Monday, September 30, 2019

Objectivity and the Inhuman

At first glance, the nature of objectivity looks straightforward. Objectivity is the opposite of subjectivity, at least, and taking a subjective view of something means imposing idiosyncratic, personal, or somehow noncognitive elements onto the thing itself. So a subjective representation of a dog, say, would be something like an artistic or otherwise biased statement that expresses how the speaker feels about dogs rather than how dogs really are, regardless of anyone’s attitude towards the animal.

But the philosopher Immanuel Kant showed that this intuitive distinction is incoherent, because even the most so-called unbiased or neutral representation of something requires some cognitive processing which stands apart from the represented thing itself. All we can know or understand is the “phenomenon,” Kant said, the thing as it appears to a creature with our human modes of conceptualization, not the thing as it is independent of any human or nonhuman form of understanding. Indeed, as Kant pointed out, even to speak of the “noumenon,” of how a dog would be even if there were no one else to perceive the dog or to construe the dog’s nature is empty. Perception, understanding, and knowledge all presuppose a mental format brought to the matter by the subject. All cognition, then, has a subjective element. Kant differed from metaphysical idealists such as Berkeley, in denying that knowledge is purely subjective. The nonsubjective part of the world contributes something to the content of our experience. But instead of thinking of objectivity as the absence of subjectivity, Kant argued we should reformulate that distinction as one between the universal and the idiosyncratic. The objective elements of experience are the universal, “transcendental” ones that speak to our human cognitive conditions, those that Kant considered the structures of our mind as far as epistemology is concerned.

Emotions of Objectivity

However, I don’t think this is all there is to objectivity because, contrary to Kant, our conception of the thing in-itself isn’t empty. Where Kant has it right, I think, is in inferring that the more parochial our analysis, the more it speaks only to phenomena, to how things seem subjectively to us. Concepts formulated in natural languages, in particular, are largely metaphorical and anthropocentric. For example, the concept of “objects” itself derives from the Latin word, objectus, which means thrown down towards or thrown down in opposition. Natural things aren’t literally thrown down by any hand, so that initial conception must be analogical or archaic. Presumably, the general idea would be that it’s as if things-as-objects were thrown down before us, because their objective element is that which we have no choice but to address. To have something literally thrown at you is to be forced to deal with it or to have the thing imposed on your perceptual field.

Interestingly, “ob” in “objectus” can mean towards but it can also mean against, as in the Latin root of “oppose.” However, this speaks not to an early cosmicist intuition, but to the role of objectivity in the social practice of disputation. The objective evidence was thrown down not against the initial observer, but an opponent in an argument, so the paradigmatic case of objectivity would be that deployed by the lawyer at trial who dramatically slams the exculpatory piece of evidence on the table before the astonished jury and opposing counsel. Either way, then, objectivity was initially conceived in the West as part of human behaviour, as something done in social interaction, not as whatever speaks more to the nonhuman side of experience, to things as they are independent of how we’re built to think of them.

To return, though, to the criticism of Kant, the point is that if we have in mind anything like that Latin, anthropocentric conception when we claim we’re being objective in thinking of X, we’re likely dealing only with the makings of a phenomenon in Kant’s sense. To get at a more universal, transcultural cognitive element, we’d have to analyze further that practice of throwing down X, to find a more general feature. Notice that such an analysis needn’t be restricted to issues of semantics, categorization, and logic. As phenomenologists have subsequently shown, how things seem to us includes an emotional component which may likewise be idiosyncratic or universal. The real question of objectivity, then, is whether being objective in capturing the noumenon could coherently amount to being indifferent or passive in forming the representation. Kant’s point would be that the notion of any such attempt is incoherent. To form a mental representation is to impose some structure onto the perceived or known thing; otherwise, you’d have just the thing itself, not any cognitive act or representation. Laying aside any such claim to neutrality, though, there’s still the potential for recognizing something’s objective significance with the fitting emotional response. Here we’re talking not about the semantic meaning of arid concepts, but a universal value-laden meaning. 

Monday, September 23, 2019

Are All Real Values Aesthetic?

Our life would not be worth living if we valued nothing. Indeed, that’s a tautology, because to speak of life as worth living is, of course, to speak of life as having a (positive) value. If we were to take the physicist’s view of the universe as sufficient for knowledge or if we were to adopt an eastern mystical perspective on the natural world of changing events as being wholly illusory, we would be nihilists. In that case, we’d have to believe that values are unreal, that all that exists is either an amoral, inhuman flow of matter and energy or some transcendent realm in which human values are meaningless. To value something is to assess the thing as being good or bad. If nothing is really good or bad, if the assessments of value are, at best, self-indulgent conceptual tools we use to accommodate ourselves to living with many strangers in civilized society, we’re poised to lose faith in whatever we’re doing as human creatures. As the Bible likes to say, our heart might grow as cold and heavy as a stone when, instead of humanizing the inhuman wilderness, the opposite influx happens: the physical object’s indifference and pointlessness infiltrate our cultures and worldviews, bypassing our mental defenses, and we objectify ourselves and each other. Human life takes on the aspect of an absurd game, a grotesque folly, a blasphemous outrage.

Nietzsche declared that nihilism would be the inheritance of the “Last Man” who would lack an authentic culture, after the death of God and the surrender of theistic value-systems that are obsolete after the modern discrediting of organized religions. Only if we’re saved by the grace of a superhuman act of value-creation by some ingenious artist might we discover a worthy faith for our time, one that’s fit for the real world. Late-modern art, however, is arguably as dead as God. The art world is a con exploited by the wealthy few in China, Russia, Europe, and the US to launder their ill-gotten profits. Digitization, the proliferation of free data on the internet, and the democratization of the paraphernalia of musicians, visual artists, and film-makers have degraded the outputs of those media. Anyone now can be an artist, which means art can no longer be revelatory. To the extent that art is ubiquitous and consumed like the air we breathe, we take art for granted, and artists themselves can be expected to die off—especially as they’re replaced by machines and software.

The codes of civic morality, too, are arguably disgraced along with neoliberalism (the colonization of all areas of culture by free market principles) and social democracy, given the recent global rise of populism. If the coda of the American century is the farce of Donald Trump’s presidency, we might wonder whether anyone can trust that our secular institutions have real merit. By way of illustration, consider that if the Christian myth is that Jesus took on the sins of the world and was punished to wipe away their stain on God’s creation, President Trump evidently stands as an anti-Christian figure, as an unholy parody of Jesus’s sacrifice; after all, Trump embodies practically half the sins that have ever been committed by humanity and avoids punishment for any of them. Should we play by the rules, then, when the justice system of the most powerful country—which drew up the plans for the global world order—is evidently a sham? Should we bother to vote when the leading democracy can elect a Trump or when Britain can be duped into destroying itself with Brexit? Should we continue to participate in our economies, when consumerism threatens to destroy the planet’s ability to support life?

There are roughly two kinds of nihilist, the informed and the uninformed. The former deliberately sets out to believe in nothing, due to her hyperskeptical antipathy to traditions, institutions, and other sources of value. The latter, unknowing type of nihilist, however, is far more common since while this type believes she has plenty of ideals and goals, these are in fact debased; that is, even if you think you’re trying to be good and you have a religious or philosophical story to justify your value judgments, you’ll be effectively a nihilist if those accounts and judgments put you in touch only with nothing in the reality outside your small-minded frames of reference. You’ll be a nihilist except that you won’t know it; you’ll be one of the walking dead, enthralled by some empty bits of propaganda.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

What Crazy Nonsense will replace Trump on Mainstream News Outlets?

Dateline: WASHINGTON, DC, Year 2025—After President Trump left office in 2024, the mainstream news channels were deprived of their primary source of ratings. CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other major players compensated for that loss by showcasing the ravings of psychotic individuals, which the news channels broadcast from mental hospitals.

“We lost most of our audience right after Trump left,” said a CNN news producer. “It was tough there for a while. We had to scramble for equivalent footage, since Trump built up an expectation for the highest caliber of insane, clownish rants, of wildly-deluded braggadocio, and of childishly-petty revenge schemes. We had nowhere else to turn for that level of entertainment once Trump left Washington, since all of the remaining politicians naturally are adults who function at normal levels of human cognitive capacity.”

However, the news team realized there’s an untapped supply of Trumpian entertainment to be mined in mental hospitals.

The news producer outlined the new daily news-gathering process: “Instead of waiting for President Trump’s laughable tweets or his spouting of crazy nonsense with all of that helicopter noise in the background, we wire the rooms of the loony bin and pipe the twaddle to the editors at CNN headquarters for broadcast. We take the juiciest bits of wacko pronouncements and use them as platforms for our evening editorials.”

News anchors Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon used to ridicule President Trump’s embarrassing signs of mental unfitness. Now, with Trump gone, the anchors take on the arduous challenge of critiquing the mouth-frothing madness of a hapless sicko strapped to a gurney in a padded cell. 

“The aliens are here,” cried the patient, named Bradley Mayhew, on CNN. “The aliens live in my teeth and armpits. We’re plotting to rob a Las Vegas casino with straws and empty tissue boxes. Plus, if I flap my arms I can reach Mars by midnight. Watch me fly away and away and away…”

“Intriguing!” cried Don Lemon, analyzing this breaking story on his nightly program. “Once again, can we trust that Mr. Mayhew? Day after day it’s the same thing from him. His craziness belittles his station—on the gurney in that padded cell.

“But don’t take my word for it! Here’s a Harvard physicist to explain why you can’t get to Mars by flapping your arms. Mr. Physicist, take it from here and set the record straight for the listeners, because I’m tired of having to deal with these insane rants. I’m embarrassed for that patient, I really am.”

“Indeed, Don,” said the physicist. “If we fact-check those remarks, it shouldn’t take us long to realize that Mr. Mayhew’s plan of flying to Mars in such a fashion doesn’t hold water. No, I shouldn’t expect him to get far by flapping his arms. Probably not even out of his cell and certainly not beyond the confines of the lunatic asylum.”

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Kleptocrat Playsets (Batteries not Included)

Dateline: NYC—Researchers have solved the mystery of how Donald Trump and Boris Johnson could have simultaneously come to exist.

“The clownish incompetence, the superhuman feats of narcissism, the shameless, pathological lying—Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson share these traits as populist politicians,” said news analyst Ms. Newsy. “Both demagogued their way to leadership positions in their respective countries, trashing those countries in the process, and they do so at almost exactly the same time.”

That might just be a coincidence, but what astonished political experts and the media is the other telltale trait that the President and the Prime Minister have in common: the baffling mops of blond hair.

“How could Boris have come to power just after Trump?” asked Ms. Newsy. “One literal clown right after the other; both are obvious con artists, both are cartoonish villains that have the deepest contempt for their followers, and both have similar inexplicable hairdos. How do you explain the similar strangeness of even their hair? Something weird is going on.”

Erwin Touchyfeely, a Jungian psychologist, posited that the pair rose to power “by way of a synchronicity, a metaphysically-significant coincidence or clue to the deep structures of human life.”

According to Mr. Touchyfeely, “Boris Johnson was able to become prime minister of Britain at the same moment his counterpart was in office in the US, because larger forces wanted to send the Western world a signal: our vulnerability to hostile nonsense is no accident.”

But a team of intrepid researchers from Embarrass, Minnesota tracked down the more likely source of Misters Trump and Johnson.

“There’s actually a company in New York, called Travesties R Us, that manufactures demagogues and kleptocrats,” said the lead researcher, Winston Rakmucker. “They clone humans and program the clones to conform to our worst expectations. In other words, they create stock characters—for entertainment purposes, you understand.”

Archibald Stone, CEO of Travesties R Us, confirmed that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson came off his company’s assembly line.

“Someone must have ordered a couple of those Kleptocrat models,” said Mr. Stone, “and then dispersed them and wound them up, and poof: you have two populist revolutions, or ‘Travesties’ as we like to call them—and that’s trademarked.”

The company also carries the complementary social phenomena known as “the Idiotic Masses,” which complete the “Kleptocrat Playset.” 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Paradox of Secular Holiness

Euhemerism, a way of reducing religious references to natural ones, goes back to the ancient Greek skeptics. In the third century BCE, Euhemerus argued that belief in the existence of immortal gods is based on a confusion arising from the passage of time. The gods were originally just powerful humans, especially kings or emperors who were deified out of the subjects’ respect and fear, as in the celebratory process of apotheosis. Over time the memory of such exaltations was forgotten, as was the connection between gods and human rulers, and the divine characters took on their own life in people’s imagination.

For most skeptics, the point of this reductive explanation is to undermine religion. The colossal error of confusing a human king with a creator of the universe must have been the most embarrassing blunder ever to have occurred. The carnage from religious wars and persecutions, the wasted lives in ascetic follies, the oppression of gullible masses in theocratic dominance hierarchies—all of these damages occurred the world over for thousands of years. That could entail that the human form isn’t capable of perpetrating a greater embarrassment than the one responsible for theistic religions.

But there’s another way of looking at the general naturalization of religion. If religions really refer only to familiar natural phenomena, as in the case of the social reality of heaven and hell, the world should be re-enchanted, not deadened by scientific scrutiny and technological manipulation. Instead of just laughing at religious folks for possibly forgetting that gods have only ever been just powerful humans, we might marvel at the reality of those persons, at the natural emergence of creatures that run empires and live as gods in luxury. Moreover, the intrinsic dubiousness of theistic propositions opens up the possibility that the deflationary knowledge is esoteric. That’s to say that religions might become fraudulent, complete with the secret understanding of the insiders, that religious contents are all-too familiar rather than transcendent. To understand what religions are really about, to see past the conventions and appreciate the depth of our foolishness and the brazenness of our schemes might provide an honourable, albeit an ironic religious experience.

Fame, Envy, and Holy Ground

Here, then, is a deflationary analysis of a particular aspect of religions, namely the concept of sacred or holy places and items, in the sense of those felt to have a spiritually pure quality. If you asked a religious person what makes her temple holy, she’d say it’s because God is present in that space. God’s spirit enters the world and inspires the congregants while they worship in that building, or else the temple is indirectly sacred because of its historical connection to the miracles that founded the religion. A classic example of a holy place would be Mount Horeb from Exodus 3:1-5, where Moses climbs the mountain to find God, and God appears as the miracle of the burning bush, and instructs Moses not to investigate the miracle: ‘When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called out to him from within the bush, “Moses, Moses!” “Here I am,” he answered. “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” ’ The same explanation would be given for why scriptures are deemed to be opposed to mundane reality and imbued with a spiritually pure quality: God wrote or inspired the writing of the words on those pages.

If we dismiss such theistic explanations as both confused and spectacularly embarrassing for humanity, we should still search for the root of that real experience that some places and objects are so special that they’re worth killing or dying for. The phenomenon of fame should provide us a clue. Secular celebrities are idolized and worshipped as if they were divine beings. Fans stand in line for days just to look at their favourite movie star and when they’re in the celebrity’s presence, the fans often break down, weeping with joy, jumping and carrying on as if possessed. Indeed, the word “fan” is short for “fanatic,” from fanaticus, meaning that which pertains to the temple and is inspired by orgiastic rites. In short, “fanatical” was originally used as a pejorative term for frantic religious behaviour. But the point is that we have an obvious secular version of that phenomenon. So we can imagine the paradox of the secular equivalent of a holy place, such as the celebrity’s home or other private area.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Scripture from the Future: Who Represents Humanity?

[The year is 2240 and a dark new religion has arisen, drawing inspiration from the writings of a legendary twenty-first century occult philosopher and cult leader, Jurgen Schulze. Only fragments of his literary output remain and these form that religion’s scriptures, known to worshippers as The Cosmic Horrors. What follows is the third chapter of that sacred work.]
A voice thundered from the starry heavens, which the world as one heard: “Humans of the earth, four chances I give you to choose your representative. One of you must stand for the rest, embodying what you all have been, are, and will always be. Should none of those proxies prove true, I shall send a cleansing fire to incinerate your kind for your failure to know yourselves.”

The nations deliberated and voted, and their first choice to represent them was the president of a leading democracy, an educated, wealthy, young politician, handsome and popular.

“Voice from the stars,” said the president, fearless in his tailored business suit, “I have come to stand for all men, women, and children. In me they have their champion, for my record proves I can lead my people to a bright and shining future. Forward, ever forward we must go as one, for we were favoured by God to rule this earth.”

Once more the voice from above boomed across the entire planet, ranging from the largest metropolis to the most isolated hut: “You have chosen a cheery mask worn by a child playing dress-up; a smooth persona to throw the wolf off your scent; a voice like candy, sweet and poisonous, signifying nothing; a smug predator gulling you with platitudes and empty promises; an idol you cling to for fear of seeing what you really are. Choose again!”

For the second time the nations drew together, tearing out their hair and racking their brains, for their first choice had been soundly rejected. After weeks of contemplation they called upon a great saint to stand for them, a kindly old woman whose hands were gnarled from years of feeding the poor and healing the sick.

Dressed in a modest frock, the saint addressed the alien terror: “Though I’m unworthy, I offer my services, meager as they are, to help however I can, even if it’s to clean your floors or toilet, O great and terrible voice from the stars, if only you’ll spare my species. Take me if you must, burn me to ashes, but leave the rest be.”

“Now you’ve established what you fervently wish you were,” answered the voice, “a selfless wretch who tends to the injured after your rampages and debauches, a wisp of a creature who couldn’t even lift your swords or rifles and who would sooner starve to death than dominate the planet as you’ve done. Choose again!”

The nations pondered for months and nominated their most honoured wise man, a scientist who was widely read in philosophy, history, and religion.

“Show yourself,” said the wise man to the voice from the heavens, “so that we can rationally discuss this conflict. Lay forth your arguments against us so that we can learn from them and change our ways if change we must.”

“A lonely owl you’ve picked,” answered the voice, “an observer, hiding behind his books; a copyist, spinning tales of the world as it passes by and is rationally directed by no one. Wise apes you may be, and your reason gives you power, but no argument drives you to rise above the animals and be masters of your fate. Choose again and for the last time.”

A year passed before the nations decided to elect a drunken, stinking, homeless man, maddened from loneliness and abuse, and accustomed to telling rambling tall tales to hapless bystanders.

The vagrant hiccupped, tripped, dropped his cheap bottle of wine, and said, “I ain’t no hero, that’s for sure. But if it’s alright with the pretty folks, I’ll wager I could silence that there angry voice in the sky with this story of mine. I was a ship’s captain once in my young’un years. Sailed the seas, I did, catching fish. One day, I tell you, a mighty storm brewed, and in the wind and the rain the cargo holds broke open and I lost a week’s haul of fish. Back into the sea they went, though now as dead as doornails. I lashed myself to the wheel to stay aboard as the ship rocked this way and that in the tempest. The storm passed, my ship was a wreck, and a school of flying fish passed by, jumping in and out of the sea. One landed right on the deck and smacked its head, I reckon, ‘cause it skipped around awhile and bounced off the mast some before I caught the sucker and threw it back in the deep. How does that grab you, big ol’ voice from nowhere?”

The alien terror answered, “Homeless and alienated you’ve been and will always be, cast out, alive and awake in the wilderness; crazed and vain and wretched you are for knowing too much and for dreaming up more goals than you could possibly achieve; sad and pitiful, immersed in your fictions and your robotic refuges, knowing the earth will one day swallow them and their godlike denizens. With this fourth choice you’ve finally found the heart of you.”

The voice from beyond was heard no more, and the vagrant was celebrated and awarded with riches for saving humankind.

One month only it took for the homeless saviour to squander his prize and find himself back on the street, alone, forgotten, and raving.