Saturday, July 28, 2018

Philosophy in the Wasteland

The later, more systematic existentialists often began their analysis with some form of metaphysical dualism, since they wanted to say that people have a special obligation in life, and so people must be fundamentally different from everything else. They spoke, then, of the crucial difference between, on the one hand, being mindless things devoid of purpose or freedom (being “in-itself” or “present-to-hand”), and on the other, being an autonomous creature, a source of value, or a tool caught up in that creature’s field of interests (being “for-itself” or “ready-to-hand”). Existentialism should, however, give way to cosmicism, which raises the question of philosophy’s worth.

From Existentialism to Cosmicism

Existential dualisms are oversimplifications since they ignore the strangeness of matter. A semi-facetious but still better starting point for existentialist purposes would be to posit mindless things, or things in so far as they’re scientifically objectified and explained as beings neither-here-nor-there, or neither this-nor-that, meaning things that occupy a baffling twilight in which they’re neither fully dead nor fully alive. The neither-here-nor-there is a being that acts as though it had some creative purpose, since it has energy or inertia and participates in vast cycles of complexification and evolution, but that does so with no capacity for intention or reason. Most of the universe is neither-here-nor-there in that sense.

Note that the idiom, “That’s neither here nor there” denotes the thing’s irrelevance, its being “beside the point,” where the point is determined by the speaker’s interests. To say, then, that the universe generally is neither here nor there is to say, on one level, that the universe is irrelevant to us, since we prefer the artificial world we create that supplants the wilderness and answers directly to our interests. The existential point is that this idiom is easily flipped, since if the universe is irrelevant to us from our parochial perspectives, so too must we be irrelevant to the universe from the objective, existential perspective which sides with the universe, as it were, having become detached from our personal concerns.  

In any case, what the humanistic dualisms of Heidegger and Sartre, for example, miss is nature’s impersonal but still energetic component. Thus, nature’s metaphysical status isn’t just that it’s like a dumb lump of matter; instead, while most of nature isn’t alive, self-conscious, or rational, nature also isn’t generally inert, uncreative, or chaotic. This strange twilight is what compelled us throughout history to invest nature with personhood, to shut out the more enlightened dualism. We explained natural order and creativity by deifying natural processes. Our naivety was only to be so liberal with the category we’re most familiar with, to assume that since people are alive, self-conscious, and rational, and yet everything else in the world is creative like we are, the rest of the world must be human-like in those other respects. Thus, we imagined that the universe is full of spirits or minds responsible for all the physical activity we experience. Nevertheless, what wasn’t naïve was the experience of nature as an enchanted place. Along with the Romantic critics of the Enlightenment, the sociologist Max Weber spoke of scientific objectification as ridding nature of its magic, in that the more impersonal our stance towards the world, the more we’re able to discard animism or theism in exchange for an instrumental outlook that enables us to dominate natural processes. This has the unintended consequence of depriving life generally of its meaning, because we who idolize science and lust after the benefits of capitalism and technology are liable to objectify each other and ourselves too. Ennui, apathy, and nihilism are the results, which spur the existentialist renewal. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Is Trump’s Presidency Good for the World?

MODERATOR: Welcome to another episode of Clash of Worldviews, the show that features hard-hitting philosophical dialogues. This evening we have with us self-described postmodern pessimist and cynic, Heather Fogarty, and radical alt right blogger Fred Gulpa. And they’re here to discuss whether Donald Trump’s presidency is proving to be good or bad for the world. Heather, would you like to get us started? I take it you’re not a fan of Trump.

HEATHER: A “fan” of Trump? No, I’m not one of his suicidal cultists. Trump has the distinction of being a foreign agent twice over. He was a Siberian candidate, as is now obvious from Trump’s attacks on America’s closest allies, such as Canada, Germany, and Britain, combined with his servility towards Putin. But in the fictions, the foreign agent isn’t supposed to win the presidency, since that’s unthinkable from a conventional standpoint. So the evil conspiracy of installing a rival country’s intelligence asset in the seat of American power is supposed to stop at the candidacy. The dupe is thus known idiomatically only as a “candidate,” as in “the Manchurian candidate,” since the presumption is that the scheme would be foiled in the world’s leading nation. But Russia’s useful idiot went on to become the American president! This return of the Cold War ought to be more traumatic to Americans than the 911 terrorist attacks.

Yet the unthinkable doesn’t end there with Trump. Trump is a bona fide foreign agent—albeit an untrained and incompetent one—in the guise of a democratically elected president, but he’s also obviously a wealthy paleoconservative. The American oligarchs used to run the GOP from a distance to sustain the façade of the party’s national legitimacy. The wealthy social Darwinians—otherwise known as sociopaths—controlled Republican politicians through lobbying and the flawed electoral system, but not so transparently as to run directly for president while flaunting their aristocratic values. Trump lacks upper-class manners, of course, but he’s realigning the GOP towards the oldest and perhaps purist conservative ideal: what should be protected, according to Trump and the monarchs of old isn’t classic liberalism or any other modern ideology or institution, but just the social distribution that arises from prehuman, animal dynamics. Nature is the arbiter of justice and so might makes right. What this means is that once the alphas triumph in a rigged competition—that being the only kind of competition that mindless nature can produce—the winners ought to dominate the losers by conning and bullying them, holding onto power like the autocrats Trump reveres. In short, Trump is cutting out the neoliberal middlemen and returning American conservatism to monarchical pseudo-elitism. Needless to say, Trump is thereby profoundly un-American. Whether Trump’s presidency is good for the world depends, though, on whether, for example, you think liberalism is progressive.

FRED: I actually agree with much of that. Trump is part of a global backlash against liberalism. He may indeed be compromised by Russia, since we know that American banks stopped lending him money after his multiple bankruptcies, and Russia looks for useful idiots and bailed him out of his business ventures over the last couple of decades. That shocking conspiracy is indeed only a detail, however, since Trump acts on behalf not just of Russia but of the principles of autocracy. I agree also that this is a paleoconservative revolution against the liberal aspects of globalization and thus against democracy and free trade capitalism in general. Trump’s aid and comfort to Russia is almost incidental since he’s interested mainly in recreating power structures in the West that protect those he considers natural winners, such as sociopathic plutocrats and white, male gung-ho Anglo-Americans as opposed to women, foreigners, or feminized liberals. The problem with the liberal notion of equality is that it threatens to erase cultural differences, to rob nations of their sovereignty and to drown them in the sappy bromides of a feel-good monoculture.

HEATHER: The irony here is appalling, of course. Globalization was the principle mechanism of America’s strategy for maintaining its hegemony as the lone superpower after the Cold War. The liberalization of economies meant in practice that foreign markets would have to open themselves to exploitation by American corporations. Liberalism always operated on the presupposition of a double standard, since America was militarily the indispensible nation and liberals couldn’t conceive of the scenario in which the United States would lose in fair economic competition with foreign powers. Still less did liberals contemplate the possibility that women and dark-skinned immigrants could be educated and could take middleclass jobs from whites in the United States, with the whites being reduced to tranquilizing themselves with opioids and trolling the world with the Trump fiascos, to avoid having to admit that they weren’t good enough, that they failed because they felt entitled and didn’t work hard to better themselves, because their cultures was built on Christian and early-modern lies. This is indeed the problem with aristocratic values: absolute, unchallenged power inevitably corrupts the elites and so they lose their right to rule. They either take their enterprises down with them or there’s an ugly revolt, as in the American or French Revolution.   

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Theologian John Haught on Nature’s “Story”

In The New Cosmic Story, theologian John Haught argues that Big History, the genre of history that purports to tell the story of the whole universe, has been flawed because it’s left out the inside story, an account of what exists and of how things seem subjectively, “from the inside.” Instead, driven by scientific reductionism which Haught calls “archaeonomy,” these historians include only physical events in their stories, as seen “from the outside”: the Big Bang led to galaxy formation which led to the formation of planets, and so on. Big History includes the evolution of life, but mainly from an objective standpoint. What isn’t taken seriously in this history is the development of subjectivity that culminates in religious awakenings such as the one that Karl Jaspers dubbed the Axial Age. Judging from standard cosmology, for example, the universe doesn’t contain any such thing as qualia or the property of interior life. At best, consciousness, subjectivity, and what Haught calls the dawning of the sense of “rightness” are explained away as illusions. According to the sense of rightness, of what should be but perhaps isn’t, the universe is incomplete since it fails to live up to our ideals. Science-centered grand history treats unfinished nature as though it were complete, whereas nature includes the subjective capacities to discern that nature isn’t entirely right, in which case materialistic history must likewise be deficient.

Indeed, the notion of “Big History” seems oxymoronic, since a science-centered (value-neutral and reductionistic) account of everything would be something like an explanation in the field of cosmology or physics, not a story. Properly speaking, history pertains only to people, which raises the question whether a “history of rocks” or a “history of the universe” would amount to a series of anthropomorphisms. Haught, though, speaks of the “narrative coherence” of events throughout the universe, since the universe includes a beginning, middle, and end, and so there is indeed supposed to be a story of the universe. To speak of such a universal narrative would seem to beg the question of theism, just as speaking of the intelligent design not just of life but of stars and planets would imply a designer. Given that theism is foolish, what exactly could a nonfictional story be and what would a story of the universe look like?

Suppose a history of rocks, for example, is only a description of how rocks came to be. This description would list the sequence of events that led to the formation of various kinds of rocks. Would this description amount to a story? A mighty boring one, perhaps—and not just because geology may not widely appeal as a subject matter. An objective representation of all the events that developed some phenomenon wouldn’t be much of a story because even a nonfictional story is supposed to have a point, as in a lesson or some other meaning. The primary definition of “story” is “a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader” (my emphasis, from Stories aren’t just told by people; people are the intended audience—and this means people in the full sense, not a denuded form of us that conforms to the conceit of hyperrationality. A story’s audience consists of persons who want to be entertained or informed, on the assumption that such pastimes are worthwhile, so that the story can’t be a neutral, impersonal representation of facts that has no practical implications; in other words, a story can’t be exactly like the natural facts. Assuming that’s so, Haught’s thesis that Big History leaves out the sense of rightness is analytic: histories are stories and stories are normative, so of course Big History can’t explain away idealism and morality without nullifying itself as the special kind of description a history is supposed to be.

In any case, we might tell the story of rocks, but this would require that rocks have a purpose so that the story would at least imply a lesson. That purpose would have to be assigned to rocks by some conscious being, since rocks can’t decide what they should be or what they’re supposed to be doing. Yet the notion that rocks have a purpose means that rocks can fail or succeed at achieving it, which is absurd. Even were there such a thing as a proto-rock that evolves into rocks according to some supernatural plan for the universe, the proto-rock couldn’t be said to fail in so far as it isn't yet a rock; instead, the designer would have failed to devise a means of creating rocks without the benefit of intermediate stages. At best, a rock can succeed or fail when the natural object is used as a tool, in which case the rock is no longer a rock, but, for instance, a projectile.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Coca-Cola: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[Rashad, also known as the Cackler, is an old homeless man who has wandered North America for decades and is notorious for his stream of diatribes on a wide range of subjects.]
Where to begin when the folly and madness are everywhere?

The other day I saw this Coke commercial. Ever notice how on TV they’re always drinking Coke out of glass bottles, never out of cheap-looking plastic ones or tin cans—which are the only ones you can find in the real world? When was the last time you saw a glass Coca Cola bottle outside of a commercial? They get those glass bottles from the 1950s with a time machine, from when doctors told kids that smoking cigarettes makes you as healthy as Hercules. Back then the saintly medical doctor advised mothers, “When you pack your kid’s lunch, don’t forget to add the box of smokes right between the apple and the ham sandwich.”

But I’d like to know why the actors that are paid to look orgasmic from drinking sugar water on TV aren’t as celebrated as those that win Academy awards for their movies. Which kind of acting takes more skill, acting ordinary in an Oscar-bait drama or gaslighting the audience into normalizing corporate weirdness?

Coca-Cola is weird as fuck. The soft drink is chemically engineered to fuck us over. It’s “soft” because it’s not as hard as alcohol. Alcohol is hard and sugar is soft, I guess, because alcohol puts you to sleep when you drink too much, so you smack your face on the floor, but sugar makes your ass or belly soft and flabby.

The Coke Company, though, has an army of predatory engineers that look over every aspect of their product, and all they’re asking is whether their witch’s brew is sufficiently diabolical. Besides sugar, Coke is filled with sweeteners like Aspartame, Acesulfame-K, Neotame, and other wicked unnatural shit they extracted from the remnants of a comet that visited us from another galaxy. Why add just one sweetener when you can whip up fifty?

In the ads, Coke is served in glass bottles to make the drink look as precious as wine—even though Coke is shit-hued brown; their slogan, “Coke is it” does us the service of reminding us subliminally that Coke is shit. Coke is made from toxic garbage and like the dump you take that wreaks the bathroom for hours, even the Coke ads steer clear of their product.

If Coke is it, what exactly is it? It is anything you want it to be. That’s why the ads sell everything under the sun except the sugar water. Coca Cola itself is just shit, but we’re encouraged to imagine that shit can be happiness or helping your neighbour or peace on Earth. But they never sell the drink itself. How could they? The drink is essentially shit.

Forget smearing lipstick on a pig. What if the Coke salesman had to be honest about what he’s selling us? There’s a knock at your door and 1949’s Willy Loman is standing on your doorstep. He’s stuffed a steaming turd into a glistening glass bottle. He tells you to guzzle the stinking, wretched filth because it’s not shit, after all. The turd is only it—not shit, but Joy and Friendship and Progress and God Almighty. Worship Coke because Coke is everywhere and it’s shit, and shit is what we deserve because God is dead and we killed him.

How did we get addicted to shit? If our brain’s pleasure center can be so easily exploited, how can any of our judgments be trusted? Is it possible we could be wrong about practically everything?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nietzsche: Godless Prophet

Nietzsche was atheism’s prophet. Other skeptics and atheists before him were subversive, but perhaps none with such power and devotion to telling unpleasant truths. David Hume dismantled the empirical case for theism and revealed the nonrational, pragmatic basis of science, but Hume stood more for the method of skepticism than for the conclusion of atheism. He also avoided questions about the unsettling implications of naturalism, by appealing to a mechanistic theory of morality, which reduced questions of what we should do, to a crude model of how moral “sentiments” or feelings work. The Marquis de Sade was a vigorous and scandalous proponent of atheism, and was more subversive than Nietzsche, opting for a satirical mode of writing to illustrate the horrific liberty that atheism entails—what Dostoevsky called the freedom in which everything is permitted. However, de Sade’s ethical egoism and proto-social Darwinism are fallacious and as crude as Hume’s mechanistic model of the mind. Thus, while his writings are superficially more shocking than Nietzsche’s, they’re also more easily dismissed. The pessimist Schopenhauer drew out some dark consequences of naturalistic atheism, but his writings seem to imply Eastern-inspired pantheism: he says nature has an evil or inhumane will which we should resist by ascetically withdrawing from natural functions, and if by “will” he meant only “energy,” he’d lose the moral force of his pessimism since energy would be amoral.

Nietzsche’s Authentic Atheism

By contrast, Nietzsche dramatized the horror of atheism while forcing the reader to grapple with the meaning of God’s nonexistence. He does this most famously in a passage of Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which Nietzsche tells a parable about an insane atheist trying to convince fellow atheists that God’s absence has dire consequences:
The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. ‘Where is God gone?’ he called out. ‘I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?—for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife—who will wipe away the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!’—Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. ‘I come too early,’ he then said, ‘I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is travelling—it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star—and yet they have done it!
Never has the meaning of atheism been rendered as vividly and as starkly as in those lines. Nietzsche wrote in an oracular and often prophetic style, because he must have felt some kinship with the biblical prophets who stood apart from their society to condemn its follies, since they devoted themselves to what they regarded as the terrible truth of living within sight of an angry and jealous God. As to those messages of the Jewish prophets and of the Christian messiah, Nietzsche denounced them in turn for being insufficiently truthful. Judaism was slightly more naturalistic than Christianity in treating monotheism as an excuse for the brutality wrought by earthly kingdoms. But polytheism is the more naked rationalization and thus the more naturalistic religious fiction. Monotheism makes divinity transcendent, immaterial, and thus unnatural, which cleared the path for Christianity’s otherworldly slave morality. In the real world, as opposed to the imagination of the weak-willed and resentful masses, divinity is found only in the creativity of the most powerful human persons. Divinity is thus mere nobility. But because nature is amoral, it includes the capacities for treachery and dishonour, not just for the inclination to worship human rulers and great artists. Thus, in Christianity, “omega” and “beta” mindsets have their revenge against the “alphas,” but by the unheroic method that’s the formers’ only recourse. Instead of defeating natural winners at their game, demonstrating their courage in the face of reality, Christians bewitch winners into exchanging natural virtues with those of the natural loser, and into imagining a fanciful utopia in which losers are explicitly rewarded while winners are punished for eternity.