Monday, November 11, 2013

Personalizing Ourselves: Science, Liberalism, and the Reality of Illusions

At the end of one of our discussions, Scott Bakker concludes, “To say there is no meaning in nature is just to say there is no meaning in us. The death of God is the death of Man. There is no objective subject or subjective object.” I’d like to analyze this conclusion, especially the second of those three sentences, and explore what it means to speak of the difference between natural reality and the illusions of purpose, normativity, and the personal self.

Science Undermines Liberalism

Scott’s provocative comparison of the death of God with the death of the human person should be especially troubling to liberal atheists. The theist, after all, denies that either of those individuals is dead, but the liberal atheist is in danger of inconsistency rather than just of being uninformed. This atheist believes that theologies are fairytales which beguiled our ancient ancestors but which no longer make sense, that when Europeans woke up in the modern age, they lost faith in their monotheistic traditions in just the way that when a child grows up, the adult is no longer interested in children’s stories. Thus, the fictional character called God died in our imagination and that’s all God ever was: a fantasy that captivated most people who ever lived, but that no longer serves as part of a powerful story for those who understand the importance of modern science. And yet, as John Gray argues in Black Mass, liberalism borrows its morality from monotheism. Liberals assume that each person has moral worth, because he or she is an end rather than a means, an independent individual or agent rather than another link in a causal chain, and thus a conscious, autonomous, and rational person rather than merely a machine or an animal.

Liberal institutions like capitalism and democracy assume as much. Capitalism depends on the assumption not that we’re just narrow-minded animals seeking our advantage over others, but that we’re rational in seeking that advantage, which is why capitalism is supposed to leave us not with the anarchic and chaotic state of nature, but with a merited distribution of goods. As rational creatures, we plan how best to use our skills to compete and so we implicitly sign a social contract in which we agree to live by certain rules that permit private ownership, and so on. Those who most cleverly play by the rules and put their talents to work earn the most rewards in this system, assuming the economy lives up to the ideals set out in capitalistic theory. Thus, the concept of rational self-interest is crucial to this sort of economy, but what if there are no such things as selves or rationality as they’re commonly understood? Again, democracy requires that citizens be worthy of self-governance, by being informed about their representatives and about how economies and political systems work, so that their votes make sense, and by being free to pursue happiness so that the voters leave the dreary business of politics to the professionals. But what if no one’s free and happiness isn’t ideal, after all, because nothing in nature is really good or bad?

What’s radical, then, about Scott’s attribution of the folk notions of selfhood to the brain’s native blindness to its inner workings isn’t just that Scott sets himself in opposition merely to some compromises in academic philosophy, to a discipline which doesn’t greatly interest most people. No, Scott’s interpretation of cognitive science conflicts also with the foundations of liberal, which is to say modern society. If academic philosophy went up in smoke, there would be no apocalypse, but if liberalism were widely viewed as bankrupt, there would be no bulwark against right-wing craziness, including religious fundamentalism, the backlash against science and rationality themselves. If rightwing or so-called conservative ideologues were to have the whole floor on which Western societies stand, I believe those ideologues would bring down modern civilization and we’d be faced with a neo-feudal Dark Age.

To be sure, liberal assumptions about people aren’t the only foundations of our civilization. Even in a grossly pyramidal system, in which a tiny elite rules over the mass peasantry, with no middle class, economic growth, or advance in living standards for the majority, people would act in their self-interest and would struggle to survive as all animals do in the wild. The instincts driving an animal’s self-interested behaviour are the natural underpinnings of dominance hierarchies in most species, and without the liberal ideals to make something more of society, this natural struggle would come to the forefront. Granted, even in liberal societies like Canada and the US, plutocrats and their “free market” lobbyists manipulate the democratic government from some distance. But contrary to Chris Hedges, liberal institutions aren’t entirely inoperative in the United States. Arguably, those institutions are very weak in that country, which allows natural inequalities to mount there, but Americans haven’t yet seen close-up the Third World degradation that awaits them should they lose all faith in the liberal myth of each person’s dignity.

So that’s what at stake here: not just dusty academic philosophy, but the liberal basis of modernity. The Scientific Revolution inspired modern liberalism via the scientistic presumption that social progress can happen by the same means as the cognitive sort, through objective reasoning. But ironically, science’s reductive explanations seem to threaten the liberal view of human nature.

The Reality of the Illusion

Let’s look closer, though, at what it means to say that God is dead. The point is that God has always existed only in our mind, as it were, as an idea, which is why we can change our mind about theism, and when we do so God vanishes, in that the idea of God loses its power over us. In this way, theism presents us now with an illusion, at best. The idea of God works only when the idea is taken seriously, when disbelief in anything supernatural is suspended through faith. In fiction, we suspend our disbelief for entertainment or catharsis, but in religion the stakes are higher. Religion and the illusion of God allow people to go on living together even as they witness the injustices and the natural suffering which call into question the entire human enterprise and the universe’s worthiness. Theists can’t afford the postmodern irony of conceding that God is just an illusion, an idea in our mind, because in that case the idea of an absolute lawgiver can’t perform its social function. So the illusion must become a delusion, which means that the idea must be thoroughly mistaken for a reality; that is, the idea must be reified. And to say that God is dead is to say that modern developments have turned the theistic delusion into a mere illusion or fantasy, at best.

Again, it’s important to appreciate the benefits of the theistic delusion. Neither an illusion nor a delusion is nothing at all. Both are ideas which have causal power in their capacity as mental states. So if you believe there’s a God who gives us immortal spirits which survive the death of our physical bodies and which can enjoy paradise in the afterlife if we do God’s will, your acceptance of that creed can cause you to behave in one way rather than another. You might sacrifice your welfare to help others, by way of imitating Jesus. Or you might use your religion to summon the courage to fly a plane into a skyscraper, by way of punishing heathens who are at war with innocent followers of the supreme religion, Islam. More commonly, religious ideas give their adherents peace-of-mind despite nature’s evident indifference to our condition. So to say that God is only an idea and not a reality is to say that while the idea may perform some functions, it can’t do what God is thought to do. The idea of God (and of the supernatural and the spirit’s immortality) may have been needed for social cohesion, but the mere idea couldn’t have created the universe, nor can it keep people alive after their brain death or ensure perfect justice. There is, then, a discrepancy between what the theist assumes God can do and what the much more modest reality of God can actually accomplish. God is really just an idea, a useful fiction, not an infinite, transcendent being.

A more straightforward example should clarify this distinction between reality and illusion. Take the paradigmatic case of a hallucination: a weary traveller is lost in the desert and thinks he sees an oasis, including a spring and a tree that provides some shade, but in reality there are only patterns in the shimmering sand which he interprets according to his wishes. Again we have the discrepancy: the idea of the pool of water can’t slake thirst and the idea of shade can’t cool body temperature. However, those ideas do have some causal power, as ideas, since by means of the placebo effect, the happy thoughts can give the traveller hope and distract him from his dire situation, driving him to keep trudging through the desert in search of some aid. The hallucination isn’t nothing at all, but it’s not what the perceiver thinks it is; again, that suspension of disbelief may be needed for the illusion to have certain effects.

Turning to the question of whether personhood is as illusory as God, we should notice right away an important difference. At least in the Western religious traditions, God is supposed to be something other than ourselves, just as a hallucinated oasis is hoped to be something really out there in the desert. But even if the liberal interpretation of personal identity were only an idea, the discrepancy would appear to be less significant since a real person would, in any case, consist partly of ideas. In other words, even if people turn out to be mere figments of our imagination, those figments may have virtually the same causal powers as people are naively thought to have, in which case people may be real enough even though they’re just ideas entertained by the brain. For example, whereas a mirage can’t feed a starving person, the idea that we’re special may cause us to act as if we were special, which in turn might make us different from other species. This is the Placebo Effect or the Dumbo Principle, which says that a mere idea can affect the world. In particular, the illusion of the personal self may act teleologically to bring that sort of self into being or to reinforce itself, by directing our biological and social mechanisms.

Now, the eliminativist who thinks there’s only the brain and no such thing as the personal self will insist that the brain does all the alleged self’s work and that this work should be understood without any reference to personhood, consciousness, freedom, or rationality. All we do is the result of chemical reactions and neural programs. But this is a matter of mere notational variation. If the illusoriness of the personal self means that the self exists only as an idea of such a self, that idea isn’t thereby nothing at all, in which case the idea surely exists as some neurochemical regularity. So “mere idea of the personal self” stands for whatever that idea turns out to be in the much more complicated neurological or other scientific theory. And the point would be that when the brain generates all of the psychological and social behaviours, somewhere in that causal chain stands the “mere” idea of the personal self. This raises the question of whether that idea, or more exactly that set of naïve ideas comprising the manifest as opposed to the scientific image of a person, is as good as the reality that’s supposed to correspond to the idea. Is the idea of the self, in this special case of an illusion, the same as the self so that the idea is really self-referential? Or in making the mistake of thinking there’s a person in addition to the brain, does that mistake ironically bring into being the very thing which isn’t supposed to exist?

The answer to the first question must be “Not exactly,” because there’s still a discrepancy here. Indeed, with the death of God does fall part of the personal self, at least, since some of the manifest image was defined in relation to theism. Thus, we might distinguish between the mind and the spirit. The spirit is thought to be immortal, immaterial, and destined for heaven or hell in the afterlife. The mere idea of such an entity won’t make it so, so to the extent that the illusion of the spiritual self amounts to the existence only of a thought of the spirit, the illusion differs greatly from the reality. But the secular concept of the mind, which is more relevant to folk psychology and naturalistic philosophy, posits only certain powers of consciousness, rationality, self-control, imagination, and belief and desire. Can the mere thoughts or fantasies of such capacities bring about the same effects as the capacities themselves? Is there so great a divide between what we intuitively think of the mind and what the mind would be were the mind illusory in the sense being some way of passing between mere thoughts?

Freewill, Normativity, Consciousness, Meaning, and Rationality

Take, for starters, freewill. What’s the effective difference between having freewill and having only the idea that we’re free? Well, the more ideas we have in our head, the greater the barrier between our control center and the outer world and thus the less immediate the outer environment’s impact on us. This means that the more we think, the more we detach ourselves from the natural as opposed to the artificial world, and the more liberated we are from certain forces that control the other species. So thinking we’re free might contribute to the process of making us actually free. Or take the issue of normativity. What’s the difference between there being such a thing as right or wrong and merely thinking there are such values? Well, if thinking frees a creature by supplying it with a rich inner world that walls its mind off from much of the outer one, that creature will no longer be so subject to biological regularities. To be sure, this creature will still have a body and its health will depend on what’s going on around it, but this body will be controlled largely by the autonomous mind (by a brain with richly-interconnected neurons), which can think for itself instead of being determined by instinct or outer stimuli. This sort of creature will be able to ponder natural processes and decide how to make use of them, instead of just going with their flow.

For instance, in cold weather, warm-blooded animals may shiver or seek shelter if their fur provides insufficient warmth, but this is the extent of their ability to cope with that suboptimal circumstance. Hence, their behaviour is explained by the biological concept of homeostasis. However, when humans in modern societies are cold, we go far beyond those rudimentary responses. We build substitutionary environments with artificial heating and air conditioning, and we design and manufacture all manner of clothing to express our culture and social station in addition to moderating our temperature. Far from seeking only equilibrium with our environment, we aim to master our environment, as gods, by replacing the wilderness with artificial worlds. So while other species have some tools and an interest in social status, none has the sort of godlike power and knowledge that we do.

The upshot is that as we detach ourselves from nature, thanks to all our thinking which gives us an extraordinary degree of autonomy, we must create an artificial, chosen way of life which involves coming up with ways of regulating our activities. We do so with prescriptive laws which we’re free to follow or to violate. Thus, “merely” thinking there’s right and wrong isn’t so insignificant, after all, since that thinking brings into being phenomena that aren’t well-explained in strictly biological or mechanistic (objective and non-normative) terms. The phenomena which call for normative explanations are all around us. Many of them can be partly explained by reducing them to biological regularities or to other matters of fact, but such evolutionary psychological explanations are often as empty and unfalsifiable as theistic ones. An observed regularity will always be capable of being modeled in different ways, and each model will have its strengths and weaknesses, depending on the modeler’s interests. In any case, the decadence of an aristocrat, the depravity of a Jeffrey Dalmer, or the self-sacrifice of a Gandhi cries out for the normative distinction between good and bad, which posits an ideal that relatively self-controlling creatures can choose to follow or to reject even though they ought to do the former.

I could give similar accounts of consciousness (qualia), meaning (intentionality), and rational beliefs and desires. Consciousness is arguably a matter of higher orders of thought, so that as we stack thought upon thought (or connect neurons to neurons), not only do we grow more independent than nonhuman animals, but we become aware of how our labyrinthine thoughts make us distinct from everything else. And so even as we imagine, say, a tree, in the back of our mind we can think of how amazing it is that we—distinct from everything else in the world—are having this thought, and we go back and forth between higher and lower-order thoughts so that a frissona giddy thrill or the thought that such a thrill is possible if only we switch fast enough between the orders of thoughtbuilds up in our mind. In short, we become excited about our mental capacities, and that’s the feeling of what it’s like in general for a person to occupy a mental state; that’s the essence of qualia. Now, is there an important difference between really being conscious and only thinking we’re conscious? Not really, since real consciousness would be a matter of having certain thoughts, namely higher and lower-order ones as well as the thrill of bouncing back and forth between them, like the thrill of riding a rollercoaster.

Moreover, meaning and rationality are forms of normativity, and beliefs and desires are likewise just types of thoughts. Intentionality was originally, to our ancient mythopoeic ancestors, a magical coalescence between subject and object. The difference between there really being such sameness between compared things, between the symbol and what it stands for, and only imagining there’s such a connection is indeed great. In any case, we’ve since lost this way of experiencing the world even as we retain a vestigial use of symbols. For us, a symbol’s meaning is only the imagining of what is, in effect, a broken sort of mythopoeic coalescence between something in the head and something in the outer world. Thus, meaning is one of the regulations we use to govern our way of life after we’ve broken free of the prison of nature and of the womb of our mythopoeic past, as it were. And notice that not even in a police state do we have the absolute power to force people—being ends rather than means—to behave in some way. Thus, we can misuse symbols or have flawed ideas. Our concepts, for example, are stereotypes which carry essential information pertaining to part of the messier world over which we have less control. If we see a dog with only three legs, we’ll think there’s something wrong with that dog, because it doesn’t match the conceptual image of dog normality. The concept then guides our dealings with dogs, by causing us to feel sorry for the three-legged dog or to take the animal to a veterinarian. In some cultures, dogs are eaten rather than treated as companions, and while there may be no objective reason to favour one concept over the other, each population feels strongly that their concept isn’t just a matter of fact but is right to be factual. This tells us that even the ghosts of mythopoeic symbols are thought to retain some of the old normative magic.

Now, again, is there an important difference between a symbol really having meaning and its only being thought to have meaning, so that intentionality turns out to be an illusion? Well, like theism, the mythopoeic assumptions were factually false at the time, so the ancient illusion of meaning was indeed misleading. As for the modern illusion, recall that normative beliefs function to eliminate precisely the difference between reality and illusion, between the world as we find it and the world as we conceive of it and prefer it to be. The desert wanderer wants to find water and while his hallucination of the oasis won’t magically create one, that hope does indirectly work to make reality match his expectation, by causing him to keep trying to find shelter and thus by increasing the chance that he’ll succeed. The concept of dogs regulates our dealings with dogs, and we require that regulation because our minds are autonomous and we prefer to have some order in our life, even after we’ve “fallen” from the natural order. So when we “merely” assume our symbols have meaning, that assumption causes us to use our symbols as tools to reshape the world to match our thoughts. Thus, what begins as an illusion of meaning turns into a real, causally-established coalescence between subject and object, which goes some way towards vindicating the ancients’ enchanted worldview. The illusion of meaning acts teleologically as a purpose that drives us to correct the discrepancy between the real world and the imagined one. Thus, the illusion of meaning seems real enough.

As for rationality, or logic, this has to do with another way of idealizing a perfect synthesis between the personal self and a natural mechanism. We imagine that even though we’re free from the prison of nature, we can follow habits of thought like a machine, so that we don’t lose touch with the prison. Logical thinking is thus like escaping from prison but being so used to that ordered life, that the former inmate keeps pretending her imagination ought to be bound by the prison’s rules. In short, rationality is a matter of a person's pretending to be a machine or an animal, that is, an object bound by natural laws. But because people aren’t mere objects, the “laws of thought” are only ideals we can choose to obey or to violate. So is there an important difference between really being rational and only thinking we’re so? Again, because we’re dealing here with an ideal, we might not really live up to it all or even much of the time. And yet thinking (hoping or wishing) we were rational drives us to be more so. The illusion or myth of rationality acts as a noble lie which provides us with a new game to play, to distract us from the fact that we’re no longer inmates that have to follow the same rules as the more hapless animals in the wild. 

Now, you might be thinking that logic isn’t subjective, that the universe follows the laws of logic just as it does the laws of physics. But this would amount to personifying the universe. In fact, the universe doesn’t follow any laws, not even scientific ones; that clumsy way of speaking is based on theism or on deism, which turns the universe into an artifact and which implies that the laws are prescriptive. Instead of thinking of natural regularities as being governed by laws, we should think of the phenomena as usefully modeled for limited purposes. In any case, the laws of logic are laws of thinkability and they govern only people, that is, the rational thoughts of autonomous, self-regulating creatures. (Indirectly and potentially, they govern the rest of the world by causing those creatures to replace nature with an artificial, technological substitute that extends those creatures’ minds.)

It seems, then, that the difference between appearance and reality isn’t so damning for the former in the case of the personal self, even given naturalistic philosophy. The mere idea of the self can directly or indirectly do much of what the self has always been thought to be able to do; after all, the self has been assumed to be made up partly of ideas, that is, of a mind with the power to think and feel. If the brain thinks and feels it has a personal nature, those very brain activities may be identical with, or may at least indirectly produce, such a nature by creating the artificial worlds that civilize us and call for normative explanations of our actions.

The Self that Makes a Difference

Let’s return to Scott’s conclusion. Do people die with the dethroned God? In part they do, because the spirit if not also the mind must go. Also, there’s the postmodern threat of incredulity towards all metanarratives, fictions, and other illusions. I call this a kind of hyper-skepticism, which is to say anxiety, which eats its way through even the modern liberal myths. Thus, we tend now to anatomize the self, always asking more and more questions without being satisfied with any answer; we’re paranoid and suspicious of ever-deeper conspiracies and so we don’t trust commonsense, but posit ulterior motives; we become antirealists and relativists even if that means contradicting ourselves and pulling the rug out from under us. We contend that the liberal notion of the self makes for a devious ideology that’s meant to con the masses into enabling wealthy individuals to keep their ill-gotten gains, or to rationalize men’s subjugation of women, or to further any of a hundred other such postmodern conspiracies. In this way, skepticism about God can indeed be pushed towards skepticism about the self. This never-ending skepticism, though, continues on to doubt about scientific theories and about everything else under the sun, until we’re left with solipsistic psychosis.

But I’ve tried here to explain the difference between the hallucination of something outside the self and the hallucination of the self. The discrepancy between illusion and reality should be greater in the former case than in the latter, because a self is, by definition, made up partly of mental states which include hallucinations. So just because we have good reason to doubt the existence of spirits, including God, doesn’t mean we should doubt that there are personal selves in the form of minds, where a mind is largely just the capacity to think with ideas. Even if this way of speaking of the brain is crude, this simplification may still be useful for various purposes, in which case it squares with the pragmatic aspect of methodological naturalism, which undergirds science.

What naturalists should say, then, isn’t that there’s no such thing as people, meaning, or normativity. We should say these things are illusions, meaning that they’re at least initially subjective, that they’re made up of brain states which may establish feedback loops, causing our bodies to modify our outer environment to act as a cocoon or training ground, thus separating us further from our animalistic origins and helping to personalize us. We’ve personified everything around us, because our imagination knows no bounds, but again there’s a difference between imagining there’s a spirit in the rain and imagining there’s a self in our brain. The rain won’t actually behave in any personal way; the suspicion that the rain stops and ends depending on a rainmaker’s dances is unreliable. But when we simplify our brain processes in our imagination, we gain self-control by stacking thought upon thought, which creates an inner self before our inner eye. We can’t learn about the brain just from introspection, just as we can’t learn Swahili just by speaking English. When we introspect, we’re blind to the brain as it’s understood in neurological terms, but we do thereby perceive the brain’s footprints as they’re understood in the layperson’s more fluid terms of mentality and ideality. That lay understanding encompasses the whole realm of human experience, which is why folk psychological terms are less rigid than narrower, cognitive scientific ones. By itself, the brain may provide no reason to think there’s any normativity in the world, but the brain plus the body-as-interactor plus the artificial environment which redirects our development, generate the sort of political, economic, religious, and other social phenomena that are ably understood (predicted and controlled) in the commonsense ways.

Scott says that if there’s no meaning in nature, there’s none in us. I agree with that, but only if we define “nature” in metaphysical terms. Metaphysically, everything is natural, nature is that which is explained scientifically, and scientists don’t posit meaning. Therefore, nature is devoid of meaning in the sense of purpose or intentionality. However, any such extremely broad, metaphysical naturalism, by itself, will offer us only a tenuous grasp on the evident difference between humans and the other species. In one sense, everything is natural, but in another some things are artificial rather than natural. If we think of nature as the wilderness, meaning the world as it is before it’s modified to suit the interests of some organisms, we must be impressed by the extent to which we’ve eliminated nature. Again, far from science and nature eliminating the personal self as it’s nonscientifically understood, people have destroyed much that’s natural on our planet and replaced it with artificiality, with machines that extend the mind and whose functions (intended purposes) more readily remind us of our ideals. So in this second sense, it’s not the case that because nature-as-wilderness is bereft of meaning/purpose, there’s none in us. On the contrary, the disappearance of that sort of nature is explained by our obsession with creating a more meaningful world, and again the evidence of that semantic and purposive “enchantment” of the world is all around us.  

As for science’s threat to liberalism, I think the threat is real but more indirect than in Scott’s account. According to Scott, scientific theories posit only mechanisms, the personal self isn’t a mechanism, and so the ordinary conception of the self conflicts with science. I add that liberalism incorporates that conception and so liberalism also conflicts with science. This may all be so, but the liberal can respond by saying that the concept of the personal self is meant to be philosophical and inspirational, not scientific and empirical. The question, then, is whether the philosophical concept of the person will be replaced by the scientific concept of the brain. Because scientific models are pragmatic, I doubt society will feel much pressure directly from science to reject the philosophical way of speaking. Of course, rationalists did pressure the masses in Europe to reject the superstitions of witches and demons and so forth, but that was largely because those notions lacked utility in the more modern societies in which the faith-based practices were outlawed. Only if technoscience similarly transforms modern liberal society so that there will be little use in speaking of people and their ideals, as opposed to brains and their mechanisms, will the scientific model spread far beyond science.

No, the current threat, at least, is more indirect. What’s happened is that the ideal of scientific rationality has inspired many young people to be very self-conscious, which in turn has made them postmodern. In effect, those who are likely to doubt that people exist, that certain primates are extraordinarily free, purposive, conscious, and rational have been made anxious by what modern technoscience has wrought. Postmodernists in technologically advanced societies have to compete with machines and computers for jobs; they adapt to their artificial environments and pretend to be able to excel at multitasking and at computing their life choices. They become inspired by the goal of a rational utopia in which transhumans are cleansed of their primitive biases and other limitations. Science thus threatens liberalism indirectly through postmodern hyper-skepticism. Modern science has ironically made the savviest denizens of science-driven cultures unable to suspend their disbelief, by providing world-changing standards of objectivity which compel these elites to doubt even the modern liberal myths of reason’s goodness for humanity and of each person’s supreme value as an autonomous being. The ideal of objectivity has been pushed so far that the philosophical justifications of modernity have themselves been undercut, leaving us with never-ending doubt and postmodern nihilism.

So it’s not scientific theories that now threaten the manifest image, but technoscience’s enormous cultural impact. Indeed, even if cognitive science doesn’t necessarily conflict with introspective impressions of the self that philosophy codifies, postmodern doubts have infected philosophy departments so that plenty of academic philosophers spout the postmodern conspiracy theories which call liberal politics, economics, and ethics into question. And American conservatives, of course, dine on a feast of conspiracies about elitist liberals, from their cynical sources of infotainment. As I see it, then, the primary threat to liberalism is cultural, not theoretical. At any rate, we must tragically carry on with our “mere” illusions, despite our having killed God.


  1. I think that what you're reaching for in your discussion of human consciousness, free will, morality, etc. is systemic theory. Systemic theory, similar to constructivism, says that systems or structures are more than the sum of their parts.

    To give a simple exemplar, consider a matchstick. It is composed of two parts, the match and the stick. Each constitute important elements of the matchstick, but they alone are non-definitive. To arrive at a proper understanding of matchstick requires that you not only consider the qualities of match and stick, but also how the two relate to one another, i.e. the system created by the combination of the two.

    Similarly, phenomena like free will, human consciousness, meaning, the self, are best understood as systemic phenomena. They are fundamentally tied to the brain, but cannot be adequately defined in terms of it, but must be understood as well in terms of the system of relations which surround the brain, such as behaviour (the brain's relation to the body), perception (the brain's relation to sensations), socialization (the brain's relation to other brains and bodies), experience (the brain's interaction with the physical world), symbolism, choice, etc.

    I recall having a similar discussion with Bakker a year or two ago on TPB. I presented a similar argument, only framed in terms of the systemic view of the mind. I said that if science has discredited the concept of meaning, it is only because it incorrectly attributes meaning to the brain and not the larger systemic phenomenon of consciousness. If I recall correctly, Bakker responded that just as neuroscience has discredited many myths regarding the mind, so too does he predict that science will eventually discredit the same myths within this broader systemic domain. After all, neuroscience is merely one area of scientific advancement.

    What would your response be to this argument? To put it more clearly, if Bakker were to ask why you think science cannot discredit these hallucinations in the same way that it has discredited the belief in their reality, what would you say?

    By the way, I don't necessarily agree with Bakker. I'm just playing devil's advocate for interests sake.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anon. I've talked about reductionism, emergence, and the fallacy of composition in a number of places on this blog, such as in the article on Jerry Coyne's scientism (links below). I've also had similar conversations with RSB. I put up on this blog a long email exchange we had where we talked about the pessimistic induction and many related matters.

      I've made several points in response to the pessimistic induction that science will explain away all mysteries just as it's done in the past. First, new mysteries and superstitions replace the old ones (witches, demons, etc), so the induction's premise is flawed. Second, if commonsense psychology reduces to cognitive science, what's to stop cognitive science from reducing to chemistry and then to physics? But this is a slippery slope that leads to the absurd erasing of evident distinctions between types of physical objects, whose differences appear at higher levels of complexity. If cognitive science (neurology, evolutionary psychology, etc) is spared that sort of reduction, why can't commonsense psychology be for the same reasons? Also, there's my speculative thesis about the technological vindication of the nonreductive view of the self as a free, conscious, purposive, rational agent. This view began as a mythopoeic delusion, but for centuries we've been using technology to create an artificial environment that trains us to be just that sort of self. So folk psychology has acted as a sort of blueprint, inspiring us to keep tinkering so that the higher self emerges from what is in effect brain chemistry. [see also the comments at the end]

  2. if liberalism were widely viewed as bankrupt, there would be no bulwark against right-wing craziness, including religious fundamentalism, the backlash against science and rationality themselves.

    How does an idea so penetrate the liberal that it all falls apart, but it fails to penetrate the crazy religious fundi's?

    What you might have instead is a sort of parasitic relationship, where the liberal is not going to leap over the edge until them fundies do as well. They wont let their fire be extinguished by something which should just as much, but does not, extinguish the fundimentals fire. So they hold on as a byproduct, rather like a parasitic relationship, of the other holding on.

    1. Well, there are different defenses against the existential predicament (the horror of nature), depending on our character, experience, IQ, and so on. Liberals subscribe to the modern and sometimes scientistic myths, while conservatives subscribe to the older, theistic ones. Fundamentalists are victims of self-reinforcing delusions. Some fundamentalists, I suspect, are mentally ill, while others use their religion to cope with their crushing life experiences (they hit rock bottom and that's when they're "born again").

      But as I say in my articles on economic conservatism, conservative myths are just transparent rationalizations of natural, as opposed to artificial (creative, original, progressive), social structures. This is why I see so-called conservatism as the flood water held back by the dam of liberalism. When the dam breaks, the waters flow and wash away our artificial worlds, leaving only the starkest inequalities and dominance hierarchies behind.

    2. Well, it's interesting to think that the water isn't there because of the dam, but the dam is there because of the water. Take the water away and the dam crumbles...

  3. How is liberalism different from any other form of fundamentalist craziness? You seem to imply that liberalism is not fundamentalist. What makes you think that?

    1. Well, there are a number of reasons, following from what I've written about the two on this blog (some links below). Fundamentalist irrationalism is a backlash against reason's tendency to distance us from nature, whereas liberalism is modernist mythology (Enlightenment philosophy) spread in support of science and modern progressivism. So one rebels against reason while the other is rationalistic. The more technoscience advances, the crazier fundamentalists become, unless their self-reinforcing delusions completely break down. The more disenchanted we become with liberal myths, thanks to postmodern decay, the more pathetic liberals seem.

      But liberals aren't as crazy as fundamentalists, because they're less deluded. Liberal myths are based on the real possibility of our creating artificial, "progressive" worlds in opposition to the baseline natural one. Archaic fundamentalist myths are just primitive rationalizations of dominance hierarchies (naturally-imposed inequalities, as in theocracies, aristocracies, monarchies, dictatorships, and so forth). Also, fundamentalism is a piece of absurdist comedy, whereas the drama of liberalism is more tragic than comedic, from an aesthetic viewpoint.

      However, I think your question may be referring to left-wing crazies, not to what I'd call liberals. You may be talking about Marxists, New Age folks, or vegan environmentalists (hippies, archaic revivalists, etc), who can indeed seem crazy. Liberalism (or neoliberalism, as it's called now) is closer to the political center and isn't as far out on the fringe. The more extreme left-wingers are effectively members of cults which are indeed more comparable to right-wing fundamentalism.

    2. The problem with this definition of liberalism is that it defines something that doesn't exist. Western civilization predominantly defines itself as liberalist, but taken objectively, it seems little different from any other fundamentalism.

      Fundamentalists typically take a very rosy view of their ideology. For instance, Christian fundamentalists generally see themselves as noble idealists, promoting traditional Christian values such as love for all mankind, humility, responsible custodianship of god's creation, charity towards those less fortunate, etc. Taken at face value, these are noble ideals even you and would be willing to acknowledge. And when confronted with the uglier realities of fundamentalism, most will reject these as extreme cases that are not representative of the whole, or when that is not possible, then they are necessary evils.

      Now, can you say that liberalism is any different? Surely there is something noble in liberalism's ideals, but is it's reality any less evil and ugly? And like any fundamentalism, liberalism also has a plethora of weak excuses and exception clauses when confronted with its shameful truths. But can you honestly accept these ideals when their reality is so clearly reprehensible?

      You speak of "the real possibility of our creating artificial, "progressive" worlds in opposition to the baseline natural one." Can you provide examples? I can't think of any liberal society which could be defined as such.

      So, no, I'm not talking about the fringe elements. These fringe elements at least have the moral high-ground over main-stream liberalism in that they lack the power to play god over the majority of humankind way that western nations do across the world.

    3. We can define words however we like as long as we're clear and up-front about our definitions. When I use "liberalism" and "fundamentalism," I have in mind the history of these ideologies. "Liberal," in particular, is notoriously hard to pin down because different groups have vied for that title or else have demonized it. I try to capture this shift of meaning with the distinction between modern and postmodern liberalism, but then there's also libertarianism and neoliberalism to consider.

      Still, I don't think it's terribly useful to imply that hypocrisy is the essence of fundamentalism. I agree that liberals can be as hypocritical as religious fundamentalists, but this doesn't mean liberalism is a kind of fundamentalism. This is like saying that because monkeys and humans are both primates, therefore monkeys are humans. All you've shown here is that both liberals and fundamentalists have ideals which their behaviour often fails to satisfy. The same is true of all ideologies.

      The essence of fundamentalism, though, includes these properties: strict literalism and inerrantism in interpreting scripture; hostility towards compromise; obsession with ideological purity; a rejection of moderation and a return to a religion's supposed fundamentals. If any US political ideology is comparable to fundamentalism, it's not liberalism but Tea Party libertarianism. Both are obviously cultish.

      By "artificial worlds," I mean all the technology, architecture, and language games in which modern folk are embedded. The baseline natural life is the prehistorical one in which our ancestors roamed the countryside looking for wild animals to hunt. It's life according to the law of the jungle, which shapes groups by ordering them in terms of transparent power relations (the dominance hierarchy or pecking order, Law of Oligarchy, etc). The liberal interprets all artificiality (societies functioning according to human-made laws) as progress with respect to that natural default, whereas the conservative wants to return us to that state of anarchic wilderness. Thus, artificial societies can mimic natural tribes, by reinforcing dominance hierarchies and using laws as fig leafs to cover the underlying power dynamics. This is how conservative societies function (monarchies, aristocracies, dictatorships, plutocracies, etc). Liberal societies are supposed to progress by creating new ways of life, such as ones that make people more equal instead of rewarding or punishing us for our natural inequalities.

    4. It's hard to take an ideology seriously which has never been applied in reality. If the liberalism you espouse is a specific interpretation of general liberal ideals, then it is inherently dubious. Such ideological interpretations are inherently abstract and unrealistic, and therefore highly questionable by their very nature.

      If on the other hand, you take liberalism to be generally indicative of the primary ideological position of the West throughout most of the twentieth century, then it is hard to imagine what you find laudable about it. If you ignore the propaganda, the history of western liberalism is hardly commendable. Contrary to its pacifist ideals, liberalism was one of the primary proponents of most of the wars in the twentieth century. Contrary to its democratic and liberal ideals, liberalism has replaced imperialism with capitalist neo-imperialism. Western liberal nations create the illusion of artificial societies by outsourcing undesirable social necessities to poorer nations and then using trade sanctions and market monopolies to ensure that those nations remain poor and uncompetitive. By means of profiteering they are able to maintain the technological superiority and exuberant social spending to create your 'artificial worlds' which keep native populations docile and ignorant of reality.

      Why is it that liberalism is synonymous with the richest countries in the world? Why are the same countries which so loudly proclaim the values of equality also the most unequal? Why are the countries which proclaim the values of democracy and self-determination also those which interfere the most in the affairs of other nations? Why are the liberal nations who promote the idea of free-market economies also investment economies, deriving most of their wealth from foreign trade? Why are supposedly pacifist liberal nations among of the most warlike nations in the world?

      Yet when you speak to most people from liberal western nations, they are unqualified, might one even say dogmatic, in their espousal of liberal ideals. Certainly one would think that with so much evidence to condemn liberalism, and with so much self-professed commitment to objectivity and free-thinking, that liberals would be more hesitant and critical over their own beliefs. But can you honestly blame them when most of the media that drones in their ears day and night comes from equally dogmatic liberals, when the only evidence they have to objectively judge anything by is produced by liberal academia?

      Regarding your characteristics of fundamentalism, you say that fundamentalism is strictly literal and inerrant in interpreting scripture. I don't think that any religion qualifies by that standard. All religions are exegetic in nature, and exegesis is an evolving phenomenon. Regarding hostility toward compromise and obsession with ideological purity, this is equality true of much of liberalist ideology, as is the rejection of moderation and the return to fundamentals. Liberals are just as intolerant of compromises toward their core beliefs or to turn away from their fundamental beliefs as any other religion.

      I might agree with you that liberal societies are more progressive than others, but this is merely because it controls and defines that progress through economic superiority. The same was true of Islam in the middle ages by virtue of its economic superiority over neighbouring nations. Progress isn't value neutral. Were some other ideology or religion to gain the economic advantage, liberalism would be just as opposed to progress as any other fundamentalism.

      Doesn't it seem the least bit suspicious to you that liberalism is somehow the only non-fundamentalist ideology/religion out there? Isn't it convenient how many of liberalism's supposed advantages are tied to its fortuitous historical advantage over other ideologies?

    5. Anon, I think you're still misunderstanding my view. In my political writings here, I do indeed equate liberalism with early modern social contract philosophy. Original liberalism was essentially individualism (or what we today would call libertarianism), deriving from the Enlightenment philosophers who inspired or shaped the founding of the US and the French Revolution (Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, etc). The key idea there was that reason sets us free, which raises the question of how free individuals should live together. That was the scientistic presumption that was taken for granted because of the success of science.

      So how was that liberal/modern ideology applied? Through democracy and capitalism. But I've never called myself a liberal or defended modernism in general. On the contrary, I've criticized liberalism more than conservatism. I try to see each from a naturalistic perspective, which sees through the myths to the reality of the natural forces that set the stage for our universal, existential choices.

      Now, I do agree with liberals on certain social issues and on aesthetic grounds. I admire the liberal's attempt to create original societies (seemingly supernatural ones that progress by rebelling against more animalistic social orders). I see their creative work, though, as having nearly come to an end in our postmodern era of hyper-skepticism, apathy, relativism, and nihilism. People are losing faith in the modern/liberal myths, just as American liberals have become disenchanted with Obama and big government (the healthcare rollout, drone strikes, normalization of Bush's foreign and economic policies).

      As for fundamentalism, could you tell me how you're defining that term?

    6. Don't you think that contemporary disillusionment with liberalism is justified? Isn't it naive to insist on the virtue of liberalist ideals considering all the evidence to the contrary?

      I honestly have a lot of sympathy for liberalist ideals, but this is simultaneously tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism. In other words, I can appreciate the concepts, but not the ideology. What bugs me the most about liberalism is its juvenile know-it-all attitude. Any rigorous belief is inherently self-destructive. In other words, it is qualified by inherent limitations. When the belief is valid, it works, and when conditions arise which invalidate it, the beliefs fall apart. While it is natural for human beings to desire a perfect, infallible set of beliefs, it not natural for such an ideology to exist.

      This unfortunately is not true for most liberals. In my experience, most liberals are wholly unqualified in their beliefs. Rather than to admit that liberalism is fallible like any other belief, they always have a plethora of slick excuses handy when liberalism isn't working.

      Fundamentalism is a term typically used by one group to define themselves as genuine in their beliefs as opposed to ideological insincerity in others, or else pejoratively to label another group as arrogant or domineering.

      However, if one looks at what the word actually means, namely an uncompromising belief in a set of fundamental values, then all ideologies are essentially fundamentalist, as all ideologies are defined by a set of core inflexible beliefs. To conceive of any ideology without fundamental beliefs is difficult if not impossible.

      Doesn't liberalism also have a set of core, uncompromising values? In that case, then it must be objectively termed a form of fundamentalism.

    7. If we're talking about American disillusionment with liberalism, I think most of that is farcical. The more hostile the critics, the less they know what they're talking about, because their sources of information are Fox News and talk radio, which provide mainly misleading infotainment. These critics equate liberalism with communism or totalitarianism, and what they're angry about isn't political liberalism but an elitist culture consisting of made-up scapegoats for broader problems with globalization. These resentful, misinformed folks have no clue that the principles of their Tea Party libertarianism are classically liberal rather than conservative.

      "Liberty for every individual!" was the early modern liberal's rallying cry against the monarchists who were the conservatives in their day, because that sort of gross inequality between the royals and the peasants was the feudal European tradition for centuries, throughout the Middle Ages. The modern idea that each individual should be free to pursue happiness as she defines it, as long as she doesn't interfere with anyone else's identical right, was the essence of liberalism. And it's because each individual is made precious by his or her basic rational powers and freewill that everyone has that right to self-determination. This is why liberals today want to use government to establish a social safety net, so that poor or physically different people (women, children, dark-skinned or disfigured folks, etc), who are precious because of their right to liberty, don't fall through the cracks. (Many disadvantaged peasants certainly did so in the conservative's self-serving paradise, that being the monarchy in which a handful of true elitists, the decadent, wine-sipping aristocrats, flourished while the majority lived on scraps.)

      The general meaning of "fundamentalism" is "strict adherence to the fundamental principles of a set of beliefs," but the keyword there is "strict." Most ideologies may have certain fundamental beliefs, but whether an ideology has any zealous defenders depends on the nature of the beliefs. Religions stir up the emotions because they speak to primal concerns.

      Liberalism, which is to say modernism, was supposed to inoculate itself against zealotry, with its institutions of capitalism and democracy, since in theory those institutions give everyone an equal voice, as opposed to ensuring that some minority is purer than everyone else, due to some obscure difference between the groups. The uncompromising liberal value is the one I stated above: liberty for all. When a country has no social safety net, though, unlucky or weaker people lose that liberty because they lose their life or the opportunity to bounce back. That's why current liberals fight for government-run social programs, to help the losers in the capitalistic competition for resources. Again, they want to help them because they regard everyone as precious, on liberal grounds, whereas traditionally the conservative thinks some people are more precious than others (the blood of aristocrats is sacred, while women, dark-skinned folks, or other slaves or servants don't count as people at all). The essence of liberalism is modern individualism, as opposed to the conservative’s settling for the naked dominance hierarchy which entrenches social inequality (classes or castes of people).

      Now on my naturalistic view, both liberal and conservative societies degenerate for natural reasons. That is, both big government and big corporations become corrupt and self-destructive. Also, the modern myths that justify regarding everyone as equally precious no longer ring true, thanks to cognitive science and philosophical naturalism. So I don’t consider myself liberal or conservative.

    8. I don't see how you attribute disillusionment with liberalism to misinformation. Obviously many allegations made by special interest groups like fundamentalists and conservatives can't be taken at face value, because ultimately most of these groups are as invested in sustaining liberal hypocrisy as liberals. American conservatives and fundamentalists have no desire to undermine liberalism as a whole, only very specific parts of it. The general inequity of liberalism is something which they are as deeply committed to as their 'liberal' opponents.

      But if you view liberalism objectively, disillusionment is only a natural consequence. For instance, if we look closely at the birth of enlightenment and liberalism, there was never any question of 'liberty for every individual'. Sure that was the slogan of liberal philosophers like Mill and Rousseau, but if you look at the fine print, this slogan was qualified by a specific definition of 'individual' which only encompassed a small segment of humanity. For Mill and Rousseau, 'liberty for every individual' didn't apply to the vast 'subhuman' mass of humanity. Their definition of liberalism only applied to their own kind, the European bourgeoisie class. For them, the rest of humanity didn't count as worthy of liberty. Fundamentally, they didn't consider most people as human beings.

      The idea that liberalism had any real interest in improving the lot of humanity in general doesn't hold water. Early liberalism was merely a movement aimed at freeing labour from indentureship to feudal landed economies in order to shift it to industrial indentureship. Liberalism saw rural peasantry transformed into urban factory workers, often with a marked decrease in living conditions. The idea that liberalism was a movement towards human emancipation, equality and happiness is and has always been a mere fiction.

    9. "The modern idea that each individual should be free to pursue happiness as she defines it, as long as she doesn't interfere with anyone else's identical right, was the essence of liberalism."

      This is gross misinformation. Liberalism has never desired universal human liberty or happiness. Ask any liberal to give up their privileges and they will refuse you flatly. Take yourself as an example. Go look up on the UN databases what the average human living standards are around the world. Do a bit of research and find out how much a person in your own profession earns in a middle income country like China or India, and look at what social benefits they receive. Are you willing to live in those same conditions, earning the same salary? No. You want your unfair privileges. Consciously or unconsciously you would be deeply resentful were your 'liberal' government to cease the exploitative policies which affords you those privileges.

      I don't blame you. I don't want to live on an equal basis as the rest of humanity. I also like my privileges and I want to keep them, and if some poor fucker tells me I shouldn't, fuck'em.

      Based on what I can surmise about you, like me, you are computer literate and tertiary educated. Based on UN statistics, this should place us in the global top 5% most wealthy demographic. You may find this hard to believe, since you live in a country where everyone is rich, so like most Westerners you probably aren't aware that you are living a rich playboy lifestyle. You probably imagine yourself to be middle class or maybe even poor.

      Dispense yourself of such illusions. I live in the third world. Everyday I see real poverty. I've never worn a piece of designer clothing and have never, and probably won't ever, possess a luxury vehicle. But even so, I know that in global, universal human terms, I'm amongst the richest of the rich. I have the privilege of an education, I can afford consumer entertainment like CDs, DVDs or cinema, I have access to the internet, I have the privilege of a varied diet. These privileges which very few people can enjoy.

      I'm certain that you also share a similarly privileged lifestyle. In short, we are the elitist, decadent wine sipping aristocrats. You and I don't sit around all day plotting and scheming about new ways to steal more from the poor, but we work with the system, play our own small roles in the game of exploitation, and reap our undeserved rewards.

      No one is forcing our lifestyle on us. No one is stopping us from saying, 'I don't deserve to be any more privileged than anyone else. I'm going to give away most of my unearned wealth to those who need it and live by the same standards as everyone else.' But we don't because we don't actually believe in our liberal ideals. They make for interesting conversation at dinner parties, but nothing more.

      The same is true of most liberals. They maintain westernized lifestyles dependent on exploitation, inequality and indentured labour even as they proclaim their hypocritical liberal values. How can there then be any other rational response to the blatant hypocrisy of liberalism than disillusionment?

    10. Anon, You’re not really engaging with my view of liberalism. I don’t defend liberalism, but I do condemn the bogus Tea Party arguments against what the American critics call liberalism, since those arguments are based on misinformation. My view is that classic, modern liberalism has entered a postmodern stage, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage is that whereas, as you say, classic liberals were grossly hypocritical, claiming to respect individuals while defining “person” narrowly to cover only white European men, postmodern liberals have rectified that with their feminism and civil rights victories. In theory, then, liberals are no longer hypocritical; they do respect all people and all cultures. In fact, that leads to the main disadvantages: multiculturalism, relativism, and ultimately nihilism and apathy, the loss of faith in any particular way of life. That’s the problem with postmodernism: postmodernists no longer have any religious inspiration, having become disenchanted with the modern myths which inspired liberals in the first place.

      In any case, you’ve equated the liberal’s individualism and egalitarianism with a call for extreme selflessness and altruism. But liberalism isn’t the same as socialism or communism. Liberals don’t say that no one ought to enjoy anything as long as there’s any inequality in the world (although Peter Singer says something like this). They generally don’t believe in that kind of redistribution and certainly not if it means interfering in all countries at once. Liberals want everyone to be free to do what they want, but they don’t have a magic wand to make that happen. Giving away all your possessions won’t work either, since that wouldn’t solve the long-term or structural problems. As the saying goes, feeding someone with fish isn’t as good as teaching someone how to fish.

      Also, while I agree that Western countries, led by the US, have exploited poorer countries, in the Middle East, South America, and Africa, I think that some Western wealth is well-deserved, meaning that Westerners work for it in a relatively fair competition. Think of all the advances in science and technology that have come out of Europe and the US. American creativity is a product of its chaotic economy. So it would be an overstatement to say that Western wealth is entirely unfair. You say the whole competition is exploitative, and that may be so, but you’re comparing natural economies to an impossible, supernatural ideal, to the Kingdom of God or something like that. We’re all animals looking to exploit each other’s weaknesses. It takes an enormous, unnatural effort to surrender your advantage for someone else’s benefit. There are many people on the bottom who aren’t in a position to exploit anyone, but that’s not by choice. Were the tables turned, the poor people of Africa, South America, and the Middle East would gladly stick it to the elites in the US, Europe, and China.

    11. But to blame this on liberalism makes no sense to me. These inequalities and exploitations existed long before liberalism. That’s why I try not to see politics through the conventional prism of liberalism or conservatism. Those ideologies are noble lies, at best. I focus on power dynamics, on natural, biological and pragmatic factors, on the way power is distributed in a system which eventually naturalizes the system, converting it to its default state of being a dominance hierarchy. As I’ve written on this blog, this happened even in communist societies. This means that primitive, animalistic dynamics take over, regardless of how elevated we think we are. We can talk about liberal ideals, but those won’t explain how so-called liberal societies actually work. This is the root of what you’re calling the liberal’s hypocrisy. Liberal ideals are irrelevant if your democratic and capitalistic country inevitably becomes a plutocracy, which is what’s happened in the US. And this is especially so in liberalism’s postmodern phase, which may represent the decline of Western powers in something like the way Oswald Spengler predicted.

      Some liberals understand all of this. I can’t recall their names (I think Chris Hayes might be one of them), but I’ve read some articles by liberals which argue that liberal principles ought to be used as checks against such natural forces of inequity. Holding back those forces even temporarily is better than letting them run roughshod over society, which is what happens when conservatives rule. That’s probably the best, most realistic defense of liberalism.

    12. I guess I don't understand your argument. You seem to be arguing that science threatens liberalism by inducing postmodern skepticism. Why does this threat to liberalism matter if you don't see liberalism as something worth saving?

      My argument is that Tea Party arguments are valid because even though they are bogus, so too is the liberal ideology which they undermining. So what is actually going on here is simply that one political fiction is replacing another. Now, you can argue that the fiction of liberalism is more morally conscious than the postmodern fictions which are replacing it, but what does it matter in the end of the day? Both are mere fictions. They have no real influence on political realities. Political reality has always and will always be determined primarily by self-interest and opportunism. Political ideologies have always been mere post-hoc rationalizations.

      "postmodern liberals have rectified that with their feminism and civil rights victories. In theory, then, liberals are no longer hypocritical; they do respect all people and all cultures."

      This is a feeble theory. The reality shows that nothing like this is the case. For instance, a few months ago I was watching a political debate in the US on the issue of poverty relief. It was said that since the onset of the recession, national spending on poverty relief had been cut back even as the number of 'poor' people in America had escalated dramatically. They presented some statistics on the 'harsh' living conditions of 'poor' Americans - which was actually the same as global upper middle class living standards. But the very idea that a small number of Americans might have to live in the same conditions as the rest of the world seemed to produce a fiery public indignation.

      All this came from mainstream liberal media and politics, not some conservative or fundamentalist rant. Sure discrimination on the basis of sex or race has diminished in the West, but discrimination on the basis of nationality is stronger than ever

      "Liberals want everyone to be free to do what they want, but they don’t have a magic wand to make that happen."

      I agree that you have to be realistic, but there's a difference between appreciating realistic limitations and pure hypocrisy. One might understand if from time to time the West needed to compromise their liberal ideals for practical reasons, but the reality is that most of the time the West manages to ignore liberal principles completely when it comes to international relations.

    13. "I think that some Western wealth is well-deserved, meaning that Westerners work for it in a relatively fair competition."

      This is simply a ridiculous claim. You know that were you and some Indian to compete for the same job, your chances of getting it would be a hundred times higher, even were the Indian somehow able to get the same qualifications as you in spite of having only a fraction of the resources.

      Why do Westerners continue to spout the drivel about having earned their wealth through hard work. Seriously? You know that it is bullshit. A Westerner generally gets between 3 and 20 times as much money as someone doing the same job in the Third World, under far better working conditions. If from next month on your salary were reduced by 95% would you consider it fair? Would you still feel that you are being appropriately rewarded? I think not.

      "I’ve read some articles by liberals which argue that liberal principles ought to be used as checks against such natural forces of inequity. Holding back those forces even temporarily is better than letting them run roughshod over society, which is what happens when conservatives rule. That’s probably the best, most realistic defense of liberalism."

      I've heard that claim as well, but I just don't see it happening in the real world. This is my problem with liberalism. It makes all kinds of grandiose claims, but ultimately it is no different from any other political ideology. There may be some superficial differences, but the real differences just don't exist. So the idea that the loss of liberal idealism would actually make a difference in the world just doesn't make sense to me.

      To quote your own words, "It takes an enormous, unnatural effort to surrender your advantage for someone else’s benefit. There are many people on the bottom who aren’t in a position to exploit anyone, but that’s not by choice. Were the tables turned, the poor people of Africa, South America, and the Middle East would gladly stick it to the elites in the US, Europe, and China."

      This is what politics is really about. Liberalist discourse has no place in the real world. Real world politics is cruel, soulless and inhuman. I can accept accept that because there is no real alternative. But to go around disguising this cruelty with pretty words just seems unnecessarily cruel.

      It's like I often say, the difference between conservatives and liberals is that the conservative bashes your teeth in because he just doesn't like you. The liberal does the same and then tells you she's doing it out of love.

    14. Anon, I think we’re largely in agreement. One of the differences, though, is that you think liberals have to be zealots who seek to impose liberalism across the planet or else they’re being hypocrites. This is just what New Atheists say about so-called moderate Christians, that if they don’t subscribe to crazy evangelical fundamentalism, their religion is phony. But my point about the transition from modern to postmodern liberalism is just a description of what’s happened, not a justification of anything. The so-called neoconservatives under Bush seemed to be modern liberals, in that they wanted to overthrow dictatorships to spread Western values. Maybe it was all for cynical, economic reasons, but they sounded like true-believers. Anyway, postmodern liberals don’t like imperialism, because they’re multiculturalists. They respect the sovereignty of nations as long as it’s based on collective choice. Of course, they’re in favour of humanitarian intervention when human rights are violated.

      But this gets at the continuing relevance of liberalism. The very idea of human rights is a result of liberal/modern ideology. Modernists came up with the idea of the everyman, of the individual human in general. It took centuries for the implications of that idea to sink in. But the point is that this aspect of Western ideology is hard to give up, the idea being that everyone has the potential, at least, to be an individual person who has rights because of that personhood. If we lose trust in that idea, we’re back to men oppressing women, whites using blacks as slaves, children working in the factories, and so on. We can believe in the biology which says we’re animals, but don’t cultures emerge on top of that, and don’t cultures have their own reality? You say liberalism is just a fiction, but my point is that some fictions or illusions are better than others, and this concept of a human person seems like a keeper.

      Also, liberals are much more interested in facts than are Tea Party folks (because liberals take more pride in the rationalist side of the Enlightenment), so that comparison falls flat. In fact, this is a muddying of the waters which is a common tactic among right-wingers who say in the US, for example, that Democrats are always equally to blame for Republican monstrosities. Indeed, this is a grotesque distortion of the truth and a ploy to impose rightwing anarchist ideals, since if people come to blame simply “the government” and not one party in particular, such as the traitorous party that’s bent on destroying American democracy, the party that stands in favour of a functioning, competent government will lose out.

    15. Anyway, whereas you’d explain liberal failures in terms of hypocrisy and an underlying naturalism/realism, I’d explain them in terms of disenchantment with modern ideals and thus a growing ennui, apathy, and nihilism among postmodernists. Either way, we agree on the underlying naturalism and that lots of people are hypocrites. I prefer to speak of mass delusions, though. It’s hard to be a hypocrite when you’re in fact deluded, because a delusion can be adjusted to suit nearly any reality. So American liberals could justify their higher standard of living, by saying that the more liberal your country is, the more “indispensible” it is as a beacon of hope and as a leader of the free world. Also, Americans would say they deserve their higher pay because they do the dirty work around the world that Western civilization requires. Moreover, Americans deserve much of that wealth because of their revolutionary advances in technoscience. For example, the internet came out of the US, as did the affordable automobile and the airplane.

      You’re saying that liberals should give away the wealth they earn, like saints, but that sort of asceticism—while interesting to me—isn’t part of liberalism. Liberals think every individual has the right to be happy as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. Only if it’s a zero sum game, so that America’s great wealth subtracts from what other countries’ can obtain is there a violation of that liberal principle. And indeed, this might be the case with respect to Americans’ overuse of energy and nonrenewable resources. The reason there are so many poor labourers around the world is that this is one way of keeping prices down for the benefit of consumers. So low wage jobs are exported to other countries so Americans can benefit from low-cost goods. But this system has come back to bite Americans, since now most Americans are stuck with barely being able to afford even the lowest-quality goods, so that the standard of living for the majority of Americans is actually approaching Third World status.

      See this interesting article on the Washingtonian vs the Lincolnian social models (American Southern-style oligarchy versus the creation of the middle class):

    16. "Real world politics is cruel, soulless and inhuman. I can accept accept that because there is no real alternative."

      The world is changing over time. So to say that there is no real alternative to cruelty seems a bit narrow-minded to me. In former times one could have made a similar statment and could have said that there was no alternative to slavery.
      I agree with you that the world is a pretty shitty place to live, but its a lot less shitty than some hundred years before and it was the scientific and philosophcal advance and that made this possible.

    17. I don't think that liberals should impose their beliefs across the world. My problem with liberalism is that their words don't correspond with their actions. To summarize, these are my main points:

      1. Even today, the supposedly 'liberal' nations are amongst the least liberal.
      2. Viewed objectively, history presents a rather disreputable picture of liberalism.
      3. Many of liberalism's supposed successes are not so much its own, but rather taking credit for those of others. For instance, emancipation of women and racial equality had more to do with industrialization and the accompanying mobility of labour it requires than with liberalism.
      4. Liberal beliefs have rarely corresponded with their actions.
      5. Liberal ideals are not necessarily without merit, but liberal ideology is. Liberal ideals are so idealistic that they are rarely pragmatically possible, so that liberal ideology is forced into deception to maintain its credibility. This results in a practiced duplicity which absolves liberals of all real accountability and gives them the opportunity to flagrantly pursue self-interest in direct contradiction to the very ideals their supposedly endorse.
      6. There are many equally meritorious ideological alternatives to liberalism. No ideology is perfect, just like liberalism, and therefore, no ideology can be inherently better than any other. It all comes down to real-world conditions of individual situation and which political strategy best suits those unique parameters. Liberalism is not the cure-all which it is sold as. In fact, taken objectively, liberalism is a pretty weak cure for most of the world's problems.

    18. Dietl:

      I'm not saying that we need to give into cruelty, but that it's going to be there no matter what you do.

      The idea that the last hundred years has been better than any previous century is questionable. The idea that technological progress equals the betterment of humanity doesn't hold water. The only thing that bears a direct link to technological advance in population increase.

    19. Anon,

      I happen to have specific objections to just about all of your numbered points.

      1) Which nations are more liberal than the Western ones (Europe, North America, and some liberalized Eastern countries, like Japan, South Korea, and so on)? This is hard to answer because of globalism.

      2) History shows that liberal ideals took centuries to come close to being achieved. But the alternatives to liberalism/modernism/individualism was feudalism and aristocracy and the absence of anything like a middle class, not to mention the legal oppression of women and the enslavement of so-called subhumans. There was no such thing as a human right.

      3) Children were overworked during the Industrial Revolution. As I understand it, it was only the liberal ideal of human rights that made capitalists think twice about exploiting child labourers (especially after the Great Depression in the US). Also, you're missing the big picture. Liberalism was part of a larger, rationalist and science-centered “Western” worldview that accounts for modern industry and the rise of the middle class as well as human rights.

      4) Again, while liberals can be as hypocritical as anyone else, the big picture shows us the global spread of liberal ideals in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the civil rights movements, the end of slavery, even the Arab Spring. I'm aware there are also economic causes of these changes, but the ideology matters too. If Lincoln hadn't been able to sell the end of slavery with sophisticated appeals to liberal principles, who knows what would have happened? And if young people in the Muslim world lacked access to Western ideals through the Western-created internet, who knows if they could have galvanized themselves to rebel against their dictators (some of whom have hypocritical Western backing)?

      5) Again, I explain such shortcomings in terms of the loss of faith in classic liberal ideas and the cultural shift into postmodernity. Your explanation of how liberals are duplicitous because their ideals are especially unworkable is a little convoluted. Anyway, I don't think the problem is that the ideals of liberty and human rights are so impractical; rather, the problem is that people have lost faith in the modern myths that motivate those ideals.

      6) It's a non sequitur to say that because all ideologies are imperfect, therefore none is better than any other. This is like saying that because no shape in nature is as perfect as the abstract geometrical one (due to tiny flaws in the straight or round lines), therefore a new Ferrari, made out of natural shapes, is no better than a smashed Ferrari.

      Anyway, which ideology is better than liberalism? Like I said, I'm not a liberal. I call my myths existential cosmicist ones and in some ways they're conservative. But much of what I say is consistent with liberal principles. For example, I think there's such a thing as individual freedom, but I also distinguish between enlightenment and the delusions that make up what we can think of as life in the matrix. It takes inwardness and introversion to give someone the inner world of ideas to act as a barrier between the emerging self and the external world, which gives the self the opportunity to control itself at the highest level. So I don't think all so-called normal humans are equally free persons, regardless of whether they're outwardly coerced. A liberated self has to develop from inward, existential work. Our minds as well as our bodies should be free, given liberalism, but many minds are slaves to delusions.

    20. Well you have to admit that better health care, infrastructure and education count for something. In other times you had the same cruelty and inequality but without the benefits that privileged few have today. Being rich three houndred years ago still meant a shitty live compared to todays standards. So the avarage has risen a bit. And of course I'm not saying tha technological progress equals betterment of humanity. This would mean that there is something inherently good about technology, but what I'm saying is that there is a link between better health care, infrastructure and education and a betterment of humanity. Those things give us the opportunity to do good things that wasn't there before. Even if we don't use it in its fullest.
      You have to be realistic and this also means not ignoring the positive side of things, even if it comes with a bad taste.

  4. American pragmatism has dealt with this whole problem already.
    What's true is what's useful. Modern science adheres to the same truth standard called instrumentalism or anti-realism.
    "What's true is what works". A scientific theory is as true as it enables us to make correct predictions and we do not need to talk anymore about what nature "really" is, because we cannot know it anyway. We cannot know the "thing-in-itself", because we have no access to it, as Kant already pointed out. The models and theories of cognitive science pose no threat to a pragmatic liberalism nor does any other scientific theory, because a political system is evaluated by its utility, not whether it can be rationally justified or not. We should bury scientific realism, truth correspondence theory and justificationism right along with God. I find neo-nihilism based on scientism laughable. A political ideology doesn't collapse merely because it cannot be philosophically justified anymore. It collapses when the masses revolt or when there is economical crisis. But philosophers usually overdramatize the importance of philosophical justification and their own importance.

    1. I'd generally agree with your statement, except that political ideology does seem to matter in terms of how a population construes its government. If you tell the public that its suffering is for its own good or for the sake of some noble ideal it is far less likely to revolt than if you were to tell them to shut up and do as they're told. Also, success is not neutral. Pragmatism provides a means to gauge political success, but it can't tell you what the measuring stick should be. Philosophical justification unfortunately is still necessary.

    2. Pragmatist Anon, You're overgeneralizing about the extent to which scientists are pragmatic. Most mathematicians are Platonists. String Theorists are obsessed with math, and Einsteinian realists are making a comeback in physics. Also, there's the structural realist movement, which is a kind of neo-Pythagoreanism. And ask most biologists whether they think Darwinism is merely more useful than Creationism.

      Anyway, I agree that scientists can't afford to ask philosophical questions when they're doing science, but because they're human beings, most of them are going to wonder after-hours about whether atoms are real or whether we should be so anthropocentric as to be pragmatists (to define the external world in terms of whether it benefits us). Of course, the existentialism and cosmicism that interest me are quite opposed to pragmatism, since they imply that we shouldn't necessarily do what's useful. What we most want to do, to seek happiness, is absurd in light of the best science, so we should detach from some of our instincts and grow up to survive in the real world that's a growing source of horror.

      Ask yourself what the pragmatist says about God. Is it more useful to believe God exists or not? I'd say that in theistic countries, it's better to fit in, so you ought to be a theist there. And of course, lots of theists are pragmatic in just that way, since they treat their religion as a social club. But this sort of pragmatism is repellant to me, not to mention to most theists. It’s an offshoot of political Machiavellianism and neoclassical economic egoism, the idea being that we’re calculators of utility. Actually, we’re animals, not machines, and so we have instincts and emotional preferences, including the preference to believe in the sacredness of something. And you miss the point of religion if you treat it as a Machiavellian scheme. This is why Pascal’s Wager annoys so many atheists.

      Also, I agree with the other Anon. Pragmatism offers us instrumental imperatives, but no ultimate goal. What does it mean for something to be useful? Is usefulness measured in terms of the ability to make us happy, to give us pleasure? Technically, usefulness means just that the thing can satisfy our goals, whatever they happen to be. So a pragmatist ends up presupposing some ideals. As with scientism, this just pushes the philosophy under the rug.

      And indeed, a pragmatist should care about an ideology’s philosophical and religious justifications, since the ideology typically works as a noble lie for most people, and if they lose their faith, the ideology is much less effective at holding society together. Granted, most people don’t care about academic philosophical justifications, but they’re certainly not pragmatic about their deepest beliefs, so if they come to doubt those justifications, that presents a problem particularly for pragmatists who think of that ideology as in some ways useful.

      I agree, though, that science is largely pragmatic and that pragmatism presents a challenge to the worldview I’m working out here. I used to be a fan of Putnam and Rorty.

  5. "And ask most biologists whether they think Darwinism is merely more useful than Creationism."

    Ask any biologist according to which epistemic criteria Darwinism is a better theory than Creationism. Those will be epistemic criteria, that are considered true, because they have been proven useful in the past. Why is the scientific method be considered to be a more reliable method to find truth than simply guessing or having faith? Simply because it works better at enabling us to control our environment.
    Then ask any Darwinist why it is that he relies on reason and empiricism for his work rather than faith? Same answer, because it works better.
    The difference between a scientific realist and a pragmatist is simply that the pragmatist doesn't need to make the additional assumption that workability correlates with accuracy of representation of a presupposed objective reality.
    Otherwise we use the same epistemic criteria as the scientific realist, because they work.
    Chains of justification if they are considered to be reasonable usually end in some pragmatic reason, not in a truth ideal that is detached from the anthropocentric viewpoint.
    Scientific materialism implies that we cannot transcend our anthropocentric view anyway, we are trapped in our subjective perspectives, which are our brains. Scott Bakker's blind brain theory even implies that our mental processes are entirely devoid of any meaning and so having thoughts "about" anything external to us is impossible, an illusion. Mental processes are purely instrumental and so must then our idea of objective reality and truth as correspondence be just fictional, but useful.
    Now, it might seem like a contradiction to first postulate objective reality about which our scientific theories presumely talk and then to say that those very theories imply that objective reality is a fiction, but it is not, because the implications are valid within the theory and it is not necessary to presuppose that the theories are representing anything outside of themselves. It only becomes inconsistent when we presuppose an objective reality outside of us.

    1. I agree that scientists and naturalists generally use reliability as a guide to truth, but pragmatists go further by identifying truth with reliability as opposed to treating the latter as an indicator of the former.

      The pragmatist’s case against Creationism is badly weakened, I think, as soon as we see that Creationism needn’t have the same purpose as Darwinism. Pragmatism says some theory is useful (and thus called “true”) if it helps us achieve our goals. So biologists use Darwinism to help us predict and control biological processes. And Christians may use myths to achieve social cohesion, in which case Creationism may be precisely as “true” as Darwinism in their separate fields. But it’s counterintuitive to say that that social utility amounts to any kind of truth (although I’ve discussed subjective truth in a few places on this blog). This is because naturalists want to say that a theory’s scientific utility tells us about the nature of the world, whereas a noble lie’s ability merely to keep people living together might be otherwise misleading. This is the realist’s intuition which pragmatism doesn’t account for.

      Also, the anthropocentric aspect of pragmatism (and of empiricism too) is strange, given that the trend has been in the opposite direction since the Copernican Revolution. Naturalism entails that minds are metaphysically secondary, not primary. Again, the pragmatist’s opposite conclusion is consistent with theism, whereas naturalism is atheistic.

      I discuss Scott Bakker’s view of illusions and cognitive science in a number of writings here:

  6. Utility merely doesn't amount to "truth" in the correspondence sense of truth. What i am saying is that the correspondence sense of "truth" is an illusion. There is no correspondence between a theory and an objective reality that the theory describes.
    Although we have the intuition that our conscious experiences mirror an external reality which is then described by our thoughts, i claim that this intuition is false.
    The content of our thoughts are fictions. Conceptual knowledge is fictional. What is real is only uninterpreted raw subjective experience.
    This theory is more consistent with darwinism and materialism than the common view, but the consistency exists on a purely symbolic, logical level.
    This is similar to formalism in mathematics. For a formalist a mathematical theory doesn't refer to any platonic world.