Friday, August 30, 2019

The Trojan Horse of George Will’s Conservatism

Foolish painting by John McNaughton
Philosophy, the obsession with discovering the general truth even to the point of sacrificing your happiness is inherently revolutionary in that this obsession is a defining feature of our species, which revolts from the animal kingdom. To be sure, many of us aren’t personally so philosophical, but all of us collectively defer to the conventional wisdom which has accumulated from the cogitations of the great philosophers from history. All people, therefore, are more philosophical than animals, of course, since the human brain naturally reflects on or at least understands matters not directly related to our narrow life cycle. That meta-knowledge is progressive in that it liberated us from the biological order, opening up the psychological and the moral and existential (spiritual) niches; in other words, the type of knowledge which only people have in abundance is largely that which distinguishes us from animals. But this knowledge is also transgressive or accursed (figuratively speaking), since much of the natural truth—of our certain death, of the relative smallness of all our concerns, of the world’s godlessness, pointlessness, and accidental development—spoils our creaturely innocence, preventing us from being at peace with natural conditions.

In so far as we’re wise apes in that respect, then, the notion of “conservative philosophy” ends up being oxymoronic. Liberalism, the opposite of conservatism, is equivalent to humanism, to the celebration of those cognitive and behavioural capacities that make possible that progressive/transgressive knowledge. Conservatism becomes the regression to animalism, the favouring of social arrangements in which philosophy has no place, and an apology for the dominance hierarchies that reestablish nature’s hold over us. Such is the key to seeing past the partisan obfuscations that can make it seem as though there were two great opposing political philosophies. Instead, there’s just humanism, broadly speaking, and the antihumanistic (animalist) con.

American Conservatism as Classical Liberalism

George Will
You can tell how barren is the prospect of a conservative philosophy, from the sad pretenses of George Will’s tome, The Conservative Sensibility. (Due to possible confusion caused by his surname’s being also a word, I’ll refer to that author as GW.) GW himself concedes in his introduction that his project is only to lay bare the philosophy of American conservatism, rejecting the European variety and identifying American conservatism with classical liberalism, with the Lockean political philosophy that guided the founders of the American republic. That so-called conservatism is better known today as libertarianism. To GW’s credit, he’s clear about the potential for linguistic confusion on this point:
My effort is to explain three things: the Founders’ philosophy, the philosophy that the progressives formulated explicitly as a refutation of the Founders, and the superiority of the former…Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil nostalgia, irrationality, and tribalism. American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking. The price of accuracy might be confusion, but this point must be made: American conservatives are the custodians of the classical liberal tradition. (my emphasis)
You know there’s not actually any such thing as conservatism, no such thing as a conservative ideology when, according to a conservative intellectual, the only defensible kind of “conservatism” —the “throne-and-altar, blood-and-soil” propaganda for monarchies notwithstanding—is instead a classical expression of liberalism! As Roger Scruton says in The Meaning of Conservatism,
the concept of freedom—and in particular, such constitutionally derived freedoms as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and ‘conscience’—this concept has until recently been the only one that has been presented by contemporary Conservatism as a contribution to the ideological battle which it has assumed to be raging. While freedom meant ‘freedom from communist oppression’ conservatives could advocate freedom and know that they were more or less in line with what they had always believed. But with the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the emergence of a left-liberal consensus, the old battle-cry does nothing to distinguish conservatism from its rivals. (my emphasis)
American conservatism is thus to conservatism what American “football” is to real football. How do you know what football really is? When watching the sport, take careful note of whether only the players’ feet are permitted to touch the ball. If you’re allowed to carry the ball in your hands, that’s not football by definition. But the United States tried to rebrand the global sport of football (known in North America as “soccer”), by applying the same name to an altogether different, American-created sport that’s popular only in the United States. In the same way, the Catholic Church coopted rival religious holidays and doctrines by merging them with Christian ones. And that’s also how GW proceeds, by carving out an American variety of “conservatism” from the heart of liberalism, of all things, and by casting “progressivism,” socialism, or trust in government—a mere development of liberalism—as the true foe of conservatism.

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Meaning of Christianity

Christianity is perhaps the world’s most misunderstood religion, because its Western form has systematically covered up its deepest message. To see how this has happened and to understand the implications of Christianity’s central story, consider that anyone interested in this religion has to answer a fundamental question: Do you identify more with Jesus Christ or with the other people in the gospel narrative, that is, with the Pharisees or Romans, with Jesus’s human family members or followers, or with a contemporary version of some such group?

The Deeper Meaning of Christian Literalism

Catholic and Protestant Christians are forced to answer that we’re more like the other humans in the story than like Jesus. This is because of how Western Christianity developed from an early stage of its history, namely from the challenge presented by Gnostics, Marcionites, and Docetists, some of whom believed Jesus’s human form was an illusion. Specifically, what would become official Christianity literalized and historicized the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. The mainstream Church affirms as dogma that God really did come to earth and incarnate in a particular mortal body at a certain time and place, now two millennia removed from us. Just as the calendar splits up history into the periods before and after Jesus’s supposed birth, the Church says there’s Jesus, the one and only begotten god-man, and then there’s everyone else. The literalization of this story is simultaneously the distancing of Jesus from the rest of us. Precisely because God-as-Jesus actually lived as a particular person in time, according to the Church, that figure must obviously be spatiotemporally separate from all other human individuals. This is just to apply the principle of haecceity, or thisness, to the people in question, just as we might say that if a leaf existed in first century Palestine, with various other individuating properties, that leaf must be something other than every single other leaf.

With that straightforward differentiation in mind, reflect on the premise of the Christian narrative. God came to earth to live with the creatures he created, and what happened? Those creatures were so far from living up to God’s standards, so blinded by mundane and sinful matters that they rejected Jesus—and thus God—in all possible ways. His family rejected him, thinking him mad; his fellow Jews saw him as a blasphemer and conspired to have him arrested by the Romans; the Romans tortured and executed Jesus as a trouble-maker; and Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand his message and abandoned him, fleeing to avoid similar reprisals from the Jews and Romans. The crucial assumption in Christianity is that God’s creatures couldn’t recognize God even when God was right in their midst. And the narrative clearly means to universalize that point, since it’s not as if people in any other part of the world in any historical period have been especially righteous such that if the equivalent of Jesus appeared to them they would have recognized the miracle and celebrated God. No, the New Testament assumes that all people are equally depraved in comparison to Jesus.

Now what might be inferred just from that information? If God’s creatures are so hostile to him that they would eagerly abandon him and even slaughter their creator at the first opportunity, this suggests that something somewhere has gone badly wrong. As the Gnostics were to interpret the message, the created world is distant from God because God isn’t the creator. We’re spiritually blind and lost to sin, because we’re slaves to the will of an unholy creator, of the abomination of an incompetent, vain, and tyrannical demiurge or intermediary between us and the Supreme Being. Laying aside the Gnostic speculations, we can infer from the above Christian assumption that nature is at least an antispiritual domain, which means that any spiritual visitor of nature would become an outcast. The literalizing of the Christian myth concentrates sacredness into a particular entity, leaving the rest of the universe profane by comparison. To be spiritual or godly on the disenchanted earth is to be antinatural, to go against the flow of creation-by-natural-becoming. If Jesus was one such spiritual being, he was naturally spurned as a hostile invader from another realm, threatening the natural order. And if we attempt to wed the assumption in question with theistic premises, we end up with some incoherent theodicy familiar to philosophers of religion. What would be so great about God if God allowed the demiurge to create such a flawed domain? Or how could such a God be more directly responsible for creating a world that would nail God to a cross?

Friday, August 16, 2019

Julius Evola and the Sham of Conservative Philosophy

You may have heard whisperings of the existence of something called a “conservative idea” or a “conservative philosophy.” These strange suggestions aren’t attributable just to the journalist’s performance of objectivity, to her pretense that there are two sides to every story and that her job as reporter is only to present both sides without prejudgment and to let the reader determine which is factual and which is flagrant disinformation, spin, propaganda, myth, and the like. Were the journalist’s role indeed to be so neutral, we could expect to bid farewell to every journalist in short order, since the internet allows all sides on an issue to present their versions of the story, without the need of an intermediary. But I digress.

The talk of “conservative ideas” is comparable to the Catholic Church’s insistence, when first confronted with ancient Greek and modern rationalist challenges to its dogmas, that philosophy and science can just as easily vindicate the Christian creed as these rationalist disciplines can disprove it. Thus was born systematic or “Scholastic” theology, the flaunting of logic in defense of magical thinking, ignorance, and fear-based prejudice. Likewise, “political science” arose as a rationalist discipline, as the humanities in general had to compete with the sciences for respectability. Liberals and conservatives thus had to justify their attitudes by appealing to philosophical and scientific methods.

In the United States, there were, then, the neoconservatives who rose to power under George W. Bush and who set to work disguising their warmongering as a respectable case for “regime change” in Iraq. Their ruse was exposed when their predictions of a prosperous and democratic Iraq were quickly falsified by the opposite reality (Iraq is now largely controlled by Iran), and when their “case” turned out to be a cynical pretext and an application of shock capitalism. Presently under Trump, there’s the more egregious spectacle of a wildly anti-intellectual mob of white supremacist trolls, anarchists, and fake Christians rushing to justify their cult of enslavement to a pure demagogue and conman. No longer known as “neoconservative,” this cult calls itself the “alt right” or part of the “intellectual dark web.” In the mainstream media’s simplified telling, Karl Rove served as “Bush’s brain,” while Trump supposedly has Steve Bannon to thank for the illusion of order in his official activities. But whether they know it or not, the alt right rationalize their fear and bigotry by summoning some stylings of the Traditionalist School, such as the “ideas” of Rene Guenon and Julius Evola. The Charlottesville white supremacists’ chant of “Blood and soil!” and their fear of being replaced by foreigners, for example, can be given an elaborate pseudo-justification in those terms.

Evola’s Spiritual Aristocracy

Julius Evola
Let’s focus on Evola’s defense of “Tradition” to see how this charade works. Conservatives generally look to a mythical past to justify their authoritarian character, just as progressives and socialists hold out the prospect of a utopian future as the end that justifies their weak-willed compromises with the powers that be. Evola spices up his appeal to tradition with an assortment of esoteric references in his texts. He condemns all aspects of modernity—individualism, egalitarianism, democracy, secularism, naturalism, neoliberalism (free market ideology), and even the wrong kind of dictatorship—as so many failures to abide by a more principled and spiritual social order. Genuine authority, he says, is service to a transcendent idea or principle which inspires a population to respect quality over quantity and to divide itself into a social hierarchy of castes or races.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Entheogen: the Source, Substance, and Bane of Religions

Art by Alex Grey
The strangest thing about the major religions isn’t that their practitioners are adults that have childlike beliefs about invisible persons, miracles, and life after death. No, what’s most puzzling about religions is that they aren’t upfront about the fact that the entheogen or psychotropic substance is their source and essence. We know from ancient religious art and from scattered references in religions such as Hinduism and the Eleusinian Mysteries that their practitioners employed hallucinogenic drugs. We know also that shamanism is likely the oldest religion, associated as it was with Paleolithic animism, and that shamans used these drugs and other techniques to achieve altered states of consciousness.

There are at least three possible reasons for the religions’ coyness about their psychedelic basis.

First, assuming that the drug produces only hallucinations or perceptual illusions, the extent to which a religion is based on such experiences could easily be the extent to which the religion is a fraud, in which case this origin of theological content could be kept hidden out of embarrassment or denial.

Second, there’s the social need for the esoteric/exoteric divide, since the knowledge or experience nevertheless obtained from the use of entheogens is potentially harmful both to the individual’s mental integrity and to social organizations. This means that religious myths may refer obliquely to their true source and substance, as a test of the readiness of the audience to absorb the shocking truth. As Jesus says about his use of parables, “The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven’” (Mark 4:11-12). Here Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, where the prophet receives his commission from an angry Yahweh who condemns the people of Judah for their faithlessness in the face of the Assyrian invaders. The message is that most people aren’t fit for spiritual wisdom and so the ultimate truths have to be protected with secrecy.

Third, the secrecy empowers some at the expense of others. The point needn’t be that those who have religious power are familiar with the psychedelic basis of religion, and that they mean to retain their advantages by guarding the source of their knowledge; on the contrary, the exploitation of others is a sign that the dominator has only a mundane mentality. (Even the psychopath who’s abandoned social norms and who is thus in some ways freer than the benighted followers typically reverts to a standpoint of genetic egoism.) The third possibility, rather, is that those with religious power over others mean to eliminate the substance of religion, such as by helping to ban entheogens, and to distract the masses with cheap and shallow substitutes, to ignore existential questions and indulge in profane games.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Pragmatism, Naturalized Platonism, and Freewill: A Conversation

[The following is an email conversation I had with Sybok, a reader of this blog. The conversation began in the comment section of my dialogue on the moral argument for God. We wanted to debate the issue of freewill, but realized that we should first consider our different metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, since otherwise those would crop up and divert us. So that’s what we did. Without further ado, here’s our dialogue.]


SYBOK: You ask what happens when we know something is true. Since there's no God, truth can't be a case of mere correspondence where our opinion about something matches God's. But it can't be a simple matter of coherence either, since plenty of coherent statements are pure fiction (The Buffyverse is coherent). Clearly, neither coherence nor correspondence is a sufficient condition for truth. For something to be 'true', it must be coherent, but it must also correspond to... what?

Plato had the answer in his theory of forms. Plato believed that everything, from a triangle to a horse, had an archetypal form that persisted outside time and space. Today we know that horses evolved from non-horse ancestors with many intermediate species that gradually approximated the modern horse; hence there can be no eternal horse-form. But Plato's error wasn't his theory, but its over-application. Horses are synthetic in that they are composed of cells, molecules, atoms, etc. The forms aren't synthetic, but irreducible preconditions for the existence of any synthetic entity. Forms don't change, but their relationships do. Forms have no extension in space-time, but they underpin it. We all know some forms, though not through our senses; and when we know a form, we know it's true.

The forms are numbers, logical relationships and normative principles like Aristotle's law of Identity. Without these, nothing could exist. This doesn't make synthetic things 'untrue' in the sense of nonexistent. Horses are real; but for something to be real it must be compossible; if compossible it must be possible; if possible it must be rational. Hegel erred when he said that all that is rational is real. A rational thing is possible, but unless it's compossible with everything else, it will never be real (unicorns are possible, but aren't real).

To summarize: Something's 'true' when it corresponds to a rational form and something's 'real' if it's compossible.


BENJAMIN: Plato thought that material things are copies of immaterial, more perfect originals. The intuition there would be the picture theory of meaning. So a painting of a horse is about a horse because the two are similar. But similarity theories of meaning have proven quite problematic. An accidental arrangement of clouds might resemble a train, but we wouldn’t say the one is intentionally directed towards the other. So similarity doesn’t seem like a sufficient condition of meaning. In any case, it’s hard to see how immaterial “things” could resemble material ones, so there wouldn’t even be much similarity between the worlds to speak of. Likewise, words don’t resemble their objects (linguistic symbols are digital, not analogue), so there resemblance seems irrelevant to meaning.

I think a Platonist should think of knowledge and truth as having to do with mystical insight and experience. In this fallen domain, there’s only illusion and ugliness, not real beauty, truth, or goodness. The Cave analogy says it all. So Platonism joins up with Gnosticism and the Indian religions. In nature we have faint ideas of what we should be doing and of what should have been. There should be goodness, beauty, and truth, but in contemplating those wishes we’re only vaguely remembering our prior life, in so far as we were one with the Good or with the unified source of multiplicity. When we talk about natural knowledge, then, we’re fooling ourselves just like the captives in the cave fool themselves into thinking they’re dealing with something other than flickers of shadows on the wall.

When we acquire philosophical habits of mind, however, and we focus on rational and ethical absolutes, we encounter ideals and learn to forsake the material copies as we get lost in philosophical explorations. Knowledge, then, really would be akin to falling in love—but with abstract ideas rather than with people or with material objects. We know something, for a Platonist, when we’re possessed with an abstraction and when we’re awestruck by such evidence that there’s a better world beyond nature. Truth and error would be something like the continuum between virtue and vice, a falling short or an approximation, not so much having to do with similarity but with the moral or aesthetic inferiority of the copies to the originals.