventuality over another. If in one corner of the universe something rather than something else obtains, wait a while or travel elsewhere and you’ll find that very other thing which it looked like the universe was excluding because it could be produced only by an inefficient system that generates everything in the spectrum of possibilities. Efficiency is a luxury for living systems that can conceive of ends and can choose to work towards one rather than another, but it’s also a burden because to care about efficiency, your time and effort must be limited. The universe has neither that luxury (mentality) nor that burden (ephemerality). Its processes have no absolute beginnings or ends, they spread out over eons and intergalactic territories, and they unfold through every conceivable convolution and happenstance.

Nevertheless, for the most part, the basic idea of natural causality is that one thing interacts with another to change it. David HudasadsHume argued that that’s all we’re entitled to conclude is objectively part of causal connection, which is that Y has followed from X in certain observed cases. As soon as we add that there’s a necessary connection between two things, that X brings about Y because X is bound somehow to do so, we project our subjective expectation onto the evidence from our senses. Unfortunately for Hume’s self-refuting empiricism, as Kant pointed out, that’s just what knowledge is, a certain coming together of a mind with the rest of the world. Hume mocked so-called rationalist philosophers for positing “occult” powers and forces which are nowhere perceived. He thus failed to realize that all artificiality is bizarre, that the relative autonomy of minds in general is virtually supernatural. Knowledge is thus no mere additional physical mechanism, but a meeting of supernature with nature, a clash between satanic rebels and their hideous creator.