Monday, November 26, 2012

The Question of Antinatalism

Picture a barren winter landscape with not a person in sight. You might find it hard not to mitigate the desolation by imagining, perhaps on the outskirts of that expanse of snow and bare trees, a cabin with smoke emanating from its chimney, thus indicating that this hypothetical absence of humanity is only partial, that all is not lost for us. We recoil from the thought of a universe with absolutely no human beings in it; more precisely, what bothers us is the thought that there might be a time after humankind. This is to say that we can tolerate reflecting on the time before human history and even on the age of Earth before the rise of mammals, since we know in the back of our minds that those ancient periods laid out the conditions for our emergence; moreover, we can even ponder the lifeless void, the billions upon billions of star systems that currently have no inhabited planets, because we know that simultaneously there’s this one planet that we call home. But try imagining our universe as it would have been had humans never evolved or else picture our planet after the apocalyptic end of our species. No cabin on the outskirts and no potential for our reemergence; no hope for our eventual triumph, but just the final end, the last breath and the last heartbeat before the universe soldiers on without us and the tree still falls with no one to hear it.

There’s a group of people who, for moral reasons, would actually prefer a world with no people in it. They even have a strategy for bringing that world about: we should cease procreating so that we intentionally die out as a species. These grim folks are called antinatalists, “antinatalism” meaning the opposition to human birth. There are roughly two kinds of antinatalism (AN), what I’ll call the misanthropic and the compassionate kinds. Both kinds prescribe the termination of human life by stopping the procreative replenishment of our species. But while the misanthropic antinatalist is motivated by contempt for human nature, the compassionate sort is opposed to suffering and thus takes the suicide of our species to be only a dire means towards the elimination of that mental state. (Compassionate antinatalists are often called “philanthropic,” but this is a confusing name, since although the Greek roots of that word mean love of people, the English word implies a concern for human advancement, whereas an antinatalist’s compassion is perfectly tragic.) Moreover, both kinds of AN have a moral defense: the misanthrope wants to extinguish humans because of our wickedness or our morally significant deficiencies, while the lover of people wants to eliminate, once and for all, the evil of human suffering.

An Arch-Villain’s Doomsday Scheme

You’re likely already familiar with the outlook of misanthropic AN, from comic books and pulp science fiction: the cartoon super-villain is a classic misanthrope, or hater of humans, often building a doomsday weapon to destroy humankind, leaving himself as the planet’s sole possessor. But the cartoon villain typically allows his plan to be foiled, whether by hiring buffoons for henchmen or by giving away the details of his plan to the hero in a gratuitous monologue, to fulfill the subtextual logic of sadomasochism: the dominator needs victims to satisfy his sadistic impulses, so to finally kill off all weaklings and rivals, by way of a sadistic frenzy, is to err on sadistic grounds. Sadism is a form of parasitism. But the misanthropic antinatalist isn’t sadistic; instead, she’s opposed to human nature and thus to all people including herself. Thus, the misanthrope would participate in her scheme by not sexually reproducing, as opposed to hiding her children in the last generation so that they could inherit the world. Mind you, the sadist too, after cleansing the planet of everyone else, would likely commit suicide for having foolishly failed to maintain the parasitic ideal of sadism. Indeed, the misanthrope and the cartoon villain have much else in common, especially if the super-villain justifies his actions by regarding himself as superhuman: both have contempt for humans in general, both have a plan for our extinction, and although the misanthropic antinatalist’s plan isn’t particularly invasive, the misanthrope needn’t be merely an antinatalist. That is, if you think all human beings are depraved and worthy of death, you needn’t tiptoe around the issue by, say, writing pamphlets to convince people to hate themselves, to doubt the chance of human progress, and thus to refrain from procreating; instead, you might take the bull by the horns and devise a coercive doomsday scenario. After all, if people are evil or so myopic that we lack the right to propagate our species, our freedom and rationality needn’t be respected.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Emptiness of Postmodern Art (and of its Consumers)

The social critic Camille Paglia has lamented in a recent radio interview that there’s currently a dearth of great, nourishing art in the West. After their predecessors killed God, she says, postmodern secular humanists have failed to replace theistic religion with a high culture featuring worthwhile art. On the contrary, modern rationalism, with its paeans to technoscientific progress towards utopia, gave way to postmodern cynicism, irony, and sneering at all ideals, myths and faiths, including the longing for atheistic spirituality. Current Western art tends to be trash, Paglia says, because postmodernists have no conviction that any work can be a testament for all times.  

The plot thickens with Scott Timberg’s Salon articles on the hard economic times for culture producers in the creative industries, including the fine arts and publishing. (See The Creative Class is a Lie and No Sympathy for the Creative Class.) In the United States, most painters, musicians, dancers, novelists, and actors barely scrape by, working multiple jobs or freelancing if they can find any work at all in their fields. The internet was supposed to be a gift to the creative class, giving artists direct access to their audience; indeed, there are some success stories, but they’re in a tiny minority and the oddity is that the artist’s plight is virtually a secret in the culture at large. “Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen,” Timberg says, “write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of ‘Death of a Salesman.’ John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners?”

Timberg points to numerous causes in the US. Pragmatists and puritans object to art’s uselessness or idolatry; the public worships celebrities and so has a distorted view of the creative class; there’s a culture war fought between liberals and so-called anti-elitists, and artists are on the losing side with the intellectuals; the technological revolution has democratized the production of culture, leading people to err in inferring that there’s likewise a democratization of talent, which in turn leads to resentment towards successful artists since we assume that anyone can produce great art. Finally, there’s socially Darwinian economics and the scientistic assumption that only what can be measured is real and worthwhile; hence, many assume that if art can’t pay its own way in the so-called free market, the artists ought to starve.

There are a number of fascinating questions here. First, is there such a thing as great art, and if so, what is it? Second, is there currently any such art in the West, and if so does that art matter? Third, is there a deeper cause of the creative class’s hardship, one that’s tied to the function of art?

Monday, November 12, 2012

God and Science: The Ironic Theophany

What has science done to God? Atheists would like to think that science has made not just theism but all myths obsolete. But neither atheists nor scientists need be such philistines. What scientific discoveries have done is to turn the page on theistic fictions, leaving us with just blank pages. Postmodernists could use a good story, one that gives meaning to the world science has shown us and that leads us in a worthwhile direction. I think this postmodern myth can be found in a certain unsettling vision of the death of God. Before I come to that, however, I’d like to go over some highlights of the Western history of science’s relationship to God.

Medieval Animism

Let’s begin with the medieval picture of God. The fall of the Roman Empire brought to medieval Europe chaos, ignorance, disease, and thus infantilized the desperate masses. The socialism of feudal society, in the lower classes’ dependence on the largesse of the decadent aristocrats, was pragmatic as opposed to arising out of adherence to the New Testament. Oligarchies were needed to maintain a fragile social order, and the desperation to avoid the complete removal of the social barriers against the wilderness, that is, against the natural forces that are opposed to life, led also to an ironic self-indulgence. The masses that lived in squalor, eating gruel and owning practically nothing nevertheless compensated for their poverty by settling on a na├»vely anthropocentric worldview.

The Church comforted medieval Christians with children’s tales, springing from Aquinas’s synthesis of Aristotelianism and paganized Judaism (Catholic Christianity). Aquinas replaced Aristotle’s impersonal Prime Mover with the Christian God, and thus simplified Aristotle’s teleological metaphors. According to Aristotle, every event has a purpose, a so-called final cause, and thus nature can be explained as though it were intelligently designed even though it’s not; instead, everything in nature has a destiny given its way of being attracted to the Prime Mover, to a sort of cosmic magnet that starts and ends all natural processes. Aristotle’s naturalism thus anticipated Darwin’s zombification of nature. Aquinas literalized and personified Aristotle’s undead teleology, since the Christian God is not just a person but literally a particular human being named Jesus. Aquinas thus enchanted the undead leviathan, infusing the undying corpse--which displays signs of monstrous pseudolife--with actual life. In the medieval view, instead of the mere appearance of mind throughout nature’s evolution of patterns, there are good and evil spirits animating all changes so that the cosmos becomes a super-organism, a colossal living body made up of a host of other living things.

And thus the fear of the wilderness was neutralized by rampant animism, by literalistic Christianity’s bastardization of Aristotelian naturalism. Medieval Europe lacked the economic prosperity that generates the arrogance needed to study nature objectively, because naturalism opens the floodgates to horror and angst, which are the authentic emotional responses to our real position in nature. The peasants were like homeless children who needed reassurance that even though the pax romana was no more, God was still with them--through Jesus and the Church, to be sure, but also throughout the whole world: even when a peasant is forced daily to trudge through mud, a sorry spectacle depicted so vividly in the movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, God is present in the purpose of that filth. In medieval Christianity, God is omnipresent, not directing from afar but animating everything from within by means of spiritual extensions of himself. It’s hard to see how this animism could have comforted anyone during the Black Death, but the alternative was surely worse: at least if there are demonic forces that cause the evil in the world, those forces can be overcome in familiar ways, by social alliances and negotiations through prayer. Evil creatures can be reasoned with and thus rehabilitated or else punished.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Closely-Divided United States: A Case Study of the Matrix

The so-called great political horse race is finally over: Obama has won reelection. For months now, the mainstream media have cited polls showing that the country is split 50-50, that most of the states are solidly Democratic or Repubican, leaving around ten battleground states that would be decided by a narrow slice of “undecided independents.” Endlessly, media pundits return to this theme, that the US is a narrowly divided country in cultural and political terms. And sure enough, when the election finally happened, the votes in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and elsewhere were very evenly split (51% to 49%, etc).

Do yourself a favour, though: the next time you hear someone repeat the meme that the US electorate is politically split down the middle, with half the country being Democrat and the other half Republican, pinch that person’s arm in an earnest effort to awaken him from his slumber in the pod that evidently feeds him his daily dose of virtual reality. The fact is that the country is not so split; only the likely and actual voters are. Half of the country doesn’t vote and hasn’t voted in large numbers since the nineteenth century, when the average turnout percentage in presidential elections was in the high 70s. In 1904 it dropped to 65%, in 1912 to 59%. In 1920 it fell below 50% for the first time in US history. It stayed mostly in the 40s and 50s until 1952 when it hit 63% and stayed in the 60s until 1972, when it fell back to the 50s where it’s been ever since, falling again to 49% in 1996. (For the numbers, see here.) According to a report from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, the voter turnout in the 2012 US presidential election was 57.5% of all eligible voters.

What does this mean, you ask? Well, how can the recent closely-fought elections be taken to represent the state of the electorate when some half of the country consistently doesn’t participate in those elections? Sure, some of those who don’t vote in one election might vote in the next one, so the non-voters don’t comprise a monolithic group; no group so large is homogenous in its outlook or in its reasons or causes, in this case, for not voting. Obviously, the Great Depression and the World Wars impacted the voting. But there is a pattern here, nonetheless: throughout its history the US president has usually garnered roughly half of the popular vote, sometimes as much as 60% but more often just below 50%, and since the beginning of the last century, only around half of the country has been voting at all in those elections. Granted, there’s sometimes been a third party, and the voters were evenly divided a century before voter turnout tended to drop below 60%. Still, for the last hundred years, there’s been no reason to say that the electorate as a whole is evenly divided. This is because the electorate includes those who are eligible to vote but who don’t do so, and for decades this portion of the electorate has been quite sizable. Thus, for a century now, the even splits in the election results haven’t reflected the state of the country.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Philosophy of Existential Cosmicism

I’d like to show how a modern form of asceticism which springs from what I call existential cosmicism relates to some basic philosophical questions about the natures of fact, meaning, and value.

Fact, Meaning, and Value

What’s the difference between truths and facts? Truth requires living things whereas facts don’t. There could be a universe of facts even with no intelligent creatures to appreciate them, but there would be no truth in a lifeless universe, because truth is a relationship between facts and what are called symbols or representations of those facts, and symbols are tools used by living things. To see the difference, suppose there’s a lifeless world in a distant galaxy, and on that world there’s a range of mountains and also a lake with waves that lap against a sandy beach. Now suppose that by chance, as the froth is deposited onto the beach, the froth creates the spitting image of those mountains, picturing their peaks and valleys as they would have been seen were someone standing on that beach. In this case, there would be physical facts of how the mountains are arranged and of their different sizes, but there would be no truth in the froth’s accidental map of those facts, because the froth wouldn’t be a tool used by any creature in its dealings with the world.

Now, from a highly objective perspective, the difference between the froth’s picture of the mountains, and a person’s thought that one mountain is larger than another vanishes; in each case, we might say, there’s just a pair of patterns that happen to match in some respects. The information in the waves can be mapped onto the information in the mountains, just as the neural activity in the viewer’s brain could be mapped onto what she’d view, were she standing on that beach. So maybe neither a fact nor a truth needs any living user of information, after all; maybe truth is just a certain abstract correspondence between patterns. This is how some philosophers think of truth, as an isomorphism between certain sets of data. And indeed, when this match between patterns is lacking, you don’t have truth and you may even have falsehood, but this match alone isn’t enough: one of the patterns must be made up of symbols, and to have symbols you need meaning.

A pattern, like a picture of mountains or the sentence, “One of those mountains is larger than the other,” carries meaning in relation to the mountains if that pattern is directed towards them. But what is it for one thing to be thusly about something? I think we can answer this by comparing symbols to something like guidelines on the tarmac used by a pilot to land the plane. The lines hook up with the pilot in the cockpit (through his eyes and his brain) and direct the plane to its landing position, which is where the pilot wants to go. In the same way, mental symbols--our thoughts, feelings, images, and other mental states--facilitate our negotiations with the outside world. They do this by their useful associations with other mental states, as in a train of thought, and by their access to our motor responses, so that we can intelligently move our body, guided by that inner map. Mental symbols have those features because they’re made up of highly interconnected brain states which, of course, have executive control over the body.