Monday, August 27, 2012

Comedy and Existential Cosmicism

In Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion, I suggest that a certain sense of humour is needed to sustain a naturalistic spiritual perspective, one that’s viable despite modern science’s disenchantment of the world. But what is comedy and how is it relevant to existential cosmicism? I’ll address these questions in order.

What is Comedy?

There are several types of comedy, but the relevant one has been explained as an instinctive response to the perception of cognitive incongruity. When a concept is used to make sense of some real situation, but the concept doesn’t fit, there’s pleasure in recognizing and rectifying the disharmony by supplying the appropriate concept. This is the basis of irony, for example. Irony is a discrepancy between intended and literal meaning. For example, suppose a dog owner is worried that his dog will bite people, so he muzzles the dog when walking him, but then during the walk the dog owner is mugged and the dog is rendered useless for defense. The owner intends to protect bystanders and ultimately himself from the repercussions were his dog to harm someone, since he would be responsible. But what the owner effectively does is harm himself, by preventing his dog from attacking someone who should be attacked. (This example is derived from a Sergio Aragones cartoon.) So the owner’s thought about walking his dog, that he’s being a responsible owner for protecting public safety, doesn’t fit the facts of the situation he finds himself in. This sort of story is amusing, because in recognizing the incongruity we see both the mistake and the correct way of thinking about what happens: we recognize the dog owner’s faulty, doomed conception of what he’s doing, and we add the correct conception, which is that by muzzling his dog the owner unknowingly exerts much effort in sabotaging his welfare.

In his book, On the Problem of the Comic, Peter Marteinson develops the Incongruity Theory, explaining that laughter restores the anthropomorphic hallucination of the world, by distracting us from situations that demonstrate the world’s impersonality. Normally, he says, we project social categories onto nature, personifying the world so that we feel comfortable in it, treating the wilderness as society’s mere backyard, as it were. (See Existential Cosmicism and Technology.) The alternative is to worry about whether a horrible mistake has been made in some cosmic boardroom, when creatures like us evolve who are predisposed to seek the comfort of social belonging but who are intelligent enough to discover that they’re surrounded on all sides by alien territories that stretch to infinity, by the entire natural universe outside of our artificial dwellings. (See Curse of Reason and Lovecraftian Horror.)

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Jerry Coyne on Scientism and Freewill

Jerry Coyne is a popular new atheist and biologist. In his blog, Why Evolution is True, he often defends two positions among others, both of which I think are dubious. The first is scientism in what I call the narrow, academic sense, that science is the only source of empirical knowledge. (Note that this sense of “scientism” is different from my broader use of the word as a synonym for the substitute religion of secular humanism. That broad sense of "Scientism" isn’t relevant to the present discussion. Whenever I refer to scientism in this particular article, then, I have in mind the narrow sense.) The second is that freewill is an illusion, since science shows that determinism is true. I’ll address each in turn

Scientism and Knowledge

Coyne says that he’s ‘always maintained that there are no other reliable ways of knowing beyond science if one construes science broadly--as meaning “a combination of reason and empirical observation.” ’ Again, “The real question is whether there’s any way beyond empirical observation and reason to establish what is true about the world.  I don’t think so…” (see here). In another article, he speaks of his challenge to Keith Ward, which was ‘to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.’ Coyne summarizes this by saying that he ‘questioned Ward’s contention that faith or other non-empirical “disciplines” could establish facts about the world or universe’ (see here). And in an article on whether the humanities are scientific, he says, “There is only one way of finding out what is true, and that doesn’t involve revelation or making up stories” (see here). Again, his point is that science broadly construed is that only way. Finally, in an article on whether fiction is a way of knowing, he says here,
it’s clear that disciplines like history, archaeology, and even sociology have the capacity to tell us true things about the world, but I have my doubts about the arts.  Either they can present some facts (like the facts peppering historical fiction like War and Peace) that we can independently verify, or they can give us an idea of what someone felt like in a particular situation (as with Gabriel at the end of Joyce’s The Dead).  The latter, though, is not a “truth” in the normal sense, but a rendition of emotions: a way of seeing but not knowing. 
According to Coyne, then, the question of scientism is whether there are ways of knowing besides reason and empirical observation, where “knowing” means the discovery of facts or truths. Where Coyne goes wrong here was shown long ago by Plato: knowledge isn’t just the possession of a true (veridical) belief, since someone can come by such a belief by chance or by being misled and we wouldn’t say this person knows what she’s talking about. Thus, Plato famously added that knowledge requires that the true belief be justified, or supported by reasons. This is to say that the belief must also be acquired in the right way for it to count as knowledge. If knowledge were just the possession of a true belief, where truth is correspondence between the belief and a fact, and a belief is a symbolic representation of that fact, not just lucky people but inanimate objects like books or billboards could be said to know what they represent, which would be absurd. Knowledge is something possessed by a mind, because knowledge must be acquired in a way that only a mind can manage.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Prayer

Prayer: obviously among the top five most embarrassingly asinine acts a person can undertake while clothed. (The top five such acts done while unclothed are all sexual in nature.)

To begin briefly to count the ways (and to paraphrase Wittgenstein), prayer is as pointless as a widget attached to nothing: either the outcome you ask God for comes to pass and would have happened anyway or it doesn’t because God knows better.

Then there’s the blatant contradiction of assuming that God is knowledgeable and powerful enough to be listening to all prayers and able to fulfill them, not to mention to have created the universe in the first place, but also dimwitted and pliable enough to need a lowly human’s advice on how to run things or to be the least bit pressured by our entreaties.

Next, there’s another contradiction. Whoever prays is sure to clasp her hands together and close her eyes, thus signifying that she poses no threat, that she comes to God humbly and doesn’t demand anything with a threat of laughably inadequate force. Moreover, prayers are generally sprinkled with self-deprecating qualifications, with incantations designed seemingly to assure any god who’s listening that here’s someone hard done by who could use a favour. However, all of this clearly amounts to the falsest humility, since the very notion of prayer presupposes that the creature can influence or control the Creator. As is apparent from so-called primitive, shamanic religions, the medicine man goes as far as to explicitly cast spells on divine forces, as though gods could be hypnotized by magic formulas.

Thus, the contradictions of modern prayer betray the origin of that form of pseudocommunication. Evidently, religions began with visionary states of consciousness caused by psychedelic drugs or trance states, in which an authoritative, seemingly all-knowing voice is heard from within. In Hinduism this gave rise to mystical monism, to the view that there’s only one true consciousness and that our minds and all material forms are mere disguises worn by God. To that extent, then, prayer has at least a modicum of logic behind it: even we can influence God because we’re really identical with God; moreover, we can communicate with God by closing our eyes, turning inwards or perhaps whispering, since as indicated by the psychedelic voice, God resides within as pure consciousness.

But western religions are individualistic, holding such monism as blasphemy. Thus, the modern prayerful theist must play an awkward charade, attesting to her profound humility while acting like she has power over God. She’s superficially passive and pleasant when she prays, since there’s no point in getting mad at herself; after all, religions are based on the misinterpreted experience of being identical with God. But she nevertheless means to cast her more sophisticated magic spell, to enchant God to do her bidding, since her modernist religion elevates the individual human as the one who Nietzsche will later call the god killer.

It goes without saying that every such act of prayer is a grotesque fiasco. At best, prayer distracts and comforts the one who prays, but so do a million less preposterous pastimes, like taking a long walk or reading a good book. 

The final absurdity of prayer, though, befalls those who ridicule prayer, like the present writer, but who nevertheless find themselves instinctively calling out to no one when scared or angry. Prayer thus avenges itself on those who know better than to try to converse with an invisible person, since prayer apparently has some genetic support which drives even the most self-conscious atheist to debase herself in that fashion.

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Love

Love: key to the illusion of immortality.

Especially after the troubadours and thanks to the modern celebration of the individual, most people now think love is the most important and meaningful thing in the universe. And by “love,” they mean mainly romantic love between life partners and parental love for children. This conviction is represented in the philosophical movie (with the disappointing, New Agey ending), Tree of Life, in which a character says, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

From a biological perspective, the centrality of those two kinds of love makes sense, since such strong emotional bonds are clearly mechanisms needed to preserve our genes: romantic love steps in after the particular sexual impulse wanes, keeping a couple together to care for the helpless infant that’s naturally produced by the sex act, and parental love binds parents to their children, the latter being the vessels that carry their parents’ genes into the future. So indeed, if you don’t love in those ways, the genetic code that supports your life, at least, will likely be erased with your death. The movie Tree of Life spiritualizes this biological truth, pandering to American theists with a vision of an afterlife, implying that love is needed to avoid hell or to maintain a social network to make heaven enjoyable, or some such mob fodder.  

Psychologically rather than biologically, the point would be that people who love tend to build up a rich store of memories, so that time doesn’t seem to pass as quickly to them; they’re too busy living to notice the months and years ticking by.

An existential cosmicist, though, would rewrite the movie’s line as follows: “Unless you love, you’ll appreciate that all life flashes by (compared to the duration of the cosmos).” Love preserves the genes and creates new individuals, but doesn’t actually make anyone immortal; instead, love creates the illusion of immortality by preoccupying a person with a host of day-to-day familial chores, social functions, celebrations, and so on. Without the rich experience caused by romantic and parental love, a person is free to dwell on the horrible philosophical facts of natural life. The loveless soul then lapses into alienating angst, cutting the person off from the community and thus depriving him or her of a wealth of distracting memories. Time then seems to leap forward for such a person, as shown in the film Synecdoche, New York. Love is crucial, then, not as the key to actual immortality, but as the stage for the play of a “life well-lived,” the bright lights and drama of which distract from the horrors that lie behind the scenes.

Thus, the choice to succumb to biological instinct as opposed to philosophical or mystical anxiety is the choice between two forms of alienation. You can detach from cosmic reality and live in our now mass-concocted fantasy world in which romantic myths paper over uglier biological truths or you can commune with the undead god (mindlessly creative nature) and forgo the social games that most people play.

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Mistake

Mistake: what business graduates who lack a refined vocabulary call an act of vice.

When you pull your underwear on backwards, add a quarter rather than the needed half of a teaspoon of sugar to your sauce, or make a left turn instead of the needed one on the right, you make a mistake. That is, you absentmindedly fail, usually in some minor way for which there’s little or no culpability. But when you’re a politician, a businessperson, or a lawyer, for example, and you naturally lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top, you don’t err at all but knowingly play the social games that require perverse excellence in vice, that is, great demonstrations of selfishness, deceitfulness, cold-heartedness, brazenness, short-sightedness, and so forth.

When a Machiavellian power-player gets caught practicing those dark arts, he invariably seeks to avoid responsibility for his choices by labeling them mere mistakes. For example, western CEOs are notorious for pretending to be dunces or ignorant figureheads when they’re caught trying to pull off billion dollar frauds and their companies blow up in their faces. They then act like they never even deserved the hundreds of millions they were raking in thanks to their hand-picked board members who rubberstamp their pay packages, like they had no knowledge that their company was engaging in the very frauds that have become standard operating procedure in so-called post-industrial, financialized societies. Instead, they humbly concede, before senators who are equipped only to “grill” and never to roast, boil, or skin--so says the mass media’s meme--that they’re guilty of a mistake or two, albeit a mistake with disastrous consequences, but nevertheless an innocent moment of absentmindedness. To be sure, a power player never publicly owns up to her year after year of accrued experience at honing the vices that’s a prerequisite for advancing any politician or free market businessperson within her hierarchy. Moreover, because few people want to admit that most sectors of their society consist of just such practically amoral hierarchies, a nihilistic or sociopathic Machiavellian is quickly forgiven for his or her “mistake.” After all, as the saying goes, anyone can make a mistake (i.e. everyone sins in a declining, corrupt society).

The first such mistake was committed by Satan, the Prince of Evil, and I happen to have the transcript. “Verily, Lord,” said Satan to God, “I’ve jealously watched you waste your divine powers on this petty Creation, on these beasts you call humans. I’ve burned with ambition at the thought of what I would do instead were I seated on your throne, and I relished the prospects of waging an angelic war on your hosts and then either of unseating you and becoming master of all or of losing my station in a blaze of glory and then of marshaling all the demonic forces of Hell to sabotage every one of your foolish endeavours. Nevertheless, I say to you now with respect to all of that, on this Judgment Day at the end of all things, with the blood of trillions of your humans dripping from my claws and fangs, that I merely made a mistake.”

God is then reported to have grilled Satan for hours in front of TV cameras, before punishing him with a fine of 0.003% of Satan’s total net worth.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Existential Cosmicism and Technology

The existential philosopher Heidegger distinguished between traditional and modern, or roughly between low and high, technologies. The former, such as windmills or hand-sewn clothing, work with nature and have aesthetic appeal as quasi-artworks, whereas the latter, such as computers or nuclear power plants, challenge the sovereignty of external forces, by storing energy to be used at our discretion. Scientific modes of thinking prepare the way for modern technology by abstracting from the individuality of everything in nature, from what Heidegger called their “thinghood”, objectifying and dissecting (analyzing) natural phenomena and thus encouraging us to adopt an instrumental, Machiavellian attitude towards them. 

When we appreciate something’s uniqueness, we’re more likely to personalize it, since people tend to be especially different from each other: our brains have different experiences over time and there are practically endless ways for our neurons to store that information, by forming unique interconnections. Thus, early forms of religion are animistic, anthropomorphizing the natural world on the basis of the perceived uniqueness shared by the likes of rivers, trees, or mountains, on the one hand, and humans on the other. Modernists would say that the ancients thereby lacked our depth of understanding of nature. The metaphor of standing under something is actually less apt than that of standing apart from it. Modern scientists gain perspective by emotionally detaching from what they studied, thus withholding their sympathy. They employ mathematics and other abstract modes of thinking to engage in extreme forms of generalization, or “unification,” treating rivers, trees, and mountains, for example, all as masses in motion. When things appear to lose their individuality, our sympathetic reflexes are no longer triggered, because we don’t feel compelled to personify them and thus we don’t extend to them anything like human rights. We thereby take up a nihilistic stance towards the objectified phenomena, using technology to overpower nature instead of incorporating nature's organic rhythms into our lifestyle.

Technology Humanizes Nature 

This Heideggerian criticism of technology is compelling but it doesn’t go far enough, in my view. There’s a deeper process at work in the use of all technologies, motivated by a more general way of thinking than just scientific objectification. Our tendency to personify is rooted simply in our inevitable resort to metaphors. When we categorize, we group things and think of them as instances of a type, thus comparing them to each other, perhaps anchoring the comparison to a simplified mental representation (a stereotype or exemplar). Our most fundamental analogies extend our common and familiar experiences--seeing, walking, eating, learning, dying, and so on--to less well-known phenomena. That extension of human experience in our confrontation with the nonhuman is the primary act of anthropomorphism, which means that virtually all of our thoughts are fundamentally anthropomorphic. If you look at the historical basis of most of our concepts, you’ll find a generalization based on an analogy between some quaint human experience and something less familiar and thus apparently nonhuman, that is, some broader natural phenomenon like a rainstorm or a stellar configuration.