Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to Fathom the Nature of Truth

What is really happening when a set of symbols, such as a statement or a thought, “gets at the truth,” as we like to think of it? What is it for symbols to be in touch with the facts? The use of symbols to uncover the truth about truth is bound to be fraught with paradoxes, and if a noncognitive experience of oneness with the mapped territory is the answer, this experience may not be as the Buddhist would have it. Instead of feeling at peace as a quieted mind at one with the sea of interconnected events, we might feel obligated to lament our absurdity with a round of horror or embarrassment on our impersonal creator Nature’s behalf.

Three Faulty Theories of Truth

from Lesswrong.com
There are three popular philosophical explanations of truth, none of which is adequate. First, there’s the contention that a true statement is one that corresponds to, or that agrees with, how things are. This view must be a holdover from the ancient theistic worldview which personified nature as God’s handiwork. The idea of agreement is folk-psychological in that agreement occurs between minds, not between a mind and a non-mind. When two people agree, they share the same attitude, experience, or belief. But the non-living majority of nature has no mental properties, so there can be no agreement between it and our statements about it. Early analytic philosophers like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell pioneered the correspondence theory of truth, writing, “Thus a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.” These pompous philosophers dismissed theistic religion as gauche and not even worth discussing; they thus lacked the Nietzschean fortitude to appreciate that God’s death renders the secular humanistic notion of truth-as-correspondence—as well as all secular liberal vestiges of god-talk—just as obsolete as theism.

At best, this conception of truth appeals to a metaphor, comparing a mind-to-mind relation to a mind-to-non-mind one, but the comparison is weak not just because of the obvious and relevant dissimilarities, but because of the dubious origin of this way of conceiving of our role in the world. If a mind such as God is the ultimate reality, and God created us according to a plan which would have us use natural facts for our benefit or to demonstrate our worthiness to spend eternity with God, then a factual description of something might be one that indirectly puts us in harmony with God. God’s artifact, that is, the world we describe, would be aligned with our artifacts, namely with our utterances and mental representations, and so this conception of truth would be no mere metaphor. Just as mortal minds can agree with each other, so too they could literally agree with the divine mind. But if we assume atheism, as we must when practicing philosophy while being faithful to the spirit of our time, we’re faced with the awkwardness of any attempt to salvage this theistic projection of ourselves onto a horrifically-impersonal world. Assuming theistic religion was perpetrated to further sundry inauspicious agendas, such as early Neolithic warlords’ domestication of large populations, the tainted remnants of that sort of religion are unlikely to augment a pure-hearted pursuit of knowledge.

Next, there’s the coherence theory of truth, which says a statement is true if it coheres with other statements such that the system’s self-consistency rationally justifies us in believing any of the cohering statements. As you can see, this theory merely reduces truth to an epistemic criterion of reasonableness. One sign that a speaker may be onto something is if her statements hang together so that she’s not contradicting herself like a deranged person. For example, if someone’s narrative of what happened the night she witnessed a crime doesn’t change when the police press her for details, a jury would have reason to trust her report. We assume that the world doesn’t contradict itself, that we occupy a natural order bound by some metaphysical logic, not a chaotically-shifting pseudospace, and so we think our belief systems should mirror this rational wholeness of facts.

However, this second conception of truth is abortive for at least two reasons. First, there are plenty of cases in which a coherent worldview, the internal order of which gives us some reason to trust it, turns out nevertheless to be wrong. Monotheism, astrology, Nazism, and the like may all be more or less coherent systems of thought, but none has the merit of being true. At most, coherence is an indicator but not a sufficient condition of truth. Likewise, a statement must be meaningful to have a chance of being factually true, but many meaningful statements are mistaken or even preposterous. Second, coherence in general can’t be the same as truth, because natural systems throughout the universe are coherent with respect to how their components operate, but that doesn’t mean, say, a solar system is a veridical account of anything. Again, the reason epistemic coherence is regarded as meritorious is because natural events in general are assumed to be regular and orderly. This point, though, goes both ways: if a belief system should mirror natural regularities, by being self-consistent, those systems must already be coherent even though they obviously aren’t themselves true with respect to anything. So coherence can’t suffice for truth. And if we say it must be statements or beliefs that cohere for there to be truth, their key distinguishing feature is their semantic meaningfulness but meaning turns out to be just as mysterious, not to mention as originally magical or supernatural as truth. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The American Spectacle

Liberals and globalists (proponents of globalization) are aghast at the Western conservative’s retreat to infantile, care-free farce, as in Brexit and the Republican nomination of Donald Trump, the latter having been preceded by the astroturfed Tea Party diversion from the economic causes of 2008’s American housing market crash. The suspicion is that American and British white male losers in the global marketplace are scapegoating gays, Muslims, or Mexicans because these whites no longer know how to be men enough to recognize the reason why their middle classes have vanished, which is that the postindustrial environment spoils these men and so they can’t compete with the likes of the hyper-pragmatic Chinese. Heretofore the aristocratic winners in the genetic lottery that ruled their segregated societies until the 1960s’ social revolutions, whites in North America and Europe must face the prospect of being marginalized in the global melting pot, as not just Chinese and Indians but also machines come to dominate the workforces. Partly also as an unintended consequence of feminist overreach in liberal societies, Western men have lost touch with their innate sense of honour, and so they’d sooner drug themselves to death than admit that their history—from the medieval Christian atrocities in Europe to Spain’s genocide against Native Americans and the African slave trade—is sordid and wholly unforgivable, and that whites need a spiritual, existential awakening or risk becoming a laughing stock class of deluded crybabies.  

The Debordian Spectacle of Trump and His Minions

Guy Debord’s concept of the society of the spectacle can partly explain the Trump phenomenon. According to Debord’s postmodern (i.e. pretentious and obfuscating) application of Marxist theory, capitalism is a process in which “the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” Social interactions become more and more mediated by mass media images, to which we passively defer, and we live in an infotainment bubble in which past and future are conflated to make capitalistic culture appear eternal and immutable. “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” says Debord. “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence. The fetishistic, purely objective appearance of spectacular relations conceals the fact that they are relations among men and classes: a second nature with its fatal laws seems to dominate our environment.” The spectacle “is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement…”

This concept of the spectacle, of the image or other representation that functions as an oppressive cultural intermediary, needn’t be restricted to a Marxian analysis. There are social spectacles or myth-laden images, and there are individual ones just as there is culture and there’s the stage in each mind in which stereotypes compete for the spotlight of our personal attention. Society flatters its economic structure, defending the power allotments in its dominance hierarchy, and we each spin a private tale, the narrative of our life in which we’re the starring protagonist. Images from our dreams and symbols of the idols to which we dedicate ourselves compel us to trust the judgments issuing from these self-serving thought-worlds, from the mental space we inhabit when we live in our heads with existential inauthenticity. The alternative isn’t to trust in The Force, to walk the heroic path like Neo from the Matrix, without thinking we’re on it. Animals are the relatively thoughtless ones; thoughts—including second-order and objective ones—are weapons in our war against the godless environment. What we need isn’t nirvana, the inner peace from detaching from our thoughts as a result of our personal self-destruction. Instead, we should learn to tell better stories; we need to learn how to be self-respecting artists.
   
In any case, Trump, then, is a phony revolutionary. His supporters believe that he’ll save the white portion of the lower middle class, by protecting the US economy from foreign cheats such as the Chinese (who actually just work a hundred times harder than North Americans and a thousand times harder than Europeans), or that he’ll punish the double-dealing political class by blowing up the whole American government. But those are wishes, not rational predictions, and anyway empirical interpretations of Trump’s intentions are irrelevant, from a Debordian perspective. Mainstream Trump is a symbol and his cultural significance is determined by underlying economic processes. Ever since Nixon brokered a deal with Strom Thurmond, creating the GOP’s Southern Strategy, Republicans have pretended to champion the backward social positions of the antediluvian white southerners, while double-crossing them with free trade deals and other plutocratic economic policies that have hollowed-out the American middle class. Again, instead of taking responsibility for having been duped as gullible, irritable voters, these southerners together with low-information blue collars prefer scapegoats. Now Trump is merely doubling-down on this trusty political strategy. Superficially, Trump has the capacity to fight for this once-dominant social class (again, a class that deserves to languish for having benefited from the atrocities of its forbears). Technically, Trump could repair the American infrastructure by establishing a Democratic-style, protectionist welfare state under the cover of xenophobic bluster. But the profound ironies of social reality are perceived only at a more rarified level. Trump is himself a plutocrat, after all. Instead of controlling the government’s policies from a distance, with lobbyists and Manchurian candidates, a hero of the power elite has decided that pulling the levers directly is more efficient. We get the candidates we deserve, but the question is: Who are “we”?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Eldritch Revelations: Chapter One

You may have heard of the radical exploits of Jurgen Schulze. But I was his psychiatrist before he escaped from Borsa Castle, the Transylvanian mental institution, and before he formed his infamous, bizarre cult. “God is dead,” he told me in one of my weekly evaluations of his mental condition. “Long live the gods,” he added, grinning at that gnomic remark. Only after his unprecedented and mysterious escape did I read his actual German writings, although by then mere scraps survived his attempt to burn the text; apparently, he’d done so just prior to his escape. I found the singed remnants in a corner of his residence, and judging by the pile of ashes, only a very small portion of the whole remained legible, one of which is the title, Lebending und Wach in der Totte Gott. Nevertheless, piecing these together with his peculiar remarks in the interviews, I’ve reconstructed Schulze’s philosophy. The public often prefers to demonize the mentally ill, on the basis of its prejudices, but perhaps there’s an appetite abroad to warrant this exposition of Schulze’s rather hair-raising worldview.

According to Schulze, the history of cosmology shows that from the most naïve, parochial myths of ancient times, to the experimental, objective theories of modern physics, explanations of nature approach the truth as they become maximally ironic. This means that nature surprises any species that searches for the ultimate truth, by anti-correlating intuitions with facts. Intelligent creatures evolve to exploit a niche, a way of surviving in an environment. Creatures that endure long enough to reach equilibrium with their territory, because their genes have created winning uniformities in their traits—and have built thus an adapted body-type or a species, as such—rely on those innate abilities that allow them to succeed. In that respect, creatures are inherently conservative in evaluating their intuitions, reflexes, and other habits or traditions. Creatures that are interested solely in surviving under those terms we call animals, while those that survive in virtue of their rational powers of understanding become aware of more and more possibilities until their sights are set on a universe that’s worlds apart from the locale in which they’re evolutionarily suited to succeed. Had the universe been as large only as the mythical Garden of Eden, or were there no life forms that could see further than their neighbourhood or that could think other than in their nakedly species-centric fashion, the pursuit of knowledge wouldn’t be ironic, because there would have been no knowledge in the first place. But because it’s evidently possible to be excluded from the Garden, as it were, for creatures to ponder matters that are at best tangentially related to their biological life cycle, so that there have arisen persons or independent agents, ultimate knowledge is also theoretically possible—and that knowledge is necessarily not just counterintuitive but fulsomely so. On these grounds which he expressed in several of our sessions, Schulze declares in one of the intact fragments of his philosophical writings, “This is why the more exquisite the humiliating implications of a theory of the nature of reality, the greater the theory’s chance of being true” (3a).

Cosmology began with religious myths which assume that there are divine, perfect persons who create nature for our benefit. For Schulze, this is the maximally naïve way of misunderstanding the universe, by means of which we project our prejudices onto the wider world. The opposite, atheistic scenario, however, isn’t necessarily the most ironic and thus the most epistemically justified. Today, physics stops at the point of positing objective causes and effects and other quantifiable phenomena, and so excludes magic and the supernatural from its universe of discourse. Instead of being created by God, nature creates itself from chaos according to laws, principles, and free parameters which the physicist nevertheless inevitably smuggles into the picture of the chaotic starting point. This is because whereas chaos or the nonbeing out of which nature emerged has no need to conform to human reason, physicists are methodologically bound to rational ideals which must guide their explanations. But were the universe fundamentally material and objective, as scientists understand it to be, cosmic irony would not be maximized, because our expectations have adjusted after the Scientific Revolution. Schulze therefore writes, “The ultimate theory of the world must confound both the gullible, narrow-minded zealot and the cynical, self-abnegating scientist; otherwise, cognitive progress might end in harmony between intuitions and facts, which is contrary to the principle of irony that’s entailed by the history of cosmology” (3b). The universe may or may not be harmonious from its impersonal frame of reference, although this is technically an incoherent figure of speech; certainly, though, the nature of the metaphysical facts conflicts with any intelligent species that arises to attempt to explain them, since such a species will pride itself on its dignity which the natural facts are bound to drastically undercut. The perfected theory may prove adequate to the facts, in some epistemological respect, but those facts will confound the species as a whole, including its intuitions, preferred self-image, and life-sustaining cultures.

Schulze lays these points out in one of the longer surviving fragments:
As far as intelligent life can tell from this corner of the galaxy, the most ironic explanation of the cosmos must posit a deity, to baffle the beleaguered naturalists and secularists, but must simultaneously remove that deity from the prevailing ontology, to torment the masses of anachronistic god-worshippers. To maximize irony and to fulfill our philosophical obligation to understand the facts even at the cost of our happiness, we, the enlightened few must assume that God—some intelligent mind—accounts fundamentally for natural being, but that this primary mind somehow negates itself so that there could be no responsible hope for religious salvation. (4a)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Tenth PDF Installment of RWUG and a Necronomicon

Here's the tenth eBook installment of this blog, collecting the last several articles in PDF format. The other installments are located here

Cheers!

P.S. I'm working now on a Necronomicon formulation of this blog's philosophy, somewhat like Cyclonopedia. The conceit is that the ultimate, horrific theory of the nature of reality might be scrawled on a wall by a madman, and the revelation is preserved and published in textbook form for your perusal (at the risk of the loss of your sanity). The result is a peculiar blend of fiction and nonfiction, secular science and religious megalomania, dry academic jargon and ecstatic poetry. I'll likely post this RWUG Necronomicon in individual chapters as I complete them, and afterward I'll anthologize them. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Hit Music: The Assault on the Brain

Let's take on the pressing mystery of a type of so-called “hit music,” such as the kind often played on Virgin Radio. A few days a week I leave work at lunch to get a sandwich at Mr Sub, and they always play that radio station. I’m treated then to certain recurring songs, interspersed by the banter of Ryan Seacrest and the blather of ads.

What these songs have in common is minimalism. There’s hardly anything going on in them. I’ll give you some examples: “One Dance,” by Drake, “Love Yourself,” by Justin Bieber, and “Hands to Myself,” by Selena Gomez. Not all the hit songs on that radio station are minimally musical like those examples. Most, in fact, are dance, rap, or soul songs. In the case of rap or soul music, the instruments might be low-key because those songs feature the lyrics or the soaring voice. But then there are these minimalist songs where the instruments, the voice, and the lyrics are hardly even there. Those are the ones that especially cry out for some explanation. Why do they exist? What do these ghostly, gutted songs reveal indicate about the current state of Western art?

Now, in my opinion, 98% of all Virgin Radio’s hit music is abominable: balless, brainless, vapid, happy-talking, and/or annoyingly repetitive. But if I were to vent that opinion for the next little while, that would be a mere cliché. Hit music is made mainly by young people for young people—younger than me, at least. And we all know that older people lose touch with young people’s culture. Besides, we’d be talking about taste in music, and that’s subjective. So instead of committing the old guy’s fallacy of mistaking his aesthetic taste for knowledge of some objective fact, I’m going to leave aside the value judgment and point straight at the objective features of those minimalistic songs. On YouTube, you can listen to the ones I listed and then you’ll know what I mean, if you’re not already familiar with them.

For some background, I recommend this video interview of John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, and this article that discusses the recent history of hit-song writing. The upshot is that hit music today is manufactured by teams of song engineers who fill in the blanks of the track-and-hook template, following rote procedures made possible by the computers on which almost all of this music is made. The beats are separated from the melodies, and teams of producers are swapped by studios to work on dozens of songs for each headlining “artist,” like Rihanna, Britney Spears, or Justin Bieber, which are then pared down to form the CD. This method of engineered, assembly-line music-writing is very different from the romantic one of the 1960s and 70s, in which individual artists expressed their vision on account of their personal talent. Think of The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix, or Led Zeppelin. Hit music now is like fast food or the Marvel comic book movies that have taken over Hollywood. The food is manufactured to exploit weaknesses in the human brain, such as its love of sugar and fat, just as the movies are made by armies of computer graphics engineers who serve up action and teenager fantasies. Apparently, the brain also has an infantile love of repetition. The brain releases dopamine if we can predict when the song’s hook will reappear, so a hit song must be simple and catchy.

This, though, is the formula for hit music in general. Again, the result is commercial music that has no existential impact and poses no artistic challenge to dubious conventions. But where does the absurd minimalism of a subset of hit songs enter the picture? Here are a few possible explanations. First, the musically-minimal songs push the boundaries of computer-driven hit music, by catering to no one, with virtually no attractive features. As machines and computers dominate the landscape, we must dehumanize ourselves to adapt to that inhuman environment. Hit music isn’t aimed at whole persons, with our everyday concerns and existential questions. Instead, the music targets the brain’s pleasure center: the song is formed by mechanisms of mass production that trigger the listener’s complementary neural mechanisms, to complete a capitalistic exchange of money for the fleeting pleasure taken in the bare-bones sounds inserted into the track-and-hook template. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sexual Bliss and the Anguish of Enlightenment

Why in the first half of the twentieth century were women’s ankles considered sexy in the United States? Why are breasts considered intimate parts in industrialized places but not in poorer ones where breasts are thought of in more utilitarian terms? Why in conservative societies, such as those in the Middle East, are women’s whole bodies, including their wrists and hair, considered indecent if publicly exposed? Why is public nudity taboo in Canada and the US, but less so in Europe?

The answer must begin with the fact that whereas biology determines the sexual practices of animals, psychology and culture are factors in human sexuality. Specifically, no human body part is inherently sexy, not even the genitals which have primarily sexual functions as far as biologists are concerned; for example, nudity in the locker room or in a life drawing class or on the operating table isn’t so sexually arousing. Social context matters: the historical evidence indicates that under certain conditions, the tantalizing concealment of any body part can cause sexual arousal in a brain in which the imagination rather than just the sex hormone dictates sex appeal. In a prudish culture, visually-oriented men must make do with limited offerings, and so American men in the 1930s imagined ways in which the ankles of long-dress-wearing women could be thought of as sexy. Likewise, bored Middle Eastern men might rhapsodize about women’s hair curls and eyelashes, which are the sole body parts that some Islamist dictatorships permit to be publicly exposed. Most male body parts have the tedious evolutionary function of being muscular to make the man an effective protector, and so women starved for some novelty in their sexual diet imagine that beards can be sexy. Just as the long dress which covers the legs and ankles allows the woman to choose how high to raise the garment, creating an air of mystery and of being so near and yet so far from the promised land, as it were, the beard can obscure lantern jaws which are symbols of strength and stability, and the facial hair tantalizes as the man chooses to shave and to allow the hairs to grow to varying lengths.

Evolutionary psychologists are certainly right to point out that the underlying mechanisms of arousal have biological, reproductive functions, but culture isn’t an impotent byproduct of genes and hormones. We rewire our brains by modifying the environments to which we must adapt to survive, and our artificial environments are energized by ideologies, including those that determine the purpose of the tools, machines, and other artifacts we rely on throughout civilized life. Thus, whereas the mechanism of female arousal may originate from the woman’s desire to have her clitoris stimulated by a penis, for the evolutionary reason that sexual pleasure facilitates the transmitting of genes by sexual reproduction, that desire has evidently been exapted after what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Thus, women can be turned on by the way a beard makes the man seem withdrawn or wayward and in need of mothering and instruction. The biological mechanisms are repurposed to achieve cultural, often idealistic or fantastic goals. Sex acquires meanings that have little to do with that which is paramount from the gene’s eye view. In particular, sexual ecstasy is comparable to the religious kind, which in turn is akin to the experience of existential horror, to the revelation of that which transcends and so humiliates not just our comprehension but our standing as entities.

The Revelation of Sex

The degree of lust and of the giddiness of being on the threshold of sexual contact may be inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the partner’s body or with sex in general. The more sex you have, the less earth-shattering it becomes over the years, unless your sex drive is low or your expectations are curbed by cultural conventions. This is one reason that adultery is commonplace among able-bodied individuals who have options: to renew the height of ecstasy enjoyed when sex in general or with a particular partner was novel. Sex for virgins is typically overwhelming because they haven’t yet solved the mysteries of sex. Unfamiliarity with the other’s body parts or with the sex acts that are generally kept secret accounts for why even ankles, wrists, calves, beards, or hair can be deemed sexy even though those parts are irrelevant from the genetic standpoint. In hunter-gatherer tribes, for example, breasts have no sex appeal because they’re constantly exposed and so their men’s imagination isn’t fired by the fantasy of what they would look or feel like were they revealed. They’re exposed because the tribes are consumed with the purpose of surviving in harsh, perhaps exceptionally humid natural lands and have no time for luxuries such as fashion. By contrast in the individualistic West, fashion is an art form and we individuate ourselves by showing off our possessions, thereby forgetting about the fleshy bodies toiling to maintain so many artificialities. Indeed, as Morris Berman argues in Coming to Our Senses, we in the West are virtually disembodied; we live in our heads and in a noosphere of abstractions—until, that is, in all infantile innocence we find ourselves drawn back to that which is hidden by the products of our labour, to the shapes, sounds, and tastes of each other’s flesh. 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sex and the Authentic Self

We’re most embarrassed about that which almost all of us most want to do: we’re most secretive about our sex lives. If you could force the bureaucrats in control of state secrets—those in charge of the contents of the lower levels of Area 51, the Top Secret vaults of CIA headquarters, the volumes of the Vatican Secret Archive—to expose to the world either those earth-shaking revelations or videos of their squalid private sex acts, they would be torn, at the least, and may well prefer to topple governments by releasing the state secrets. This fear of being caught in the naughty act may have evolved from animals’ preference to find a secluded spot to swap genes, to protect themselves from predators when they’re vulnerable. Of course, animals are much more open about having sex than are people, as farmers and zookeepers and birdwatchers can attest. Animals have little capacity for shame and those that can feel embarrassment have no special fear of being observed in flagrante delicto—unless their coupling upsets their dominance hierarchy and the pair is afraid of the alpha’s wrath. Those billions of us who live in private residences need no longer fear being mauled while sexually occupied; home invaders would be more interested in robbing us, and even when we’re naked and engrossed, we can easily arm ourselves by making use of our many technological extensions (a bat, an alarm clock, a shoe, etc). And the exposure of a sex tape poses no direct physical threat to the couple.

So the terror of releasing the details of our sex lives to the public is peculiarly human. With the exceptions of exhibitionists and porn stars, we prefer to keep private that which we most prize or long for, and we have no compelling practical reason for doing so. When a celebrity sex tape is stolen and the thief threatens to publish it on the internet, the agonized celebrity can spend millions in court to prevent the undermining of his or her public image. But why, in the first place, would that image be ruined by the leaking of a sex tape? Once again, if it’s a question of the participants’ identity, as in the case of adultery, the fear would be practical: the hypocrite, for example, may have cultivated an image of righteousness or of heterosexuality, and so wouldn’t want evidence to the contrary to become widely available. But there’s also a more general, underlying ambivalence about the sex act itself. We all cultivate a public image, an ideal version of ourselves: we prefer to be thought of as people with human rights, whereas sex would have us be animals. We prefer to think of ourselves as dignified moral agents, destined for immortality, whereas our sexual lust indicates we’re cosmically insignificant and headed towards extinction like any other phase of natural concatenations. That’s the existential dread of sex which only self-proclaimed people can suffer.

Compare that dread to the surprisingly-rational fear of choking on our vomit in response to our eating the flesh of dead animals. That ignominious fate we avoid by keeping ourselves in the dark about the gruesome treatment of livestock. The very word “livestock” is Orwellian in its smoothing over of the holocaust of objectification that occurs in all pens and cages torturing pigs, chickens, and the like. “Stock” is a supply of goods, meaning things owned, and “live” indicates something that isn’t just a thing or an object. The contradiction is palpable. Were we to tour a slaughterhouse and then be offered a free meal of steak or back ribs, I expect most of us would be overcome with nausea and would have to decline the cooked remains. Our ignorance is by design so that we can enjoy eating meat. Although the pleasures of sex far exceed gustatory ones, except perhaps for gluttons, that’s also by biological design, to distract all sexual creatures from the implications of sex’s physicality: our dignity is naturally a sham and is belied by our loving sex more than our purported gods. Moreover, asexual critics needn’t be lined up to spread this unpopular word. The hiddenness of our sex acts, which even the law typically makes mandatory, demonstrates that we already know that we’re wronged by our sex instinct, that by lusting after bodies, by yearning to fondle breasts, balls, or buttocks, to taste each other’s juices and to be penetrated or stroked in ways that would constitute the severest breaches of decency in public life, we are made into objects of ridicule, reduced to clowns by natural forces so that we exacerbate the absurdity that belongs to the physical aspect of all things.

Is there, however, a way to be sexual without forfeiting our intellectual integrity, let alone our existential authenticity? After all, the aesthetic burden of sex is that it’s utterly commonplace. Sexual reproduction is biologically creative, of course, but artistically unoriginal since we’re passive in our role as baby-makers; the hormones do all the work as our puppeteers. But we are exorbitantly creative in our adapting of the sex instinct to myriad purposes that supersede the reproductive function. We’ve even invented birth control mechanisms seemingly to usurp nature’s power over us. Haven’t we, then, made sex dignified by making it non-animalistic, by incorporating it into our more elevated pursuits? Let’s explore the possibilities of existentially viable forms of sexuality.  

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Christianity and the Axial Age

Nominal Christians think of the life of Jesus as being paradoxical. According to the myths which are typically misread as historical narratives, Jesus was miraculously born to a virgin and when he came of age, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and he heard the voice of God bless him. Jesus grew up and taught a radical message of peace, performed numerous miracles, started a church that flourishes to this day, and was resurrected after his physical death. His life is supposed to represent a pivotal intersection between the supernatural heavens (which we know of now merely as places in outer space) and the fallen world of Earth. Christianity thus follows the patterns of deification and mythologization that are familiar not just to all historians, but to anyone who’s coped with the loss of a loved one by confabulating and concluding that the dearly departed was the greatest father, mother, husband or wife for whom anyone could have asked. When dealing with a horrific experience, we often enter tunnel vision; far from soberly accepting the statistical fact that none of us has everlasting significance, we glorify those in whom we’ve been emotionally invested, to avoid the awkwardness of having wasted our feelings on something so transient and ultimately inconsequential as another human life.

The Axial Age

Much of the historical context of Christianity was deliberately destroyed by the established churches. Those who rejected the party-line myths or whose deviant form of worship pointed to a larger earthly milieu were demonized and persecuted, their texts burned and their movements wiped out. Then the Church lost its autocratic power as a result of the Age of Reason which began with the Renaissance. And now we’re poised to see, indeed, that the contemporary enlightenment in Europe from the 14th to the 17th centuries CE wasn’t the first of its kind. It was indeed a re-birth, as indicated by the word “Renaissance,” which means Revival. The most illuminating part of the historical context of Christianity is what the philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Period. As he writes in The Origin and Goal of History, that was the uncanny “period around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being.”

More specifically,
The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-ti, Chuang-tse, Lieh-tsu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to skepticism, to materialism, sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato—of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.
Jaspers describes what is new about this age in existential terms: “man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and of his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the depths of selfhood and in the lucidity of transcendence.” The cause of these revolutions, says Jaspers, was “reflection. Consciousness became once more conscious of itself, thinking became its own object.”

So this ancient period of enlightenment was both spiritual and philosophical, and a word that encompasses both aspects is “existential.” We might compare, then, the two historical awakenings, the ancient Axial Age and the modern one, by noting that the latter leaves less room for spiritual, psychological or social growth, because its catalysts were advances mainly in technoscience, in an instrumental affair that only presupposes rather than justifies certain ideals. After the medieval Dark Age, reason was wedded not to the self-awareness of Byronic loners but to industrialists. (Romanticism was a movement of counter-Enlightenment in the early 1800s.) Instead of a mass flowering of spiritual insight, Europe and the Americas devised new forms of population control that were made possible by developments in economics and public relations. Instead of efficacious modern religions we had “ideologies” such as the Nazi or Communist utopias and the American Dream of Liberty.

That, though, makes for a larger point of similarity between the two periods of existential enlightenment. As Jaspers wrote,
The age that saw all these developments, which spanned several centuries, cannot be regarded as a simple upward movement. It was an age of simultaneous destruction and creation. No final consummation was attained. The highest potentialities of thought and practical expression realized in individuals did not become common property, because the majority of men were unable to follow in their footsteps. What began as freedom of motion finally became anarchy. When the age lost its creativeness, a process of dogmatic fixation and leveling-down took place in all three cultural realms. Out of a disorder that was growing intolerable arose a striving after new ties, through the re-establishment of enduring conditions.
Thus arose empires of conquest in China (Tsin Shu hwang-ti), India (Maurya dynasty), and the West (Hellenistic and Roman empires). “Everywhere the first outcome of the collapse was an order of technological and organizational planning.”

That which had collapsed as a result of rational enlightenment was the “Mythical Age, with its tranquility and self-evidence.” What the Frankforts call the mythopoeic naiveté of childhood innocence was suspended by the Axial Age of Doubt. Those prehistoric, that is, prehumanistic and regressive myths had codified prejudices and superstitions that had held together tribes and kingdoms since the end of the Paleolithic Era. Once the conventions were questioned, because of the dawning of hyperconsciousness, the multitudes could no longer take their existentially inauthentic modes of life for granted. At least, they had to defer to the newfangled spiritual and philosophical elites whose knowledge and experience were subversive and might have led to mass panic if the majority had had firsthand access to them. The Axial Age liberation was thus relatively short-lived, but there was a long-delayed aftershock after the Dark Age: the Rebirth of Reason, beginning in the 14th C. And arguably, the creative spirit of that latter age has likewise left us in the last century, and we “postmodern” or “post-postmodern” relativists and cynics now absurdly wait for Godot, knowing that no mythical narrative can sooth us. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Against Richard Carrier’s Case for Natural Morality

Richard Carrier is a prolific writer on ancient history, atheism, and naturalistic philosophy. I started reading him in the 1990s when he wrote articles for the early Secular Web. I especially enjoy his works on the ahistoricity of Jesus. However, his case for the reduction of morality to a kind of instrumentalism, for morality’s being “natural” and “scientific” because it’s a matter merely of learning how to get what we most want, is frustrating because it combines confusion with hubris. Still, various interesting issues crop up in his discussion, so a critique is in order.

By way of providing some background, I should say that there are three paramount theories in moral philosophy: deontology (we ought to do our duty, because the form of action is most important), consequentialism (we ought to act in the way that has the best results), and virtue ethics (we ought to be the best kind of person). Carrier thinks that although philosophers have been debating these theories for centuries, all three views are the same. They reduce to each other and what emerges is instrumentalism, a reduction of moral imperatives to “hypothetical” or conditional ones. So the meaning of “Thou shalt not commit murder” is clarified when we translate it into a conditional imperative that makes reference to the means needed to achieve a desire, such as “If you want to stay out of jail or have self-respect or avoid being killed in return (or insert some other desire here; generally it’s ‘If you want to be happy…’), then you shouldn’t kill an innocent person.” For me, the question whether the three leading moral theories are in conflict is a tempest in a teapot, since I think naturalism has more radical implications for morality, which I’ll come to in the last section below.

But let’s look closer at Carrier’s argument as it’s formulated in his blog’s article on why moral imperatives are a posteriori and natural, meaning why they’re empirical like all other purely factual statements. Carrier’s opponents are two kinds of moral realists who both maintain that moral statements are true or false as opposed to being, say, nonrational expressions of feelings. There’s the theist who trusts that morality is supernatural in that it derives from God, and then there’s the atheist who thinks morality is non-natural in the same way that qualia or normativity in general are, in that their elucidation is beyond the purview of scientific methods, but not beyond philosophical ones. Carrier is aghast because his brand of atheism gives no quarter to theism, and his secular humanism is progressive so he’s opposed to defeatism with respect to the mission to solve all mysteries in the world. Contrary to Nietzsche, the sky isn’t falling just because God, the traditional guarantor of morality, is fictitious; liberal values are secured by reason, not faith. And instead of declaring that some parts of the world are incomprehensible, we should be methodical in our naturalism: we should assume that everything is naturally explainable until proven otherwise. In particular, morality is both real and natural, Carrier says, because it’s about the possibility that some actions are better or worse at achieving our best desires. Those desires are the ones we care about most and the ones we would have were we presented with all the relevant information bearing on ourselves and the world, and were we to think logically about what we most want out of life.

What’s Natural?

Carrier pontificates about how this or that is obviously “natural” in that it’s a part of the scientifically-explainable universe. For example, social properties are just as natural as quarks and sodium, he says, since sociology reduces to physics via psychology, neurology, and chemistry. The greater complexity of social systems is no matter, since sodium is likewise ‘more complex than “just quarks in motion,” which is why sodium is different from uranium, for example, even though both are just “quarks in motion.”’  

There are at least two problems with this. First, although he grants that “brains interacting in social systems behave in ways that reflect the structure and behavior of the social system,” he doesn’t grasp that a scientific model has implicit meanings, or connotations, as well as explicit ones (denotations). It doesn’t matter if minds are nothing but brains, if the sets of symbols needed to explain the two orders are incommensurable. A social system may be metaphysically nothing but “atoms in motion,” but there is no sense of “motion” that explains both what atoms and societies do, without palpable equivocation. The word “motion” is defined differently in sociology and in physics. For example, a particle’s velocity is not like a political party’s motion to pass a bill. And reducibility applies to theories, not to the things to which the theories refer irrespective of how they may be understood using different languages or conceptual frameworks like sociology or physics. So denotatively or extensionally, that is with respect to the immediate reference of words, the meanings of “society” and “huge group of atoms” may be identical, but that doesn’t mean there’s a single, coherent set of concepts for explaining what societies and atoms do as seen from different orders of magnitude. Implicitly or intensionally, that is with respect to the words’ indirect meanings in virtue of their relation to background concepts, sociology isn’t reducible to physics, because the full meanings of the terms used to explain what happens in a society as such don’t translate into psychology or neurology or chemistry or physics. Only the extensions or the referents are assumed to be ultimately the same, regardless of our inability to explain without gaps how their identity manifests in the different levels of behaviour. The behaviours perceived from different vantage points, such as those of an appalled American voter witnessing her country’s cultural descent into madness, and of a blurry-eyed scientist staring at a computer screen at CERN, are not at all the same in that they’re not explainable by means of any single coherent set of symbols. You need at least two theoretical discourses to be able to predict what will happen at those levels of being. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Stultified by Reason: the Vision of Heartless Nature

Art by Jim Kazanjian
It’s often said that the scientific way of thinking is counterintuitive. Worse, the mathematical analysis of nature is alien and incomprehensible to those of us who haven’t mastered that language or who aren’t in the habit of thinking within the bounds of an austere standard of precision. Scientific knowledge is hard to acquire not just because there have been so many discoveries in the last several centuries, that delving into even a fraction of modern knowledge overloads the human memory capacity. On top of that and more importantly, the math-centered form of scientific thinking is estranged from the heuristics that make up our innate logic that’s responsible for our intuitive, snap decisions. Those genetically-preprogrammed cognitive rules give us a head-start in the harsh business of surviving but also blind us to the nature of cosmic reality. Our on-board techniques for coming to grips with the world are suitable for reading each other’s minds and climbing social ladders, as well as for interpreting useful terrestrial rhythms such as the cycles of night and day and the four seasons, but not for fathoming chaos, quantum mechanics, or dimensions beyond space and time. Early modern scientists made a heroic effort, based in part on the antisocial leanings of geniuses like Isaac Newton, to develop an inhuman method equal to the task of modeling the remote universe that’s perfectly indifferent to the emergence of life.

We fall in love with each other, losing ourselves in emotional bonds to the point that we risk being blackmailed as we strip off our clothes and carry out sex acts that are banned in public spaces to preserve our presumed dignity. That’s the extent of our preference for the familiar social world. How alien, then, must be any form of cognition that encompasses the ocean beyond the puddle that we call home! How alienated from our native feelings and biases must we become even to entertain the antihuman thought that the entire saga of our historical comings and goings is peripheral to universal reality! And what madness must we court to study the undead shuffling of natural processes, to deprive ourselves of the comfort of trotting out our myopic metaphors that are so many gauche shout-outs to our brothers and sisters in the ‘hood of humanity!

Anthropocentrism: the Norm for Human Happiness

Anthropocentrism is our original sin. It begins with the clueless egoism burning in the tiny heart of every child, passing into the fragile pride of each toddler who’s indignant whenever he or she is told “No.” We all enter the wide world unable even to form the conception that anything could be other than ourselves. Everything from Mother’s milk to Mother herself and the toys we play with are thought of as parts of our craving. We demand this or that and we receive it as a matter of parental necessity or else we throw a tantrum. In effect, as children we perceive every event as being miraculous, because we don’t separate cause and effect in our imagination: everything happens in the orbit of our self-centered expectations. Even after we pass the trials of teen disenchantment, when puberty compels us to long for the Other, in a morass of lusts and other hormonal intoxications, when we grow into independent adults, we still rely on those childish habits of thought. We carry our self-centeredness with us in the theistic delusions of our exoteric religions, when we live with the knowledge of our certain death by spellbinding each other in our collective hypnosis, daydreaming that physical death is illusory because the spirit lives on for eternity in the House of the Lord. With our cities’ light pollution that blots out the far-flung heavens, we facilitate the illusion that the world revolves around us, as though by enveloping ourselves at night in those electric screens we were telling each other, “Keep moving, keep consuming; there’s nothing to see here”—no infinite void all around terra firma, for example, which likely surpasses even scientific understanding so that all our preconceptions about the worth of what we’re doing would eventually be laughed off as so many naive fairytales if only they could be remembered across the generations. Instead, the vain, wishful narratives that contextualize our lives, in which we’re invariably the starring attractions, will pass into obscurity, nullified by the outer void after the curtain call on our species and on our epoch.