Saturday, January 28, 2012

Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion

In a few rants here I’ve hinted at the Nietzschean view that one of the major problems with secular society, after the death of God, is the lack of an obvious replacement that we can feel in our bones to be sacred. (See Nietzsche.) When scientists discovered the universe’s true inhuman scale and the full animalistic nature of our bodies and of our evolutionary history, the result was a disenchantment of the world that threatens to burst the delusions that sustain our sanity. Postmodern cynics contend that no such nontheistic religion is needed, that we can live with infinite layers of irony, turning our culture into a giant Stephen Colbert skit in which every public statement is at best a white lie and we applaud each other’s savvy pragmatism, our disdain for philosophical questioning, and our nihilistic poses. 

These cynics may fool themselves but they don’t fool me. Hold a gun to the head of a postmodern poseur’s family member and see whether that erstwhile cynic retains her quasi-Buddhist detachment and truly holds nothing on Earth sacred. Naturally, as the animal she is, the postmodernist would sacrifice herself for her loved ones. Her religion is thus biochemically determined. She’s used as a puppet not by a transcendent Creator of all, but by mindlessly replicating genes which cause each of us to care a lot about those who most share our genetic material. The question to ask the postmodernist is whether some feelings can be judged superior to others according to ideals that aren’t lost with the premodern, theistic worldviews. Nietzsche believed that although traditional morality is rendered dubious by the death of theism, aesthetic standards are still compelling. The problem with the emotional defense of our immediate family members, then, or of our instinctive replacement of traditional deities with naturally selected idols, is that aesthetically speaking, such a primitive religious impulse has surely by now, after millions of generations, become a god-awful cliché.

Can we postmodern nontheists do better? Given that religions are inevitable in human societies, because we’re emotionally driven to identify something as sacred, as a radiant good that uplifts us despite our profane lives filled with disappointment, angst, or delusion, can we create a more beautiful religion that’s viable even after modern secular humanism has given way to postmodern hyper-skepticism? Had I such a religion fully worked out, perhaps I’d be on television hawking T-shirts adorned with the creed’s associated slogans. Needless to say, I know of no such religion. However, I’d like to speak of some themes that do inspire me and that sketch, at least, the sort of religion I’d like to see. Some of these themes are found in the closing speech of Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 science fictional novel Last and First Men. This novel is found in its entirety online, hosted in Australia, so I’d like to quote the whole speech after I summarize the context, and then I propose to analyze the speech. However, if you haven’t read the novel and don’t want its ending spoiled, you should skip the next section and perhaps even put aside this philosophical rant of mine for another day. Fair warning then...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Untangling Modernism and Postmodernism

In my rants here I’ve been throwing around the words “modern” and “postmodern”, and I’d like to set forth what I mean by that highly general, and thus potentially quite useful distinction.


In my view, the essential difference between the modern and the postmodern is that modernity is the purported cultural progress in architecture, painting, music, mass media, and philosophy, resulting from the Scientific Revolution, while postmodernity is the cultural disarray resulting from the depletion of the fuel needed for that progress. The fuel in question is faith in what postmodernists call the modern “master metanarrative” or myth, which I call Scientism. This myth presumes that society in general can progress just as well as can institutional science, that just as scientists discover how nature operates according to laws, we can discover the rules of how we ought to behave and we’re able to follow those rules and so progress towards a perfect union. In either case, the abilities needed for that progress are, first of all, Reason as opposed to tradition, authority, intuition, faith, or revelation, but also the scientistic virtues (or vices, depending on your viewpoint) that motivate the modern experiment. These virtues include intellectual curiosity; optimism about our cognitive potential, including our abilities to discover, comprehend, and digest the natural truths; and pride in the autonomy and dignity of hyper-rational scientists and their analogues in the other social spheres. In short, modernism, the set of ideas implicit in the cultural phenomenon of modernity, is equivalent to secular humanism, to the ideology that reason, freewill, and sentience render us godlike, equipping us with the potential not just for omniscience through scientific methods, but for happiness and prosperity.  

The so-called New World of North America, colonized by Europeans, became the testing ground for the modern hypothesis that social progress is possible by liberally employing reason in all walks of life, without hindrance from tradition or special interests. In particular, the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence enshrined the values of secular humanism. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the stated or implicit rights of people in a capitalistic, democratic society. Those three values are maintained, first, by using relatively unrestricted science to produce lesser goods as demanded by an equally unrestricted marketplace, that is, by a population that’s allowed to develop its own desires instead of having them controlled by a powerful institution like the Church; and second, by relying on the wisdom of rational, free citizens to hold the reigns of political power through elections of political representatives.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sheldon Cooper: The Nerd’s Paradox

The Big Bang Theory is a very highly rated comedy in Canada and the US, largely because of the break-out character of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons, who’s won two Emmy’s and a Golden Globe for his performance. On the surface, the show is about a group of nerdy friends in their late twenties, who are scientific geniuses but with childish preoccupations that socially handicap them. Why are such a TV show and the character of Sheldon Cooper, in particular, so popular?

Evading Angst and Subduing Technoscience

In the show, Sheldon has the most freakishly high intelligence in his group of friends, but has also regressed most to a childhood state. He’s thus the show’s most paradoxical character. He was a child prodigy with an IQ of 187, earning various graduate degrees, including a Ph.D., while still a teenager. He became a professional theoretical physicist, perhaps the most intellectually-challenging job, requiring a mastery of cutting-edge mathematics and a grasp of the most exotic, inhuman concepts, which are at the center of modern physics. He has an eidetic memory, which enables him to know virtually everything about what he regards as nontrivial subjects, namely all subjects that don’t involve adult social relationships.

If knowledge is power, then, Sheldon should intimidate the rest of humanity with his fearsome intelligence. But the opposite is true: Sheldon is routinely both pitied and mocked by everyone, especially by his friends who know him best. The reason is that Sheldon’s godlike intelligence is complemented by the fact that his emotions are those of a child’s, making him psychologically a boy in a man’s body. He’s obsessed with comic books, sci fi, video games, and trains; he likes to be sung to sleep and otherwise mothered; he’s unable to drive a car so he has to be driven by his friends. Despite his near-omniscience, which theoretically enables him to overcome any obstacle, his lack of emotional development renders him unable to comprehend let alone succeed in the field which adults care about most, the field of social interaction. Sheldon may suffer from Asperger Syndrome or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, since he lacks empathy, engages in restrictive and repetitive behaviours, and is socially awkward. Moreover, he suffers from phobias of germs and of being touched, among others. 

Sheldon is therefore effectively asexual, an alien or a god among human beings who, instead of terrifying his intellectual inferiors, is routinely mocked by them. When his friend Penny, who has lackluster intelligence, attempts to navigate his own scientific areas of expertise, tackling basic questions about how the universe works, she fails dismally but she’s neither pitied nor ridiculed for those failures, because she wields power in social relationships, being an attractive young woman with much sexual experience. The show thus presupposes the higher value of social relationships than of technoscience, so that neither mastery of nor failure in the latter is assumed to matter. Whereas in reality advances in science and technology radically reshape human life, Sheldon’s scientific progress is never applauded or shown to be consequential.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Christian Chutzpah: Why Christianity is the Worst Religion

Even though Islam is arguably now a much more dangerous religion, the favourite target of Anglo-American so-called New Atheists, inspired by writers like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, is Christianity. One obvious reason for this is that Christianity is the predominant western religion, especially in the US which is the most religious western nation. Many Christian commentators complain on places like Fox News, Christian Broadcasting Network, talk radio programs, and (in Canada) on Michael Coren’s shows, that Christians are thus persecuted, that secularists have a double standard, professing to be tolerant and respectful of personal liberties, but waging a bitter campaign against Christianity, a religion that’s conspicuously the greatest force for good in the world. The implication, of course, for the Christians who keep one eye on such media and the other on the Bible, is that New Atheists are literally in league with the devil and therefore beneath contempt.

The typical New Atheist response is to produce a hackneyed list of grievances with Christianity, including crass statistics on the numbers of people historically killed in the religion’s name; the religion’s failure to measure up to scientistic standards of evidence; and the religion’s opposition to politically correct liberal views on social issues like abortion, gay rights, and science education. Regardless of the status of those issues, Christianity is indeed supremely worthy of criticism--but for another reason entirely, and so I’ll lay aside the standard New Atheistic arguments. (For a summary of general arguments against theism, see Theism.) A sufficient reason why Christianity is the worst religion is aesthetic in flavour, picking up on Nietzsche’s psychological critique of Christian resentment. Nietzsche wasn’t interested in whether Christian beliefs are true, since for him all truth is subjective, reflecting the will to power. So instead of tediously pointing out biblical contradictions, the absurdity of miracle claims, or the fallacies in arguments for God’s existence, he focused on tracing the character of Christian theology back to its psychological origins in the experience of the earliest Christians. Somewhat in that spirit, I want to highlight an aesthetic reason why nontheists ought to be critical especially of Christianity.

The most unforgivable fault of mainstream and elite Christians--and it’s unforgivable because the fault offends good taste, and the taste of something is visceral and thus highly memorable--is their chutzpah, their sheer audacity, their shameless participation in historical reversals that pile irony on top of irony until today the whole grotesque Christian edifice--what Kierkegaard called Christendom--is a glaring sign of the universe’s absurdity and perhaps the clearest proof of God’s nonexistence. Tertullian is infamous for saying that he believes the Christian message because of the message’s shamefulness, silliness, and impossibility, but Christianity’s absurdity is much deeper than the content of its creeds. Again, I’m not interested here in the epistemic status of Christian theology. I stress instead that when you compare the content of early Christian documents, including the New Testament and extracanonical, Gnostic scriptures, with the thrust of the Church’s historical development, you’re bound to be repulsed by the gall of so-called Christians simply for their association with the oldest, most hypocritical institution which is the Christian Church.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

We're the Squishy Monsters!

In myths, movies, and other forms of fiction, there are two prominent kinds of monsters: pointy and squishy ones. The pointy ones, with fangs, claws, or other sharp edges, represent the insect and the alien, the nonhuman that crawls out of its lair from elsewhere, creeps up your arm and bites you (werewolves, vampires, Giger's aliens, etc). Insects have the archetypal alien form, with their nonhuman body size, population, number of limbs, and exoskeleton that gives them sharp outer edges. The meaning of squishy monsters, like blobs of jelly, large and bulbous octopi bodies, or aliens with oversized heads and no sharp edges, is more complicated. Superficially, these monsters too scare us because of their inhumanity, but this depends on an identification of us with our seemingly immaterial consciousness. Ghosts and godlike intelligences of pure energy might then represent our own immaterial essence, our so-called spirit. To the extent that we think of ourselves as immaterial spirits, manifesting as consciousness, Plato’s hierarchy comes into play, in which the ideal Forms of imperfect, material copies reside in heaven while the copies swarm in the material plane, distracting intelligent beings and imprisoning them in the cave of ignorance. The squishy monster would thus be as alien to our true form as would the sharp-edged monster, since in the Gnostic scheme either would represent the Platonic baseness of materiality and either would be equally loathsome as a symbol of our jailer.

After the Scientific Revolution and the waning of anthropocentric teleology, according to which all of nature is objectively subject to a plan that's laid out in a heaven of ideal models, we’re led to think of ourselves in more corporeal terms. Moreover, scientists confirmed that the brain is our control center and that our eyes are extensions of our brains. The brain and eyes are quintessentially squishy organs, and although the brain is protected by a hard skull, by itself the brain is a pitifully fragile vessel. One of our predominant postmodern fears, then, is of the evident mismatch between the godlike powers of our intelligence, freedom, and consciousness, and our incarnation in fragile bodies with delicate internal organs. That is, we fear that assuming we're identical with our physical bodies, these bodies must not be prisons, after all, since there would be no captive spirit, no ghost in the machine, no traveler from a heavenly dimension who's lost among the cages of incarnated forms. Instead, the spilling of our blood and the rotting of our organs would terminate our life, in which case our intelligence, freedom, and consciousness must have misled us to assume otherwise. The postmodern fear, then, is that we’re godlike only in our delusions of grandeur, that we’re actually absurd animals whose life is sustained by eminently vulnerable bodies, next to what natural forces can throw at us. True, we dominate the planet with our own exoskeletons of skyscrapers, vehicles, weapons, and other hard-edged technologies. But at the core of our planetary power, at the helm of our army of machines, we’re naked apes who need to mitigate the curse of reason with escapist fantasies.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Male-Bashing in Advertising: A Sordid Business

For twenty years now, one of the highlights of North American advertising, especially on television, is what many call its male-bashing. Invariably, when TV ads show men and women together, the ads belittle men as ignorant, incompetent, loutish, or juvenile while heralding women as wise, mature, long-suffering adults. (For examples, see this Top Ten list from and for background see this 2005 NY Times article). Men are always the butt of the jokes while women represent the smart consumers who are bound to follow the advertiser’s advice and buy the product sold by the ad. Critics often remark that were these stereotypes reversed, there would be a feminist uproar and the advertisers would be lynched in the streets. Of course, in the ads of the 1950s and 40s, the stereotypes were indeed exactly reversed, with women depicted as know-nothing children and men as the responsible, all-knowing guardians. Those ads persisted because women had little power then to affect the mass media. Then came the later feminist wave in the 1960s, and women entered the workplace in droves. Over the last couple of decades, North American women have started earning as much as men even in some white collar fields and those women now outnumber men with college or university degrees. Women currently have some sway over the culture industry, although they’ve hardly unseated men from their positions of ultimate political and economic power. Why, then, are the male-bashing ads still perpetrated and tolerated?

Three reasons for their creation come to mind. First, taking into account what I just said, that the current crop of grotesque sexist caricatures precisely reverses an earlier one, the advertisers may be lazy, choosing a formula they know worked in the past, but flipping the variables to accommodate recent social developments. This is surely part of the truth, but it points to a second cause which is the advertiser’s interest in reflecting reality. After all, feminism, competition with machines for traditionally male-dominated jobs, and postmodern cynicism and resistance to patriarchal metanarratives have emasculated and feminized men in wealthy, decadent societies. Advertisers are hardly like scientists who are after knowledge for its own sake, but selling products requires at least a modicum of concern to represent reality--although surely no more than the minimum needed to avoid being branded as a bold-faced liar. There’s much talk recently of men’s identity crisis, so ads may reflect that crisis, as advertisers burrow into the consumer’s preconscious or unconscious and spin narratives that associate over-produced products with the fulfillment of manufactured or uncontrolled urges, respectively.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Should Liberals Try to Win Elections by being Less Rational?

In his book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, the political psychologist and Democratic strategist Drew Weston argues that in the US, Republicans are much more successful presidential campaigners than Democrats because Republicans understand that voters are typically irrational when they evaluate issues they care about. Democrats, however, labour under the eighteenth century presumption that the mind is “dispassionate,” that the voter “makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions.” Unfortunately for Democrats, this theory of the dispassionate mind “bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work. When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose” (ix). According to Westen, Clinton is the main exception, since he understood the importance of connecting with voters’ feelings. Westen’s book was published before Obama’s election, but Obama’s optimistic and inspiring assurance that “Yes, we can change” might count as another exception. Democrats like Dukakis, Gore, and John Kerry, though, lost mainly because they presupposed an erroneous, rationalistic theory of the mind.

As Westen puts it,
Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago: that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around. With the exception of the Clinton era, Democratic strategists for the last three decades have instead clung tenaciously to the dispassionate view of the mind and to the campaign strategy that logically follows from it, namely one that focuses on facts, figures, policy statements, costs and benefits, and appeals to intellect and expertise.
Democrats do so, he says, “because of an irrational emotional commitment to rationality--one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail (15).

According to Westen, Democrats need to come to grips with the fact that
We do not pay attention to arguments unless they engender our interest, enthusiasm, fear, anger, or contempt. We are not moved by leaders with whom we do not feel an emotional resonance. We do not find policies worth debating if they don’t touch on the emotional implications for ourselves, our families, or things we hold dear. From the standpoint of research in neuroscience, the more purely ‘rational’ an appeal, the less it is likely to activate the emotion circuits that regulate voting behavior. (16)
“The paradox of American politics,” says Westen, “is that when it comes to winning hearts and minds, the party that views itself as the one with the heart (for the middle class, the poor, and the disenfranchised) continues to appeal exclusively to the mind” (44). Westen recommends that in political campaigns liberals wear their heart on their sleeve, since right-wing extremists have captured the conservative party and don’t represent the majority of Americans. 

The Irrelevance of Westen’s Political Strategy

Westen’s assessment is consistent with my views on Liberalism and Conservatism, but I don’t think he goes far enough. In the first place, his goal is just the partisan one of helping Democrats win elections, not to ensure that the party with the best principles and policies wins. Thus, he recommends that Democrats adopt the Republican strategy of selling their message by appealing to voters’ feelings, of favouring truthiness over truth, to use the comedian Stephen Colbert’s distinction. Of course, Democrats want to win elections and they might run more successfully by following Westen’s advice, but the deeper question is whether such an anachronistic party that needs that advice in the first place ought to win elections in the postmodern world. What’s the point of electing an unprincipled, hyper-rational party when no sooner than its candidate is elected will his or her technocratic governing style automatically bend to serve the oligarchic power structure which most benefits those who can achieve their political objectives by relying just on their lobbyists, campaign contributions, and implicit private sector job offers for cooperative politicians? Even were there no such bribery or economic blackmail, a Democratic president who doesn’t understand how irrational voters are about their cherished issues, precisely because that president has no such strong philosophical feelings of his or her own, is bound to cower when faced in office with the great unelected powers.