Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mueller and Trump: Partners in Crime

CONGRESSMAN GIRLYMAN: Mr. Mueller, thank you for appearing before this congressional committee. We gather from William Barr’s summary of your report that you didn’t find sufficient evidence to prove at trial that President Trump had obstructed justice or that he conspired with Russia to get him elected in 2016. Can you explain how you reached those conclusions?

SPECIAL COUNSEL MUELLER: Well, it was an arduous process. Nineteen lawyers and forty FBI agents. And for two years I had to ensure that they all kept their thumbs up their asses. That’s day in and day out, mind you.

GIRLYMAN: I beg your pardon?

MUELLER: Exactly, it wasn’t as easy as you might suppose, because I too had to show up for work with my thumb up my ass, all while overseeing the team members with their thumbs up their asses. So for example—if you want details—I’d arrive at the office bright and early, insert my thumb up my ass, have a meeting with a few lawyers and we’d sit around with our thumbs up our asses. On one occasion, Miss Legalese coughed and accidentally dislodged her thumb. “Uh, uh, uh,” I told her. “Shove that thumb back up there. We have a duty and the nation’s counting on us. So we’ve got to sit here in silence and strive to keep our thumb up our ass for the entire day. No matter the cost!” She apologized, of course, and swiftly returned her thumb to its station, because she’s a fine lawyer.

GIRLYMAN: Mr. Mueller, I fail to see—I mean—what? What exactly are you telling this committee? That for two years you and your team did nothing but sit there with your thumbs up your asses?

MUELLER: That’s essentially correct. Luckily, I was able mostly to stay seated, because I had cameras installed in the other offices and I had screens brought in so I could confirm for the record that the agents and lawyers did nothing but sit there with their thumbs up their asses. The system broke down once or twice, and I had to leave my chair and rush over to the other offices, all while keeping my thumb up my ass.

GIRLYMAN: That’s appalling, but I suppose that process does explain your findings.

CONGRESSWOMAN SNOWFLAKE: I beg to differ—if you’ll pardon the interruption. How did you get any work done for the American people if you just sat there all day long doing nothing? How did you investigate these important matters? The Russia connections, the threat to national security, the corruption, the cover-up, the obstruction?

MUELLER: We didn’t address those matters, since the facts have been out in the open. The pattern of lies about Russia, the Moscow development project, Manafort’s ties to Russian oligarchs and his sharing of campaign polling data with Russia, the Trump Tower meeting that was explicitly about Russia’s attempt to help with the campaign, President Trump’s subsequent deference to Putin and his pro-Russia realignment of American foreign policy—no further investigation was required since Mr. Trump’s relationship with Russia is obvious, as is the danger he poses to America’s national security. No, my team had to consider an altogether different question.

SNOWFLAKE: Which is?

MUELLER: Do the American people deserve four more years of Trump as president? That was the only relevant question. And sitting there for two years with our thumbs up our asses, watching the inane media coverage and the fallout from Trump’s election, we decided that, yes, Americans deserve Trump. So we wrote our report as a gift to the Republicans.

GIRLYMAN: Appalling. Just appalling.

MUELLER: Yes it is, isn’t it!
After Mr. Barr presented his interpretation of Robert Mueller’s principal conclusions, Mr. Trump reiterated for the eleven-thousandth time that there was no collusion.

“The radical Democrats said there was collusion,” shouted the president at a press conference. “They called me a criminal mastermind. And now the wonderful Mueller has completely exonerated me.”

A reporter then asked, “Isn’t it possible, Mr. President, you were never competent enough to be a Russian agent, because you’re just a bumbling, senile, childish, psychotic buffoon—which makes you the perfect useful idiot or stooge of Putin?”

“Even if that’s true,” said President Trump before shooting the reporter dead, “that’s better than being a stooge of American oligarchs like the other US presidents.”

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Character and Freewill

Bioethicist Hazem Zohny argues that “behaviour-changing neurointerventions” (the prospect of controlling someone else’s mind) shouldn’t be so controversial, because we’re never in control of our behaviour in the first place. More precisely, we mistake the reason why we object to the possibility of having our thoughts or actions dictated by someone else, if we assume we’re in control of them. Instead, thoughts arise unconsciously and thus always have a mysterious origin in automated neural events.

“Even a cursory attempt at introspection,” Zohny writes, “will show that thoughts and impulses simply arise in consciousness without will or intent. The source of the contents of our consciousness is always a mystery to us: things just pop into our minds. We can no better predict our next thought than we can predict the next words to come out of a stranger’s mouth.” When we deliberate, focusing our attention on a line of thought, we’re only adding more thoughts that contribute to the automation: “a thought happens to arise at the time and with the weight that it does, which then triggers a cascade of further thoughts. But each of those cascading thoughts itself happens to arise the way that it does without any will, intent or foresight on our part.” To illustrate, Zohny points out that when asked to think of a number between one and 100, you’ll find when attending to the process that the “number simply comes to mind.” So there’s no such thing as freewill in the sense of choosing or even predicting our mental contents.

According to Zohny, a better explanation of our resistance to the notion of neurointervention is that we fear being alienated from our thoughts and behaviour. In alien hand syndrome, for example, when a patient feels that her hand acts of its own volition, the problem with the alien hand isn’t “that it behaves without our intent or knowledge,” says Zohny, “but that it behaves in ways that do not cohere with other wants or wishes—such as our desire to be able to stop such movements when we want to. In other words, there is a difference between directly controlling our actions, and finding ourselves behaving in ways that do not align with how we want to behave at a particular moment.” Zohny concludes, “perhaps the real problem with behaviour-changing neurointerventions isn’t that they might rob us of control, but that they might make us think or act in ways that are alien to what we have so far been, ways that are potentially disturbing both to us and to those who know us well.”

What’s frustrating about Zohny’s argument is that he unwittingly points to the source of freewill and thus undermines his case. Zohny assumes that if we can’t pinpoint something necessarily immaterial and magical, known traditionally as a “soul” or “spirit,” something that chooses what we think at any given moment without itself being merely another mental content following a stream of similar thoughts and feelings, there’s no such thing as freewill or as self-control. But this strawmans the idea of freewill. Of course we’re not omnipotent: we don’t have the capacity to stand outside our brain and all our particular mental states to decide, based on no prior mental state, what we think or do. Who or what would be the self that transcends those mental states? What would distinguish this proper self from anyone else if that chooser of thoughts weren’t distinguished by some set of mental contents that would likewise have to come from somewhere?

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Nature of Creativity

There are two kinds of creativity, the impersonal and the personal. Personal creativity arises as a cosmic joke from the impersonal. Indeed, the universe’s impersonal creativity is the source of bathos, a staple of comedy. In any situation, the ever-present potential for anticlimax is fulfilled when we recognize that underlying what we’re proud of is nature’s dumb indifference. Let’s explore, then, the relations between these two forms of creativity.

The Monstrous Creator

In informed circles, nature is infamous for creating all that populates its dimensions and orders with no plan or purpose in view. The universe’s natural, scientifically-explainable order arises from the evolution of particles and forces which are born in turn from the quantum foam of potentiality. The universe complexifies from atoms to elements to molecules and compounds and much larger-scale forms such as nebulas, stars and galaxies. Alternatively, the greatest complexity lies in the minutest of subatomic shenanigans, and the larger forms are so many tempting misapprehensions of the pointlessness found in quantum events. The universe also evolves through time and not just at the macro level, which gives rise to organic phenomena and to personal creativity, but in the entropic decay of systems.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett popularized the concept of impersonal creativity, by drawing from Conway’s Game of Life, which is a computer simulation of how organic patterns can emerge under the pseudo-guidance of very simple rules. I came across a simpler demonstration while using the software AutoCAD, which can produce elaborate mandalas by dumbly following simple rules of repetition, rotation, mirroring, and attraction to center points. Here’s an example of what I mean.

A simple shape
After rotating and merging a copy of the prior stage
Notice the changing newly-created pattern in the
center, between the two copies as they merge
After rotating and merging a copy of the previous stage

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Homelessness and the Trumpocalypse: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler has returned with another diatribe. Gather round as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

Did you know, passersby, that there are homeless people? You may think you understand but you don’t, because the truth is hiding in plain sight. Ours is the age of futile investigation, when the establishment expends every effort in all manner of empirical inquiries, as though the horrors that need no introduction could be so easily dispelled.

Take, for example, the catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency. Currently there are seventeen investigations into Trump’s treachery and galaxy of frauds. You might as well research whether grass is green or 100 is a larger number than 2. Say you’re on the Titanic and the ship starts to sink. Instead of recognizing the direness of your situation, why not debate endlessly whether the ship is sinking or what it means to be on a sinking ship? And as the ship goes under and the frigid waters are up to your eyeballs, why not carry on the investigation right up to when you’ve reached your watery grave?

Add up the significance of all the scientific discoveries over the last century; their importance pales next to that of what we’ve learned about history and human nature from Trump’s presidency. But Trump has done us the service of hiding his monstrosity in plain sight, so no investigations are needed to understand what has thusly befallen believers in American ideals. This isn’t an appeal to common sense, which is often prejudiced in hindsight. No, the audacity of Trump’s mental disorders is revelatory and apocalyptic in the religious sense, meaning that we learn from Trump in the same way we’d learn from an angel or an extraterrestrial that descends to our material plain. You don’t have regular communications with such an interloper; rather, the newfound radical truth washes over you, because the message is conveyed at all levels of the experience. You don’t listen to what an angel from beyond says, since the real message is embedded in the medium, in the angel’s sheer existence on earth which falsifies consensual reality, ramifying throughout the rest of your life now that that theophany has reprogrammed your perspective.

To be sure, Donald Trump isn’t an angel or an advanced alien, but he is a transformative figure. Barack Obama was too feminized by the millennial constraints of late-modern liberalism to reshape the American mindset after the 2008 financial crisis called for a charismatic religious saviour to shepherd Americans to a new self-understanding or to reintroduce them to the New Deal. Inadvertently, Donald Trump is the false hero Americans and other individualists deserve but not the one they need (to paraphrase The Dark Knight). Trump is a demonic harbinger from beyond the political sphere. What his election, his character, and his power on the political stage teach us is both everything and nothing. His existence proves that human life is absurd and that while Donald Trump may be the world’s single greatest con artist, American culture itself is the greatest modern fraud.

The mass media have luxuriated in the profits to be gained from gossiping over Trump’s every word and deed, and so the public drowns in knowledge we weren’t meant to have. In his campaign for president, Trump boasted he alone could fix America and make that country great again, since the globalists had exploited Americans’ good will and ended their dominance in manufacturing. Never mind that the globalists in question were amoral capitalists like Donald Trump who would sell their grandmother to make a buck. Or that relatively rich Americans obviously couldn’t compete in manufacturing with machines and slave labourers in more oppressed parts of the world. At face value, nothing Trump says is worthy of attention, because he’s plainly an epic bullshitter and con artist. What’s historically monumental, though, is that a useful idiot of an international crime syndicate could come to rule the world’s most powerful democracy.

But rather than ponder the philosophical and religious importance of the Trumpocalypse, Americans are busy paradoxically burying their head in the sand, delaying their reckoning with horrific reality by investigating the causes of the catastrophe, and they’ll still be investigating long after the damage has been done and the chance to benefit by learning from this fiasco has been lost. 

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The False Synthesis of Hinduism

Besides its great age, what distinguishes Hinduism is its inclusivity by way of its systematic, comprehensive approach to the question of how best to live. Rather than being narrow-minded or dogmatic, the Hindu has multiple spiritual paths available, each of which finds its proper place in the sprawling edifice of religious and philosophical thinking from ancient India. In pop cultural form, you find the New Age writer and speaker Deepak Chopra, for example, tackling spiritual questions like a businessman or a politician, with a 12-point plan, appealing to various stages and hierarchies and principles. That approach derives from Hindu scriptures, according to which there are, for example, the four purusarthas or main goals in life: ethical action (dharma), wealth, pleasure, and liberation or spiritual release (moksha). Likewise, there are four ashramas or stages of life: student, householder, retirement, and renunciation. Of course, there are also the varnas, the proper social classes, as well as a god for every occasion, in the Hindu pantheon. No part of life is left out of the Hindu analysis.

What can seem like its greatest strength and sign of maturity, however, namely this eclectic, practical approach to life may instead be a profound weakness.

Historically, what scholars call “the Hindu synthesis” was meant to reconcile the ancient Vedic scriptures and principles with the Sramana or renouncer religions, among other Indian cultures and traditions. In the Vedic period of Indian history, dating from around 1,500–500 BCE, Indo-Aryans fled from the demise of the Indus-valley civilization, which had flourished for over a thousand years in the Bronze Age in South Asia, and migrated to the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. The Vedic culture was priestly, ritualistic and hierarchical, and developed into Brahmanic orthodoxy.

Key Hindu concepts such as dharma and karma derive from the Vedic ideas of satya and rta (rita), of the underlying, absolute order of all things, and of the natural process of organizing everything to be in line with that order. These two foundational concepts are found in numerous ancient religions and philosophies. In Greece, the similar concepts are telos and logos, inherent purpose and rational organization. In Confucianism, there’s li, a system of ritual norms that establishes harmony with the laws of Heaven, while in Taoism there are tao, and te, the proper flow or way of nature, and how an individual cultivates and expresses that flow. All such teleological concepts hearken back to animistic prehistory, when there was likely no rigid distinction drawn between subject and object, when the human experience was childlike and magical on account of the intuitiveness of the animists’ free-flowing anthropocentrism and of their projection of social categories onto nature.

Vedic culture faded during the Second urbanization, between 600-200 BCE when a reform movement gained prominence in Magadha, in the Central Ganges Plain. These reformers were the Sramana, the ascetics who rejected Brahmin political authority as well as the spiritual authority of the Vedic texts such as the Rigveda. Jainism and Buddhism grew out of this independent religious and philosophical counterculture in ancient India. Whereas Vedic religious concepts were liable to be political, since they had to regulate a social order, the ascetics (rather like the Gnostics) put individual spiritual liberation ahead of all other undertakings. Ascetics who renounced wealth and pleasure, politics and violence were omegas (last in the social hierarchy) and social outsiders. Their commitment to spiritual enlightenment must have provided for a devastating juxtaposition with the ulterior motives of the Brahmins, whose scriptures and rituals could have seemed like so many convenient rationalizations of a corruptible, arbitrary political regime.