Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Science, Nihilism and the Artistry of Nature

Here's an article of mine, called Science, Nihilism, and the Artistry of Nature, that Scott Bakker put up on his blog. I wrote it several weeks ago and it builds on a number of my other articles. 

Here's the thesis: "The very cognitive approach which is indispensible to scientific discovery, the objectification of phenomena, which is to say the analysis of any pattern in impersonal terms of causal relations, is itself a source of certain values. When we objectify something we’re thereby well-positioned to treat that thing as having a special value, namely an aesthetic one. Objectification overlaps with the aesthetic attitude, which is the attitude we take up when we decide to evaluate something as a work of art, and thus objects, as such, are implicitly artworks."

And some news: I've taken a job recently and it's leaving me with much less time for blogging. I've still got a lot more to say, but until I settle in, at least, I won't be able to update as much. I'll likely have to switch to writing smaller pieces. We'll have to see...

Monday, May 19, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Scientism and the Scapegoating of Philosophy

In a Nerdist podcast, Neil deGrasse Tyson expresses the vulgar scientistic view of philosophy in something close to its paradigmatic form, so that if you looked up “scientism” in an ideal encyclopedia you’d find Tyson’s Nerdist comments featured as exemplars. Scientism, by the way, isn’t a formal argument, but a dismissive attitude shared by arrogant, Philistine scientists and engineers who judge the humanities in general to be empty or insignificant compared to the sciences. Thus, scientism is expressed by a rhetorical stance taken by one side in the culture war that’s been provoked largely by the power of science and technology.

Massimo Pigliucci, who has doctorates in both biology and philosophy and who personally debates with the Cosmos host on this issue, has responded to Tyson on his blog. Pigliucci also presents other examples of Tyson’s scientism. However, Pigliucci’s response is too conventional for me, which means that while his retort is generally accurate it doesn’t get to the root of Tyson’s dismissive attitude towards philosophy.

Here, from the transcript given in Pigliucci’s response, are most of Tyson’s anti-philosophical comments from the podcast (those comments start at 20:19 minutes into it):
That [philosophy] can really mess you up…My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, what are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?...Yeah, if you are distracted by your questions so that you can’t move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” is a pointless delay in our progress…How do you define clapping? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this. The scientist says look, I got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind. You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.
Interestingly, the interviewers—who mostly agree with Tyson—then say that philosophy “is a bottomless pit. It just becomes nihilism.”

The Incoherence of Tyson’s Antiphilosophical Humanism

Now, all of this is very revealing, especially if you make a habit of looking under the surface of things. Perhaps the most obvious problem with Tyson’s view is that whatever faults he thinks there are with philosophy, he can’t escape philosophy because the secular humanism he presupposes even in that podcast is philosophical, not scientific. For example, he speaks of a “delay in our progress.” But if we take a purely scientific view of nature, there’s no such thing as real progress in the world, not even in the development of technology. At most, there’s subjective, relative progress when a creature makes advances towards satisfying its goals. For example, if a squirrel tries numerous times to climb a concrete barrier, coming closer to achieving that goal each time, we can speak of the squirrel progressing towards its chosen end. But should the squirrel want to climb the barrier? Suppose there’s a hunter on the other side, just waiting to shoot the squirrel so that as soon as the squirrel succeeds, landing on that greener pasture, the animal ironically loses out as it’s killed. Had the squirrel appreciated the danger it wouldn’t have wanted to climb the fence, but that’s neither here nor there: in the real world, this squirrel has that desire so as it climbs the barrier it seems like it’s progressing relative to its actual, misinformed state of mind. Is this squirrel’s progress real or just an illusion? How can there be progress that ends in disaster?

Then, of course, there’s the aesthetic, quasi-religious admiration of nature which Tyson flaunts in his remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos television show. That reverence or at least respect for nature, which Sagan and Einstein famously had in common with Tyson, is likewise not entailed by anything that science alone has to say. When Tyson feels that nature is sublime, majestic, or full of wonders, he’s engaging in normative, aesthetic, or otherwise philosophical judgments. For example, he’s an environmentalist, so he believes we ought to take care of the environment instead of polluting it and thus endangering all life, including ours. But again, from the scientific viewpoint all values are only subjective and thus illusory. So who says life ought to be preserved? Who says evolution ought to be allowed to continue? Not any scientist in his or her scientific capacity. Scientists only describe what’s happened, explain what’s happening, or predict what must or will probably happen. Science itself says nothing about what ought to happen.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Americans Debate whether they Get Stuff Done

Dateline: WASHINGTON—Politicians rallied on Get Stuff Done Day, to reassure the American people that their government is in working order. Many boasted of their accomplishments while in office, describing in great detail the stuff in question.

Some showcased the collection of games on their mobile devices, which they play to occupy their time as representatives in Congress.

“The stuff I accomplish,” said Rep. Blowhard, “may not be as fancy as that of the young whippersnappers; I don’t go in for the newfangled gadgets. But I’m second to none in the fine art of finger-twiddling.”
“Every single work day without fail,” said Rep. Doolittle resentfully, “I walk from my office to the restroom to empty my bowels. That’s twelve steps there and twelve more back again, mind you, and I’m on that toilet for hours on end because of my IBS. So I can stand proud and declare that I get piles of stuff done for my fellow Americans.”

Congresswoman Shirker has been criticized for doing next to nothing in her official capacity, but at a press conference she vigorously defended the stuff she gets done: “Sure, I sit on my leather chair all day, apparently doing nothing whatsoever. But have a closer look! See how many times I breathe a minute? And now you’ve confirmed the stuff I get done for the American people.

“Do I hold my breath to spite my constituents? Not on your life! I inhale and exhale thousands of times a day, laboriously going through those motions, taxing my lungs, and I do it to carry out the public will. They didn’t elect me just to keel over. No sir, I assure you I’m very much alive as I doze off at my desk. With each breath I take I get stuff done, adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to feed the plants which in turn supply oxygen to my constituents—to working men and women and to their children. You’re welcome!”

Cynical protestors showed up at some of the political rallies, insisting that the politicians aren’t in fact working hard enough to get stuff done.

“They talk a lot,” said a young unemployed man wearing a Jon Stewart T-shirt, “but they don’t get stuff done. I want to see them fix the country, but the stuff they do? They’re just making everything worse. Their stuff is the bad stuff, but we expect only good stuff from our elected representatives. I’d have thought that was implied.”

Asked what he thinks should be done about the gridlock and systemic corruption in Washington, the young man said his job as a disaffected ironist and know-it-all is to ridicule everything until the Apocalypse, whereupon he can brag that he expected all along that the worst would happen.

A third party surprised the audiences at the rallies and press conferences, to protest both the politicians and the cynical protestors.

“Whether a politician gets stuff done is neither here nor there,” said one of those outraged citizens. “If your standard of political action is that pitifully low, your political system’s utterly dysfunctional, your culture is in ruins, and it’s time for a revolution. That’s what the Declaration of Independence says: abolish the government if it stands in the way of our rights to safety and happiness.

“So how would that be for getting stuff done?”

Monday, May 12, 2014

Psychopathic Gods and Civilized Slaves

How do animals turn into people? The answer has several facets, including evolutionary and neurological ones, although unenlightened folks prefer a theological story according to which divine beings miraculously created us to transcend the other species, by giving us godlike powers of intelligence and creativity. I’m delighted to inform connoisseurs of irony that a large part of how people came to be conforms to the outline of that theistic creation myth, even as the truth humiliates theists and atheists alike. The truth here is stranger than fiction—including the fictions of the major religious myths as well as the liberal secular ones that deny the discontinuity between humans and animals, by way of denying that there are decisive differences between cultures or the sexes, so as to prop up the ideal of equality.

The part of the answer I wish to bring to the fore is historical rather than biological or mythological. Natural selection, the shaping of our brain structure, and the advantage of settling in the Fertile Crescent after the last ice age were so many props and costumes, as it were, for our act of stumbling upon civilized culture. That culture in turn drove the strongest of the late Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to form what Lewis Mumford calls megamachines, military, bureaucratic, and labour social systems which reshaped the landscape and set the stage for the new kind of performance which anthropologists call behavioural modernity. Like butterflies that require cocoons to emerge from their pupal form, behavioural modernists, that is, civilized people from our perspective are born from a type of culture that forms in a particular microcosm we construct. Those we used to call primitives or savages, namely the premodern foragers who lived especially before the invention of agriculture at about 10,000 BCE but who still cling to life in their benighted tribes and villages here or there, are indeed intermediaries in the evolution from our anatomically-prehuman ancestors to the behaviourally-modern humans whose activities mark the starting points of history.

But once again the god of irony mocks us, because the modern prejudice is misplaced in light of civilization’s grotesque origin. In the first place, the development of behavioural modernity was accidental and undead, not teleological. Although language and culture had already been invented in the Paleolithic Era—language emerging possibly in the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, 50,000 years ago, and prehistoric art, for example, being found to be at least 40,000 years old—those tools wouldn’t be applied to the task of building the microcosm that accelerated our domestication, until the last glacial period happened to end to pave the way for agricultural civilization. Secondly, we should be most comfortable calling the behaviourally-modern farmers of the Neolithic Era people like us because they share the disgrace of our origin. To be sure, we modernists are embarrassed on behalf of half-naked, jungle-inhabiting tribalists such as the natives of Australia, Africa, or South America, who still worship animals and know little if anything of the wider universe. But in the undead god which is the impersonal natural system that changes and even creates itself (via inflation in the megaverse) to no humane end, there’s more than enough shame to go around…

Monstrous Kings as Creator Gods

Let’s look at the logic of the theistic account of our advent. Putting aside the mystification, superstition, and personification of the undead forces and elements, there is, after all, certain logic to what is nevertheless a pseudo-explanation. The logic is that a greater being imparts life to a lesser one. The gods are often pictured as creating humanity through a bizarre sexual act, the slaying of some deity or beast, or some act of craftsmanship whereby the human body is formed from inanimate materials and miraculously brought to higher life. These accounts provide, at best, the illusion of an explanation, because ultimately the gods are assumed to be beyond our comprehension. In the monotheistic faiths, God’s origin is inexplicable, by definition. Still, at several points the theistic creation myths betray an ancient intuition of how people were really formed.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Mystical vs Modern Enlightenment: Eckhart Tolle and the Undead God

In this YouTube video, I compare mystical and modern enlightenment and I criticize mostly Eckhart Tolle's kind of spirituality, but also the modern kind of wisdom (secular humanism).

Hopefully, one of these days I'll figure out how to fix the focus problem with my camcorder, although it's not so bad in this video. I think maybe I have to sit farther out from the background wall...

Anyway, cheers!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Wealthy Man replaces his Sexist and Racist Thoughts with Clones to silence Critics

Dateline: NEW YORK—Tired of being accused of having stereotypical ideas of women and racial minorities, the gazillionaire Roderick Billington set about spending his vast fortune to perfect his conceptions.

“I realized the essence of the problem early on,” he said. “I’d be thinking that the Chinese can’t drive well, that blacks are thuggish, and that women are sentimental and prone to hysteria. But I’d be told that those were just outrageous stereotypes. So there was a mismatch between my ideas and the facts.”

Mr. Billington decided to eliminate that mismatch. “The first order of business was to eliminate the material difference between my ideas and the reality of those groups of people. My ideas were made of neurons, but the billions of women out there, for example, are made out of all sorts of stuff: bone, muscles, skin cells, not to mention the women’s possessions and social relationships.”

To correct his conception of women, therefore, he cloned every woman on Earth. “Storing them all was the really tricky part,” he confesses. “Our planet is already overcrowded, so I had a duplicate planet built in orbit and shipped my women out to live on it.”

Now, when Mr. Billington is asked to speak on an issue related to women, he points to the second batch of women on that second Earth and says, “That’s what I think of romance novels, soap operas, and romantic comedies. Fly out to my concept of women if you want to know the details. I’m no longer arrogant enough to pretend that I can adequately model billions of people with just some squishy neurons in my puny noggin.”

Having silenced feminists in that fashion, Mr. Billington proceeded to nip the issue of racism in the bud with another round of cloning and another manufactured Earth. “I find I can easily now side-step talk of my alleged discriminatory treatment of dark-skinned people. When asked why I steer clear of African-American neighbourhoods, I ask them in turn why they’re asking me, as if my idea of those places were lodged merely in my skull.

“‘Good luck finding a shortcoming with my thoughts about dark-skinned folks,’ I tell the thought police. ‘My thoughts of them consist of exact copies of every dark-skinned person. So if they don’t like how I’m treating them, they should look at themselves in the mirror, because my way of thinking is more like them than is their reflection.’”

To forestall any further talk of his political incorrectness, Mr. Billington proceeded to Phase Two and created a duplicate universe. “You don’t like how I treat pebbles?” he asks rhetorically. “Something off about my way of thinking of salami sandwiches? Don’t blame me! My concept of pebbles is nothing but a second set of pebbles and my notion of salami smells just as bad as the real deal. So have fun searching for any discrepancy!”

Some persistent critics point out that Mr. Billington’s secondary universe is in fact the largest red herring ever thrown down as a distraction, since he’s not connected to that universe, so nothing that happens in it is responsible for his behaviour.

Says one such critic, “If that bigoted old rich guy could watch his clones whenever he wanted, then maybe they’d be relevant. But his brain would still be working with a simplified representation of women or Canadians or whomever. He’d be studying the clones only some of the time, from one angle rather than another, and so on.”

“Besides,” says another critic, “The point isn’t just that there’s a difference between any concept and what the concept is about. It’s that in Billington’s case, the difference is negative because he’s a sexist and racist jerk. He simplifies the facts in a mean-spirited way.”

Others maintain that Mr. Billington has inadvertently shown the silliness of our preoccupation with those who discriminate based on negative stereotypes.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dark Mysticism: Tragic Heroism and Fear of the Undead God

Mysticism is commonly thought of as the esoteric practice of religion for the inner circle of initiates who seek enlightenment, which is to say freedom from suffering and an awakening from mundane experience. Enlightenment is said to be achieved by an inner discovery that the mind isn’t our true self, that our egocentric thoughts and feelings mislead us into identifying with the illusory world of material things. Our true self isn’t our personal one which distinguishes each of us from everyone else and indeed which drives us to compete, to dominate and inevitably to suffer and to cause others to suffer. The deeper self is supposedly impersonal conscious awareness, a way of perceiving that transcends everything that can be known with concepts and rational methods. Through pure consciousness we intuit the true nature of reality, including the timelessness of consciousness and thus the divinity of our true self. When we identify with our ego, with our personal mind, including our stream of thoughts, memories, and reactions to stimuli, we’re distracted from the fact that there’s another self that underlies those mental states, namely their conscious observer. That observer is God himself or at least ultimate reality, which the mystic discovers through an inner transformation, a detachment from the mind and a direct experience of pure awareness (awareness of nothing in particular) which shifts the mystic’s perspective. No longer craving positional goods in the animalistic struggle for material gain, the mystic has peace of mind since she’s found her home outside of space and time. She learns to identify not with her physical body but with divine consciousness which stands apart from all particular mental states and thus from any disappointment.

Eckhart Tolle: Optimystic

This is the mystical teaching, for example, of Eckhart Tolle, a popularizer of Buddhist and other ancient mystical traditions for Western, exoteric audiences. See, for instance, this interview with him, in which he explains spiritual awakening:
So what is it that we awaken from when spiritual awakening occurs? We awaken from identification with our thoughts. Everybody who is not awake spiritually is totally identified with and run by their thinking mind—the incessant voice in the head. Thinking is compulsive: you can't stop, or so it seems. It is also addictive: you don't even want to stop, at least not until the suffering generated by the continuous mental noise becomes unbearable. In the unawakened state you don't use thought, but thought uses you. You are, one could almost say, possessed by thought, which is the collective conditioning of the human mind that goes back many thousands of years. You don't see anything as it is, but distorted and reduced by mental labels, concepts, judgments, opinions and reactive patterns. Your sense of identity, of self, is reduced to a story you keep telling yourself in your head.
Tolle goes on to speak of how he came to interpret his personal enlightenment:
Years later, I realized that the acute suffering I felt that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from identification with the unhappy self, the suffering “little me,” which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. This withdrawal must have been so complete that the suffering self collapsed as if the plug had been pulled out of an inflatable toy. What was left was my true nature as the ever present “I AM”: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form. You may also call it pure awareness or presence.