Sunday, April 28, 2019

Nerds and Predators in World Affairs: Déjà vu from Childhood

In the schoolyard, the most aggressive children—typically boys—dominate the weaker kids, bullying and harassing them. The bullies know they’re only children themselves, not invincible, so secretly they’re afraid they’re overstepping their bounds. When society discovers a predator in its midst, the predator is locked up or slaughtered like a rabid dog. So the bully learns to conceal the depth of his depravity, acquiring the con artist’s knack for lying. This is the birth of the subcriminal psychopath, of the real-world monster that’s the source of all fictional villains.

On the other side there are the girls and the nerdy, effeminate boys, the budding intellectuals and gentle, proto-spiritual souls who are physically weak but mentally too strong for their good. These weaklings are ignored, dominated, or exploited as the case may be. For example, nerdy or unattractive girls may be teased or sexually abused by the popular boys who have wealthy parents and thus the apparent right to victimize the lower classes.

This dynamic between the thugs, con artists, and psychopaths, on the one side, and the girls, effeminate nerds and idealists, on the other, doesn’t disappear in adulthood; on the contrary, the divisions deepen.

In Europe, the elite bureaucrats are facing a backlash against antiglobalist authoritarian nationalists, including white supremacists who are opposed to immigration from Arab countries. In England, for example, the naivety of the elite neoliberals in the Labour and Conservative parties, protectors of the Establishment and of the Rule of Law, was revealed by their having been outmaneuvered by the demagogues who had whipped up anti-Europe sentiment in England, prompting the elites to promise the angry masses a referendum on the question of remaining in the European Union. Having underestimated the resentment from the many who were struggling under globalization, David Cameron held the referendum, campaigned that England should remain in the EU, and lost the referendum with only a bare majority of 51.9% voting to leave the EU. Despite the obvious split in public opinion, the elite intellectuals running the country refused to consider a do-over, and moved for the country as a whole to leave. What happened, then, is that half the British public was terrorized, fed misinformation, and bullied into surrendering Britain’s role in world affairs, by a pack of con artists and short-sighted anarchists (also known as “libertarians”).

Or take the war between Donald Trump’s Republicans and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. The former represent the free-loading, anarchical predators and powerful evil-doers (that is, the selfish parasites who are incapable of empathy). In counting on the Mueller report, the rule of law, and the wisdom of the founders, the Democrats, by contrast, represent the naïve pencil-necks and girly-men, the pie-in-the-sky spiritualists, artists, and intellectuals who are guided by utopian dreams.

The Democrats have their heads in the clouds and can’t bring themselves to fight dirty against the Republicans, because the Democrats are loath to admit the depths to which their society has sunk; in particular, they’re embarrassed by the fact that their political debates are driven by advanced renditions of schoolyard squabbles. The idealistic, “progressive” Democrats haven’t grappled with the catastrophic existential implications of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016. If a psychopathic predator can legally become president even in the country that’s supposed to lead the free world, why trust that democracy is an alternative to the authoritarian state? Why trust in the law if obvious evil has been rendered legal by decades of cynical lobbying? If nature wins in the end, why pretend the world can be improved, when you can just go with the flow of jungle law, as in theocracies, dictatorships, and oligarchies? 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

New Atheism and Godless Spirituality

New Atheism isn’t so new anymore. As others have pointed out, what began as a rationalist backlash against the religious war between Islamist terrorism and George W. Bush’s neoconservative crusade has split and faded. When Obama succeeded Bush, the New Atheists found themselves divided along political lines, between progressives and the dawning alt right. Thus, New Atheism as a mainstream movement has been eclipsed by the “woke” liberals, fighting for social justice on the left, and by the “classic liberals” and enemies of political correctness, on the right.

Progressives such as an atheist blogger on Patheos diagnose the problem with New Atheism this way: “When people walk away from religion, they should also have discarded racism, sexism and all the irrational prejudices that were propped up and legitimized by faith. In too many cases, that’s not what happened. The decent people who were non-religious but also cared about social justice quite rightly wanted nothing to do with this movement, and that’s caused a decline in its prominence and visibility.” Meanwhile, classic liberal atheists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher along with their fellow traveller, Jordan Peterson, accuse the young progressives, known pejoratively as “snowflakes” or “social justice warriors,” of being akin to religious fundamentalists for shutting down debate about unpopular opinions. Instead of playing the religious faith card to avoid following reason, progressive secularists would prohibit all anti-progressive ideas and policies on the grounds that they’re oppressive and unjust.

Scientism and the Nonrationality of Politics

The fracturing of New Atheism due to politicization shouldn’t be surprising, since all that was new with this atheist movement was the application of doubt about God to politics in popular Western culture after 9/11. Atheism itself is, of course, global and ancient. For a great elaboration, see Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book, Doubt: A History. The notion that godlessness might be politically useful, however, is dubious, regardless of whether the applications are proposed by liberals or by conservatives. Thus, the problem with the above quotation from the progressive atheist is that religion isn’t what’s propping up racism, sexism, or other irrational prejudices. What props them up is biology, and reason is the messenger that alerts us to that fact. The cross-race effect, for example, means that we more easily recognize faces with racial characteristics similar to ours, since those are the ones with which we’re most familiar. Our inherent biases can be altered by environmental factors, which is to say we’re not fated by biology to be troglodytes. But the ancestral (Paleolithic) environment to which our brain adapted does irrationally prejudice us in spite of our civilized conceits. Just as a domesticated tiger or pit bull or killer whale can fall back on its wild instincts and wreak havoc, we’re prone to defying civilized norms, especially if we think we can evade the authorities that would hold us to a higher standard. This is, of course, how most criminal misconduct unfolds.

But reason goes further in the Humean and Nietzschean direction, directing our attention to the fact that the condemnation of “irrational prejudices” is itself foolish. Scientism on both the progressive and classic liberal or alt right sides is far from a rational position. You can have all the facts you want and all the logical powers of deducing which facts would follow causally from others under various conditions, and the sum of that knowledge wouldn’t prove that one type of behaviour is superior to another. You’d know which is most effective or useful, yes, but not which is morally best. For that prescription you need an irrational leap. You need a value judgment, a desire and more likely a vision of an ideal world that feels right to you according to intuitions arising especially from your formative experiences. Needless to say, atheism doesn’t entail scientism or the idol of hyperrationality. Atheism is the denial that the universe likely has a personal creator who intervenes in nature. Science and naturalistic philosophy have spread atheism and enriched our interpretations of what a godless world is like, but it’s far from obvious that atheists should strive to be rational in all their affairs. True, the main problem with theism is that the core theistic beliefs are preposterous, as has long been rationally established, but that doesn’t mean all irrational behaviours should be avoided.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

American Atheism and the Lie of Conservative Christianity

Michael Knowles is a conservative American Catholic, a podcaster and columnist at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire website. According to his Wikipedia page, Knowles graduated from Yale with a degree in history. More recently, he wrote a howler of a short article at The Daily Wire, called God Help Us: Atheism becomes Largest Religion in U.S.

Knowles laments that, “For the first time in history, atheists constitute the largest religious group in America.” According to the General Social Survey, those who say they subscribe to no religion have “increased 266% over the past three decades and now account for 23.1% of the population, just barely edging out Catholics and Evangelicals as the nation’s dominant faith.” The problem with this increase, says Knowles, is that, “As religiosity has declined, social ills have abounded.” Americans have seen an increase in mental illness, in the use of antidepressants, and in suicide. “American life expectancy declined again last year, as Americans continue to drug and kill themselves at record rates.”

Lest you think there’s only a correlation between the rise of “atheism” and of those social ills, Knowles hastens to add that, “Social scientists have long since established the link between religiosity and life satisfaction.” People who regularly attend religious services ‘are nearly twice as likely as those who worship less than once a month to describe themselves as “very happy.”’ And religious people are “more likely to engage in happy-making behaviors, such as getting and staying married.” Thus it’s “obvious,” says Knowles, that “the belief that God loves you and that you will live with him in eternity offers greater consolation” than the view of death as a dirt nap that stiffens you into worm food.”

Knowles ends by connecting a decline in the quality of American politics to the rise of “atheism.” Says Knowles, ‘A materialistic culture worships wealth; a licentious culture worships sex; a godly culture worships God. But “our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people,” as John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts militia in 1798. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”’ Thus, “A miserable politics awaits us when the irreligious rot flows downstream. Who but God can help us now?”

A Litany of Errors

I don’t believe the content of Knowles’ article merits refutation, since it seems written as a careless provocation—not so much to atheists but to American “conservatives” who prefer to view themselves as victims so they can feel as though their attitudes, values, and behaviour have something vaguely to do with Christianity. Knowles’ task is just to scare the gullible, not to argue with intellectual integrity. The statistics and the arguments he cobbles together are window dressing, since his rightwing readers don’t trust in fancy displays of rationality. The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God (1 Cor, 3:19) and all of that. Even the Catholic defense of reason is so much casuistry meant to use the devil’s weapons against him, to feign an interest in reason to prove to the ignorant faithful that there’s nothing to see here and it’s time to move on from the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason and to return to some dystopian theocracy that stands in for God’s kingdom. So Knowles’ foray into this foreign territory of rational argumentation is only for show, which explains the speciousness of just about every sentence in his article.

Here are just some of his errors, which I’ll list only to brush them aside to get to the more interesting issues. As many commenters on his article point out, Knowles confuses atheists with those who say they have no religion. As CNN’s report on the survey points out, ‘“Religious nones,” as they are called by researchers, are a diverse group made up of atheists, agnostics, the spiritual, and those who are no specific organized religion in particular. A rejection of organized religion is the common thread they share’ (my emphasis).

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Gods, Heroes, and the Self: Our Life in Stories

What is the first genre of fiction? In other words, what purpose was served by the invention of the story, that is, of communication that departs in some respects from what’s really happening?

Strictly speaking, the very first verbal departure from reality would have included memories (confabulations) and prescriptions (statements meant to depict how things should be). Indeed, any statement that doesn’t capture exactly how events are playing out is to some extent counterfactual. This includes predictions of how events will probably unfold, since predictions are at least partly conjectural. Even commonsense generalizations, such as, “Tomorrow the sun will rise” don’t limit themselves to reporting how precisely certain sense data are received and processed, and so these, too, are fictional. For that matter, since all words in natural language are partly analogical and idealistic, there’s no such thing as nonfiction in ordinary discourse. Even artificial languages that are designed to be rigorously literal and precise aren’t purely adequate to the facts, since scientific languages are motivated by the desires to understand and to control, which add human spin and interpretation to proven theories and laws of nature.

But let’s put aside that hyper-skepticism, to inquire about fictions in the sense of stories that are intended to depart somehow from the facts, as opposed to statements that are meant to be factual but that nevertheless fail to be perfectly fact-based. Notice, though, that there’s no such thing as pure fiction in that sense, since no one would bother to tell a story that had nothing to do with reality. Even a lie that’s therefore known to be false is told as if it were true to protect some hidden interest. At most, a genuine fiction is a story that’s entertained as true as we suspend our disbelief because we ought to know the story is false in certain crucial respects.  

Fear and Arrogance, Gods and Superheroes

What, then, motivated the first tall tales? Two impulses seem likely influences on the invention of fiction: fear and arrogance. In so far as nature was frightening, we escaped into soothing fantasies. Also, pride in our accomplishments easily corrupts our character, leading to overconfidence, and some of us are victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect, meaning we’re often not smart enough to recognize our tendency to err, which frees us to exaggerate our cognitive skills. We likely expressed such ill-gotten pride by boasting in story form, identifying ourselves with our favourite heroic characters. The former mechanism (fear) amounts to ignoring or suppressing facts belonging especially to the external world that frightens us because of its alienness or indifference to our preferences, while the latter (arrogance) deviates from internal facts, from how we, too, fail to live up to our conceits.