Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nihilism, Cosmicism, and Nishitani’s Buddhism

In “Buddhists, Pessimists, and the End of Suffering,” I question how the Buddhist gets around the problem of nihilism or how she motivates altruistic choices from the enlightened standpoint, from which conventional life is illusory or wrong-headed, arising as it does from egoism or the attachment to the self. One Buddhist response to that question can be gathered from the Kyoto School, which was an early twentieth-century movement in which Japanese philosophers at Kyoto University grappled with Western philosophy, including existentialism. Specifically, Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness includes some instructive responses to my criticism of Buddhism.

Nishitani on Emptiness and Selflessness

Keiji Nishitani
Nishitani follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in pointing out that nihilism is the core problem for modernity. Western modernity is based on technoscientific progress, which threatens religious and moral dogmas, and that culture is also individualistic, which is to say self-centered. The human individual replaces God and regards all else as subordinate and comparatively insubstantial. Descartes provides the paradigmatic formulation of this dualism: given the philosophical foundation of self-consciousness, we have solipsism on the one hand and empty, soulless matter and mechanism on the other. With no divine source of prescriptions, the self-centered individual objectifies everything outside the self, treating them as means to fulfill the self’s goals, but those goals become arbitrary, or “subjective” and “relative,” as late-modern philosophers show. Eventually, the self, too, is objectified as the self-as-worker or as some other functionary becomes a tool of an amoral social system, such as a corporation or government. The Western modern is thus faced with the problem of nihilism. If nothing is intrinsically valuable, why value anything at all? What should the modern Western individual do?

Here Nishitani swoops in with the Eastern way of handling nihilism, and specifically with insights from Zen Buddhism and from a Zen critique of modern Western philosophy. Nishitani argues that Sartre’s atheistic humanism, for example, founders on his mere egoistic construal of the emptiness at the root of everything presented to consciousness. Here’s Nishitani on Sartre:
Nothingness in Buddhism is "non-ego," while the nothingness in Sartre is immanent to the ego. Whatever transcendence this may allow for remains glued to the ego. Sartre considers his nothingness to be the ground of the subject, and yet he presents it like a wall at the bottom of the ego or like a springboard underfoot of the ego. This turns his nothingness into a basic principle that shuts the ego up within itself. By virtue of this partition that nothingness sets up at the ground of the self, the ego becomes like a vast and desolate cave…Nothingness may seem here to be a denial of self-attachment, but in fact that attachment is rather exponentialized and concealed. Nothingness may seem here to be a negation of being, but as long as it makes itself present as an object of consciousness in representative form—in other words, as long as the self is still attached to it—it remains a kind of being, a kind of object. (33)
Nishitani calls that superficial nothingness “nihility,” distinguishing nihility from the nothingness encountered by the Buddhist who negates nihility, taking nihilism to its furthest limit and finding at that point not the arbitrary choice I posed, between despair and altruism, but an inevitable personal transformation into a benevolent being. Nishitani’s sense that nothingness is a wall for Sartre may mistake a methodological constraint for a moral failing, since Sartre is doing phenomenology, a rigorous description of how things appear to consciousness. In any case, for Nishitani, a more thoroughgoing encounter with nothingness than Sartre’s nihility
must rather be something that points to the realization of a "new man," that originates from the absolute negation of the "human." Our individual actions get to be truly "absolute" activities only when they originate from the horizon that opens up when man breaks out of the hermit's cave of the ego and breaks through the nothingness at the base of the ego; only when they become manifest from a point at which the field of consciousness, where actions are said to be "of the self, " is broken through, while all the time remaining actions of the self. (35)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Failure of Democrats to Defeat Trump’s Evil with Heroism

What are the chances that one of a country’s two political parties could be as odious as the Republican one without the other, the Democratic Party being just as execrable, albeit in different ways? Besides their positions on a handful of social issues, for some decades, at least, the main differences between those two parties have been their different flavour of badness. Both parties are rotten, because the American culture and Western liberal democracies in general are rotten, for reasons spelled out by the likes of Nietzsche, Thomas Frank, Matt Taibbi, and Yuval Harari. Consumerism, in particular, infantilizes the majority of citizens; moreover, those with the healthiest cognitive faculties, who are least susceptible to fake news, namely young people, don’t vote, whereas old people who suffer from cognitive decline and are thus the most manipulable are also the most reliable voters. Therefore, the political parties have to cater to their constituents’ delusions or ignore them and delegate decision-making to lobbyists and other elites who inevitably become corrupted by their insider knowledge and power over the lower, often most vulnerable classes. This form of decadence is comparable to that which undermines aristocratic societies, the primary difference being that in feudalism, for example, the hard-working peasants were infantilized by the Church, whereas the working poor of a capitalistic democracy are degraded ultimately by cynical corporations.

The kneejerk reaction to any criticism of the Democrats, given the monstrousness of the Republicans under Trump is that such a criticism would be a case of dangerous whataboutism or a centrist allegation of moral equivalence between the two parties. Indeed, if you define political badness as cartoonish evil, the Republicans but not the Democrats are bad. But there are other forms of the pertinent badness. As I explain elsewhere, there are roughly two kinds of political badness, those that arise from masculine and from feminine vices, respectively. The Republicans are obviously more masculine than the Democrats. Partly this is because there are significantly fewer women in the former party, but there also cultural differences at work. Republican culture is shaped by patriarchal Evangelical Christianity and by a social Darwinian cult of pseudo-capitalism, the latter being one of the American plutocracy’s main rationales.

By contrast, Democrats define themselves more as consumers and as professionals or technical elites. To be sure, there are Republican engineers, lawyers, and doctors, but they won’t likely be rationalists, meaning that they won’t be optimistic about the progressive potential of collective rationality. Instead, conservative professionals will subscribe to some philosophy of what’s been called the “intellectual dark web.” Democratic professionals, though, will be optimistic in that respect, and that confidence lends itself to effete snobbery, which is a feminine, passive-aggressive, bloodless attempt at social domination. (South Park satirizes the latter in their episode, “Smug Alert!”)    

In any case, the charge that the criticism of Democrats means to ascribe a (false) moral equivalence with Trump’s Republicans would presuppose a masculine notion of badness, according to which only psychopathic evil could be appalling. What I’m saying is there’s a feminine (Democratic) form of political badness that is just as outrageous as Trumpism. Moreover, to point that out isn’t to give the Republicans a pass. On the contrary, the implication is that radical change to the entire American political system is needed.

Myth-Making and the Cultural Judgment of Politics

Republican badness is obvious, largely because we’re familiar with evil from the monsters and villains depicted in our many forms of entertainment, including novels, movies, and television shows. Not only that, but we’re more interested in the villains than in the protagonists—just as hell often seems more interesting than heaven. These stories act as warnings about what not to do, because it’s easier to prohibit destructive acts than to know which constructive pursuits to recommend. (Most of the Ten Commandments are prohibitions, the main prescription in Christianity being the Golden Rule; Judaism and Islam have many more detailed prescriptions, and their arbitrariness tests the participant’s loyalty.) Still, for over two millennia, fictions and myths have presented us with stock villains and good guy characters. When we’re faced with real evil, therefore, we expect a hero to rise up and defeat the villain. What happens, then, when there’s no such actual hero who resembles the storybook kind in the way the real-world villain resembles its fictional counterpart? What happens when Republicans find deep inspiration for their evil from myths (from the sordid Evangelical reading of the Bible and from the social Darwinian, libertarian, quasi-anarchic ethos of egoism), whereas the Democrats have no such fervent commitment to lessons from fiction, because their elites take themselves to be hyperrational? What you’ll have in the latter case is the lower-class, non-elite Democrat, who is influenced more by Hollywood values, who longs for a liberal hero and who is perennially crestfallen by the evident absence of any such figure.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Pragmatic Argument for Functional Atheism

New Yorker image by Seb Agresti
Elsewhere I’ve considered the moral argument for God’s existence. A much more plausible argument is the one laid out below, the argument for effective atheism from the immorality of theistic belief. After formulating the premises, I’ll discuss them and consider some possible objections.

(1) Theism causes or exacerbates myopia (including arrogance, self-righteousness, xenophobia, and tribalism) in the believer, which is bad.

(2) The obligation to be good can outweigh the epistemic obligation to believe only what’s true.

(3) Even if theism were true, everyone would have an ethical obligation to reject theism, to avoid the theistic vices of myopia.

(4) Therefore, in the best society there would be no theistic belief and everyone should live as though there were no God.

A corollary:

(5) If theism were true, God would have been aware of the causal relation between theistic belief and vice.

(6) Since the major religions prescribe both morality and theistic belief, theism is incoherent, which means there’s no such thing as theistic belief in the first place.

Religion and Morality

This argument might strike you as dubious because of the prevailing myth that religion is needed for morality. “If God is dead, everything is permitted,” as the aphorism goes. In reality, not religion but the evolution of our biological traits is the basis of morality, because ethical standards of conduct spring from the instinct to cooperate in forming a family and, by extension, a society. We have a conscience because parents feel compelled to teach their children well, because parents are genetically driven to care for their offspring. Clearly, parasitic parents are possible, which means they might think the best lesson to impart to their children isn’t to empathize with strangers or to help others in need, but to take advantage of their weaknesses and to be as selfish as possible while only seeming to be altruistic to fit into a society of suckers. But that evolutionary strategy—a rationalization of the mutation of psychopathy—can be translated into theistic or naturalistic language, so that becomes a wash in the present context.

The point here is that we needn’t fear that morality is impossible with theistic belief or that morality emerged only because religions developed. True, the formulation of moral principles depended historically on the rise of religions and on revolutions in religious thought, such as on the Axial revolutions in the first millennium BCE. Those historical developments have amounted to a self-undermining of religion, by way of a mystical critique that’s been furthered by philosophical analysis and scientific investigation. Monotheistic religions begin with a childlike imposition of commandments supposedly revealed by God, but end with pragmatic or mystical agnosticism, as the literal interpretations of scripture are no longer trusted as being adequate or worthy accompaniments to religious experience. Either way, if intuitions hadn’t been led astray by theistic projections and speculations, the parent’s biological impulse to care for the weak (for the child) and to cooperate with fellows to survive, by hunting and protecting each other from predators could have inspired nontheistic formulations and commentaries in sophisticated secular cultures—as has anyway happened over the last few centuries.

Moreover, although religions such as Christianity have been instrumental in motivating moral behaviour, such as by positing in each person an immortal soul with freewill, that religious motivation is undermined by anachronisms in the religious stories. For example, the Christian emphasis on morality is due to Jesus’s failed prophecy about the imminent end of the world. We were meant to raise our moral standards in ecstatic expectation of God’s intervention, fuelled by signs that the natural order would “soon” be overthrown by divine forces and God’s justice would reign forever afterward. That never happened and the Church swept the failure under the rug. Also, the theist’s appeal to the immortal soul as the ground of our dignity counts for nothing if that theist also anticipates that God will punish some (and perhaps most) human souls for eternity in hell. If God “respects” these souls by honouring their wayward choices and allowing them to be tortured without end after physical death, the theist’s respect for others might as well be just as paper thin. In addition, the monotheistic justifications of morality end up being tribal rather than universal, since these religions are geared towards separating the believer from the nonbeliever. Likewise, the Eastern religions are quick to distinguish between the enlightened and the deluded. So once you realize that such justifications of theistic morality are faulty, you can credit the religion with being, at best, a cause of rather than a reason for moral behaviour. Based on certain theological delusions, Christians can act morally, such as by feeding the hungry and giving money to the poor, but that behaviour loses its moral value unless you’re interested only in the consequences of actions, not in their intentions. At any rate, moral behaviour can be caused just as efficiently by atheistic worldviews, such as by totalitarian mechanisms of instilling terror or of cultural brainwashing.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Grim_Bard Poetry on Instagram

I’ve started a page on Instagram under the name of “Grim_Bard,” where I’ll be posting poetry. I aim to post at least five poems a week there, including a series that will comprise an epic poem based on the rants of Rashad the Cackler. Here are a few of the poems I’ve posted.

The Mouse on the Sidewalk

On a quiet suburban street,
Brick houses arrayed
Along the twisting road,
A little grey mouse
Lay on the white concrete,
The body not yet decayed
Though flies buzzed to goad
The furry form or rouse
Its soul to leave its load;
The arms stretched ahead
To the adjoining house
As if the mouse had meant to greet
The owners who’d have crushed it dead
And unseen up in their jeep;
Perhaps the tourist instead
Sought to reach its retreat
In the earth by the wall to sleep
But lagged on this beachhead
With its last heartbeat.

No person could be so estranged
In lying down to die:
Whether in the cities ranged
Across the continents’ lands,
On a plane that streaks the sky,
A vessel on the rippled sea,
A dune in the desert sands
Or frozen on a mountain peak,
No humble mouse has the key
To outgrow its old clique;
No rodent is such a freak
As to incessantly seek
A perfect place to be.

The Late-Night Jester

Behold the late-night jester,
The neutered talk-show host;
Never a fan to pester
The landed superstar,
Let alone to roast
Her for ladling caviar,
He’ll fawn all over the rich,
Spoil them with praise,
Slobber and scratch their itch;
If the grovel could be bottled,
Mr. Bootlick Fallon
Would pour no less than a gallon
Of the syrupy glaze
Over their perfumed skin,
Down their throats with a grin,
Wouldn’t stop until he’d throttled
The pretty movie stars.
But like Poe’s dwarf, Hop-frog,
Who tricks the king’s retinue,
Wraps them up and chars
The tainted upper crust,
Does that boyish lapdog,
Too, ignite a barbecue?
While the pampered players are trussed,
Bewitched by the fickle spotlight,
Could the host be as shrewd
As to flatter out of secret spite,
To butter them up to be stewed?
Who could keep an adult’s grace,
Propped up and viewed
By a fame-hungry crowd,
Fed by a raving oddball?
When a fresh idol will replace
The last and each, unbowed,
Is stuffed for their downfall?