Saturday, February 24, 2018

Computer Program Translates Ordinary English into Shakespearean Verse

Dateline: CAMBRIDGE, MA—A team of computer programmers at MIT, led by Wallace Thickglasses, has completed its Shakespearean Translator, which converts plain English into Shakespearean verse. The translator has received rave reviews from Shakespeare scholars.

Access to translator is free on the internet and it works like Google Translator: you type the phrase you wish to sound as though Shakespeare had written it, and the program pops out the phrase’s more embellished version.

Our producers tested the program’s merit by entering the simple statement, “She gave the thing to him.” In less than a second the program had completed the translation, riveting us with this astonishing bit of poetry straight out of the Elizabethan era:

“Would that it were, had it not been so,
But neither within nor upon it sat the thing not hence;
She that had it, yet twice the cockerdoodle
Spat out the flipperflapper and him beneath whom
Had it sat not whereupon she gave it.”

Certainly, that translation is as needlessly confusing as Shakespearian poetry. As to what a “cockerdoodle” or a flipperflapper” might be, we assume they could have figured somewhere in the Elizabethan era’s infinite reserve of bizarre notions, many of which show up in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “fitchew,” “cockled,” and “kickie-wickie.”

We wondered, though, whether the program’s success was a fluke. So we entered another plain statement, “She borrowed it yesterday,” and we received this dazzling passage:

“O nuncle, the bladdercock did slippy slide
Had not the river-raver rather than not but she,
The taller nor under but the day yester not;
Neither simmer chimney the cabled boot
Did go bootless, wherein the morrow lay,
Borrowed not, yet whence not pollyglot
She that had it were it not yet hence;
Riddle-me-this, but not wherein she borrowed it
The day yester than mine eyes did see but thence.”

Oddly, when we entered a poor Shakespearean concoction of our design, the translator reversed its complexity. Thus, we entered this verse:

“By heaven he hath not sailed the babble brook;
Would that I had not but been nor heretofore
Thence but not, not but whence she came;
Ay, the morrow, scuttlebutt, the nut buster.
Prithee, lord, I fear; fie on thee, thou fiend!
A plague upon thy wallypoodle.” 

But in response the translation supplied us merely with this uncluttered sentence: “He shouldn’t do it.”

“I can attest that the translations are valid,” said Wallace Hifalutin, professor of Shakespearean Studies at Oxford, who consulted on the project at MIT. “The computer program has an ear for Elizabethan dialect and even seems to convey something of the Bard’s soul in its interpretations of unvarnished modern English.”

The team at MIT is currently working on a Shakespearean name generator. You specify the type of character you’d like named in the Shakespearean manner, and the program spits out a name.

Here are some of the names we got from the beta edition of the program: Hasbro, Atari, Lego, Nerf, Mattel, Funko, Nintendo, Kenner, Bandai, Remco, Crayola, Tonka, Slinky, Galoob, Gendron, Mezco.

Those names are all taken from the names of toy companies, but we agree that they sound remarkably like the names of Shakespeare’s famous characters, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo, Cassio, Iago, or Othello.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fourteenth PDF Installment of RWUG

Here's the newest installment of this blog in eBook or PDF format. The other installments can be found here

I also have a physical edition of many of my articles out on Amazon, called Cosmic Horror for Clever Mammals, plus a pretty cool philosophical zombie apocalypse novel there too, called God Decays.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Deflating Traditionalism: Why Existentialism beats Spirituality

Traditionalists, such as Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, and Huston Smith posit that the major religions all contain a core of esoteric, perennial wisdom, but that those spiritual teachings have been largely misunderstood because there’s been a falling away from the truth, especially in what we call the modern age. Guenon, for example, contends that Hinduism is essentially correct with respect to its monistic view of the divine Self, and that this spiritual wisdom or metaphysics (knowledge of universal things) is expressed symbolically in all legitimate religions. More specifically, the truth is found in “rites of initiation,” in the “transmission of spiritual influences,” corresponding to either exoteric or esoteric level of perfection. The Christian symbol of the cross speaks to this hidden distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric, between horizontal and vertical understanding, or between mastery of the illusory domain of multiplicity in nature and that of supernatural reality.

The ancients were supposedly clearer about the importance of spirituality than we are, perhaps because they weren’t as burdened by the distractions of superficial knowledge and power, which technoscience affords us. This falling away lands us in a paradoxical dark age, given our ignorance of what really matters, according to Guenon and other traditionalists. We think instead that we dominate because of our personal liberties and luxuries, but actually we suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, since we’ve become accustomed to our ignorance and to the prison in which we lock ourselves to guard against our spiritual awakening. We mistake exoteric for esoteric power; the abilities to measure and to physically overpower things in the natural, illusory domain of finitude and multiplicity, on the one hand, for entering into a noble relationship with universal reality, on the other; and we mistake also God’s mask or our private ego for the divine self. Traditionalism would thus lend itself smoothly to politically conservative uses—except that the traditionalist will be opposed to religious literalism and exclusivism, that is, to fundamentalism, the latter being much more politically useful to conservatives.

In my view, traditionalism should be deflated and naturalized. Physics and mathematics have replaced metaphysics or rational intuition as the most reliable ways of explaining and describing universal matters. Philosophical speculation is an art form, since it’s closer to literature than to science. The traditionalist will protest that naturalistic knowledge rises only to an exoteric level of understanding. But the only way to justify that criticism of science is to demonstrate that miracles occur in the religious initiation into supernatural mysteries. Where, then, are the miraculous superpowers possessed by wise spiritualists? If there are none, the major religions have more likely operated as massive cons. There is something to the traditionalist’s teachings about initiation and the distinction between esoteric and exoteric understanding and discipline, but the traditionalist isn’t cynical or alienated enough to have grasped the true roles of religion and spirituality in history. Here, then, is my counter-narrative.

The Dark Reality of Spiritualism

The discovery of a “divine, inner self” that Hindus and other mystics take for God, for a mind that precedes nature is only an experience of psychopathic consciousness whereby the initiate realizes that social conventions—be they moral, religious, or political—are founded on delusions and that obedience to them is therefore wrongheaded or at least optional. Thus, concludes the sage, if we can become sufficiently detached from our foolish collective enterprises, we can liberate ourselves from our social commitments and dwell in a higher-dimensional mental space. The divine self within is said to be tranquil, free from worry, and that’s because to experience this “higher consciousness,” you must dispose of your personality, including your socially-instilled conscience. If you feel love for all things while meditating, you haven’t reached nirvana or samadhi, because you’re still emotionally attached to things and haven’t fully surrendered your ego. You still care too much, whereas reality cares not. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, in his clownish and malevolent fashion, Donald Trump has accidentally attained the height of spiritual insight, in this respect, because he’s manifestly a psychopath who’s incapable of feeling shame or remorse. Trump therefore feels free to do whatever he wants, like a god; of course, his wealth and fame only exacerbate this freedom. Trump is one avatar of nature’s overpowering mindlessness, but there have been many others, including most kings, emperors, dictators, plutocrats, and cult leaders that have dominated human affairs throughout history and prehistory. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

American Parents Love Guns more than their Children, study shows

Dateline: KALAMAZOO—In the wake of the school shooting in Florida, in which a young male killed 17 of his former fellow students, a team of researchers at the Technocracy Institute in Michigan explains the impossibility of sensible gun regulation in the United States, by citing its study which indicates that most American parents love guns more than their children.

The study began by comparing the speed at which randomly selected parents attempted to save their child or their gun from harm.

Drawn from both liberal and conservative states, each subject was positioned at one end of a concrete room. At the other end was his or her child. Suddenly, what appeared to be a metal light fixture directly above the child squeaked, shook, and began to fall. The subject then raced to save his or her child, but the child was in no real danger because the light fixture was painted Styrofoam.

The scientists recorded the time it took for the subject to reach the child, and compared it to the time it took for the subject to reach his or her gun which was also placed in apparent danger. Instead of being threatened by a fake light fixture, an unrelated child with a plastic hammer pulverized the floor as he or she walked towards the gun. Loud, realistic sounds of hammer smashing into concrete were piped in from hidden speakers to preserve the illusion that the child was about to destroy the subject’s gun. Again, the subject raced towards his prized possession.

In 936 out of 1000 tests, the subject ran slightly faster to rescue his or her weapon than to protect his or her child.

In a variation of the experiment, the subject’s child was strapped to the middle of the floor in a narrow hallway, and the gun was positioned at the opposite end from the subject so that the child was between the two. What appeared to be a flamethrower was pointed at the gun, and what looked like flames inched closer and closer before engulfing the firearm. The flames, however, weren’t real, so the gun was in no danger.

The question, though, was whether the subject would trample his or her child or reach into apparent flames to rescue the weapon. Again, a strong majority of subjects chose to do so: 803 out of 1000 American adults stepped on their child in a mad dash to their gun, as well as risking serious burns to retrieve it from the apparent flames.

In the reverse situation, however, with the subject’s gun strapped to the floor and the child in apparent danger of being scorched alive, most subjects were more reticent. Over two thirds of the American parents stepped carefully over or around their gun rather than risk damaging the expensive hardware, and less than a quarter of the subjects reached into the bogus flames to save their child. Those that ran to their child but didn’t reach in only yelled for help. One tenth of the subjects unstrapped their fire arm, turned around and left their child to burn without even attempting to save their offspring.  

The researchers concluded that most Americans care more about guns than their children, and that this is the basis of American gun culture which empowers the National Rifle Association in American politics and prevents any legislation that threatens Americans’ right to own guns.

“Whenever there’s another school shooting in America,” said the lead researcher, “the same tired script about thoughts and prayers is trotted out, and there’s never real momentum behind any attempt to restrict Americans’ access to firearms, even though most developed countries have much fewer shootings because they have tighter control over guns. We think the reason is that most American parents would rather see their children die in a school shooting than to see the government take away their gun.

“Americans love their guns even more than they love their children. So the talk of gun control laws here is futile. The next time there’s a school shooting, we shouldn’t pretend our hearts go out to the victim’s families. The real question on most Americans’ minds is whether the authorities will dare to destroy the perpetrator’s innocent firearm.”

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cosmicism, Tragedy, and Greek Mythology

In the Western world (the one that’s still led largely by American culture), we learn in public school about the ancient Greek myths of Zeus, Perseus, Sisyphus and all the rest. It turns out that the reason for this isn’t just historical. Greek religion and philosophy are foundational to the “free world” of our Western civilization, but the conservative, nature-loving Greek ethos is also currently a fashionable way of making sense of secular humanism. Life-affirming new atheists and hedonists or neo-teleologists like Richard Carrier, Sam Harris, and Massimo Pigliucci need to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, between the anachronism of a theistic defense of morality and the horror of the cosmicist suspicion that life is absurd.  

The Ancient Greek Myths

Both Plato and Aristotle were virtue ethicists, meaning that they thought that happiness is our ultimate goal and that to achieve that goal we need to learn to excel in certain ways. Excellence requires a balanced character so that we avoid emotional extremes and make wise practical judgments. Their preoccupation with balance, harmony, virtue, and self-restraint was endemic to ancient Greek culture as a whole. As Luc Ferry explains in The Wisdom of the Myths, you can find these themes throughout Greek myths which predated the Presocratic philosophers. From the birth of the gods and the creation of the cosmos and of humankind, to the warnings about hubris and the celebrations of heroic battles for justice, the Greek mythos was founded on respect for the natural order, due to the assumption that this order is a metaphysical compromise between the lethal extremes of supernatural stasis and chaos.

The cosmogonic myths tell of how the cosmos was forged in epic wars between forces of order and chaos and specifically between Gaia and Uranus, the destructive Titans, monstrous Cyclopes, and the more creative and stable Olympians. According to these myths, Cronus the Titan betrayed his oppressive father, Uranus, castrating him and creating the conditions for the birth of a new generation of gods. Cronus and his sister Rhea create this new generation, but Cronus gobbles them all up to prevent a similar rebellion against him by his progeny. His child Zeus escapes and overthrows Cronus, freeing his siblings, the Olympians, as well as the Cyclopes and other chaos monsters from Tartarus, who reward Zeus with the gift of the lightning. That added power enables Zeus to prevail in the war against Cronus and the Titans, the outcome of which amounts to the current cosmic settlement. Ferry emphasizes the “profundity of the existential problem that begins to take shape in the crucible of this first and original mythological narrative.” The point is that
all of existence, even that of the immortal gods, will find itself trapped in the same insoluble dilemma: Either one must block everything, as Uranus blocked his children in the womb of Gaia, in order to prevent change and the attendant risk that things will deteriorate—which means complete stasis and unspeakable tedium, such as must ultimately overwhelm life itself. Or, on the other hand, to avoid entropy one accepts movement—History, Time—which includes accepting all the fearful dangers by which we are most threatened. How, henceforth, can there be any equilibrium? This is the fundamental question posed by mythology, and by life itself! (59-60)
Hubris is the arrogance arising from ignorance of our proper place in the world, which misleads intelligent creatures into attempting to overreach, to transcend their nature or station. The myths of Asclepius, the model for Doctor Frankenstein, of Sisyphus who is punished for playing a trick on Zeus, and of Prometheus who is punished for attempting to perfect part of Zeus’ creation all warn that pride leads to our downfall. The gods reestablish the cosmic order as soon as anyone attempts to disturb the equilibrium. Heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason, by contrast, fight for justice which is likewise interpreted as balance, as in the figure of Dike, Lady Justice, who was depicted as carrying a physical balance scale. Heroism for the Greeks was a means to immortality through merited fame, whereby the hero escapes the oblivion of the masses who never so memorably distinguish themselves by their actions and who are thus doomed to become anonymous shades in Hades. The greatest heroes fight “in the service of a divine mission, in the name of justice, or dike, in order to defend the cosmic order against the archaic forces of chaos, whose resurgence is an ever-present threat” (248). These heroes are demigods, half-human and half-divine, and so their attempt to immortalize themselves isn’t hubristic.

According to Ferry, the good life for ordinary humans is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus shows himself to be a wise, self-made man as he lives in harmony with the cosmic order. Odysseus is cunning in that he possesses instrumental rationality, meaning that he focuses on the narrow questions of how to get what he wants, because he takes for granted what he is and where he’s going. That is, instead of trying to alter his nature, he understands and accepts his finitude and sets himself the task only of figuring out how most efficiently to achieve his human goals, namely those of returning home after the Trojan War and of reuniting with his family. He demonstrates his lack of hubris by resisting the temptations—by the Lotus-Eaters, the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso—of immortality or renunciation of the world (forgetting Ithaca and abandoning his voyage home). 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Will Trump’s Presidency be more Traumatic than 9/11?

Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks were bad, but President Trump might be worse. Not worse for the families or friends of the victims of 9/11, of course, and not deadlier since President Trump hasn’t (yet) been responsible for killing thousands of Americans. But the abomination of Trump’s presidency is potentially more traumatic for Americans generally and for the people around the world who depend economically, militarily, or culturally on the United States. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were traumatic, but not for long, because Americans easily incorporated the motives behind the Islamist terrorism into the myth of American supremacy. As George W. Bush said, the enemies hate Americans because they’re jealous of their freedoms. That line of defense isn’t crazy, since Americans should know from their familiarity with cults and from strains of Christian fundamentalism that those who resent their own inferiority might indeed make the best of their failures by committing themselves to some irrational fantasy or scheme of renouncing popular pleasures. This is to say that the right-wing slogan about foreigners’ jealousy of American riches and freedoms is theoretically plausible.

As it happens, though, the slogan is dubious. Islamist contempt for American culture began perhaps with Sayyid Qutb, who was an Egyptian author and Muslim Brotherhood member in the first half of the last century who spent two years in the United States and was disgusted by, rather than jealous of, American liberties. American freedom is wholly humanistic and godless, the late-Christian rationalizations of hedonism and financial wealth not even nearly withstanding. Therefore, the American Dream will disgust anyone who tries to love a transcendent God more than the material world. If you want to say that everyone who claims to be revolted by American culture is unconsciously jealous of it, you can just as easily declare that everyone who claims to love America secretly despises the American way of life. Pop psychological speculation is cheap, after all. Islamists claim to hate America not just because their religion is severely conservative, since Islam mandates that they submit to an otherworldly God at every moment of the day (only in heaven will martyrs supposedly be awarded with the earthly pleasures that Americans create for themselves on humanist grounds); the Islamist hatred is evidently also political, since the grievances against the West in the Middle East go back decades to the creation of artificial national borders after WWII in that part of the world, and to American and European support for secular dictators who pacified Muslim populations to squander the wealth from their natural resources in business with infidel nations.

In any case, Americans ignored all of that and weren’t overcome by the palpable waves of hatred emanating from the Muslim world. No American self-reflection was forthcoming except from some anxious progressives and socialists. Most Americans shrugged off the attacks as aberrations arising from insanity, evil, or jealousy, and so the trauma was mainly material, not psychological. American pride was temporarily wounded, Americans realized their homeland wasn’t impregnable, and New Yorkers had to live with an altered Lower Manhattan skyline, but American values after 2001 were intact. Indeed, Bush doubled down on Western adventurism in the Middle East, with his bungled neoconservative wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. After 9/11, Americans didn’t have to question Americanism, because their Islamist enemies were so easily demonized.

President Trump represents the enemy within, however, and so to demonize Trump is to discover that Americanism itself is a fraud. Thus, the social impact of Trump might be more longstanding and devastating than that of 9/11. Indeed, Trump is the philosopher’s stone, the proverbial gift that keeps on giving—and not just for comedians who have in Trump’s madness and wickedness an endless source of comedy, but for thinkers of all stripes. The obviousness and extremity of Trump make him an object lesson that can’t be missed by any halfway rational and sane person who’s paying attention. Trump teaches us inadvertently what it means to be living in a ghastly, unjust world; to be driven to mistake a hideous idol for a divine saviour, because there’s no such thing as real divinity; to see Evangelical Christianity, the mass media, and the government crack and crumble from their hypocrisy; to realize, in short, that Donald Trump’s America is a sham, that all Americans and their allies are complicit in the emptiness of our freedom-loving way of life, and that Trump’s political victory might as well have been the dawning of the reign of Cthulhu. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s Just-So Story of Religion

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist who has recently become famous thanks to a YouTube video that went viral, showing a standoff between him and transgender or progressive millennials who insisted he use their preferred pronouns. Peterson defended freedom of speech and pointed to the Orwellian potential of the liberal priority of tolerance. If we only tolerate others’ interests, we lose ourselves by allowing others to dictate our thoughts or our language. If Peterson is compelled to call a gay male by the female pronoun, he’s lost his freedom to speak his mind. It’s beyond rude to demand that others speak and thus think in a certain way. In true, non-decadent liberal society, the practice is to attempt to persuade others to your point of view, not bully them. Peterson stood his ground and demonstrated patience and rationality in the video, becoming a hero of the alt right. He displayed the same toughness and political incorrectness as when he regularly appeared in discussion panels on The Agenda with Steve Paikin, years ago. You could always count on Peterson to insist on making blistering pronouncements. His alt right followers now herald him for his refreshing wisdom.

Maps of Meaning

Peterson developed his worldview over a period of fifteen years during which he wrote his masterwork Maps of Meaning. In that book he combines Jung, Thomas Kuhn, and cognitive science to naturalize the world’s religions. While he doesn’t assume the existence of God, he maintains that religion is crucial to moral development and to maintaining social order. The book argues that all religions grow out of a meta-myth which in turn is based on the fundamental human experience of needing to creatively navigate between order and chaos, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the unknown, explored territory and the wilderness, society or group identification and antisocial decadence, masculinity and femininity, hyperrational totalitarianism and “emotional valence” such as the terror of bewilderment. These dichotomies are facets of the primordial, pragmatic experience of the earliest, nomadic humans, so our very brains adapted to those categories. Religious myths thus express these “maps of meaning.”

In particular, people typically form groups and create symbolic representations or cultures, preserving their limited understanding of the world. That understanding is passed on in apprenticeships to discipline the next generation. But if the society is healthy, says Peterson, the point of enculturation isn’t to indoctrinate and enslave, but to instill self-confidence to enable the members to act heroically in handling anomalies which are bound to crop up as these heroes explore territory that lies beyond the bounds of this culture’s experience. Ideally, the hero finds a creative interpretation of this novel part of the environment, thus assimilating the unknown and enriching his or her culture. The ultimate goal, then, or the meaning of life in general, from a religious perspective is “self-mastery,” the use of foundational lessons encoded in myths to become a brave, disciplined individual whose self-interest in exploring the unknown benefits the group, albeit sometimes by revolutionizing its conventions. Thus, we ought to take religious myths seriously, according to Peterson’s analysis.