Sunday, April 28, 2013

Humankind as Life’s Executioner: The Environmentalist’s Nightmare

In the West, environmentalism is politically correct. We’re supposed to recycle, stop eating meat or supporting the abuse of animals, eat organic foods, crack down on pollution of the atmosphere and on wildlife poaching, support the uses of renewable energies like wind turbines and solar panels, protect the rainforests and endangered species, and be one with the environment, go out into nature and commune with the elements, go camping and realize that our survival depends on a healthy and sustainable ecosystem, that species are interconnected so that if too many become extinct, a whole ecosystem is threatened.

Even while most Westerners--myself included--nod sagely when our commitment to received wisdom is tested and we’re faced with such prescriptions and principles, most of us eat meat, prefer cities to the wild, buy products from companies that pollute the atmosphere, drive vehicles that use nonrenewable energy, and in general identify with pop culture that elevates people above the rest of nature. Most Westerners would say that they’re environmentalists, but in reality they’re part of the problem, from an environmentalist’s perspective. What the environmentalist doesn’t wish to add is that her ideology, about how we all have to curb our practices so that a life-friendly environment can be preserved, is apparently opposed to human nature.

That’s why conservative Christians, for example, whose Bible tells them to be stewards of the planet, usually can get away with demonizing environmentalists, pretending that the scientific warnings about the harm our societies are doing to the atmosphere, to the global climate, and to the ecosystems are just frauds. You see, there’s a kernel of truth in this conservative’s skepticism. To be sure, this conservative’s stated reasons for opposing a rollback of our unsustainable business practices are kneejerk advertisements for big business that kick Jesus in the face and also in the balls. But in spite of that hypocritical propagandist’s surrender to the morally questionable forces of technoscientific societies, there may be a serious problem with the environmentalist’s message. We should ask ourselves why this message has only been politically correct--outside of certain liberal European countries. Why can’t most of us feel that we should be environmentalists and should therefore drastically change our behaviour and our societies for the benefit of all life? Why do we instead merely pay lip service to the message and go about our destructive business?

The answer is that environmentalism is a radical ideology that would destroy modern societies, if carried to its logical conclusion and applied. But assuming that environmentalists nevertheless have the science on their side, there’s a disturbing implication: human nature is opposed to the flourishing of Life in general. The traits that distinguish us as a species, of which we’re so proud, are weapons targeting all known life forms, set to reverse the whole triumphant saga of life’s evolution. We are destroyers and we’re able to deceive ourselves about our natural role, because our weapons--our machines and social infrastructures--are so elaborate that we must first spend thousands of years developing them, so that we can think of ourselves as creators. We destroy precisely with every one of our distinguishing features, with our self-awareness, opposable thumb, language, reason, curiosity, social instinct, and culture. And those weapons are pointed at us as well. This should be the environmentalist’s nightmare, that not only are most of us effectively super-villains in our support of the human project of building systems that threaten to destroy all life, but this isn’t even a choice: natural selection may not be eternal and just as every organism self-destructs, so too our species may be the doomsday weapon that’s naturally forced to bring all life to an end. Our uniqueness as a species may be needed to terminate the bizarre initial emergence of life in the void.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sadism and the Horror of Liberty

The Marquis de Sade wrote the world’s most cynical satires. His pornographic works belong in the Horror section of bookstores, because they illustrate some grave truths as well as presenting a daunting challenge to modern secularists. If you wonder why Christians associate atheism and freethinking with immorality, you might look beyond the Cold War for the source of that connection, when the atheistic Soviets were demonized by God-fearing Americans. But in the modern period you’d need to look no further than Sade’s scandalous advocacy of libertinism. Contemporary Americans who speak endlessly of the need for freedom seem oblivious to the fact that they shackle themselves by adhering to cultural norms, including moral and even legal regulations. The freest individual is, of course, the fictional character Satan. Lord Satan is the true hero of those whose highest ideal is personal liberty. (For example, every one of the Nine Satanic Statements in LaVey’s Satanic Bible is consistent with Sade’s libertinism.) Sade understood this diabolical end-game of freedom, and so his satires push freedom of thought and naturalistic philosophy to their furthest reaches. If you’re a critic of freethinking and naturalism, you’ll happily interpret Sade’s works as reducing those assumptions to absurdity. By contrast, if you’re an advocate of liberty in thought and in action, but you reject Sade’s contention that you should therefore be, in effect, a rabid Satanist and sadist, you have to explain why secular postmodern liberalism doesn't reduce to libertinism. What follows is my critique of Sade’s inversion of morality.

What is Libertinism?

Let’s look first at Sade’s philosophical assumptions and at libertinism itself. Sade was a rationalist not in the technical Western philosophical sense that he believed there are innate ideas--although he did emphasize our instinctive side--but in the broader, progressive sense that he favoured reason over faith and tradition. Thus, he accepted a science-centered, naturalistic worldview, according to which the world is made up of ordered patterns of matter and energy. There are no immaterial spirits, afterlives, miracles, or gods. In short, Sade was a materialist, a naturalist, a vehement atheist, and a respecter of science. So how does he derive sadism from those assumptions?

Here’s my charitable reconstruction of his reasoning. Sade argues, implicitly or otherwise, not just that everything is natural, but that we ought to be natural, and here “natural” must be used in two different senses. Metaphysically, miracles are impossible on his view, but morally speaking, unnatural behaviour is possible and bad, according to him. As far as I can tell, natural and thus moral behaviour, for Sade, is that which copies as much of the natural world as possible and which therefore gives the lie to the conceit that our species is unique. Thus, what we ought to do is follow our gut instincts, especially the instinct to seek pleasure by any means. Pleasure is our highest good, for Sade, and so he was also a hedonist. But the reason pleasure should be our ultimate value is that animals in general are concerned mainly with their own gain, and we should avoid the dualistic delusion that we’re substantially different from the other species. Moreover, egoism follows from mechanistic atomism, according to which an atom is independent of all other atoms and collides violently with others like a billiard ball.

The horrible twist in Sade’s hedonism is that someone who seeks mainly personal pleasure should offer no apology for taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Again, the reasoning is starkly naturalistic: moral constraints on egoism are based on dualistic delusions; fundamentally, we are beasts and so our highest good is to behave as beasts. Moreover, we learn from biology that species divide into the weak and the strong; the strong prey on the weak, both between and within species. Thus, there are both predator species as well as alpha leaders of smaller groups. This is a broad natural pattern and so not only do we tend to emulate it, but we ought to do so. And so there are strong, wealthy classes of people that prey on the poor masses. In addition, predatory behaviour is natural and thus good for the Malthusian reason, which is that predators are needed to thin the herd, maintain biological variety, and prevent mass starvation from overpopulation. Predatory people may be diagnosed with sociopathy, but they can appeal to libertinism and say that their egoistic mastery of vice and their wholesale contempt for altruistic morality follow from the modern, Enlightenment assumptions (rationalism, materialism, and so on).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Evolution and the Self-Destruction of Omegas

An article summarizing a number of recent books on the widely-reported anxiety epidemic in the US concludes, “American anxiety seems like a cultural chimera created by, yes, social and economic problems, and by personal crises, but also by media attention.” The summarized books point to specific causes of anxiety in the US, such as the pressures of academia and the invention of Prozac-like drugs by Big Pharma. Certainly, the existential predicament I talk about doesn’t explain all kinds of anxiety, although some social and economic factors are related to our intense modern awareness of that predicament.

But I’d like to talk about an evolutionary explanation of melancholic depression by Jeffrey Kahn, summarized in the article. The explanation is that depression could have evolved as a means of weeding out unproductive members of a group, to conserve the group’s scarce resources. The old and infirm members would withdraw from society, sacrificing themselves for the good of the group and giving the stronger, more promising members a larger share of the food, weapons, and other goods. Howard Blum offers a similar explanation of self-destruction in The Lucifer Principle. However, there’s a better evolutionary explanation, which is that a dominance hierarchy forms not because the omegas direct how the group is structured, but because they’re not strong enough to compete with the alphas and betas, and the stronger members bully their way to a greater share of the resources. Genetically, the result is the same since the resources are reserved for the group’s stronger members, but the social mechanism is different: the omegas don’t choose to sacrifice themselves for the good of the majority, but are naturally pushed out by the stronger members in a competition.

Kahn’s explanation looks to me like it takes on the perspective not just of the genes, but of society’s winners. The winners and the best guardians of the gene pool might prefer to think that the omegas withdraw because the losers recognize the superiority of the other members and bow out by suffering from sort of anxiety or depression. The anxiety becomes a physiological mechanism that eliminates those who are no longer socially useful, but the point is that this is supposed to be an active self-withdrawal for the good of the group. I think this reverses cause and effect. Anxiety and depression don’t cause the social withdrawal of omegas; rather, the cause is the omegas’ relative weakness or introversion which in turn causes them to lose in competition with stronger group members, so that the pecking order forms in an organic way. Anxiety and depression are effects of being on the outside of a society. When you’re alienated from a society, you can afford to look on it objectively, in which case you recognize the arbitrariness and absurdity of its rules and practices; you lack a social network and the distractions of cultural games, giving you time to ruminate and philosophize, which leads to skepticism, atheism, a greater sensitivity to suffering, and a general appreciation of our existential plight. 

[Note: This short article has been added as a PostScript to Psychiatry, Anxiety Disorders, and Existential Angst.]

Monday, April 15, 2013

Untangling Myths and Delusions

What’s the difference between a myth and a delusion? From a science-centered perspective common to New Atheism, for example, “myth” is a pejorative term and all myths are delusions, while delusions are lies. “Delude” has a curious Latin root, which is deludere, meaning to play falsely, or to mock. “Ludere” (play) is found also in “ludicrous,” meaning ridiculous because of absurdity. And so “delude” means to deceive or mislead the mind, the connotation being that this misleading takes place in a sort of playful game.

Thus, I think delusions are especially relevant to philosophy, the field in which reason tempers a torrent of speculation on nonscientific questions, and to theology in which there’s much less of that tempering. Technoscience is serious business, although those in the businesses of rationally solving nature’s mysteries and of using engineering to transform mindless facts into embodiments of our values presuppose a philosophy or religion, whether it be Scientistic pragmatism, liberal secular humanism, social Darwinism, or the anti-Jesus bastardization of Christianity that’s so shockingly prevalent in the US. This is to say that there’s little time for art or any other playful nonsense in technoscience itself; as Michael Corleone says in The Godfather, “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.” But the business of technoscience is directed towards some ends which are subject to normative evaluation. Is technoscience a good thing? Should we be transforming nature as we are, imposing our hopes and fears onto facts, by extending our artificial environment and so wiping out the prehuman wilderness? Who knows? There’s no provable answer to such philosophical questions.

Myths and Delusions in the Game of Life

We can only speculate, meaning that we must choose to follow our gut reactions to mental artworks that we create when we philosophize or when we tell each other stories that codify collective ideals. These latter stories are myths in the non-pejorative sense, and a religion is a set of practices that makes us feel better about that existential choice to commit ourselves to mere speculations, or to “have faith” as theists commonly say. So in contrast to technoscience, philosophy and religion are largely artistic: philosophers and theologians play with ideas, creating them by speculating and telling stories to address questions that can’t yet or perhaps never will be answered with rigorous quantification and experimentation. But not all moves in a game are of equal value; some moves are out of bounds while others follow the rules and may even be heroic. But the rules in games such as chess, game shows, and computer games are typically arbitrary and so even heroic moves in a game are relatively trivial. This is because a game’s playing field is artificially removed from the rest of the world. We might thus distinguish between games and sports by saying that the two are on opposite ends of a continuum and that games are mostly artificial since they’re regulated more by arbitrary rules, whereas sports feature physical exertion and thus involve moves that are regulated more by natural laws.

Now, myths and delusions are most relevant in our dealings with nonscientific questions, such as the normative question of what we should do with our life. This is the deepest, most existential question and alas, we can address it only by playing around. To be sure, facing up to the existential question of what our ultimate values ought to be, given the unpleasant facts that define our existence as humans, entails life-altering horror and angst. Nevertheless, when we commit to a philosophy or to a religion, we’re playing around; that is, we’re being moved by a piece of mental art and we let that art guide our development and our actions. Regardless of our rationalizations that bolster our self-esteem, our answer to the existential riddle and all the rituals and other practices that follow from that commitment are as objectively absurd as the scoring of a touchdown, the hitting of a homerun, or the checkmating of a chess player’s king. We can get caught up in these moves when we’re playing them or when we suspend disbelief and watch with the rest of the audience, but looked at objectively, all games and even sports are ridiculous and thus so are our lives.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Technocracy, Buddhism, and Technoscientific Enlightenment

Here's another guest post of mine at R. Scott Bakker's blog. The post is called Technocracy, Buddhism, and Technoscientific Enlightenment, and is a follow-up to my last guest post there, Homelessness and the Transhuman. Here are the first few paragraphs of the new post:


In Homelessness and the Transhuman I used some analogies to imagine what life without the naïve and illusory self-image would be like. The problem of imagining that enlightenment should be divided into two parts. One is the relatively uninteresting issue of which labels we want to use to describe something. Would an impersonal, amoral, meaningless, and purposeless posthuman, with no consciousness or values as we usually conceive of them “think” at all? Would she be “alive”? Would she have a “mind”? Even if there are objective answers to such questions, the answers don’t really matter since however far our use of labels can be stretched, we can always create a new label. So if the posthuman doesn’t think, maybe she “shminks,” where shminking is only in some ways similar to thinking. This gets at the second, conceptual issue here, though. The interesting question is whether we can conceive of the contents of posthuman life. For example, just what would be the similarities and differences between thinking and shminking? What could we mean by “thought” if we put aside the naïve, folk psychological notions of intentionality, truth, and value? We can use ideas of information and function to start to answer that sort of question, but the problem is that this taxes our imagination because we’re typically committed to the naïve, exoteric way of understanding ourselves, as R. Scott Bakker explains.

One way to get clearer about what the transformation from confused human to enlightened posthuman would entail is to consider an example that’s relatively easy to understand. So take the Netflix practice described by Andrew Leonard in How Netflix is Turning Viewers into Puppets. Apparently, more Americans now watch movies legally streamed over the internet than they do on DVD or Blu-Ray, and this allows the stream providers to accumulate all sorts of data that indicate our movie preferences. When we pause, fast forward or stop watching streamed content, we supply companies like Netflix with enormous quantities of information which their number crunchers explain with a theory about our viewing choices. For example, according to Leonard, Netflix recently spent $100 million to remake the BBC series House of Cards, based on that detailed knowledge of viewers’ habits. Moreover, Netflix learned that the same subscribers who liked that earlier TV show also tend to like Kevin Spacey, and so the company hired Kevin Spacey to star in the remake.

So the point isn’t just that entertainment providers can now amass huge quantities of information about us, but that they can use that information to tailor their products to maximize their profits. In other words, companies can now come much closer to giving us exactly what we objectively want, as indicated by scientific explanations of our behaviour. As Leonard says, “The interesting and potentially troubling question is how a reliance on Big Data [all the data that’s now available about our viewing habits] might funnel craftsmanship in particular directions. What happens when directors approach the editing room armed with the knowledge that a certain subset of subscribers are opposed to jump cuts or get off on gruesome torture scenes or just want to see blow jobs. Is that all we’ll be offered? We’ve seen what happens when news publications specialize in just delivering online content that maximizes page views. It isn’t always the most edifying spectacle.”

So here we have an example not just of how technocrats depersonalize consumers, but of the emerging social effects of that technocratic perspective. There are numerous other fields in which the fig leaf of our crude self-conception is stripped away and people are regarded as machines. In the military, there are units, targets, assets, and so forth, not free, conscious, precious souls. Likewise, in politics and public relations, there are demographics, constituents, and special interests, and such categories are typically defined in highly cynical ways. Again, in business there are consumers and functionaries in bureaucracies, not to mention whatever exotic categories come to the fore in Wall Street’s mathematics of financing. Again, though, it’s one thing to depersonalize people in your thoughts, but it’s another to apply that sophisticated conception to some professional task of engineering. In other words, we need to distinguish between fantasy- and reality-driven depersonalization. Military, political, and business professionals, for example, may resort to fashionable vocabularies to flatter themselves as insiders or to rationalize the vices they must master to succeed in their jobs. Then again, perhaps those vocabularies aren’t entirely subjective; maybe soldiers can’t psych themselves up to kill their opponents unless they’re trained to depersonalize and even to demonize them. And perhaps public relations, marketing, and advertising are even now becoming more scientific.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Psychiatry, Anxiety Disorders, and Existential Angst

Is there a relationship between clinical anxiety and existential angst? If so, what existential role do psychiatrists play in treating anxiety disorders? I’ll address these and related questions in what follows.

Anxiety Disorders

“Anxiety,” meaning a displeasing feeling of fear and concern that causes worry, uneasiness, or dread as well as physical symptoms like fatigue and concentration problems is a blanket term in psychiatry covering a number of mental disorders, including phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder. According to Wikipedia, general anxiety disorder “is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about everyday things that is disproportionate to the actual source of worry” and “often interferes with daily functioning, as individuals suffering GAD typically anticipate disaster, and are overly concerned about everyday matters [as opposed to more specific ones, as in the other anxiety disorders like PTSD or SAD] such as health issues, money, death, family problems, friendship problems, interpersonal relationship problems, or work difficulties.” Anxiety disorders have physiological causes as well as treatments in the forms of cognitive behavioural therapy and pharmaceutical drugs.

Let’s turn to the more specific anxiety disorder, OCD, which Wikipedia says is “characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry; by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety; or by a combination of such obsessions and compulsions.” The article goes on to say, “Obsessions are thoughts that recur and persist despite efforts to ignore or confront them. People with OCD frequently perform tasks, or compulsions, to seek relief from obsession-related anxiety.” For example, someone with OCD may fear that she’ll leave the lights on after she leaves a room, and even though she can see herself flip the switch and watch the lights go out, she won’t trust her eyes, because she’ll entertain extreme doubts about what she sees or won’t trust her memories. So to allay the fear she may perform an elaborate ritual, by flipping the light switch off and on several times, perhaps attaching some magical significance to the number. People with OCD feel the ritual “somehow either will prevent a dreaded event from occurring, or will push the event from their thoughts.” The compulsions are irrational and people with OCD even know that they’re irrational on an intellectual level, in that there’s no well-supported theory explaining any causal link between the rituals performed and the desired outcome. If a person with OCD turns the lights off and on six times, there’s no scientific significance of that number; faith in the number is just a superstition. And even if the ritual successfully pushes the fear away, this is only temporary so the compulsion is irrational also in the sense of being relatively ineffective as a treatment.

As the Wikipedia article points out, normal people also have irrational fears and even obsessions, but “people with OCD may attach extraordinary significance to the thoughts.” Moreover, “Whether or not behaviors are compulsions or mere habit depends on the context in which the behaviors are performed. For example, arranging and ordering DVDs for eight hours a day would be expected of one who works in a video store, but would seem abnormal in other situations. In other words, habits tend to bring efficiency to one's life, while compulsions tend to disrupt it.” Indeed, the DSM-IV definition of GAD says that to count as a disorder, the anxiety must “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning,” besides meeting certain other conditions.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

RWUG is now on Facebook

I've started an RWUG Facebook page to support this blog. It's a work-in-progress and I haven't figured out yet exactly what I'll be posting on that page or even how to use Facebook. But maybe I'll post some of my paintings, photos of my workspace where I write the rants, and more comedic writings. Anyway, there's now a Facebook link at the top right of this blog.

And now for the inevitable skepticism about Facebook. The relevant South Park episode together with The Social Network movie and dozens of anti-Facebook articles on places like are pretty compelling. The question is whether Facebook elevates us towards posthumanity or degrades us. I suspect the latter. I'm not a fan of Facebook, which is why I haven't made a Facebook page until now. (Actually, I joined several months ago and then forgot about it.) 

At the moment, though, I have two reasons for joining that social network. First, I'd like a forum to share some of my other interests and I'd like this blog to remain as a repository of my philosophical rants. Indeed, I'm looking into Pinterest, besides Facebook. Second, I'd like to lay some groundwork to spread the word when the first novel in my genre-crossing zombie apocalypse series comes out. I'm 200 pages into the first novel, I've got maybe a fifth left to write, and I'm really proud of it so far. The series will be consistent with the philosophy and religion worked out in RWUG, but the focus in the novels is on characters and action

Monday, April 1, 2013

Technoscience, Existentialism, and the Fact-Value Dichotomy

How do values arise from facts? How is the human world of ideals, moral judgments, and priorities justified in the midst of the natural, scientifically-described world of material things and mindless, physical processes? Can we understand values without committing the naturalistic fallacy of inferring a prescription of what’s right solely from descriptions of what’s objectively the case? Or will science eventually explain everything in objective terms, leaving no subjective world of values and ideals, thus dehumanizing us?

The oldest way of explaining the difference between facts and values is to posit some kind of metaphysical dualism: on the one hand, there’s the impersonal world of material bodies, while on the other there’s spirit, soul, or consciousness, some immaterial, immortal essence of personhood. This division in turn is traditionally explained, in ancient religions throughout the world, by saying there’s a supernatural, otherworldly realm which our immaterial essence calls home. Because people seem so out of place in mostly-mindless nature, the ancients assumed that we came from somewhere else, from some heaven in which values and ideals predominate instead of lifeless interactions of atoms. Somehow we fell from grace or some colossal blunder was made by some inferior or meddling deity, and so we wound up here, away from our spiritual home. The reason, then, values and ideals seem so out of place in the world of objective, material facts is that they are literally out of place: there are two places and we’re presently stuck in the wrong one!

That’s why prescriptions don’t follow logically just from descriptions. Just because we may actually want to steal someone’s wallet or even give our money to charity, doesn’t automatically mean we ought to do so. The ideal, heavenly world consisting of whatever ought to be isn’t the same as the natural world of whatever happens as a result of accidents and causal regularities. Thus, there are two independent kinds of laws or logics that these worlds follow. Heaven is governed directly by God, the wise source of all goodness, whereas nature is somehow ungoverned and self-evolving, or perhaps governed by an evil god or demon which would explain why we’re imprisoned where we don’t belong.