Sunday, April 22, 2018

Do We Really Want to be Free?

What is freewill, socially and historically speaking? As I explain in The Irrelevance of Scientific Determinism, many of the perennial philosophical questions about freewill are beside the point, much as the abstract, idealistic legal questions and economic models and principles are meant to be counterfactual. Lawyers-in-training and economists ponder unrealistic scenarios, devoid of real-world context, to test their understanding of certain principles. The danger is that these professionals might begin to mistake their maps for the territory, the rigor of their learning process with some scientific status of their discipline. This mistake can happen in either case when these professionals forget the normative dimension of society, and pretend to be technocratically neutral about how people should live.

Likewise, the philosophical question of whether we’re free persons or puppets of prior causes asks too much and abstracts from what would have to be the preconditions of producing a real creature with freedom. To dismiss the independent identity of something, by reducing its contribution to some prior influence is to commit the genetic fallacy and to render all distinctions erroneous. The only legitimate subject matter for this severe reductionist would be something like the Big Bang singularity or whatever else amounts to the First Cause, all subsequent objects and events being nothing but byproducts. Needless to say, the kind of independence or freedom that could violate all possible natural ancestries, that is, that could ignore its birthright, as it were, in so far as this free being is part of the natural order, would be supernatural, absolute, and thus unreal as far as anyone could tell.

So the freedom at issue must be limited to have arisen in the natural order. Instead of being sufficiently independent of nature to be capable of resisting all possible influences, to have always been able to do otherwise than would be predicted from an understanding of the total set of circumstances, a free creature must be only partially able to resist some features of its environment. This is to say the creature would be natural and real, not a ghost, an angel, or a god. The free creature would approximate those absolutes, and its autonomy would play out as a coordination of anti-natural intentions and capacities. This freedom would thus require what we call a mind and a body, a self that sees things its way as often defined against the broader flow of natural events, and an organic interior or sub-world, separated from the broader world not just by a barrier or membrane but by the anomalousness of all its internal processes, which both contribute to the creature’s limited freedom.   

Taking all this as read, this still addresses only some of freedom’s preconditions. A remaining question is how the degrees of freedom affect our anti-natural agenda, thus shaping the history of freewill. Another question is whether freedom ends up being a worthy ideal. All species have some degree of freedom, but there’s a meaningful distinction between animals and people, albeit one that explains without justifying the mass extinctions we’re perpetrating. Animals are slaves to their biological life cycle, because their minds aren’t liberated by language or by higher-order thinking. Their behaviour is almost entirely evolutionary, which means their genes keep their host’s neural control center on a short leash, as the psychologist Keith Stanovich puts it in The Robot’s Rebellion. The word “animal” thus has similar connotations to “robot”: both entail subservience in the sense of forced labour. The first robots or “robota” were peasants in the European feudal systems, and the writer Karel Čapek speculated in 1920 that mindless humanoid bodies could be produced, so that “robot” came to be applied to at least the idea of artificial labourers. The idea was to replace sentient with mechanical slaves, out of respect for moral principles. The Cartesian contention that animals are machines with no rationality or consciousness has exactly the same implications. The humanist wants to say that animals or robots should perform our labour to free the lower class of people from having to degrade themselves and to behave as though they were mere animals or robots themselves.

Again, the truth here is mixed. Many animal species do have some degree of rationality, consciousness, and freedom, and these attributes fall into a continuum. Nevertheless, our species is far removed from all the others on this planet with respect not just to our liberated mentality but to the flexibility of our phenotype which enables us to apply the virtual miracle of our godlike perspective. Perceiving the ugly truth that the natural order enslaves us all in so far as we’re animals (forced labourers serving the duopoly of genes and the environment) isn’t the same as being able to do anything about it. It’s obviously possible to be imprisoned without having the power to break out of the prison cell. Most likely, animals either don’t comprehend the absurdity of their situation or don’t care about it. Even intelligent animals such as apes, octopi, or dolphins are likely interested only in narrow applications of their mental maps. Thus, they don’t waste their life as though they were locked in a prison cell, knowing that the world treats them as robots and yet lacking the equivalent of an opposable thumb to begin to externalize their anti-natural will with technological transformations of their pristine habitat.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Last Remaining Internet Author Paid accidentally by Parakeet

Dateline: Cubicle District 64, Year 2028Mystifying tens of millions of authors, Horatio Masterson is the only remaining writer who is still somehow being paid for his work, and in this exclusive report, we reveal the secret of his success.

The internet’s early enthusiasts promised a socialist paradise, but while advances in communications technologies encouraged many more people to speak their minds and try their hand at some art form, the “Let Information Be Free” movement ensured that most of these budding writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other artists became paupers.

As we’ve all come to realize, the trouble was that the large manufacturers that advertised on the internet had much more clout than content-providers, because things like clothing, furniture, and cars were more in demand than ideas. Robots can produce things more efficiently than can human labourers, and so those people were swiftly put out of business. Unable to be retrained for the new economy, they took to overdosing on opiates, committing suicide, or getting themselves locked up in prison. 

Artificial intelligence provided the same unbeatable competition to those who had made a living with mental rather than manual labour. But whereas the machines used to manufacture material goods were enormous and costly, and thus not easily replicated, AI programs proliferated and so after 2025 anyone could create a work of genre fiction, a digital painting, a hit song, or even a computer-graphics-laden film just by turning on the AI on a common mobile device. Once art’s mystique was gone, demand for the arts dried up.

That didn’t stop the world’s artists from expressing themselves in their work, since they’re compelled to be creative; only the economic value of their products has fallen off a cliff. No one was interested in paying for a stream of content on the internet, including for this very article you’re reading, because so many artists were willing to work for free. After all, they created mainly to express themselves, not to make money. The market for news, pop cultural reviews, or philosophical articles thus became oversaturated.

Only Mr. Masterson discovered some trick to earning a living as a content-provider on the internet—in his case as a culture critic who writes articles on various subjects. A team of social scientists investigating the phenomenon confirmed that Mr. Masterson is human, not a bot or a cadre of hackers faking the payments. But Mr. Masterson’s articles aren’t noticeably higher in quality than the millions of other such texts available for free all over the internet.

The miracle is that someone somewhere is paying Mr. Masterson to write. We’re used to seeing all the internet money going to the advertisers, not to the thinkers and artists, as our species came to appreciate our inferiority to the new generation of machines and artificial minds.

But the secret of Mr. Masterson’s success hasn’t been revealed. Until now.

Our producers followed the money and discovered that his benefactor is a parakeet owned by a wealthy woman named Elizabeth Milton. Unbeknownst to her, the parakeet, named Jimmy, has gotten in the habit of pecking at the same keys on an old keyboard connected to Miss Milton’s computer that she’s left on for years but doesn’t use.

Coincidentally, the timing of Jimmy’s pecks coincides with the publishing of Mr. Masterson’s daily output of articles, so that as soon as each article is released, Jimmy has accidentally sent the author hundreds of dollars for that day from Miss Milton’s bank account.

Miss Milton confirmed that she’s never read anything written by Mr. Masterson, but that she doesn’t intend to turn off her computer, because she’s under the impression that Jimmy likes the sound of its humming.

“I suspected some such oddity,” said Mr. Masterson after we revealed our discovery to him. “It seems, then, I’m in a precarious position as a professional author. I’m the last of my breed. Should dear Elizabeth’s parakeet cease to push those precious buttons on the keyboard—or as soon as the bird passes away—I don’t suppose such a lucky confluence of events will happen again for me or for anyone else.”

Other writers resent Mr. Masterson’s stroke of good fortune. Tomas Bombastico is an unemployed teacher who publishes his lectures on YouTube and his academic articles on his blog—all for free, of course.

“I’ve read Mr. Masterson’s output,” said Mr. Bombastico. “His articles are nothing special. My writing is ten times more interesting and no one pays me a dime. And there are millions of other writers just like me, writing pages and pages that no one ever reads or pays for. It’s a travesty.”  

Mr. Bombastico resented the suggestion that if all those writers hadn’t been willing to sell themselves so short, perhaps the market wouldn’t have become oversaturated.

“We write because we have to express our ideas,” he said, “and we’ll do it for free if we have to. But where’s our crazy parakeet?”

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Against Steven Pinker’s Case for Humanistic Progress

In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that the Enlightenment worked! Reason and science have brought progress to humanity. Don’t believe it? Pinker proves it with dozens of graphs. The hard numbers tell the tale: scientific advances have led to technological and social ones that have increased human flourishing not just in the West but around the world.

Alas, one sticking point remains: Pinker writes like a jackass. If Pinker’s case against religious, postmodern, authoritarian, and romantic critics of the thesis that rational enlightenment is progressive were as airtight as he suggests with his quantitative analysis, that counting of the numbers should speak for itself. Why, then, does Pinker supplement that supposed proof with his haughtiness and his slippery, specious philosophical arguments? The answer is that the graphs don’t speak for themselves after all. Who would have thought that statistics is a shady business, that you can “prove” whatever you like by twisting the facts as you please, as is common practice in advertisements! Enlightenment Now follows upon Pinker’s similar but more-focused book, The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues that the facts prove that global violence has declined due again to rational progress. But critics pounced on that book’s use of definitions and statistics. Conflicts between states have declined, but civil conflicts have increased, as the discussion in this video points out. Plus, as pessimistic economist Nassim Taleb argued, the 70 years of global peace Pinker points to may be only the trough between catastrophic conflicts that happen on average only once a century and that falsify any such notion of a steady decrease of armed conflicts.

Pinker, however, doubled down on his method and in this newer book presented graphs showing that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are all on the rise. Critics this time have focused on the question of how evenly or fairly these goods are distributed. For example, average global health may have risen only because a minority has received the best medical care, leaving the majority with health problems. Averages can cloak this divide, which is why Pinker dismisses the concern about economic inequality, since as long as everyone’s welfare increases, he says, it doesn’t matter that some people are doing much better than others. Inequality isn’t the same as unfairness, says Pinker, which is true as a matter of semantics but is irrelevant, since empirically the top one percent are more or less sociopathic and thus don’t earn their wealth fairly. 

In any case, these questions of tangible progress don’t much interest me. It’s perfectly plausible that the rise of objectivity and skepticism from the Scientific Revolution onwards has led to technological and thus to some social progress. The main defect in Pinker’s argument, however, is apparent from his chapter on humanism. There he means to show that science is inherently humanistic, and this is the primary point of disagreement between Pinker and his critics; moreover, this question of humanism is the source of Pinker’s dismissive attitude towards those critics. Pinker pretends the numbers speak for themselves, whereas everyone is familiar with how statistics can be abused. The reason for that pretense is to justify Pinker’s lapses in the philosophical and historical departments. From a scientistic perch, Pinker can “argue” the philosophical points about the humanistic implications of reason and science, which means he can presuppose those happy connections, to excuse himself from having to provide anything like a strong philosophical or historical case in addition to his statistical one. The numbers allegedly do the heavy lifting, so all that’s left for Pinker to do is to boast. You wouldn’t expect the scientistic shiftiness from his persona in his public discussions and interviews in which he appears as a longer-, greyer-haired Spock, all mild-mannered and even-handed. But his writing on the philosophical and historical issues is both triumphalist and pitifully weak, as John Gray points out in his review of the book.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Social Reality of Heaven and Hell

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Shylock the infamous Jewish moneylender provides what’s become rhetoric for an egalitarian rallying cry, when he compares himself to the Christian and asks rhetorically, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” The inference drawn from the extracted meme about how everyone bleeds the same is that everyone is therefore more or less equal. In fact, Shylock’s speech reads as a rationalization of his preoccupation with vengeance, on which he subsequently dwells in the last third of the speech. The implicit equality, then, isn’t so much between those belonging to different creeds or religions, but between humans and other clever primates who understand the concept of revenge. In any case, the notion that blood type matters to whether people are all in some important sense equal is quaint. The invention of the computer has demonstrated the many-to-one relationship between software and hardware: instances of the same type of computer can be running very different programs, just as individuals with the same phenotype can be mentally dissimilar. Whether we all bleed the same is thus a classic red herring, as far as an egalitarian should be concerned.

There are reasons to think, on the contrary, that the rich and the poor effectively occupy very different worlds, phenomenologically speaking. Of course they live in different parts of the city or country, in different-sized houses and so on, but their qualities of life are also divergent, as are the social systems in which they operate. This is shown, for example, by the proverbial golden parachute which saves only the wealthy. In most cases, the wealthy aren’t socially punished for their failures. They fail as often as any other fallible person, but normally they don’t suffer much as a result of their misdeeds. On the contrary, the punishment is typically externalized, which is the Orwellian kernel of truth in trickle-down economics. For example, the vulture “capitalist” swoops in, purchases and dismantles a company, earns a bonus from the short-term boost of the company’s stock price (since in theory the company’s temporarily worth more as a skeleton than as a working business, until the realization kicks in that a skeletal company can’t make much money), and flies away from the wreckage as the stock price plummets and the company goes bankrupt. Instead of being tarnished by associating himself with antisocial, Darwinian logic, the CEO is celebrated in the business literature and the banks are quick to finance his next takeover venture. Then there are the many examples of white-collar criminals hiring a team of the best lawyers to get away with their crimes, or of their having hired armies of lobbyists to have legalized their destructive lifestyle in the first place. The rarified world in which the power elite lives goes to great lengths to prevent this dashing knight from failing in the fullest sense, from hitting rock bottom by recognizing, for example, that his business model trains him to be a predatory sociopath who must segregate himself from mass society to avoid the backlash he deserves. White-collar sociopaths who wreck companies and thousands of employees’ lives are heralded as gods, while blue-collar sociopaths who rape or murder are locked away or executed.

In the ancient and medieval worlds, this difference in social class was codified in warfare, when the nobles would engage only in single combat, away from the chaos of the war itself. Often, the defeated king or lord would be captured and held for ransom instead of killed, whereas the peasant soldiers would savage each other in a free-for-all bloodsport. In the modern world, the highest-ranking military commanders are typically civilians who command the troops far from the battlefield, while the grunts languish beneath the fog of war, showing fealty not to those commanders but to their brothers-in-arms. At least in societies that have no military draft, the grunts who derive from the lower social stratum fight in a world in which the element of chance predominates. The stakes for the soldier are a matter of life or death, whereas the main concern for the generals is their military career. For reasons set out by John Ralston Saul in Voltaire’s Bastards, modern social systems compel rationalist leaders to fail upward, because these systems are amoral and their inclination is only to ensure that the systems are efficient. The ultimate outcome is irrelevant, according to the instrumentalist, as long as the system and its logic prevail. Thus, the dishonour involved in commanding the Iraqi battlefield from the Green Zone, which invites contempt from America’s adversaries and which hurts American troop morale is of no consequence, because this democratically-controlled military system is presumed to be much more technical and efficient than the Islamist militant’s guerilla warfare. As Saul points out, this instrumentalist reasoning was fatally undermined by Robert McNamara’s loss of the Vietnam War. Saul assumes, though, that this value of efficiency should be taken at face value.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Open Letter to President Trump, from the Entertainment Industry

With all due respect to the outcome of the 2016 presidential campaign, to those who voted for Donald Trump, and to the policies and performance of the Trump administration, we members of the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, and of numerous other unions pertaining to American arts and letters implore Donald Trump to stop pretending he can be president, so we can skip to the part where artists get to lament or ridicule everything he’s done in office.

The artistic importance of the Trump White House’s shenanigans dwarfs the political or economic effects of that administration’s actions. The Trump administration isn’t competent enough to put its stamp on history by the strength of its convictions or by the novelty or relevance of its policies. The Trump family intended to get into politics only to enrich themselves or to show off. But as far as the rest of the world should be concerned, their regime will have only entertainment value and so Hollywood, for example, must be allowed to capitalize on that fact.

Decades from now, no one will associate the Trump administration with any political accomplishment, despite the need for an overhaul of the neoliberal way of doing business at home and abroad, as is plain from the rise of state-controlled capitalist countries such as China, Russia, and Iran, and from the decline of liberal democracy in Europe and North America.

Only the artistic commentaries on the Trump fiasco will matter, and these will consist of mountains of films, novels, poems, television series, plays, songs, and operas that will duly arrive at the meaning of Trumpism for the benefit of humanity.

These artistic monuments to Trump’s folly are waiting to burst forth, but the artists are prevented from starting their labours in earnest by the fact that this administration is still perpetrating its absurd pretense that it has some business to accomplish. Decorum requires that artists hold their fire until Donald Trump is no longer president or until the full farce of his time in office has unspooled.

To begin the cinematic excoriations midstream, for example, would invite Trump’s defenders to retort, “Too soon.” But we believe the majority of Americans have waited long enough. Donald Trump has no legitimate business to tend to as president. His time in high office has been laughable from beginning to end. We demand that President Trump bow out of his political fraud so that the entertainment industry can turn its full attention his way.

The dozens of movies alone that will soon enough be made about the Trump disaster will be worth more to history than everything Trump will have done while he was president. Indeed, Trump’s abominable presidency will have the sole merit of providing so many raw materials for artistic and comedic sublimation.

In effect, President Trump is working consistently only for one special interest besides that of his personal family’s enrichment, and that’s the entertainment sector. Trump’s every utterance and buffoonish performance feed artists a wealth of absurdity to challenge their respective muses. Far from working to improve America as a whole, President Trump has effectively aligned himself with the liberal entertainment industry, since it will be left to the artists to redeem the shit sandwich of his presidency.

But by remaining in office where he obviously doesn’t belong, he’s delaying that superior work that needs to be done.

Thus, we the undersigned say: Enough with the fake politics; let’s skip to the art.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Travesty of Self-Help Advice

Outside of the academy, self-help platitudes have largely substituted for philosophical literature. This is both pitiful and fortunate. The pity is that the advice peddled by self-help writers is abysmal. The blessing is that if the masses are attracted to New Age-flavoured self-help therapy, they haven’t the stomach for authentic knowledge and so it’s just as well they steer clear of philosophy. Still, here’s a philosophical take on some pearls of self-help wisdom.

Warped Stoicism, Garbled Liberalism

The charlatan sometimes lures you in with a veneer of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Authentic Stoic philosophy is tragic, because it was meant for warriors in a literal battlefield in which a violent death can come to anyone with no warning. The Stoic concedes that we have no control over the external world and therefore shouldn’t expect to get what we want if our desires are based on the false premise that we can control anything other than ourselves. Thus, we shouldn’t expect to be happy if we think happiness ought to include monetary wealth. As in Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Jainism, we should tailor our desires to natural reality: our naïve, self-centered, extravagant desires are unrealistic; the external world is indifferent towards our success (especially in war), and so the most we should hope for is to avoid disappointment if we can learn to be humble, to expect to control only our mindset. This is why Epictetus said the Stoic is invincible, since as long as he or she aligns her thoughts with natural reality, the Stoic won’t expect more than the world is likely to provide.

All by itself, then, genuine Stoicism refutes most of what passes for self-help wisdom, because Stoicism includes the tragic principles of Buddhism, which were much more recently reformulated by pessimists and existentialists in the wake of modern science. But in summarizing the top self-help lessons, one charlatan recommends taking “full responsibility” for your life. “This means that you have to own your mistakes and your victories too. You should not blame anyone else for the conditions in your life. You have to take responsibility for your life so as to live the one that you desire. Do not place responsibility for your life in the hands of your parents, guardians or romantic partners. The quality of your life is completely up to you. Do not make excuses, only progress.” Another source puts the point this way: “Don’t be an asshole. There’s enough negativity in the world; don’t contribute to it. If you’re able, be kind, but if you’re having a rough day, just try not to be a complete dick.”

This advice appears to be a garbled rendition of Sartre’s view and is thus in line with the bastardization of Stoicism. The exoteric slip-up here is to slide from Sartre’s early phenomenological focus on how consciousness is free to escape the present, to the notion that our freedom encompasses our “life.” In short, Sartre’s early account of freedom amounts to Stoicism, so his point is that we’re free to adjust our conscious states to accept reality. Thus, he says in Being and Nothingness that even a prisoner is free as long as he or she doesn’t wish to leave the prison cell. This is just the Stoic warrior’s tragic attitude of accepting the unpleasant likelihood of suffering or death in war, which extends to the broader conflict between nature and all creatures not occupied on a formal battlefield.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Video: The Heartless Vision of Nature

Here's a movie I made based on Stultified by Reason: The Heartless Vision of Nature. Unfortunately, the movie may not play on some devices (maybe mobile phones and video consoles), because it was flagged for copyrighted content; I used excerpts from some well-known movies to make my points, which is supposed to be allowed under fair-use laws. This is evidently some corporate-friendly compromise I didn't know about. 

Anyway, from now on the movies I'll make will be shorter and won't use clips from major motion pictures. The next one will be based on Opposing Nature: Life's Meaning in a Monstrous Universe.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Dennis Prager’s Jewish "Wisdom"

Dennis Prager is an American syndicated radio host and is known for his zealous defense of conservatism and Judaism. He often admits that he doesn’t think God’s existence can be proven, although he adds that he doesn’t think atheism can be proven either, and yet he likes to say that he comes to his religious beliefs through toxic effects of secularism, such as the moral bankruptcy of liberalism and postmodern philosophy. He also likes to say that while atheists can be knowledgeable and intellectual, they tend to lack wisdom, because wisdom derives from God. His radio-quality baritone and Jewish affiliation lends him a wise man’s aura, but reading through some of his articles and listening to some of his debates and Prager University videos makes for a letdown. His is meant to be the Machiavellian “wisdom” of a secularized Jew who is too busy making money in business, idolizing Americanism, and sucking up to American “Christian” conservatives to demonstrate any concern for philosophical depth or rigor.  

Prager’s Two Questions for Atheists

Let’s examine some of Prager’s arguments. He often poses two questions to atheists, which he thinks are the most important to ask: “Do you hope you are right or wrong [about whether God exists]?” and “Do you ever doubt your atheism?” While he debates the philosophical issues with atheists, he says, what really interests him “are the answers to these two questions.” This is ‘Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God”—do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism. I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person.’

If the atheist says she doesn’t hope there’s a God, she’s revealed that she has a “cold soul,” and so Prager writes, “I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality—right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe—murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.”

And if she doesn’t ever doubt her atheism, Prager says, the atheist shows she’s more dogmatic than theists who frequently doubt some of their religious beliefs. Thus Prager writes, “When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain—none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?”

Prager is right, more or less, about the dire implications of philosophical naturalism, but he hasn’t thought through the implications of theism if he thinks that positing God remedies our existential situation—as Kierkegaard and the other religious existentialists would have pointed out to him. To begin with, Prager’s notion that “all existence is random,” given atheism, is a strawman, since atheists are typically naturalists and naturalists posit natural order, patterns, and even invariances or nomic relations. There’s randomness in nature, but there are also regularities subject to rational explanations. If reality were ultimately mental rather than some living-dead flow of matter and physicality, that is, were God the metaphysically primary cause of everything else, there would be no reason why existence shouldn’t be fundamentally random, since God could always change his mind or act on a whim. Mindless matter has no freedom or emotional impulse to unfold against its nature or to reverse course out of spite or jealousy. Only credulity and superstitious deference to orthodox interpretations of scriptures, based on taking human autocrats as models of the supernatural boss in the sky, would lead theists to presume that if God exists, the universe is secure and we have nothing to worry about as long as we follow certain Iron Age commandments. What would stop God from creating infinite universes and disposing of them at will or as inspired by an alien aesthetics, as depicted in Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker? What could prevent God from doing absolutely anything he wants for no reason we could possibly understand, as is the lesson of the Book of Job? Only were we naively anthropocentric would we think that God’s logic should align with our mammalian reasoning, that we’re “made in God’s image.” Only a sanctimonious blowhard would boast that her interpretation of poetic scripture and thus of God’s alleged intentions is the only valid one. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Unmasking of Misanthropy: Jordan Peterson and David Benatar on Antinatalism

There’s a YouTube audio recording of a debate between psychologist Jordan Peterson and philosopher David Benatar about Benatar’s antinatalist arguments, a debate which I recommend to anyone interested in antinatalism or pessimism. Instead of discussing all their points and counterpoints, I want to focus on a key moment that happens after Peterson had raised numerous interesting objections which Benatar rebutted.

But before I discuss antinatalism itself, I want to applaud the quality of their discussion. If there are inflammatory topics that are bound to tempt interested parties to forget that they have intellectual faculties, antinatalism is among them since it implies that no one ought ever to have been born, considering that harms always outweigh benefits in life. This means that antinatalism invites anyone with children or with nieces or nephews to consider whether those very children would have been better off not coming into the world. Even those adults who have no personal connections to any child would be forced to reflect on their memories of when they were children, and since we’re emotionally attached to ourselves and especially to when we were relatively innocent in our childhood, antinatalism should be profoundly disturbing to everyone who’s not suicidal. Yet Peterson and Benatar maintain philosophical poise, by engaging in a constructive dialogue. Their discussion isn’t dry and academic, which means that the relevant emotions do rise to the surface, although Benatar is especially keen to keep track of which of his points were or weren’t addressed. But instead of resorting to personal attacks or to partisan talking points, they articulate their differences with integrity.

The reason I bring this up is that the quality of their discussion contrasts strikingly with the political infotainment that’s commonplace in the corporate mass media. First of all, the length of Peterson’s and Benatar’s discussion (around ninety minutes) allows the truth to have at least the potential to emerge in the responsible back-and-forth that took place between them, whereas the miniscule airtime devoted to any topic on television news, for example, in any particular “segment,” precludes that happy outcome, especially if the subject matter is complex enough to deserve being debated in the first place. What’s important here is that news junkies can get in the habit of thinking there’s no alternative to how CNN or talk radio, for example, deals so treacherously with important topics, and the discussion between Peterson and Benatar, which you’re free to listen to, disproves that presumption for all time. An alternative is possible—not that such philosophical virtues will ever be demanded by mainstream audiences. And not that their discussion of antinatalism is the only worthy dialogue that’s ever occurred, of course. Philosophical dialogues are standard in remote, academic circles and have been since the dawn of Western philosophy. But it’s crucial that non-academics be exposed at least once to civil, worthwhile discourse so that they can compare it with the prattle that passes for serious engagement with ideas in popular media. Once you see the difference for yourself, you can’t help but be alarmed that the corporate sources of information and analysis are systematically dumbing-down their audiences and that we ought to consider the discussions that occur on television, the radio, and increasingly in (short-form) print journalism as mere entertainments, or as infotainments, which are entertainments disguised as real contemplation of issues.

Indeed, even laying philosophy aside, on a purely stylistic level, I was shocked to discover, some years ago when I picked up a newspaper on a train in Liverpool, that the quality of English that’s common in North American mass media is dreadfully poor. The vocabulary and syntactic complexity of the sentences used even to describe the weather in England were obviously more sophisticated than the average level of English you’ll find in sources of North American news. If anything, the childishness of “President” Trump’s diction has exacerbated this deficit, as has the prevalence of SEO algorithms on the internet. For example, the Yoast SEO uses the Flesch reading ease score, which would reduce the level of discourse to that which could easily be digested by teenagers or preteens. The highest scores on the Flesch test are earned by texts which can be read easily by someone between 11 and 15 years old. The lowest scores, which can reduce your text’s visibility to search engines, reflect the need for a university-level comprehension. The point of these algorithms, then, is to encourage writers to write on a popular level, by simplifying their ideas and thus by eschewing the sort of rigorous but still passionate examination of issues that Peterson and Benatar engaged in.

Why the Antinatalist should be Misanthropic

I think the most important part of their antinatalism discussion occurs at around the 1:12:30 minute mark, when Peterson lays out the basis of his fundamental objection to antinatalism, which is that antinatalism is “antihuman” and “existentially cowardly.” But the key disagreement that begins to emerge at that precise moment in the conversation is that Peterson gets Benatar to affirm that it would be best if our species ceased to exist—albeit not by some violent cataclysm but by our voluntary decision no longer to produce future generations. (Benatar affirms this also in Chapter Six of Better Never to have Been.) Indeed, at 1:16:26, Benatar says, “I think that it will be good when there are no sentient beings left.” He says he’s not naïve about the influence of antinatalist arguments, which means he doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume he personally will have a hand in the extinction of our species, since most people will ignore or dismiss his pessimistic views. But he affirms that he believes not just that our species will eventually cease to exist, but that that outcome will be good. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism

Are you doing what you should be doing? Not just right now, but in general? How about your family, your town, your whole country? How about the human species throughout its history? Are we living as we should be living? Is there a profound, perhaps even secret purpose or a meaning of life which we can miss out on? Most creatures can’t conceive of such questions, because they’re locked into their biological rhythms and life cycle. We can imagine abnormalities and can learn to make fictions real, to change the world drastically to suit not just our needs but our whims, and thus to divert ourselves from our genetically preordained path. The existential question of whether a way of life is fundamentally in the right, then, is reserved for brainy creatures like us.

Even most people, however, almost never ponder the deep questions, because they take their practices for granted. For tens of thousands of years, people were forced by the exigencies of surviving in the wild, to hunt and gather food and supplies. Only when large groups turned to farming and organized religion, settled territories, and established civilizations did the philosophical questions begin to arise, because that’s when the upper class elites, at least, were provided the luxury to entertain subversive and even self-destructive doubts. For most of history, the old, theocratic answer satisfied the bulk of the populations, so that most people were spared the anxiety of feeling potentially out of place and could focus on more productive prospects than philosophizing. The most common ancient answer, of course, was that we should live as the gods decide is best for us. And who were the gods? They were thinly-disguised mouthpieces for the human rulers who materially benefited the most from the imperial systems that were driven by the rhetoric of the major religions. Fear of irresistible, miraculous powers kept everyone in line, and their longing for the promised immortality compelled countless believers to sacrifice themselves in wars of conquest.   

Arguably, that god-centered way of life was fatally undermined by the Scientific Revolution, as was recognized by the Enlightenment philosophers that led up to Nietzsche who, far from taking religious worship for granted, could presuppose that God was “dead” so that we had to face the postreligious question of what to do without God. The problem wasn’t that scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin made this or that discovery which contradicted some scriptural passage, since scriptures are typically poetic and can be reinterpreted to accommodate almost any new evidence; after all, that’s largely how a religion can have lasted for centuries in the first place. No, the problem was that scientists after the European Renaissance were humanists who came to trust more in people than in gods. The problem was the rise of the imperative to share knowledge as well as the benefits of technological progress with the masses. The problem was the palpability of human-made progress after the advent of modern science, which seemed to render the old religions superfluous. We found we could save ourselves or at least greatly improve our standard of living, not by praying and hoping for the best or by relying on dogmatic institutions, but by investigating matters for ourselves. So the problem was that the religious answers to the great questions could no longer be taken for granted, once enlightened humans took charge and—crucially—shared the enlightenment: through free-thinking, free trade, and democracy, we created a new world order that gave us all godlike powers. The old gods, then, seemed to be obsolete.

And yet for various reasons, modernity hasn’t made the question of life’s meaning a rhetorical one, as though the answer were obviously that we should be free merely to do whatever we want as long as we respect the same right of everyone else. For one thing, this freedom may be more of a curse than a blessing, a way of talking that reconciles us to nature’s inhumanity which undercuts all myths, even those of our godless, civic religions.

Here, then, I’ll critique some common approaches to the meaning of life. Eastern mystical and humanistic religions, Western monotheisms, and liberal humanism all divide us into higher and lower groups or accentuate natural divisions, so that the masses end up being exploited by the elites. Also, the answers from these religions and philosophies often call for an escape from the horror of what is mistaken for reality or from reality itself. The meanings of life they hold out aren’t always what they seem, and just to notice there’s room to ask deep questions may be to fall into a trap, the trap of enlightenment.

Eastern Religions

Let’s begin our search for answers with how East Asian religions are likely to handle the question of the meaning of life. These religions differ significantly from Western ones. The Chinese and Indian religions of Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for example, are polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. Their practitioners aren’t so concerned with evangelism, with converting foreigners to their beliefs and practices. Moreover, Eastern religions are more practical and philosophical than the monotheistic systems.

Confucianism is ancient Chinese humanism, and with respect to his thinking on ethics and society, Confucius can be called the Chinese Aristotle. For Confucius, we have to look not to the gods but to our potential, to figure out how we should live. We should cultivate virtues, beginning with compassion, and then regulate them by adhering to strict duties that ensure we don’t go off track. In some respects Confucianism is egalitarian, since everyone can learn to be virtuous and take part in at least the basic conventions that hold society together, such as education and respect for your parents. The capacity for virtue is essential to human nature, and Confucianism is mainly about the techniques for efficiently fulfilling that potential. Confucian humanism is founded on the conviction that our primary social obligation is to enable everyone to fulfill their potential for compassion, by educating them in a way that focuses on that moral calling. By contrast, an upbringing that’s loaded with technical training to excel at some profession, without any regard to our moral purpose is dehumanizing, according to Confucians, because our ethical responsibility to love others is essential to our species. Early Confucianism, then, isn’t a religion so much as a philosophy of social engineering.