Search the tag Counter-Enlightenment at the footer of this blog to find roughly ten disparate blog posts, all circling around the idea that intellectual history, despite all the obvious goodies trucked in with science and technology, is turning decidedly away from long-established Enlightenment values. A fair number of resources are available online and in book form exploring various movements against the Enlightenment over the past few centuries, none of which I have consulted. Instead, I picked up Daniel Schwindt’s The Case Against the Modern World: A Crash Course in Traditionalist Thought (2016), which was gifted to me. The book was otherwise unlikely to attract my attention considering that Schwindt takes Catholicism as a starting point whereas I’m an avowed atheist, though with no particular desire to proselytize or attempt to convince others of anything. However, The Case Against is suffused with curious ideas, so it is a good subject for a new book blogging project, which in characteristic fashion (for me) will likely proceed in fits and starts.

Two interrelated ideas Schwindt puts forward early in the book fit with multiple themes of this blog, namely, (1) the discovery and/or development of the self (I refer more regularly to consciousness) and (2) the reductive compartmentalization of thought and behavior. Let’s take them in order. Here’s a capsule of the first issue:

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Most poets in the West believe that some sort of democracy is preferable to any sort of totalitarian state and accept certain political obligations … but I cannot think of a single poet of consequence whose work does not, either directly or by implication, condemn modern civilisation as an irremediable mistake, a bad world which we have to endure because it is there and no one knows how it could be made into a better one, but in which we can only retain our humanity in the degree to which we resist its pressures. — W.H. Auden

A while back, I made an oblique reference (a comment elsewhere, no link) to a famous Krishnamurti quote: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Taken on its face, who would agree to be swept up in the madness and absurdity of any given historical moment? Turns out, almost everyone — even if that means self-destruction. The brief reply to my comment was along the lines of “Why shouldn’t you or I also make mental adjustments to prevailing sickness to obtain peace of mind and tranquility amidst the tumult?” Such an inversion of what seems to me right, proper, and acceptable caused me to reflect and recall the satirical movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The full title is not often given, but the forgotten second part is what’s instructive (e.g., mutually assured destruction: MAD). Events spinning out of control? Nothing any individual can do to restore sanity? Stop squirming and embrace it.

That’s one option when faced with the prospect of futile resistance, I suppose. Give in, succumb, and join the party (more like a rager since the beginning of the Cold War). I also recognize that I’m not special enough to warrant any particular consideration for my intransigence. Yet it feels like self-betrayal to abandon the good character I’ve struggled (with mixed success) to build and maintain over the course of a lifetime. Why chuck all that now? Distinguishing character growth from decay it not always so simple. In addition, given my openness to new ideas and interpretations, established bodies of thought (often cultural consensus) are sometimes upended and destabilized by someone arguing cogently for or against something settled and unexamined for a long time. And then there is the epistemological crisis that has rendered sense-making nearly impossible. That crisis is intensified by a variety of character types acting in bad faith to pollute the public sphere and drive false narratives.

For instance, the show trial public hearings just begun regarding the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol (or whatever it’s being called, I prefer “Storming of the Capitol”) are commonly understood, at least from one side of the political spectrum, as a deliberate and brazen attempt to brainwash the public. I decline to tune in. But that doesn’t mean my opinions on that topic are secure any more than I know how true and accurate was the 2020 election that preceded and sparked the Jan. 6 attack. Multiple accounts of the election and subsequent attack aim to convert me (opinion-wise) to one exclusive narrative or another, but I have no way to evaluate narrative claims beyond whatever noise reaches me through the mainstream media I try to ignore. Indeed, those in the streets and Capitol building on Jan. 6 were arguably swept into a narrative maelstrom that provoked a fairly radical if ultimately harmless event. No one knew at the time, of course, exactly how it would play out.

So that’s the current state of play. Ridiculous, absurd events, each with competing narratives, have become the new normal. Yours facts and beliefs do daily battle with my facts and beliefs in an ideological battle of all against all — at least until individuals form into tribes declare their political identity and join that absurdity.

Cynics knew it was inevitable: weaponized drones and robots. Axon Enterprises, Inc., maker of police weaponry (euphemistically termed “public safety technologies”), announced its development of taser equipped drones presumed capable of neutralizing an active shooter inside of 60 seconds. Who knows what sorts of operating parameters restrict their functions or if they can be made invulnerable to hacking or disallowed use as offensive weapons?

A sane, civilized society would recognize that, despite bogus memes about an armed society being a polite society, the prospect of everyone being strapped (like the fabled Old American West) and public spaces (schools, churches, post offices, laundromats, etc.) each being outfitted with neutralizing technologies is fixing the wrong problem. But we are no longer a sane society (begging the question whether we ever were). So let me suggest something radical yet obvious: the problem is not technological, it’s cultural. The modern world has made no progress with respect to indifference toward the suffering of others. Dehumanizing attitudes and technologies are no longer, well, medieval, but they’re no less cruel. For instance, people are not put in public stocks or drawn and quartered anymore, but they are shamed, cancelled, tortured, terrorized, propagandized, and abandoned in other ways that allow maniacs to pretend to others and to themselves that they are part of the solution. Hard to believe that one could now feel nostalgia for the days when, in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, calls for gun control were met with inaction (other then empty rhetoric) rather than escalation.

The problem with diagnosing the problem as cultural is that no one is in control. Like water, culture goes where it goes and apparently sinks to its lowest ebb. Attempts to channel, direct, and uplift culture might work on a small scale, but at the level of society — and with distorted incentives freedom is certain to deliver — malefactors are guaranteed to appear. Indeed, anything that contributes to the arms race (now tiny, remote-controlled, networked killing devices rather than giant atomic/nuclear ones) only invites greater harm and is not a solution. Those maniacs (social and technical engineers promising safety) have the wrong things wrong.

Small, insular societies with strict internal codes of conduct may have figured out something that large, free societies have not, namely, that mutual respect, knowable communities, and repudiation of advanced technologies give individuals something and someone to care about, a place to belong, and things to do. When the entire world is thrown open, such as with social media, populations become atomized and anonymized, unable to position or understand themselves within a meaningful social context. Anomie and nihilism are often the rotten fruit. Splintered family units, erosion of community involvement, and dysfunctional institutions add to the rot. Those symptoms of cultural collapse need to be addressed even if they are among the most difficult wrong things to get right.

Following up the two previous entries in this series, the Feb. 2022 issue of Scientific American has a cover article by Adam Becker called “The Origins of Space and Time” with the additional teaser “Does spacetime emerge from a more fundamental reality?” (Oddly, the online title is different, making it awkward to find.) I don’t normally read Scientific American, which has become a bit like Time and Newsweek in its blurb-laden, graphics-heavy presentation intended patronizingly for general-interest readers. In fact, I’ll quote the pullout (w/o graphics) that summarizes the article:

How Spacetime Emerges. Space and time are traditionally thought of as the backdrop to the universe. But new research suggests they might not be fundamental; instead spacetime could be an emergent property of a more basic reality, the true backdrop to the cosmos. This idea comes from two theories that attempt to bridge the divide between general relativity and quantum mechanics. The first, string theory, recasts subatomic particles as tiny loops of vibrating string. The second, loop quantum gravity, envisions spacetime being broke down into chunks — discrete bits that combine to create a seemingly smooth continuum.

Being a layperson in such matters, I’ll admit openly that I don’t fully grasp the information presented. Indeed, every breathless announcement from CERN (or elsewhere) about a new subatomic particle discovery or some research group’s new conjectures into quantum this-or-that I typically greet passively at best. Were I a physicist or cosmologist, my interest would no doubt be more acute, but these topics are so far removed from everyday life they essentially become arcane inquiries into the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. I don’t feel strongly enough to muster denunciation, but discussion of another aspect of pocket reality is worth some effort.

My understanding is that the “more basic reality, the true backdrop” discussed in the article is multidimensionality, something Eric Weinstein has also been grappling with under the name Geometric Unity. (Bizarrely, Alex Jones has also raved about interdimensional beings.) If the universe indeed has several more undetectable dimensions (as memory serves, Weinstein says as many as 14) and human reality is limited to only a few, potentially breaking through to other dimension and/or escaping boundaries of a mere four is tantalizing yet terrifying. Science fiction often explores these topics, usually in the context of space travel and human colonization of the galaxy. As thought experiments, fictional stories can be authentically entertaining and enjoyable. Within nonfiction reality, desire to escape off-world or into extra- or interdimensionality is an expression of desperation considering just how badly humans have fucked up the biosphere and guaranteed an early extinction for most species (including ours). I also chafe at the notion that this world, this reality, is not enough and that pressing forward like some unstoppable chemical reaction or biological infiltration is the obvious next step.

This intended follow-up has been stalled (pt. 1 here) for one simple reason: the premise presented in the embedded YouTube video is (for me at least) easy to dismiss out of hand and I haven’t wanted to revisit it. Nevertheless, here’s the blurb at the top of the comments at the webpage:

Is reality created in our minds, or are the things you can touch and feel all that’s real? Philosopher Bernardo Kastrup holds doctorates in both philosophy and computer science, and has made a name for himself by arguing for metaphysical idealism, the idea that reality is essentially a mental phenomenon.

Without going into point-by-point discussion, the top-level assertion, if I understand it correctly (not assured), is that material reality comes out of mental experience rather than the reverse. It’s a chicken-and-egg question with materialism and idealism (fancy technical terms not needed) each vying for primacy. The string of conjectures (mental gymnastics, really, briefly impressive until one recognizes how quickly they lose correlation with how most of us think about and experience reality) that inverts the basic relationship of inner experience to outer reality is an example of waaaay overthinking a problem. No doubt quite a lot of erudition can be brought to bear on such questions, but even if those questions were resolved satisfactorily on an intellectual level and an internally coherent structure or system were developed or revealed, it doesn’t matter or lead anywhere. Humans are unavoidably embodied beings. Each individual existence also occupies a tiny sliver of time (the timeline extending in both directions to infinity). Suggesting that mental experience is briefly instantiated in personhood but is actually drawn out of some well of souls, collective consciousness, or panpsychism and rejoins them in heaven, hell, or elsewhere upon expiration is essentially a religious claim. It’s also an attractive supposition, granting each of us not permanence or immortality but rather something somehow better (?) though inscrutable because it lies beyond perception (but not conceptualization). Except for an eternity of torments in hell, I guess, if one deserves that awful fate.

One comment about Kastrup. He presents his perspective (his findings?) with haughty derision of others who can’t see or understand what it so (duh!) obvious. He falls victim to the very same over-intellectualized flim-flam he mentions when dismissing materialists who need miracles and shortcuts to smooth over holes in their scientific/philosophical systems. The very existence of earnest disagreement by those who occupy themselves with such questions might suggest some humility, as in “here’s my explanation, they have theirs, judge for yourself.” But there’s a third option: the great unwashed masses (including nearly all our ancestors) for whom such questions are never even fleeting thoughts. It’s all frankly immaterial (funnily, both the right and wrong word at once). Life is lived and experienced fundamentally on its surface — unless, for instance, one has been incubated too long within the hallowed halls of academia, lost touch with one’s brethren, and become preoccupied with cosmic investigations. Something quite similar happens to politicians and the wealthy, who typically hyperfocus on gathering to themselves power and then exercising that power over others (typically misunderstood as simply pulling the levers and operating the mechanisms of society). No wonder their pocket of reality looks so strikingly different.

From the outset, credit goes to Jonathan Haidt for providing the ideas to launch this blog post. He appears to be making the rounds again flogging his most recent publication (where? I dunno, maybe The Atlantic). In the YouTube interview I caught, Haidt admits openly that as a social and behavioral psychologist, he’s prone to recommending incentives, programs, and regulations to combat destructive developments in contemporary life — especially those in the academy and on social media that have spread into politics and across the general public. Haidt wears impressive professional armor in support of arguments and contentions; I lack such rigor rather conspicuously. Accordingly, I offer no recommendations but instead try to limit myself to describing dynamics as an armchair social critic. Caveat emptor.

Haidt favors viewpoint diversity (see, for example, Heterodox Academy, which he helped to found and now chairs). Simple enough, right? Not so fast there, Señor Gonzalez! Any notion that even passing acquaintance with a given subject requires knowing both pros and cons is anathema to many of today’s thinkers, who would rather plug their ears and pretend opposition voices, principled or otherwise, are simply incoherent, need not be considered, and further, should be silenced and expunged. As a result, extremist branches of any faction tend to be ideological echo chambers. Cardinal weaknesses in such an approach are plain enough for critical thinkers to recognize, but if one happens to fall into one of those chambers, silos, or bubbles (or attend a school that trains students in rigid thinking), invitations to challenge cherished and closely held beliefs, upon which identity is built, mostly fall on deaf ears. The effect is bad enough in individuals, but when spread across organizations that adopt ill-advised solutionism, Haidt’s assessment is that institutional stupidity sets in. The handy example is higher education (now an oxymoron). Many formerly respectable institutions have essentially abandoned reason (ya know, the way reasonable people think) and begun flagellating themselves in abject shame over, for instance, a recovered history of participation in any of the cultural practices now cause for immediate and reflexive cancellation.

By way of analogy, think of one’s perspective as a knife (tool, not weapon) that requires periodic sharpening to retain effectiveness. Refusing to entertain opposing viewpoints is like sharpening only one side of the blade, resulting in a blunt, useless tool. That metaphor suggests a false dualism: two sides to an argument/blade when in fact many facets inform most complex issues, thus viewpoint diversity. By working in good faith with both supporters and detractors, better results (though not perfection) can be obtained than when radicalized entities come to dominate and impose their one-size-fits-all will indiscriminately. In precisely that way, it’s probably better not to become any too successful or powerful lest one be tempted to embrace a shortsighted will to power and accept character distortions that accompany a precipitous rise.

As mentioned a couple blog posts ago, an unwillingness to shut up, listen, and learn (why bother? solutions are just … so … obvious …) has set many people on a path of activism. The hubris of convincing oneself of possession of solutions to intractable issues is bizarre. Is there an example of top-down planning, channeling, and engineering of a society that actually worked without tyrannizing the citizenry in the process? I can’t think of one. Liberal democratic societies determined centuries ago that freedom and self-determination mixed with assumed responsibility and care within one’s community are preferable to governance that treats individuals as masses to be forced into conformity (administrative or otherwise), regulated heavily, and/or disproportionately incarcerated like in the U.S. But the worm has turned. Budding authoritarians now seek reforms and uniformity to manage diverse, messy populations.

Weirdly, ideologues also attempt to purge and purify history, which is chock full of villainy and atrocity. Those most ideologically possessed seek both historical and contemporary targets to denounce and cancel, not even excluding themselves because, after all, the scourges of history are so abject and everyone benefited from them somehow. Search oneself for inherited privilege and all pay up for past iniquities! That’s the self-flagellating aspect: taking upon oneself (and depositing on others) the full weight of and responsibility for the sins of our forebears. Yet stamping out stubborn embers of fires allegedly still burning from many generations ago is an endless task. Absolutely no one measures up to expectations of sainthood when situated with an inherently and irredeemably evil society of men and women. That’s original sin, which can never be erased or forgiven. Just look at what humanity (via industrial civilization) has done to the surface of the planet. Everyone is criminally culpable. So give up all aspirations; no one can ever be worthy. Indeed, who even deserves to live?

From Joseph Bernstein’s article “Bad News” in the Sept. 2021 issue of Harper’s Magazine:

Compared with other, more literally toxic corporate giants, those in the tech industry have been rather quick to concede the role they played in corrupting the allegedly pure stream of American reality. Only five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg said it was a “pretty crazy idea” that bad content on his website had persuaded enough voters to swing the 2016 election to Donald Trump. “Voters make decisions based on their lived experience,” he said. “There is a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw fake news.” A year later, suddenly chastened, he apologized for being glib and pledged to do his part to thwart those who “spread misinformation.”

Denial was always untenable, for Zuckerberg in particular. The so-called techlash, a season of belatedly brutal media coverage and political pressure in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump’s win, made it difficult. But Facebook’s basic business pitch made denial impossible. Zuckerberg’s company profits by convincing advertisers that it can standardize its audience for commercial persuasion. How could it simultaneously claim that people aren’t persuaded by its [political] content?

Heard a remark (can’t remember where) that most these days would attack as openly ageist. Basically, if you’re young (let’s say below 25 years of age), then it’s your time to shut up, listen, and learn. Some might even say that true wisdom doesn’t typically emerge until much later in life, if indeed it appears at all. Exceptions only prove the rule. On the flip side, energy, creativity, and indignation (e.g., “it’s not fair! “) needed to drive social movements are typically the domain of those who have less to lose and everything to gain, meaning those just starting out in adult life. A full age range is needed, I suppose, since society isn’t generally age stratified except at the extremes (childhood and advanced age). (Turns out that what to call old people and what counts as old is rather clumsy, though probably not especially controversial.)

With this in mind, I can’t help but to wonder what’s going on with recent waves of social unrest and irrational ideology. Competing factions agitate vociferously in favor of one social/political ideology or another as though most of the ideas presented have no history. (Resemblances to Marxism, Bolshevism, and white supremacy are quite common. Liberal democracy, not so much.) Although factions aren’t by any means populated solely by young people, I observe that roughly a decade ago, higher education in particular transformed itself into an incubator for radicals and revolutionaries. Whether dissatisfaction began with the faculty and infected the students is impossible for me to assess. I’m not inside that intellectual bubble. However, urgent calls for radical reform have since moved well beyond the academy. A political program or ideology has yet to be put forward that I can support fully. (My doomer assessment of what the future holds forestalls knowing with any confidence what sort of program or ideology into which to pour my waning emotional and intellectual energy.) It’s still fairly simple to criticize and denounce, of course. Lots of things egregiously wrong in the world.

My frustration with what passes for political debate (if Twitter is any indication) is the marked tendency to immediately resort to comparisons with Yahtzees in general or Phitler in particular. It’s unhinged and unproductive. Yahtzees are cited as an emotional trigger, much like baseless accusations of racism send everyone scrambling for cover lest they be cancelled. Typically, the Yahtzee/Phitler comparison or accusation itself is enough to put someone on their heels, but wizened folks (those lucky few) recognize the cheap rhetorical trick. The Yahtzee Protocol isn’t quite the same as Godwin’s Law, which states that the longer a discussion goes on (at Usenet in the earliest examples) increases the inevitability likelihood of someone bringing up Yahtzees and Phitler and ruining useful participation. The protocol has been deployed effectively in the Russian-Ukraine conflict, though I’m at a loss to determine in which direction. The mere existence of the now-infamous Azov Battalion, purportedly comprised is Yahtzees, means that automatically, reflexively, the fight is on. Who can say what the background rate of Yahtzee sympathizers (whatever that means) might be in any fighting force or indeed the general population? Not me. Similarly, what threshold qualifies a tyrant to stand beside Phitler on a list of worst evers? Those accusations are flung around like cooked spaghetti thrown against the wall just to see what sticks. Even if the accusation does stick, what possible good does it do? Ah, I know: it makes the accuser look like a virtuous fool.

I’ve quoted Caitlin Johnstone numerous times, usually her clever aphorisms. Her takes on geopolitics also ring fundamentally true to me, but then, I find it simple and obvious to be against empire, needless war, and wanton destruction just as she is. That’s not the position of most warmongers important decision makers driving cultural and political narratives, who are reflexively imperial, excited by war, self-aggrandizing, and reckless in their pursuits no matter who suffers (it’s rarely them). Anyway, I had not checked her blog for a while, which for me is too much like staring at the sun. Indeed, that same reason is why I stopped reading TomDispatch and have mostly backed away from Bracing Views. Geopolitics is just too ugly, too incoherent, too raving insane to be believed. However, these paragraphs (from here) caught my attention:

Humanity’s major problems arise from the impulse to control. Ecocide arises from the impulse to control nature. Empire arises from the impulse to control civilizations. Oligarchy arises from the impulse to control political outcomes. Ego arises from the impulse to control life.

A healthy humanity would be free of the impulse to manipulate and exert control: over life, over people, over nature. But it would be so different from the humanity we know now that falling into that way of functioning would be a kind of death. And it would feel like a death.

Sometimes it seems like people want the world to end, want humanity to go extinct. I’d suggest that this may be a confused expression of an intuited truth: that there’s something good on the other side of ending all this. But it’s the end of our dysfunction, not of our species.

I initially misread the first sentence as “Humanity’s major problems arise from lack of impulse control.” Self-restraint (also self-abnegation?) is the quality I find most lacking in everyone, especially our species-level consumption, whether for nourishment, enrichment, or meaningless status. Writ large, we just can’t seem to stop our gluttony, or put another way, suffer the inability to recognize when enough is enough. Johnstone’s remarks that giving up control feels like death echo others who have described the leaders of industrial civilization, politicians and corporate CEOs alike, as members of a global death cult driving everyone ineluctably toward early extinction. While safety, security, and profit are ostensible near-term goals, mechanisms developed to achieve those goals involve no small amount of death dealing. And because civilizational dynamics (observed many times over by those who study such things) demonstrate ebb and flow over time (centuries and millennia) — e.g., the inevitable collapse of industrial civilization and knowing destruction of the planet (specifically, the biosphere habitable by humans and other species) — the willingness to pursue and perpetuate a destructive way of life is maniacal and insane. Whereas Johnstone believes giving up (illusory) control passes as eventual release from earthly torments or at least an opportunity to create something smarter, wiser, and perhaps more restrained than the outright energy binge we’ve been on for the past two centuries, my expectation is that self-annihilation will be total and complete. No one gets out alive; there is nothing beyond.

Here’s a deal many people would take: you get to live in the First World and enjoy the ample albeit temporary benefits of a modern, post-industrial economy, but to enable you, people in the Third World must be brutally exploited, mostly out of sight and out of mind. (Dunno what to say about the Second World; comparisons are typically hi-lo. And besides, that Cold War nomenclature is probably badly out of date.) There no need to say “would take,” of course, because that’s already the default in the First World. Increasingly, that’s also the raw deal experienced by the lower/working class in the United States, which now resembles other failed states. People without means are driven into cycles of poverty or channeled into the prison-industrial complex to labor for a pittance. That’s not enough, though. The entirety of public health must be gamed as a profit center for Big Pharma, which wrings profit out of suffering just like the U.S. prison system. That’s one of the principal takeaways from the last two years of pandemic. Indeed, from a capitalist perspective, that’s what people are for: to feed the beast (i.e., produce profit for the ownership class). For this very reason — the inhumanity of exploiting and subjugating people — critics of capitalism believe the ruthlessness of the profit motive cannot be tempered and the economic system is ripe for replacement.

Arguments that, “yeah, sure, it’s a flawed system but it’s still the best one on offer” are unconvincing. Rather, they’re a rationalization for lack of imagination how a better, more equitable system might be developed and tried. Human nature, frankly as “animal” as any other animal, also discourages anyone from rising above social conditioning or breaking from the herd. Instead, history forces fundamental change only when decrepit systems no longer function. Late-stage capitalism, having reached nearly the full extent of easily exploitable resources (materials and labor), is creaking and groaning under the weight of its inbuilt perpetual growth imperative. The dynamic is nonnegotiable, as measures of gross national product (GNP) are only acceptable if a positive index, the higher the better. Whereas previous social/economic systems failed in fits and starts, transitioning gradually from one to the next, it’s doubtful capitalism can morph gracefully into a new system given its momentum and totalizing character.

For many millennia, slavery was the solution to labor needs, which became morally intolerable especially in the 19th century but was really only driven underground, never truly extinguished. That’s the point of the first paragraph above. Terminology and mechanisms have sometimes been swapped out, but the end result is scarcely less disagreeable for those on the bottom rungs. Globalization brought practically the entire world population into the money economy, which had been irrelevant to peasant and subsistence societies. Apologists often say that the spread of capitalism enabled those peoples to be lifted out of poverty. That’s a ridiculous claim while wealth/income inequality continues to launch the ultrarich into the stratosphere (literally in the infamous case of at least a couple billionaires) compared to the masses. Yes, refrigerators and cell phones are now commonplace, but those are hardly the best measures of human wellbeing.

So what’s person of conscience to do? Born into a socioeconomic system from which there is no escape — at least until it all collapses — is there any way not to be evil, to not exploit others? Hard to say, considering we all consume (in varying degrees) products and services obtained and provided through the machinations of large corporations exploiting humans and nature on our behalf. When it all does collapse in a heap of death and destruction, don’t look for high-minded reexamination of the dynamics that led to that endgame. Rather, it will be everyone for themselves in a futile attempt to preserve life against all odds.