Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism; Part Two


The paradox of Christianity is that Christians identified their God with a lowly, subversive Jew who lived in Judea at a time when that region was occupied by the Roman Empire, but this religion became that empire’s official religion in the fourth century. Jews had been awaiting a messiah in the Davidic line to defeat their foreign rulers and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. The Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors, revolted against the Seleucid Empire from 167-160 BCE, to end the influence of Hellenism on Jewish culture, and after the Romans conquered Judea in 63 CE, which had been run by the Hasmonean dynasty, Jews formed the political movement of the Zealots to foment rebellion against Rome. Their opposition culminated in the first Jewish-Roman War from 66-73 CE and in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although those events scattered the surviving Jews across the Mediterranean—at least those who weren’t captured and sold into slavery—Judaism, the underdog, arguably defeated Rome in the end—but through selfless Christianity rather than by Jewish force. 

The paradox is solved not by positing Christianity’s truth and thus a supernatural explanation of its success, but by attending to the historical context and to the continuation of Jewish syncretism. Christianity combined Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. Judaism itself was divided at the time between Pharisees, Sadducees and various smaller, apocalyptic and ascetic cults collectively called the Essenes. The Pharisees supplemented the Jewish scriptures with theological interpretations deriving from Zoroastrianism, such as the principles of freewill, resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell issuing from a divine judgment. Indeed, the name “Pharisee,” often taken to have meant “set apart,” as in the Pharisees weren’t real Jews because of the Persian influence on them, may instead have derived from the Aramaic “Parsah,” meaning “Persian” or “Persianizer.” The Sadducees were less Zoroastrian and confined their thinking to the written Jewish Law. Both groups were secular compared to the Essenes who congregated in caves, took vows of poverty, led a strictly communal life, practiced daily baptism, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Jewish side of Christianity, apparent from the Gospel narratives, is eclectic, combining elements of Pharisaic, Sadducee, Essenic, and Zealot beliefs and practices. Thus, the compromising function of Christianity begins at the outset even within the Jewish side of the synthesis with paganism. Like a Pharisee or an Essene, the character Jesus speaks at great length of heaven and hell and of the coming judgment at the End Times, but he also argues over interpretations of the Torah with legalistic Jews like a Sadducee, and called Pharisees hypocrites, as an Essene would have done. Moreover, Jesus spent a long time in the wilderness and lauded the poor like an Essene, but he also selflessly went about healing the sick and helping feed the poor instead of shutting himself away in a cave. Like a mystical Essene, Jesus taught in parable form and he said his teachings contained esoteric meanings that only insiders would understand. He’s baptized by the Essene John the Baptist who prostrates himself before Jesus. And Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and told his followers to carry swords, like a Zealot.

Of course, the Gospel narratives were written decades after Jesus was thought to have lived and were canonized only much later, in the fourth century but officially at the Council of Trent in 1546. But by either point the Second Temple Jewish sects were no more and Christianity had already split from rabbinical Judaism, so there would have been no interest in casting a wide scriptural net to attract different kinds of Jews to Christianity. Instead, the Jesus depicted in the gospels that feature his Jewishness isn’t placed squarely in any one Jewish faction. The point of Jesus’s Jewishness in the Gospels, then, is that Jesus was the perfect Jew who transcended such squabbles and beat the Jewish sects at their own games.

Between Judaism and paganism there already stood Gnosticism in the first century CE, a Jewish-Platonist movement and a more philosophical, anti-natural and even Eastern rival of the universal, ever-compromising form of Christianity that would become known as “Catholic.” Gnostic Christianity was influenced by Plato through Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher who read the Jewish scriptures allegorically to adapt them to Platonic metaphysics. Later, in the third century, the philosopher Plotinus created Neo-Platonism, a religion combining Plato’s philosophy with the Hindu idea of an impersonal source of all being, which Plotinus called the One and which is found in our true self through asceticism and ecstatic meditation. Gnostics were metaphysical dualists who thought that nature was created by an evil or ignorant deity, and that we’re imprisoned in a domain of corrupting material forms unless we obtain secret knowledge to save ourselves, knowledge supplied by a higher, transcendent and benevolent God. Aspects of Gnosticism are apparent in the Pauline epistles, which display little interest in the historical Jesus and in which Paul proclaims that he received gnosis, of saving knowledge, from a vision of the risen Christ. Gnosticism is found also in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is depicted as a heavenly revealer, a representative of the divine light against the darkness of godless nature. In the third century, Manicheanism, too, represented a rival form of universal religion, combining Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. According to Jennifer Hecht’s book Doubt, while Manicheanism was eventually condemned as heresy, this religion’s enormous popularity, in Persia, the Roman Empire, India, and China astonished Christians, forcing the Church to adopt Eastern ideals of asceticism to meet the public demand for otherworldly spirituality. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism; Part One

Are you doing what you should be doing? Not just right now, but in general? How about your family, your town, your whole country? How about the human species throughout its history? Are we living as we should be living? Is there a profound, perhaps even secret purpose or a meaning of life which we can miss out on? Most creatures can’t conceive of such questions, because they’re locked into their biological rhythms and life cycle. We can imagine abnormalities and can learn to make fictions real, to change the world drastically to suit not just our needs but our whims, and thus to divert ourselves from our genetically preordained path. The existential question of whether a way of life is fundamentally in the right, then, is reserved for brainy creatures like us.

Even most people, however, almost never ponder the deep questions, because they take their practices for granted. For tens of thousands of years, people were forced by the exigencies of surviving in the wild, to hunt and gather food and supplies. Only when large groups turned to farming and organized religion, settled territories, and established civilizations did the philosophical questions begin to arise, because that’s when the upper class elites, at least, were provided the luxury to entertain subversive and even self-destructive doubts. For most of history, the old, theocratic answer satisfied the bulk of the populations, so that most people were spared the anxiety of feeling potentially out of place and could focus on more productive prospects than philosophizing. The most common ancient answer, of course, was that we should live as the gods decide is best for us. And who were the gods? They were thinly-disguised mouthpieces for the human rulers who materially benefited the most from the imperial systems that were driven by the rhetoric of the major religions. Fear of irresistible, miraculous powers kept everyone in line, and their longing for the promised immortality compelled countless believers to sacrifice themselves in wars of conquest.   

Arguably, that god-centered way of life was fatally undermined by the Scientific Revolution, as was recognized by the Enlightenment philosophers that led up to Nietzsche who, far from taking religious worship for granted, could presuppose that God was “dead” so that we had to face the postreligious question of what to do without God. The problem wasn’t that scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin made this or that discovery which contradicted some scriptural passage, since scriptures are typically poetic and can be reinterpreted to accommodate almost any new evidence; after all, that’s largely how a religion can have lasted for centuries in the first place. No, the problem was that scientists after the European Renaissance were humanists who came to trust more in people than in gods. The problem was the rise of the imperative to share knowledge as well as the benefits of technological progress with the masses. The problem was the palpability of human-made progress after the advent of modern science, which seemed to render the old religions superfluous. We found we could save ourselves or at least greatly improve our standard of living, not by praying and hoping for the best or by relying on dogmatic institutions, but by investigating matters for ourselves. So the problem was that the religious answers to the great questions could no longer be taken for granted, once enlightened humans took charge and—crucially—shared the enlightenment: through free-thinking, free trade, and democracy, we created a new world order that gave us all godlike powers. The old gods, then, seemed to be obsolete.

And yet for various reasons, modernity hasn’t made the question of life’s meaning a rhetorical one, as though the answer were obviously that we should be free merely to do whatever we want as long as we respect the same right of everyone else. For one thing, this freedom may be more of a curse than a blessing, a way of talking that reconciles us to nature’s inhumanity which undercuts all myths, even those of our godless, civic religions.

Here, then, I’ll critique some common approaches to the meaning of life. Eastern mystical and humanistic religions, Western monotheisms, and liberal humanism all divide us into higher and lower groups or accentuate natural divisions, so that the masses end up being exploited by the elites. Also, the answers from these religions and philosophies often call for an escape from the horror of what is mistaken for reality or from reality itself. The meanings of life they hold out aren’t always what they seem, and just to notice there’s room to ask deep questions may be to fall into a trap, the trap of enlightenment.

Eastern Religions

Let’s begin our search for answers with how East Asian religions are likely to handle the question of the meaning of life. These religions differ significantly from Western ones. The Chinese and Indian religions of Daoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, for example, are polytheistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. Their practitioners aren’t so concerned with evangelism, with converting foreigners to their beliefs and practices. Moreover, Eastern religions are more practical and philosophical than the monotheistic systems.

Confucianism is ancient Chinese humanism, and with respect to his thinking on ethics and society, Confucius can be called the Chinese Aristotle. For Confucius, we have to look not to the gods but to our potential, to figure out how we should live. We should cultivate virtues, beginning with compassion, and then regulate them by adhering to strict duties that ensure we don’t go off track. In some respects Confucianism is egalitarian, since everyone can learn to be virtuous and take part in at least the basic conventions that hold society together, such as education and respect for your parents. The capacity for virtue is essential to human nature, and Confucianism is mainly about the techniques for efficiently fulfilling that potential. Confucian humanism is founded on the conviction that our primary social obligation is to enable everyone to fulfill their potential for compassion, by educating them in a way that focuses on that moral calling. By contrast, an upbringing that’s loaded with technical training to excel at some profession, without any regard to our moral purpose is dehumanizing, according to Confucians, because our ethical responsibility to love others is essential to our species. Early Confucianism, then, isn’t a religion so much as a philosophy of social engineering. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

President Trump’s Audacity Awarded Democrats Political Immunity for Two Centuries, said Political Pseudoscientist

Dateline: LICK SKILLET, TN—Democrats should be grateful for Donald Trump’s presidency, because his smorgasbord of scandals and villainies could theoretically enable them to get away with murder for centuries to come, according to Professor Marco Snodgrass, political pseudoscientist as the Machiavellian Institute, in Tennessee.

“For every Democratic embarrassment or crime,” said the professor, “Trump is guilty of a hundred much more egregious ones, so the ratio is a hundred to one. For every Democratic lie or sex scandal or dereliction, Trump has done a hundred times worse.

“But the hidden beauty of this for Democrats is that nearly the entire Republican Party has stood behind their president, shielding him from responsibility for his conduct as much as they could, such as with the bogus House investigation of the Russia connections to his campaign or by not being proactive and bringing impeachment proceedings.”

What this means, according to the professor, is that should the Democrats stumble in the future, such as by getting caught in a big lie, they can “immunize themselves from any political fallout” merely by reminding the public that Trump got away with much worse.

“‘Okay, so I lied just now,’ a Democratic politician might say to the American people. ‘You caught me red-handed. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll just go ahead and move to Trumpify the situation, by pointing out that Republicans were fine with Trump’s lies which spattered the nation like water drops from a hurricane. So you can forget my lie.’”

According to the professor’s calculations, the silver lining of the superhuman scale of President Trump’s boorishness and venality is that the President and the Republicans have effectively provided the Democrats with thousands of get-out-of-jail-free cards, which should insulate the Democrats from culpability for their scandals until the year 2246, although Trump’s scandals are ongoing, which pushes that expiration of Democratic immunity ever further into the distant future.

According to Professor Snodgrass, this immunity applies also to anyone castigated by American Evangelicals who likewise squandered their moral authority by supporting the anti-Christian President Trump.

If an Evangelical Christian wants to condescend to someone having an abortion, for example, “the liberal is free to select one of her thousands of get-out-of-jail-free cards to silence that phony arbiter of moral judgment.”

The professor conceded that most elected Republicans don’t personally approve of Mr. Trump’s behaviour, but are only putting up with it to pass their big-business agenda.

“Trump is their useful idiot, to use Stalin’s phrase,” said Professor Snodgrass. “Still, the amorality that party is displaying by thinking only instrumentally about Trump, instead of ousting him from office in a peak of righteous indignation on behalf of God and country, is itself a failing which enters into the moral asymmetry between the two parties.”
By putting their “biased and destructive” economic policies ahead of the damage the president has done to the nation, the Republicans effectively sided with Donald Trump, which means they too must “answer for Trump’s many, many, many failings.” 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

My Return to YouTube! Trump and 9/11

I've decided not to go ahead with the long documentary, "The Horror of Life's Meaning,
that I've been working on. That movie would be over three hours and I don't think there are many intrepid folks on YouTube who would be inclined to watch it. Plus, in the time it would take to complete the documentary, I could make several shorter Adam Curtis-style movies out of my blog articles. Also, the script has long stretches on ancient history which would be hard to illustrate from archival footage.  

So instead I turned Will Trump's Presidency be more Traumatic than 9/11? into the above movie. I'll post the forty-page script for the documentary at some point, perhaps in stages, and maybe I'll be make a YouTube video out of part of it at some point. I can also post the introduction to the documentary. For now, I think I'll make some more movies out of my previous blog articles. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Outer and Inner Gods: The Encroachment of the Inhuman

Historically speaking, there have been three types of gods. First, there are natural forces and processes, which the ancients experienced as wonders or as miracles. The the sun, in particular, was the model of the ultimate God in some henotheistic or Gnostic systems, as in Plato’s Cave analogy, while Yahweh was originally identified with the power of storms. But the animists worshipped all of nature, because they personalized what were actually just the living-dead natural transformations (complexifications and emergence of higher-order regularities), and so they felt free to socialize with what they took to be a universal community of spirits. That way, too, they were able to explain away potential accidents and so eliminate absurdity from the world as they experienced it. Alas, nature has lost its divinity, thanks to scientific disenchantment, although cosmicist pantheism is waiting in the wings for existentialists who have reckoned with the philosophical implications of a science-centered worldview.

Second, there were the human psychopathic rulers of large populations throughout the Neolithic period, who were worshipped as gods and who served as models for deities in polytheistic and monotheistic myths. The indifference of natural powers provided for relatively weak subject matter, aesthetically speaking, and to treat natural events as intelligently controlled, the animists had to project themselves onto the rest of the world, which would have made their myths predictable. The revolution in religious fictions happened when small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers turned into large-scale, sedentary societies riven by social classes. Only in the context of civilization did the “gods” stand apart from the masses as terrifying, alien characters whose epic, amoral exploits inflamed the poetic imagination, giving rise to the world’s theistic scriptures. Myths were no longer covert autobiographies about mere archetypes from the collective unconscious, but were inspired by the manifest inhumanity of the supervillains in charge of the megamachines. The latter were the civilizations that featured mass slaughter, domestication of other species and of the human (beta) masses, and enslavement of foreigners for the enrichment and aggrandizement of the ruling psychopaths whose effective divinity made the talk of an immaterial, personal deity superfluous.

Third, there’s the god within each of us, according to mystical, esoteric traditions which identify God with an underlying state of consciousness. The roots of worshipping this inner god go back to the shamans’ use of entheogens to access altered mental states, but the notion of this God’s oneness derives from the convergence in ancient India of the Indo-Aryan and Dravidian cultures, which gave rise to attempts to systematize and simplify the many gods, rituals, and teachings of Hinduism. The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, for example, analyzed the sprawling diversity of Hindu speculations and reduced them to monotheistic principles, by identifying the many gods with elements of Self and World, Atman and Brahman, and then by collapsing that final dichotomy so that the divinity that underlies all mental and material phenomena could be contacted internally, by meditation or other Tantric practices.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Computer Program Translates Ordinary English into Shakespearean Verse

Dateline: CAMBRIDGE, MA—A team of computer programmers at MIT, led by Wallace Thickglasses, has completed its Shakespearean Translator, which converts plain English into Shakespearean verse. The translator has received rave reviews from Shakespeare scholars.

Access to translator is free on the internet and it works like Google Translator: you type the phrase you wish to sound as though Shakespeare had written it, and the program pops out the phrase’s more embellished version.

Our producers tested the program’s merit by entering the simple statement, “She gave the thing to him.” In less than a second the program had completed the translation, riveting us with this astonishing bit of poetry straight out of the Elizabethan era:

“Would that it were, had it not been so,
But neither within nor upon it sat the thing not hence;
She that had it, yet twice the cockerdoodle
Spat out the flipperflapper and him beneath whom
Had it sat not whereupon she gave it.”

Certainly, that translation is as needlessly confusing as Shakespearian poetry. As to what a “cockerdoodle” or a flipperflapper” might be, we assume they could have figured somewhere in the Elizabethan era’s infinite reserve of bizarre notions, many of which show up in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “fitchew,” “cockled,” and “kickie-wickie.”

We wondered, though, whether the program’s success was a fluke. So we entered another plain statement, “She borrowed it yesterday,” and we received this dazzling passage:

“O nuncle, the bladdercock did slippy slide
Had not the river-raver rather than not but she,
The taller nor under but the day yester not;
Neither simmer chimney the cabled boot
Did go bootless, wherein the morrow lay,
Borrowed not, yet whence not pollyglot
She that had it were it not yet hence;
Riddle-me-this, but not wherein she borrowed it
The day yester than mine eyes did see but thence.”

Oddly, when we entered a poor Shakespearean concoction of our design, the translator reversed its complexity. Thus, we entered this verse:

“By heaven he hath not sailed the babble brook;
Would that I had not but been nor heretofore
Thence but not, not but whence she came;
Ay, the morrow, scuttlebutt, the nut buster.
Prithee, lord, I fear; fie on thee, thou fiend!
A plague upon thy wallypoodle.” 

But in response the translation supplied us merely with this uncluttered sentence: “He shouldn’t do it.”

“I can attest that the translations are valid,” said Wallace Hifalutin, professor of Shakespearean Studies at Oxford, who consulted on the project at MIT. “The computer program has an ear for Elizabethan dialect and even seems to convey something of the Bard’s soul in its interpretations of unvarnished modern English.”

The team at MIT is currently working on a Shakespearean name generator. You specify the type of character you’d like named in the Shakespearean manner, and the program spits out a name.

Here are some of the names we got from the beta edition of the program: Hasbro, Atari, Lego, Nerf, Mattel, Funko, Nintendo, Kenner, Bandai, Remco, Crayola, Tonka, Slinky, Galoob, Gendron, Mezco.

Those names are all taken from the names of toy companies, but we agree that they sound remarkably like the names of Shakespeare’s famous characters, such as Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo, Cassio, Iago, or Othello.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fourteenth PDF Installment of RWUG

Here's the newest installment of this blog in eBook or PDF format. The other installments can be found here

I also have a physical edition of many of my articles out on Amazon, called Cosmic Horror for Clever Mammals, plus a pretty cool philosophical zombie apocalypse novel there too, called God Decays.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Deflating Traditionalism: Why Existentialism beats Spirituality

Traditionalists, such as Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, and Huston Smith posit that the major religions all contain a core of esoteric, perennial wisdom, but that those spiritual teachings have been largely misunderstood because there’s been a falling away from the truth, especially in what we call the modern age. Guenon, for example, contends that Hinduism is essentially correct with respect to its monistic view of the divine Self, and that this spiritual wisdom or metaphysics (knowledge of universal things) is expressed symbolically in all legitimate religions. More specifically, the truth is found in “rites of initiation,” in the “transmission of spiritual influences,” corresponding to either exoteric or esoteric level of perfection. The Christian symbol of the cross speaks to this hidden distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric, between horizontal and vertical understanding, or between mastery of the illusory domain of multiplicity in nature and that of supernatural reality.

The ancients were supposedly clearer about the importance of spirituality than we are, perhaps because they weren’t as burdened by the distractions of superficial knowledge and power, which technoscience affords us. This falling away lands us in a paradoxical dark age, given our ignorance of what really matters, according to Guenon and other traditionalists. We think instead that we dominate because of our personal liberties and luxuries, but actually we suffer from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, since we’ve become accustomed to our ignorance and to the prison in which we lock ourselves to guard against our spiritual awakening. We mistake exoteric for esoteric power; the abilities to measure and to physically overpower things in the natural, illusory domain of finitude and multiplicity, on the one hand, for entering into a noble relationship with universal reality, on the other; and we mistake also God’s mask or our private ego for the divine self. Traditionalism would thus lend itself smoothly to politically conservative uses—except that the traditionalist will be opposed to religious literalism and exclusivism, that is, to fundamentalism, the latter being much more politically useful to conservatives.

In my view, traditionalism should be deflated and naturalized. Physics and mathematics have replaced metaphysics or rational intuition as the most reliable ways of explaining and describing universal matters. Philosophical speculation is an art form, since it’s closer to literature than to science. The traditionalist will protest that naturalistic knowledge rises only to an exoteric level of understanding. But the only way to justify that criticism of science is to demonstrate that miracles occur in the religious initiation into supernatural mysteries. Where, then, are the miraculous superpowers possessed by wise spiritualists? If there are none, the major religions have more likely operated as massive cons. There is something to the traditionalist’s teachings about initiation and the distinction between esoteric and exoteric understanding and discipline, but the traditionalist isn’t cynical or alienated enough to have grasped the true roles of religion and spirituality in history. Here, then, is my counter-narrative.

The Dark Reality of Spiritualism

The discovery of a “divine, inner self” that Hindus and other mystics take for God, for a mind that precedes nature is only an experience of psychopathic consciousness whereby the initiate realizes at least subconsciously that social conventions—be they moral, religious, or political—are founded on delusions and that obedience to them is therefore wrongheaded or at least optional. Thus, concludes the sage, if we can become sufficiently detached from our foolish collective enterprises, we can liberate ourselves from our social commitments and dwell in a higher-dimensional mental space. The divine self within is said to be tranquil, free from worry, and that’s because to experience this “higher consciousness,” you must dispose of your personality, including your socially-instilled conscience. If you feel love for all things while meditating, you haven’t reached nirvana or samadhi, because you’re still emotionally attached to things and haven’t fully surrendered your ego. You still care too much, whereas reality cares not. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, in his clownish and malevolent fashion, Donald Trump has accidentally attained the height of spiritual insight, in this respect, because he’s manifestly a psychopath who’s incapable of feeling shame or remorse. Trump therefore feels free to do whatever he wants, like a god; of course, his wealth and fame only exacerbate this freedom. Trump is one avatar of nature’s overpowering mindlessness, but there have been many others, including most kings, emperors, dictators, plutocrats, and cult leaders that have dominated human affairs throughout history and prehistory. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

American Parents Love Guns more than their Children, study shows

Dateline: KALAMAZOO—In the wake of the school shooting in Florida, in which a young male killed 17 of his former fellow students, a team of researchers at the Technocracy Institute in Michigan explains the impossibility of sensible gun regulation in the United States, by citing its study which indicates that most American parents love guns more than their children.

The study began by comparing the speed at which randomly selected parents attempted to save their child or their gun from harm.

Drawn from both liberal and conservative states, each subject was positioned at one end of a concrete room. At the other end was his or her child. Suddenly, what appeared to be a metal light fixture directly above the child squeaked, shook, and began to fall. The subject then raced to save his or her child, but the child was in no real danger because the light fixture was painted Styrofoam.

The scientists recorded the time it took for the subject to reach the child, and compared it to the time it took for the subject to reach his or her gun which was also placed in apparent danger. Instead of being threatened by a fake light fixture, an unrelated child with a plastic hammer pulverized the floor as he or she walked towards the gun. Loud, realistic sounds of hammer smashing into concrete were piped in from hidden speakers to preserve the illusion that the child was about to destroy the subject’s gun. Again, the subject raced towards his prized possession.

In 936 out of 1000 tests, the subject ran slightly faster to rescue his or her weapon than to protect his or her child.

In a variation of the experiment, the subject’s child was strapped to the middle of the floor in a narrow hallway, and the gun was positioned at the opposite end from the subject so that the child was between the two. What appeared to be a flamethrower was pointed at the gun, and what looked like flames inched closer and closer before engulfing the firearm. The flames, however, weren’t real, so the gun was in no danger.

The question, though, was whether the subject would trample his or her child or reach into apparent flames to rescue the weapon. Again, a strong majority of subjects chose to do so: 803 out of 1000 American adults stepped on their child in a mad dash to their gun, as well as risking serious burns to retrieve it from the apparent flames.

In the reverse situation, however, with the subject’s gun strapped to the floor and the child in apparent danger of being scorched alive, most subjects were more reticent. Over two thirds of the American parents stepped carefully over or around their gun rather than risk damaging the expensive hardware, and less than a quarter of the subjects reached into the bogus flames to save their child. Those that ran to their child but didn’t reach in only yelled for help. One tenth of the subjects unstrapped their fire arm, turned around and left their child to burn without even attempting to save their offspring.  

The researchers concluded that most Americans care more about guns than their children, and that this is the basis of American gun culture which empowers the National Rifle Association in American politics and prevents any legislation that threatens Americans’ right to own guns.

“Whenever there’s another school shooting in America,” said the lead researcher, “the same tired script about thoughts and prayers is trotted out, and there’s never real momentum behind any attempt to restrict Americans’ access to firearms, even though most developed countries have much fewer shootings because they have tighter control over guns. We think the reason is that most American parents would rather see their children die in a school shooting than to see the government take away their gun.

“Americans love their guns even more than they love their children. So the talk of gun control laws here is futile. The next time there’s a school shooting, we shouldn’t pretend our hearts go out to the victim’s families. The real question on most Americans’ minds is whether the authorities will dare to destroy the perpetrator’s innocent firearm.”

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cosmicism, Tragedy, and Greek Mythology

In the Western world (the one that’s still led largely by American culture), we learn in public school about the ancient Greek myths of Zeus, Perseus, Sisyphus and all the rest. It turns out that the reason for this isn’t just historical. Greek religion and philosophy are foundational to the “free world” of our Western civilization, but the conservative, nature-loving Greek ethos is also currently a fashionable way of making sense of secular humanism. Life-affirming new atheists and hedonists or neo-teleologists like Richard Carrier, Sam Harris, and Massimo Pigliucci need to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, between the anachronism of a theistic defense of morality and the horror of the cosmicist suspicion that life is absurd.  

The Ancient Greek Myths

Both Plato and Aristotle were virtue ethicists, meaning that they thought that happiness is our ultimate goal and that to achieve that goal we need to learn to excel in certain ways. Excellence requires a balanced character so that we avoid emotional extremes and make wise practical judgments. Their preoccupation with balance, harmony, virtue, and self-restraint was endemic to ancient Greek culture as a whole. As Luc Ferry explains in The Wisdom of the Myths, you can find these themes throughout Greek myths which predated the Presocratic philosophers. From the birth of the gods and the creation of the cosmos and of humankind, to the warnings about hubris and the celebrations of heroic battles for justice, the Greek mythos was founded on respect for the natural order, due to the assumption that this order is a metaphysical compromise between the lethal extremes of supernatural stasis and chaos.

The cosmogonic myths tell of how the cosmos was forged in epic wars between forces of order and chaos and specifically between Gaia and Uranus, the destructive Titans, monstrous Cyclopes, and the more creative and stable Olympians. According to these myths, Cronus the Titan betrayed his oppressive father, Uranus, castrating him and creating the conditions for the birth of a new generation of gods. Cronus and his sister Rhea create this new generation, but Cronus gobbles them all up to prevent a similar rebellion against him by his progeny. His child Zeus escapes and overthrows Cronus, freeing his siblings, the Olympians, as well as the Cyclopes and other chaos monsters from Tartarus, who reward Zeus with the gift of the lightning. That added power enables Zeus to prevail in the war against Cronus and the Titans, the outcome of which amounts to the current cosmic settlement. Ferry emphasizes the “profundity of the existential problem that begins to take shape in the crucible of this first and original mythological narrative.” The point is that
all of existence, even that of the immortal gods, will find itself trapped in the same insoluble dilemma: Either one must block everything, as Uranus blocked his children in the womb of Gaia, in order to prevent change and the attendant risk that things will deteriorate—which means complete stasis and unspeakable tedium, such as must ultimately overwhelm life itself. Or, on the other hand, to avoid entropy one accepts movement—History, Time—which includes accepting all the fearful dangers by which we are most threatened. How, henceforth, can there be any equilibrium? This is the fundamental question posed by mythology, and by life itself! (59-60)
Hubris is the arrogance arising from ignorance of our proper place in the world, which misleads intelligent creatures into attempting to overreach, to transcend their nature or station. The myths of Asclepius, the model for Doctor Frankenstein, of Sisyphus who is punished for playing a trick on Zeus, and of Prometheus who is punished for attempting to perfect part of Zeus’ creation all warn that pride leads to our downfall. The gods reestablish the cosmic order as soon as anyone attempts to disturb the equilibrium. Heroes such as Heracles, Theseus, Perseus, and Jason, by contrast, fight for justice which is likewise interpreted as balance, as in the figure of Dike, Lady Justice, who was depicted as carrying a physical balance scale. Heroism for the Greeks was a means to immortality through merited fame, whereby the hero escapes the oblivion of the masses who never so memorably distinguish themselves by their actions and who are thus doomed to become anonymous shades in Hades. The greatest heroes fight “in the service of a divine mission, in the name of justice, or dike, in order to defend the cosmic order against the archaic forces of chaos, whose resurgence is an ever-present threat” (248). These heroes are demigods, half-human and half-divine, and so their attempt to immortalize themselves isn’t hubristic.

According to Ferry, the good life for ordinary humans is the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus shows himself to be a wise, self-made man as he lives in harmony with the cosmic order. Odysseus is cunning in that he possesses instrumental rationality, meaning that he focuses on the narrow questions of how to get what he wants, because he takes for granted what he is and where he’s going. That is, instead of trying to alter his nature, he understands and accepts his finitude and sets himself the task only of figuring out how most efficiently to achieve his human goals, namely those of returning home after the Trojan War and of reuniting with his family. He demonstrates his lack of hubris by resisting the temptations—by the Lotus-Eaters, the Sirens, Circe, and Calypso—of immortality or renunciation of the world (forgetting Ithaca and abandoning his voyage home).