Thursday, April 24, 2014

Rhetoric and rewards

The cynic claims he is wise because he no longer responds to “empty rhetoric.” But what his lack of response really shows is not that the rhetoric is empty, but that his soul is empty of the higher motives to which rhetoric once successfully appealed. The cynic is certain rhetoric alone will never persuade others to help him. If he wants to avoid being left out in the cold, he needs not eloquence but cold, hard cash. When others ask him for help, he ignores rhetorical appeals to kindness and mercy and asks what’s in it for him.

The life of the cynic is concerned primarily with rewards in all its phases. In the first phase, he learns the skills he needs to earn rewards. In the second, he earns rewards. In the third, he leisurely enjoys the rewards he has earned. A life motivated by higher motives would not have this tripartite division. If I’m motivated by a passion to learn, I will learn for my entire life. If I’m motivated by love for my fellow men, I will work to help them for my entire life.

Confucius advises me to rank the effort above the prize. Buddha advises me to look away from the glittering world and concentrate on improving my mind. When I run around busily seeking rewards and summarily dismiss all who would detain me with their “empty rhetoric,” I show my values are inverted. It is rewards that are empty, while rhetoric alone can help me return to the path to intellectual and moral excellence.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

There can be no duty higher than the duty to cultivate and improve the mind. A duty that purports to elevate itself above intellectual development must know that it can’t withstand the scrutiny intellectual development would bring. I must develop my latent intellectual capacities to discover what my duties are. A duty imposed from outside can only impair the process.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The intellectual immune system

Fortunately, some are born with spiritual immune systems that sooner or later give rejection to the illusory worldview grafted upon then from birth through social conditioning. They begin sensing that something is amiss, and start looking for answers. Inner knowledge and anomalous outer experiences show them a side of reality others are oblivious to, and so begins the journey of awakening. Each step of the journey is made by following the heart instead of the crowd, and by choosing knowledge over veils of ignorance.
Henri Bergson, On Intuition vs. Intellect (1907)
Fast food peddlers are parasites who use the instinctual human love of greasy food to leech our money, indifferent to the fate of their hosts. In my view, all forms of pop culture are like this. They use our instinctual desire to be entertained to leech precious attention, the life-blood of intellectual life, making the host intellectually anemic in the process. Books are better at educating us because they are worse at entertaining us. They are more difficult, so we have to put more into them, and therefore get more out of them. Should it be any surprise that the intellect degenerates when the immune system that keeps parasites at bay has become senescent?

Monday, April 21, 2014

What can I do to avoid independent thought?

One of the great things about a mind that allows itself to be ruled by the majority is that its thoughts arise organically, in concert with the whole. It obeys the majority, and yet it is also part of the majority it obeys. Thoughts and ideas that would have been considered contradictory according to outdated rules of logic are now harmonious, since they flow from the harmonious whole. Questions about evidence and argument become irrelevant. The will of the majority is all the evidence we need. The power of the majority is all the argument we need. The more thoroughly and completely our thoughts derive from a desire to conform to the majority, without perverse extraneous influences like evidence and argument, the more they show a pure-hearted will to serve the majority, and the more commendable they are.

Why is the opinion of the majority sacred? Because the majority believes it is sacred. Are you worried that an argument in which the principle of majority rule depends on majority rule for its justification is a circular argument? Don’t worry. Such an objection relies on outdated standards of logic the majority no longer approves of, and which are therefore no longer in force.

In the past there was a superstitious belief that an individual mind was capable of assessing whether a thought was logical or illogical, whether evidence was compelling or insufficient, whether an action was humane or inhumane. Fortunately, our society is now almost entirely rid of this antisocial intellectual behavior. A mind that dares to question the majority can only disrupt the smooth functioning of democracy with its foolish and futile attempt to think independently.

Before we forget, we must mention an important exception. Although independent thought is, strictly speaking, futile, it is nonetheless permitted, under certain very specific conditions. The stage hands that work the lighting and cameras, helping to fulfill the sacred functions of recording and transmitting images of adored celebrities, are permitted, while concerned with petty technical problems of their trade, to imagine they think independently. This exception has been specially carved out because boring, insignificant problems about electrical circuits are beneath the dignity of the majority, which must be left free to solve more important problems, such as selecting the next generation of celebrities.

In superstitious ages, when men still believed in the possibility of independent thought, some of them captured their antisocial philosophies in writing. Unfortunately, some of these barbaric documents have survived more or less intact through the ages. These relics of past threaten to mislead impressionable young minds in the present, and have always posed a grave problem for smoothly functioning democracies. Some rulers have tried burning the antisocial books. But this turned out to be counterproductive; it just made people more curious about their contents. Now we have much better solutions. We provide such a dazzling array of nonstop entertainment, young minds no longer have time to learn how to read. We make sure language changes so quickly that the English in which the antisocial books were written begins to seem like a foreign language. Furthermore, some of the improvements we make to language we make in the name of justice. A masculine pronoun used to represent a person of indeterminate gender wasn’t just an arbitrary grammatical convention. It was an abomination. It’s immoral to read the old books, not just because of the antisocial philosophy they contain, but because of the abominably unjust language in which they are written.

Now that your desire to be a good democratic citizen has been awakened, you might be asking yourself, “What can I do to avoid independent thought?” This is indeed a challenge. But we have done many things to make it easier for you. When you wake up in the morning, you will find we have arranged to have a newspaper delivered to your doorstep. Any tendency you might have had during the night to think independently can be quickly remedied by immersion in the day to day concerns of the majority. Then, of course, you must earn slips of paper that certify the majority deems you worthy of being housed and fed. So you’ll have to spend your day in a factory where the foreman ensures you work on projects the majority approves of.

The evenings, however, have always been the greatest challenge. It wasn’t until electrical engineers devised a way to beam images of celebrities adored by the majority into your home that we had a really efficient and foolproof way of preventing independent thought in the evenings. But now, the problem is solved. You can settle into your comfortable armchair, and have the thoughts of the majority pumped into your mind until it’s thoroughly exhausted and ready for sleep. The progress has been so tremendous, it’s truly exhilarating!

When you encounter a poor soul who has not yet seen the light, who deliberately deprives himself of the warm and comfortable joy we find in service to the majority, what, you may ask, can you do to help him? Fear not. There are many things you can do. If he is poor, perhaps the most effective strategy is to point out all the advantages he could obtain by conforming his tastes and opinions to those of the majority. Show him how slips of paper that represent the approval of the majority can be used to persuade others to do things for him. Show him how he can obtain more of these slips by choosing his projects based on the whims of the majority rather than his own misguided attempts to be rational.

If the errant soul is rich, the problem becomes somewhat more difficult. He has somehow mistakenly obtained the slips of paper intended to vouch for approval of the majority, while in fact he continues to defy the majority. Of course he’s confused. In this case the most effective strategy will be to implant doubts that undermine his misplaced confidence in his ability to reason independently. How does he know he isn’t crazy? Isn’t the fact that he disagrees with the majority, in itself, sufficient to show that he must be crazy?

You might think debate would be a good way to help an errant soul return to reason. But this approach can easily backfire. In the past, men with eccentric ideas debated with others in order to put their ideas to the test. When no one found an adequate way to refute the eccentric ideas, as in the case of Socrates, the debate only encouraged errant minds to continue their antisocial lines of thought. If you appeal to reason, you concede that a mind capable of disobeying the majority is capable of reason. But this is precisely where the errant mind has gone astray. Don't appeal to the errant mind’s independent reason. Undermine the mistaken idea that an individual mind is capable of reason. Reasoning is what majorities do. Individual minds can only assent to rationality as determined by the majority, or insist on irrationally defying the will of the majority. By trying to reason with an errant mind, you only encourage it in its mistaken belief that there might be other options.

Charm and good looks

In the quest to win friends and influence people, what is more important—charm and good behavior—or money and good looks? The cynics are probably right that most people don’t really care whether I’m nice, and care only about looks and money. But if I deceive myself with some false optimism, and keep trying to be charming, I will eventually attract people who do appreciate it. This, if we strip away all the superstition, is what I admire in sentiments like “bless them that curse you.” Smile, say charming things, be on your best behavior, even when everyone around you is ridiculing you for the absurd optimism that someone might appreciate it. What matters in the end isn’t the overall statistics, it’s the statistics in the relevant sample space. My optimism will attract people who appreciate good behavior. Then, within that sample space, the statistics will be different. The cynic, on the other hand, will be correct in his assessment of the average man, and will be left surrounded by average men. My beliefs about people determine the sort of people I attract, and are self-fulfilling. By assuming everyone is a genius, I bring out the genius in people. By assuming everyone is a saint, I bring out the saint in people. To me this seems like a much better life than the life of the cynic, even if requires some sacrifice of intellectual conscience at the outset.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The greatest thing about the free market

The skeptic is intent on renouncing any means of persuasion that relies on tradition or social convention rather than science and logic. I’m very sympathetic to his cause. But when he wants coffee in the morning, how does he persuade the clerk at Starbucks to help him? For all his talk of scientific objectivity, he shows by his acts he’s perfectly fine with a means of persuasion that people believe only because other people believe, as long as it’s the one in his wallet.

To what projects shall I devote myself? Whom shall I help? The most fundamental moral questions in life are decided by precious metals and the slips of paper and plastic that have replaced them. Everyone around me is persuaded by the medium of exchange. So I allow myself to be persuaded by it too. I believe X should rule my behavior because others believe. These believe because yet others believe.

When I ask someone for help, do I try to persuade him I’m a kind man who would help others in similar circumstances? No. I get out my wallet. Do I try to appeal to his reason or his virtues? No. I offer a reward.

And when another man asks for my help, do I want to hear who he is or who he intends to be? Do I want to know his past actions or his present principles. Hardly. I just want to see his wallet.

Now, if you suspect his wallet might be a reasonable proxy for the virtue of his actions or his principles, consider that Madison Avenue offers lush rewards to psychology PhDs for their services in manipulating the fragile and vulnerable minds of children. If wealth is distributed, not according to virtue, but according to chance and whim, how can I in good conscience allow it to determine whom I will help and whom I will ignore?

Suppose an island community uses copper as a medium of exchange. They work hard. They trade value for value. It’s a panacea right out of an economics textbook. But then something goes wrong. Copper is a rare commodity on their little island. But on the mainland it’s in plentiful supply. One day these two communities start trading with one another. Before the islanders realize what’s happening, they all become paupers and servants.

In essence, this is what happens in our world every day. The poor trade honestly with one another. But the hereditary owners of capital, like the mainlanders in our example, come along with abundant supplies of the same medium of exchange and snatch up whatever they want without having to work a day.

The injustice is terrible, and seems so easy to put to an end. The islanders just have to realize what’s going on, stop using the old currency, and switch to another. But there’s one problem. The new currency may undergo the same sort of debasement. In the end, the only way to guard against debasement of currency is to see who has it and decide if they deserve to have it.

But if I must assess whether a man is worthy of what he possesses, and decide whether to help him based on that, then I might ask, what’s the point of considering what he possesses at all? Why not just consider whether he’s worthy, and leave it at that? Then I will help those who persuade me by showing me the virtue of their actions and intentions. What they have hidden in their pockets won’t concern me at all.

There will in essence be two entirely separate economies in the same territory. Exchanging one currency for the other will be impossible. The enlightened islanders know the copper (mammon) is debased. They’re unwilling to exchange it for their own currency (virtue). And the unenlightened islanders, who still believe the copper is more valuable than it really is, would never offer a reasonable exchange rate.

If I must choose, I will choose to help friends whose projects are most worthy of support, not ones with copper hidden in their pockets. The cynics will say I have let myself be shortchanged. But the joke is on them. As they slave away on pointless projects, building bigger and bigger mansions for the mainlanders, I will be part of a new community working on worthy projects based on mutual support and love.

Luke reports that when Jesus sent his twelve disciples out into the world to preach, he explicitly admonished them to bring no money. The only currency they carried with them was the virtue of their intentions. And they had this in such abundance, the locals were often willing to house and feed them. If I devote myself to helping others, asking nothing in return, many will recognize my good intentions and help me.

The greatest thing about the free market isn’t its ability to equalize supply and demand, or any of the other virtues recounted in economics textbooks. The greatest thing about the free market is the freedom to ignore the market, and devote myself to the most worthy projects, helping others in the best way I know how.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Gospel of Consumption

The religious ideal most prevalent today is what we might call the “gospel of consumption.” We laugh at the idea of salvation. But in practice we order our lives and our rituals precisely as if we believed in salvation by comfort and convenience. We don’t like to talk about our theology—no more than lay Christians like to talk about the Trinity. We leave this up to our religious experts, in Hollywood. The large flat panel screen before which we worship six hours each day shows us brilliantly crafted sermons to consumption. Our saints of consumption, role models for all our daily activities, consume resources and make high quality video recordings of the process.

Alternatives to the gospel of consumption have, in the course of time, been forgotten. The ideal of Socrates was to dedicate every day to thinking and questioning, sharing dialectical conversation with our fellow men. The ideal of Jesus was to dedicate every day to loving and sharing joy with our fellow men. Of course Hollywood pays homage to these forgotten ideals too. But it always treats them as musty relics from another era, to be included as supplements to the serious business of consumption, not, as they were originally intended, as alternatives.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Insurrection in the name of reason

The cowardly mind doesn’t want to get in trouble for having insurrectionary thoughts, but the courageous mind knows it can get away with insurrectionary thoughts as long as it never becomes involved in insurrectionary deeds. We imagine that the present social order must be rational, that we must conform our thoughts to its principles. If the present social order is capitalist, my thoughts must be capitalist, if socialist, socialist, if Christian, Christian, etc. But once you get outside purely theoretical disciplines like mathematics, there is no way to avoid the confrontation between the truth that’s convenient for my rulers and the truth I discover. Now of course a cowardly intellect, when it begins to get close to a boundary where further logical thought will lead away from peaceful intellectual coexistence with its ruler, immediately backs down. To the cowardly mind, the ruler, whether monarch or majority, must always be right. Even if the values the ruler commends are contradictory, there is no reason to question them. My ruler was rational enough to build the most tanks. I must be rational enough to bow to them

Thursday, April 17, 2014

bourgeossification (n): the loss of neuronal plasticity that comes about as a result of seeking to cash in on what one has already learned, rather than seeking to continue learning.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The bourgeois

You will often find a Steinway in his living room. But you will notice that he has almost always given up on playing it. In his value system, there is no point in doing something unless you can do it well enough to make a lot of money. The pomp of earlier aristocrats interests him immensely, because he can hire someone else to create it. The dilettantish pleasures of earlier aristocrats interest him hardly at all, because they demand far too much intellectual effort.

What will take him a lifetime to achieve, others have at birth without effort. Yet this never lessons his confidence that his aims in life are the right ones. If he has any intellectual, moral or artistic excellences that the heir to wealth lacks, the bourgeois might consider himself superior to the heir of wealth. But as soon as the bourgeois degrades his talents to mere means to wealth, any claim to dignity he might have had in the eyes of the heir to wealth, or in his own eyes, vanishes at once.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Democratic double standards

The principle of majority rule doesn’t prevent me from cultivating forms of intellectual excellence that place me above the majority—in particular those that lead to large rewards. But when it is a question of moral excellence—in particular those forms of moral excellence that might demand I use my rewards for purposes other than pampering my precious ego—here I insist that any attempt to surpass the majority is arrogant pretentiousness. When the question is, “Do I really deserve the mansion and Caribbean vacation?” then I’m quite comfortable thinking about exceptional abilities that surpass the majority and make me worthy of special privileges. But when the question is, do my exceptional abilities and privileges demand that I cultivate forms of moral excellence that surpass those of the majority—now I am suddenly afraid of being pretentious.

It seems to me that a wiser attitude toward majority rule is this. A house that is good enough for the majority is good enough for me. A vacation that is good enough for the majority is good enough for me. I will not hesitate to surpass the majority in intellectual and moral achievements. But any rewards I get from my achievements I must use in ways that show my moral and intellectual excellence, by helping others the best way I know how.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why aphorisms?

After his second book Nietzsche stopped composing long narratives. He adopted the form of short essays and aphorisms. Why? Perhaps he feared he would sully and corrupt what he wrote in exceptional states of mind if he tried to weave it into a narrative while he was in a different state of mind. Each aphorism represents the voice of a different character. The author of aphorism 1 is Nietzsche(t1). The author of aphorism 2 is Nietzsche(t2). The idea that the author is a constant rather than a variable is among the most perilous of all fictions. The idea that a human being is a constant rather than a variable is among the most perilous of all fictions.

Once Nietzsche decided he would no longer attempt to weave a narrative from disparate thoughts that occurred in disparate states of mind, the question must have arisen, in what order shall I place my thoughts? How about the order in which they occurred? Is that good enough? Or should I try to improve it?

The answer Nietzsche hit upon seems to be this: follow each thought by the thought most nearly its opposite.

To refuse to commit myself to a position, to make my assaults upon truth merely tentative, is among the foremost intellectual virtues.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Read this lentissimo

Repetition and variation are used to excellent effect in music. Why not in philosophy? In fact, what if I were to take this to an extreme, to write philosophy the way Philip Glass writes music, repeating a theme until it saturates the mind, and only then proceeding to the next.
A monk dwells practicing body-contemplation on the body, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome covetousness and grief concerning the world; he dwells practicing feeling-contemplation on the feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome covetousness and grief concerning the world; he dwells practicing mind-contemplation on the mind, ardent, clearly comprehending and mindful, having overcome covetousness and grief concerning the world.
Nyanaponika Thera’s translation of the Pali Canon in The Heart of Buddhist Meditation (1965)
Nietzsche complains that his readers read him too fast. He wants to force them, somehow, to change the tempo from presto to lentissimo. But how?

One method: repeat the fundamental teachings over and over. Make them into a chant. Nietzsche didn’t use this method. Buddhists, on the other hand, often do, to excellent effect. Repetition, like silence, allows the mind to turn its attention inward. It gives it time to chew a thought, digest it, assimilate it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The holy division of labor

“The error in positivism,” says Adorno, “is that it takes as its standard of truth the contingently given division of labor, and allows no theory that could reveal the division of labor to be itself derivative.” Once philosophy has been demoted to one specialty among others, it is no more able to call in question the division of labor than the medieval philosophy that served the Church could call in question the existence of God.

Monday, April 7, 2014

When the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published in 1952, homosexuality was listed as a sociopathic personality disturbance. There is no question that homosexual behavior produced many difficulties in the lives of those who practiced it. The error made by psychiatry was a failure to ask whether these problems were caused by homosexual behavior, or by society’s persecution of homosexual behavior. In this respect, the methodology used in creating the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual remains unchanged.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The welfare state merely repeats the mistake of Christian colonizers. We force charity on reluctant capitalists just as we forced Christianity on the natives. Instead of persuading, we compel. If capitalists want to be ruthless, I say let them be ruthless. But we must never stop trying to persuade them they can do better.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The language of leisure

The language of leisure is articulate about joy and contentment. The language of commerce is mute. It speaks only of maximizing utility functions. As our language becomes ever more colonized by commerce, we lose our simple joys, because we lose our ability to speak of simple joys. Bombarded with a perpetual message of ‘buy this,’ ‘buy that,’ we have forgotten joys in which money is irrelevant. The pleasure of loving. The pleasure of learning. All one needs for a joyful life can be found in the public library. The rest of our time and money can be reserved for the joy of sharing.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Considerations of power, authority and institutions are irrelevant in intellectual life, and yet they have come to occupy a central position in that life. A conversation with a student is far more likely to address questions about jobs and degrees than the substantive issues of philosophy. A true dialog becomes impossible, because third parties are always invoked as authorities. When I engage in a dialog, I strive to obey the following rules:

1. There are only two participants, or three if one of us believes in God.

2. References to third parties may be made for acknowledgement, never for authority.

3. Hearsay evidence is inadmissible. Tell me about your own experience.

I don't even need to explicitly state these rules to politely and amicably enforce them. For example, when my interlocutor cites an authority figure, I ask, "What is his argument?" When he tells me about someone else's experience, I ask him "What has your experience been?" By polite persistence in asking these questions, I find that I can almost always evoke a conversation of the form I want. There is a certain class of people, of course, who squirm at the prospect of such a dialog. When I sense discomfort, I try to make that the discomfort itself the subject of conversation. So long as my interlocutor doesn’t flee, I will eventually find something authentic in him.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Science of Charm

Intuition may occasionally lead me to the right answer to a physics problem. But in order to consistently find right answers, I need method. The same is true in problems of human interaction. Intuition occasionally leads me to say and do the right thing. But to be consistently charming, I need a scientific method.

Tolstoy gives a precise scientific analysis of his characters’ motives. Hollywood entertainment, with rare exceptions, sacrifices scientific precision for entertainment value. Peer review is important in art, just as it is in science. The more time I dedicate to peer-reviewed books, the better will be my understanding of human psychology.

My success in science has always been consistent. But my success in social life was intermittent at best. Things would go fine sometimes. But disasters were a regular occurrence. Scientific precision, my teachers said, was irrelevant in the social world. Socializing, they said, is intuitive. There are no formulas. For a mind that lives and breathes scientific precision, this was the worst thing they could possibly have said.

Social life is not physics. But, I now know, the same intellectual virtues that allow me to succeed in physics also allow me to succeed in social life. The teachers who insisted socializing could never be raised above the level of intuition could not have been more wrong. I later learned they were merely the astrologers of social life. There was a rigorous science of conduct they were entirely ignorant of.

A physicist who expects coworkers to teach her the fundamental theories of physics will quickly discover the workplace is not the place were they are taught. What she learns at work is a supplement to her theoretical training, not a substitute for it. Yet we find ourselves thrust into social life with no training in the theory of good behavior. Even if we’re eager to learn, we quickly discover that those who are good at socializing are busy socializing. They have no time to teach us their theories. The most important skills for socializing, paradoxically, I sometimes have to learn in solitary study.

The best way to learn physics is first to struggle to solve a problem without a method. After repeated failures, the method will seem like manna from heaven. No matter how succulent Newton’s laws are, I must build up an appetite for them, or they will taste like bitter medicine. My struggles to reinvent charm were not wasted. After my repeated failures I was ready and eager to learn the science of good behavior.

The same intellectual virtues that give us our exquisite competence in science can allow us to be exquisitely competent in social life too. The astrologers of social life have undermined our confidence. It is time to put them in their place.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

p values

If a coin is tossed four times and turns up three tails and one head, should we infer that the coin is loaded? Probably not. For a fair coin, there’s a one in four chance that the tosses would come out this way. It could just be a coincidence. If a coin is tossed forty times and turns up thirty tails and ten heads, should we infer that the coin is loaded? Probably. For a fair coin, the chance it could have come up ten or fewer heads randomly is only about one in a thousand. It is really not hard to explain p-values to the man on the street. If I perform an experiment whose outcome is partly due to chance and partly not, the more trials I run, the more certain I can be that the result was not entirely due to chance. That’s the beauty of statistics.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Denatured philosophy

When alcohol is used as a paint remover, a denaturant is added. The technical vocabulary of philosophers serves a similar purpose. They have made philosophy so artless, no one can possibly derive pleasure from it. Only a philistine can endure it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Imaginary numbers

When I was in high school, a professor from the local university was invited to deliver a guest lecture to the nerdiest of the math students. I sat in awe as Professor Sherwood introduced imaginary numbers and showed how they could be used to solve second-order differential equations. Could something this bizarre, outlandish and fascinating actually be true? As it turns out, yes. Three decades later, I use imaginary numbers to solve the differential equations that allow me to design cellular telephones.

The awestruck feeling I got in high school is still alive in me today. Now I get this feeling in the presence of the most brilliant philosophers. Material things, they say, are almost entirely irrelevant to the pursuit of wisdom, virtue and happiness. Could something this bizarre, outlandish and fascinating actually be true?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bourgeois blindness

Both the theologian and the physicist recognize that behind visible things lie invisible things (God in one case, the laws of physics in the other). The bourgeois, on the other hand, shows no enthusiasm for understanding the invisible. He is fully consumed with the visible. Power and wealth are what he sees wherever he looks. It never occurs to him to look for things which require sustained intellectual effort to see. He is capable of sustained intellectual effort only if it is placed in service of things about which he is already enthusiastic: power and wealth. He wants more and more of the things he can already see. He has no interest in learning to see the things he cannot yet see.

Friday, March 28, 2014

I think it’s helpful to distinguish two conceptions of God. In the first, God is an entity that rules the universe. In the second, God is a concept that represents the highest aspirations of mankind. I am an atheist with respect to the first God, but not with respect to the second.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is all truth relative to culture and social environment?

We often hear it said that all truth is relative to culture and social environment. In thinking about this claim, I find it helpful to distinguish two interpretations. The first says, "All truth is relative to culture and social environment. We must accept that we are part of a certain culture and social environment. Things too foreign cannot be seriously entertained." The second interpretation says, "All truth is relative to culture and social environment. We must expose ourselves to a variety of cultures and social environments by reading books from a wide variety of times and places. This will allow us to correct for the bias we have for our own." The first kind of relativist accepts our limitation to our own time and place, even celebrates it. The second sort acknowledges relativism only to go on to combat it.

The greatest philosophers are relativists of the second kind. They ask us to take the questions posed by thinkers of the past seriously, and not sanguinely suppose we have answered them. They aspire to be cosmopolitan and untimely, to transcend the merely personal ties, to cultivate a pathos of distance from hour own place and time in order to understand it.

There is no law but the law of love

One of the ideas that interests me most in the New Testament is the idea that I am not bound by any law but the law to love my neighbor as myself. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans,
Owe no many any thing but to love one another, for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
In one sense this idea is continuous with the thinking of the Old Testament. In Leviticus, I also find the commandment to love my neighbor as myself. When Hillel was asked to sum up the Torah concisely, he answered, "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary." But the Old Testament also contains a bewildering array of laws covering all aspects of human life. The idea that there is no law but the law of love seems to demand, if not an abandonment of all these laws, at least a radical reinterpretation of them.

In John’s first letter, we find an even more radical statement:
No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.
This too is in one sense continuous with the Old Testament, where I find in Deuteronomy the commandment to love God with all my heart and soul. But the Old Testament also tells me God is the creator of the universe. Just as Paul’s statement seems to ask me to throw out all laws but the law of love, John’s statement seems to ask me to throw out all ideas of God but the idea of love. John almost seems to be saying I must be an atheist in regard to God as creator of the universe, whom no man hath seen, and believe only in God as love, whom I have seen. The equation God = love seems to call for a radical reinterpretation of the Old Testament. The greatness, power, glory, and majesty ascribed to God in the Chronicles must now belong to love.

Of course the New Testament is very inconsistent. After telling us there is no law but the law of love, Paul goes on to enumerate many other laws and vituperate against sinners who transgress them. John returns to the idea of God as author of the universe. Do these inconsistencies tell me I should consider the more radical statements as exaggerations? Maybe. Or maybe it is precisely these radical visions, and not the failures to live up to them, that constitute the most important parts of the text.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The first axiom of bourgeois thought: I own, therefore I am.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Love one another and ye have fulfilled the law

Hillel the Elder, when asked to sum up the Torah concisely, answered, "What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary."
Shabbat 31a
Love one another and ye have fulfilled the law.
Paul of Tarsus, Galatians 5:14
Enraptured in thought as he walked to Damascus, Paul of Tarsus decided to cease persecuting Christians and join their ranks. When disobedience has a higher motive—love, kindness, truth—how can I not stand with those who disobey?

Gay rights radicals once believed that law must be subverted for the sake of love. Now that our movement has succeeded, however, the old rebellious impulses have become superfluous. Our advocacy of the rule of law is as staunch as anyone’s. Paul’s antinomian “Love one another and ye have fulfilled the law” was a useful doctrine before we had achieved our recognition in law. But now, there’s no need for such a radically disobedient philosophy. Our particular form of eccentricity has been accepted. Why should we continue fighting for the rights of others?

The lesson from our oppression, if we would learn it rightly, is this—we must talk with the oppressed. We must try to find out—are they really so base, so vile to deserve their oppression?

The authorities told me heterosexuality was mandatory. I disobeyed in the name of love. The authorities told them abstinence was mandatory. They too claim they disobey in the name of love. They call their parties “Love Parades.” I demand tolerance for my eccentricities. How can I sit idly by as they are persecuted for theirs? How can I not sympathize with their plight? A bright eyed young man told me he never in life felt more love in his heart than he feels at a rave. I suppose I was a fool to believe him. But how could I not? He had shame and fear in his eyes, the same shame and fear I once saw in my own.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The asinine and elephantine contend to represent the bovine

Socrates’ character in the Republic observes that most of those who constitute the demos care very little for the pursuit of truth, so that the relation of truth to a democratic regime must always be “as a foreign seed sown in alien soil”—that interaction with the regime inevitably results in the “perversion and alteration” of truth—and that the most advisable course for the seeker of truth is to remain quiet, mind his own affairs, and stand aside as a man stands “under the shelter of a wall in a storm.”

A physicist who begins his lectures by making reference to the opinions of the majority about physics would not be worthy of our attention. The study of physics requires a degree of dedication and discipline available only to a select few, and it is only the opinions of this select few that are worthy of our attention. We can say the same thing about every other discipline, including political science.

The majority may rule the state to varying degrees, but it is a grave mistake to allow it to rule my mind, to any degree whatsoever. What sense is there in attending to the squabbles between the asinine and elephantine aspirants to represent the majority, when that majority is intellectually bovine to begin with? Watching the day to day movements of those who lack intellectual discipline is one of the many ways I shirk my own.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Introspection, observing the movements of my own my mind, can be done well or badly. I can pay close attention. I can let my attention wander. I can be honest with myself about what I see. I can deceive myself. Whether my introspection is done well or badly no one but me can decide. There is no chorus of approving voices for a job well done. There is no chorus of criticism for incompetence. I must rely entirely on my own integrity. This obligatory self-reliance is among the foremost reasons I avoid introspection. I pay lip service to Emerson, but when it comes down to it, it’s hard for me to dispense with the chorus of approving voices. It’s hard for me to engage in any activity that doesn’t have approval as a likely outcome. The soul searching that knows in advance what it will find—admirable sentiments that I can later show off to win nods of approval—this is the kind of soul searching I prefer. The honest soul searching that isn’t looking for something, but observes for the sake of observation alone, this is much more difficult for me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

All my conversation makes reference to my experiences—a book I have read, a place I have visited, a painting I have seen. Shouldn’t I endeavor instead to show how these experiences have profited me, by revealing something of myself? Yes, I have seen beautiful paintings. But isn’t the present moment also beautiful? Shouldn’t I talk, then, about the beauty of the moment, and let the past be past? There is no greater joy than joining hands and giving thanks for the happiness of being alive together in this moment. Yet I always seem to squander the attention of my companions on futile attempts to recreate the past. When I talk about Vermeer, I show only that I didn’t learn what he tried to teach me. The present moment, no matter how ordinary, can be transformed into a magnificent work of art, if only I would devote my full attention to it.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Meditation and infinity

The purpose of meditation is to observe my mind. What relationship does this bear to the way I ordinarily use my mind? In everyday purposeful use of the mind, a thought is sometimes interrupted by another thought. In order to remain fast to its purpose, the mind must have a kind of stack, where it records its position in one thought as it is interrupted by another. In normal, algorithmic use of the mind, I must limit the depth of the stack in order to avoid losing my place. In meditation, however, every thought is interrupted by an observation of the thought. And in this case there is no intention of returning to the original thought. In the meditative state I don’t need or want the functionality of my algorithmic mind, so there is really no reason to avoid a stack overflow. In fact, in terms of my customary algorithmic use of my mind, meditation might be described as a deliberate cultivation of stack overflow. As each thought is interrupted by observation of the thought, the stack becomes longer and longer, deeper and deeper. Each subroutine “Observe this.” is interrupted by another “Observe this.”

In the meditative state my mind feels like it is reeling off into infinity. As the stack grows, I worry that I can’t recover my place in my train of thought. And yet, as soon as I open my eyes, there I am, back in the finite world just as before. I can meet the world’s demands for competent pedestrian reason just as well as before. Of course the feeling of moving toward the infinite is illusory. The mind has a finite number of neurons. But in comparison to the limits I place on the depth of the stack in ordinary consciousness, the meditative state seems to traverse a vast span of emptiness.

For me, algorithmic use of the mind is something like a categorical imperative. It feels immoral, or at least irresponsible, to deliberately produce a stack overflow. But why? Just as I can recover from running “100 GOSUB 100” by hitting the reset button on my computer, I can open my eyes any time and return to the pedestrian algorithmic way of using my mind. When I was a teenager, I found it interesting to see what my TRS-80 Color Computer would do when I used it in ways it wasn’t intended to be used. It was particularly fun to overflow the stack in the less thoroughly policed world of assembly language, where the stack would transgress its boundaries and overwrite video memory, producing colored patterns on the screen.

There is something very political in using the mind in ways it wasn’t intended to be used. When a leader tells me that God intends me to use my mind and body a certain way, I can be sure what he really means is that he intends me to use my mind and body a certain way. Turning my attention inward, and deciding for myself how I will use my mind, even for a moment, is an act of insurrection.

The true end of knowledge

Contemplate the fact that the Earth hurtles through space at a velocity of more than sixty thousand miles per hour. Contemplate how easy it is to forget this fact. Man is distinguished from other animals by his understanding. We claim this elevates us above other animals. But if we were really proud of our understanding, wouldn’t we often contemplate the facts that are furthest removed from sensory experience, the facts that require the greatest exertion of reason to discover and comprehend? Of course we must have food and drink and a warm place to sleep like other animals. But if we were proud of our understanding, wouldn’t we take care of the needs we share with other animals as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then devote ourselves to cultivating the mind?

The seventeenth century philosopher Francis Bacon, whom R. W. Church called the “prophet of knowledge,” aptly predicted how modern man would come to use the faculty of understanding in day to day life. The true end of knowledge, says Bacon, is not pleasure or curiosity, or the raising of the spirit, or eloquence or wit. The true end of knowledge is to invest man with “sovereignty and power.” When man learns to call everything in the universe by its true name, says Bacon, he will finally be able to command and control everything in the universe. Knowledge directed to any purpose other than command and control, knowledge we cultivate merely for the satisfaction of knowing, Bacon likens to a courtesan we use “for pleasure, and not for fruit or generation.” In Bacon’s view, the faculty of understanding elevates man above the other animals only because it allows us to perform our animal functions more efficiently.

The faculty of understanding is now used almost exclusively as an instrument of conquest, whether for conquering nature or conquering men. But, like all victorious causes, the instrumentalization of knowledge has its share of rebellion and dissent. There remains a small minority who have a different answer to the question of how the faculty of understanding is to be used, or for whom the question still remains unanswered.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

On prudence, frugality and celibacy

The part which has been affected by the reasonings of this work is not therefore that which relates to our conduct during the period of celibacy, but to the duty of extending this period till we have a prospect of being able to maintain our children. And it is by no means visionary to indulge a hope of some favourable change in this respect; because it is found by experience that the prevalence of this kind of prudential restraint is extremely different in different countries, and in the same countries at different periods.
Thomas Malthus

In a system of private property, those parents who exercise the prudential restraint Malthus recommends, having only the number of children for which a happy life can be reasonably assured, will provide a happy life to their children. And these children, following the example of their parents, will in turn provide a happy life to their children. Families that exercise diligence in their work, thrift in their expenditures, and restraint in their reproduction will, in time, become wealthy and prosperous.

The problem, however, is that the diligence, thrift and restraint required for prosperity are far from universal. And it is impossible for a kind hearted child to see the impoverished children of less responsible parents without feeling pity and sympathy. Our children can’t be happy if they must cultivate a hard-hearted indifference to the less fortunate. Diligence, thrift and restraint are therefore not sufficient to the happiness of our own children unless they are practiced by all. The wisdom which allows some families to prosper must be advertised to the world.

But in fact what we find advertised to the world is precisely the opposite. Each producer tries to persuade consumers to buy his product. Although each one of these attempts in isolation is innocent enough, their collective effect is to drown out the wisdom that must be passed from one generation to secure the happiness of the next. Messages of diligence are drowned out by a perpetual stream of entertainments. Messages of thrift are drowned out by relentlessly repeated cries of “consume, consume.” Message of restraint are rarely heard, and one suspects this may be because the same enterprises intent on selling their products are intent on having cheap labor to produce them.

We can only hope for a happy future for our children if we try to pass on wisdom to the next generation. But how can we compete with the destructive—even if inadvertently destructive—messages from Hollywood and Madison Avenue? The only solution I can see is to purchase shares of airtime to advertise philanthropic messages. How sobering it would be to hear between advertisements a simple reminder that by spending money on luxuries today rather than saving for the future, we are compromising the happiness of our children—that by sitting down to watch Elmo instead of Hamlet, we are compromising the intellectual development of our children. Of course this is just a pipe dream. Even if the money for such a philanthropic effort could be raised, the media would refuse to air our advertisements. Media enterprises make their living by peddling cries of “consume, consume.” The opposite message is not one they want to be heard.

I hope I am wrong, but I cannot help but think that we have condemned the next generation to unhappiness and ignorance, and there is nothing we can do. Just as in the atmosphere, where enough carbon dioxide has already been pumped into the air to bake the planet, so also in the intellectual atmosphere we have passed the tipping point, and there is no going back. The public sphere has already been privatized and commercialized. The destructive policies of this generation have sealed the fate of the next. At every step on our irresponsible path we glibly assured ourselves “everything’s going to be fine,” and at the same time refused to practice and teach the virtues that would, in fact, have made it fine.

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Television

Just as the American diet includes far more calories than the body can possibly assimilate, so our intellectual diet includes far more facts than the mind can possibly assimilate. We fill our idle time with news, cramming in today’s facts before we have understood yesterday’s. “The news we hear,” says Thoreau, “is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition.” Instead of a daily dose of news, Thoreau recommends a daily dose of Ossian. “I look down from my height on nations, and they become ashes before me.” We’re all concerned that television takes away time from study, work and family. But what’s far more dire is that television takes reverence from study, work and family. Our attention and reverence are no longer directed to great teachers and great books intent on making us better men and women. They’re now directed to celebrities intent on entertaining us.

I imagine the reason we find celebrities so interesting is that they lack intellectual and moral virtues, and yet nonetheless receive honors, adulation and rewards. This is precisely what we most crave. We want to be honored without being worthy of honor. We want to be important without being worthy of importance. Those honored for great achievements don’t interest us. Those honored despite their lack of such achievements fascinate us.

Hamlet requires more intellectual effort to understand. Therefore it is better. Television requires less intellectual effort. Therefore it is worse. “We know people don’t like to make an effort,” say Hollywood executives, “We wont force them. The last thing we want is to alienate our audience.”

The purpose of education is to elevate myself from a lower to a higher form of existence. Education presupposes that there is an order of rank, with the most difficult things at the top and things that require no effort at the bottom. Each active intellect moves in a different direction. Its progress can be assessed only in terms of its own standard of development, which it alone can decide. But no matter what direction my intellect is going, television is not helping it get there. It’s merely distracting and entertaining me.

It’s hard for me to imagine why people find television relaxing. The Hollywood assault on the hierarchy of values in the Western Intellectual Tradition is disturbing, not relaxing. The mind that seeks to develop itself seeks out challenge. When it’s tired, it looks for a different sort of challenge. Meditation transforms leisure from an opportunity to relax the mind to an opportunity to refine the mind. The best use of leisure is to cultivate a profound mental silence. This requires great effort to achieve, but, once achieved, is far more blissful than television.

Television brings a nonstop stream of enticing entertainment to the world. Unlike the entertainment offered by Tolstoy or Goethe, this new democratic form of entertainment is no longer accompanied by subtle enticements to moral and intellectual improvement. It scoffs at all efforts to improve the mind.

The popularity of television is no more evidence that it is good art than the popularity of new-age pseudoscience is evidence that it is good science. The path to enlightenment consists in overcoming and casting off prejudices our peers have imparted to us, taking reason alone as our guide, seeking the most rigorous exemplars of reason from present and past, and hearkening to them and them alone.

The doctrine of laissez-faire, which stipulates that the state may not interfere with consensual private activity, has been broadened in its application. Now we may no longer even criticize consensual private activity. We’re not even sure we should attempt to persuade anyone, even our own children, that books selected by our teachers to educate us are more worthy of attention than television programs contrived to distract, entertain and manipulate us.

The marketplace is exquisite at equalizing supply and demand. But it is indiscriminate in what it supplies and demands. The best we can hope for from the marketplace is the ability to ignore it. To a large extent, we have this ability. But what do we do? We turn on the television. We deliberately invite the primitive and false philosophy of the marketplace into our lives.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

That uncomfortable feeling of idleness

Allowing myself to be ruled by duty to my customers and my constituents, I can never surpass them in virtue. Who knows whether in that rebellious temptation to do what I will rather than what I am told may lie a path to greater virtue? That feeling of idle purposelessness which is so hateful to me may after all be my salvation. It is only by deliberately cultivating purposelessness, after all, that I can hope to find a higher purpose. Aimlessly browsing through books and music, I may accidentally find the poem or symphony that calls my soul to greater dedication to perfect itself, or to greater devotion to helping my fellow men.

Of course if I am browsing in the wasteland of pop culture, my idleness will be worse than purposefulness. But if I eschew what is easy and comfortable and confine myself to what is difficult, the act of trying to grasp may help me reach new heights. Who knows how many have been called to abandon petty cares and dedicate their lives to virtue by a noble attempt to appreciate a great symphony or a great poem?

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The invisible hand and the helping hand

The proud landlord, says Adam Smith, gives no thought to the needs of his brethren, and would keep all his income for himself if he could. But in order to keep in working order all the “baubles and trinkets” he uses to impress himself and his guests, he must pay a portion of his income to workers. The workers thus get from his capricious desire for luxury what they never would have gotten from his meager kindness and charity. This arrangement, says Smith, ends up producing a distribution of the necessaries of life that differs little from what we might have found “had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants.”

The problem with this arrangement is that those who are employed in providing the landlord’s baubles and trinkets might have other talents. They might be painting canvases and writing poetry if they weren’t obliged to clean mansions and cook meals. Of course some people have to do gruntwork some of the time. But the vanity of the owners of capital makes this far more than necessary. A truly great aristocrat would allow his subjects to pursue intellectual pursuits of their own choosing. He would encourage and assist those pursuits as far as his resources permitted. By insisting that his subjects produce the baubles and trinkets he desires, rather than trying to discover where their true talents lie, he leaves these talents idle and undeveloped.

The idea that each of us can pursue our own capricious desire for luxury, and, as if guided by an invisible hand, inevitably advance the interest of society, is perhaps the most fundamental axiom of today’s economy. It is also transparently false. For every dollar I spend entertaining and pampering myself, I have one less dollar to spend educating and improving myself. For every dollar I spend trying to impress others, I have one less dollar to help others.

Some have concluded that socialism offers a solution to the problem. But these forget that the state, too, demands its own baubles and trinkets. In fact no such radical transformation of society is required. Many of the world’s wealthiest individuals already donate a large portion of their resources to support education. The problem is that these benefactors of mankind remain unnoticed. The baubles and trinkets are what we notice. We have reality TV shows about mansions, meals, and other such vain indulgences. But we never show our gratitude to those admirable philanthropists who support the intellectual endeavors of the next generation. Unfortunately, capricious consumption is more entertaining than enlightened philanthropy, and gets all the airtime.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

asceticism (n): the means by which those who are not aristocrats in fact become aristocrats in spirit.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Are we sure we want a classless society?

In a classless society we would all be in the same class as the greedy shopkeeper. I, for one, would rather resurrect a class society than surrender my entire soul to this class. There must be at least two classes—a lower class which seeks material rewards from work, and a higher class that works solely for philanthropic motives. The ascetic monk who seeks no rewards because his needs are little—the scion of inherited wealth who seeks no rewards because his needs are met—both of these are my equals. The grasping, greedy shopkeeper, whether novice or billionaire, is not.

Those who pursue material rewards become irate when we call attention to their petty avarice. But this should not stop us from calling attention to it. Work without reward is indeed a higher human activity than work with reward. And we should not dissimulate respect for the lower form of work merely to protect its practitioners from feelings of inferiority. Even when we can afford to come up into the pure air of aristocratic generosity, we fear offending avaricious men, we refuse to place ourselves above them, and our souls drown along with theirs in the sea of avarice.

I envision a new class of aristocratic professionals who receive no rewards from work, and advertise this proudly to the world. Those without inherited wealth would take up two professions, one a conventional paid profession (accounting, engineering, etc.) and a second philanthropic profession (medicine, philosophy, art, literature, religion, etc.). Thrift and asceticism would allow us to minimize the time and energy we must devote to the lower form of work. Those who are too consumed with paid work to take on a philanthropic profession would, of course, be pitied. But if they’re wearing designer clothes, perhaps the pity would be mingled with contempt.

We imagine that being paid for work makes it somehow more “professional,” more worthy of trust, dignity and respect. I say precisely the opposite. Of two doctors with the same education, the one who refuses all rewards is more worthy of trust, dignity and respect. She can achieve a degree of integrity not available to the one who must be paid.

The writer who is part of the new aristocratic class will proudly advertise on the cover of her books that all royalties will be used for philanthropic purposes. The professor who is part of the new aristocratic class will advertise at the beginning of her lectures that her salary will be used for philanthropic purposes. We must set ourselves apart from the avaricious class and make it clear that they are false role models, that something better is possible. Will we offend our colleagues? Probably. Are we wrong to be proud? No, I don’t think so. Being content with what we have, we are exalted by our humility. And we need not be humble about that. We must overcome our ridiculous fear of offending the avaricious, and show them the contempt they deserve. Our visible display of contempt is what allows us to teach impressionable young minds that excellent work is the mind’s highest calling, and rewards are only impediments to excellence.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

You are a genius

You are a genius. When someone tells you otherwise, it is because he wants you to forsake the path your genius demands and follow him instead. If he tells you your path is useless, he means it is useless to him. If he tells you you will reinvent the wheel, tell him one who reinvents the wheel understands the wheel far better than one who merely bows in awe before the inventions of the past. If he calls you selfish, tell him that by pursuing your genius you will contribute to the world what you and you alone can contribute, instead of just a carbon copy of the greatness that came before.

Pursue the path your genius demands, whether or not your teachers approve of it, whether or not the majority approves of it, whether or not the market approves of it. Surround yourself with those who offer to help you with your task. Shun those who tell you what your task should be. I’m speaking in imperatives only to cancel out all false imperatives, so you know you are free. It will be sad indeed to discover at the end of life that you never created what you and you alone might have created, and concentrated instead on delivering to your contemporaries what they imagined they wanted.

The teacher you want is the one who understands that it is you, and not the marketplace, who must decide your project. The teacher you want is the one who understands that it is you, and not the academic community, who must define the problem you will solve. If your teacher wants to prepare you for a task defined beforehand, to make a contribution to commerce, to solve a set of recognized problems, then shun him.

It is an essential characteristic of the human mind that its greatness can never be predicted beforehand. If a teacher tells you you don’t have the potential to become a great mind, this doesn’t mean you don’t have the potential to become a great mind. It means you must find a new teacher.

Those who demand you cut short the development of your genius sometimes call themselves representatives of the majority. Well, suppose they are. Does the majority know what your mind, and yours alone, is capable of? No, it doesn’t. Nor do its representatives. And if they don’t know what your mind is capable of, why should you allow them to determine the course of its development?

Some of your teachers will discourage you from cultivating your genius by calling you “arrogant” and “selfish.” They are in fact the ones who are arrogant and selfish. They have arrogantly decided that the path they have determined for you is better than the one you might have determined for yourself. They have selfishly decided that the path that is useful to them is better than the one that would have developed your genius. They are ready and willing to cut short the development of your mind so they can use it as a means to carry out their plans.

Some of your teachers will advise you to be practical. But doesn't what is practical depend on what you want to practice? Do you want to develop a free and independent mind capable of conceiving its own projects? Or a servile mind equipped only to carry out the projects of others?

Sometimes those who try to sway you from the path your genius demands will say they’re trying to help. And they may even be sincere. But look closely and you will find they have given up on cultivating their own genius. If a suicidal man advises you how to live, doesn’t his advice, no matter how well intentioned, have the wrong intention? Indeed when I look back on the advice I received in my youth, the vast majority of it was advice to capitulate, to conform, to obey. My would-be advisers were quick with reasons, but the tone of their voice revealed their true motive. They were trying to persuade themselves they had made the right choice when they chose to forsake their own genius. They were trying to persuade themselves the void in their lives where a free and independent intellect might have been, the void that they tried to no avail to drown in puerile pleasures, was something that everyone must have, and not just a consequence of their own cowardice.

It’s never too late to be what you might have been. Each day is a new chance to defy the critics who have sapped your confidence. Each day is a new opportunity to take up anew the quest to develop your genius.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Some thoughts on religion and mythology

In our everyday state of mind the mind inhabits the body, identifies itself with the body, and looks out upon the world from within the body. Certain Eastern religious texts, as I interpret them, offer an alternative state of mind. The mind takes a step back. It temporarily abandons the body and its cares. The mind’s eye looks at the body the way a disinterested scientific observer looks at specimens. This is the first step. Then, the mind takes a second step back. Now it looks at the mind itself the way a disinterested scientific observer looks at specimens. The mind divides itself into two components, an observing component and an observed component. The observing component strives to attain the highest degree of scientific objectivity in its observation.

The idea of objective scientific observation of the self is certainly not confined to Eastern thought. Descartes, for example, questions whether his senses might be deceiving him, whether the apparent world might be a grand illusion. The state of mind from which Descartes’ arguments are offered cannot be the ordinary one where the mind inhabits the body and looks out upon the world. The state of mind that can cultivate Cartesian doubt is one in which the mind looks upon itself as an object of study. This, I submit, differs little from the state of mind proposed by Buddhism.

Another exemplary attempt at scientific self-observation in the West can be found in Freud’s early writings on the psychopathology of everyday life. Although Freud would later focus his attention on his patients, he began his career with a rigorous scientific attempt to observe the self. This probing of one’s own mind to discover its psychological secrets, I submit, differs little from the probing of the mind suggested by Buddhism.

A scientific state of mind is a state in which we never accept a premise because it is comforting or convenient. In fact, comforting or convenient beliefs must be subjected to an even higher standard of scientific scrutiny, since we know the mind has an irrational tendency to favor them. All the world’s religions include a demand to sincerely strive to discover the truth and bear witness to the truth. This means that all the world’s religions contain within them the intent to demythologize themselves and become scientific.

Every working microprocessor is a tangible refutation of magic, mystery and miracles. Technology relies on a world that is consistent, knowable and predictable. Every time you turn on your computer, you testify to your belief in the invariance of physical laws . The science behind our technological marvels would not exist without a scrupulous intellectual conscience, a strict mental discipline that never allows itself any belief not supported by clear and compelling evidence. It is illogical, one might even say hypocritical, to believe in magic, mystery and miracles and at the same time rely on the technological universe we have created.

This doesn’t mean that we must abandon religion, but rather that we must strip it of its incorrect scientific claims, and leave only its moral core. It is far more difficult to love my neighbor as myself and bear witness to the truth than to believe in an outdated science. We can hardly be surprised that most practitioners of religion leave the hard things undone and focus on the easy things. The founders of the world’s great religions showed us how to demand something higher from ourselves. But instead of following their example, we put them into a heavenly realm apart from us. We revere them. And we completely disregard everything they have taught us.

A demythologized religion, on the other hand, presents its founders not as gods but as philosophers, and treats their philosophy not as an antiquarian artifact but as a serious contemporary contender in the question of how to live. The world’s great religions ask, for example, is it sufficient to obey the law, and allow myself to be as arrogant, selfish and spiteful as the law permits? Or does morality require cultivation of modesty, kindness and mercy as well? Shall I strive for gratification from material things, or by cultivating intellectual and moral virtues?

The world’s great religions provide clear answers to these questions and very compelling arguments for their answers. We do ourselves a grave disservice by failing to separate these compelling moral arguments from the outdated science that happened to prevail at the time they were propounded. Because religion’s demands for modesty, kindness and mercy are mixed in with flaky beliefs in magic, mystery and miracles, we suppose that modesty, kindness and mercy must somehow be flaky virtues. And we’re left believing that the only real, scientific virtues are hard-hearted prudence and cunning calculation.

Even if someone were to reinvent the virtues propounded by the world’s great religions and present them in terms utterly free of superstition, this wouldn’t be sufficient. Because of the contingencies of history, we will always associate these virtues with religion. Unless we confront the emotion-laden historical baggage they carry with them, we will never take them seriously, no matter how scientific the jargon in which they are expressed. If we want to rediscover modesty, kindness and mercy, it will not be by ignoring their history, but by studying their history more intelligently.

Friday, January 31, 2014

By dividing human thought into disciplines, what are we concealing from ourselves? The example I like to use is the case of psychiatry and religion. We are very confident that our society must simultaneously entertain numerous conflicting views on the health of the soul. But in regard to the health of the mind, we are confident that there is a privileged scientific view. The German word Geist can be translated as both mind and soul. If we call the distinction into doubt, we might begin to see questions that division of intellectual labor would otherwise conceal. When the health of the soul was established by a single state-sanctioned church, dissenters did not fare well. What happens to dissenters from our state-sanctioned scientific view of the health of the mind? My impression is, they fare no better.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The division of labor mantra

School children and students who love God should never say: “For my part I like mathematics”; “I like French”; “I like Greek.” They should learn to like all these subjects, because all of them develop that faculty of attention which, directed toward God, is the very substance of prayer.
Simone Weil
“We get more and more narrow in our work so that we can become more and more diversified in our consumption,” says British journalist Matt Ridley, as if this were something to be happy about. Concentrate on doing one thing well. As for everything else, sit back and watch someone more competent do the work. So runs the division of labor mantra, from Adam Smith to today. But there is one big problem with this approach to life. To really appreciate music, I have to study music, not just sit back and listen. Any faculty I forsake, stop educating, and leave dormant, makes my life less complete. No matter how hard I try to repair that incompleteness by sitting and watching other people perform, I never recover what I have lost. Don’t just listen to music. Start learning music. Don’t just watch stories. Start inventing stories. Don’t just read bibles. Start writing your own.

Friday, January 24, 2014

One sort of socialism redistributes income and thereby provides a disincentive to productivity. Another sort of socialism redistributes wealth and thereby provides a disincentive to thrift. What we have forgotten is the old and venerable form of socialism that allows wealth to remain in private hands but teaches the wealthy to use it wisely and charitably. How many nineteenth century aristocrats were actually made more liberal by liberal education? Perhaps not many. But now we have given up the attempt.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

When the person who has enough capital to live says “I don’t care about material things,” he, in effect, says that in addition to being financially superior to the common herd, he is morally superior as well. The millionaire who’s still greedy for more doesn’t offend as much. At least he doesn’t put on airs of moral superiority.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The mission statement of the Comparative Literature Department:
Students who begin as admirers of beautiful language will have this sentiment quickly trained out of them. They will be force fed a diet of Fachsprache with no more aesthetic merit than that of mechanical engineering.

Monday, January 20, 2014

In the present era there is a tacit assumption that when I’m not compelled to do something worthwhile, I won’t do anything worthwhile. This assumption stems in part from the fact that the activities most readily available to me—television, pop music—are not worthwhile. But if I am drawn to intellectual challenge as the iron is drawn to the magnet, what need have I to fear I will choose an activity that isn’t worthwhile? What need have I for the regimented routine of workplace or university?

Sunday, January 19, 2014

When I go to the library, I hope each time to find something completely new, something which all my prior experience would never have permitted me to imagine. When I go to work, I hope only to procure more of something very familiar. The cynical capitalist knows in advance how all the virtues are to be measured and assessed. The idea that there might be forms of virtue that represent entirely separate dimensions of human excellence is incomprehensible. Everything real can be measured in units of currency. Any delusions to the contrary, like those fostered by pretentious pedants in humanities departments, will be summarily deflated with a dose of caustic cynicism.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Pharmacotheology

Some Christians believe the soul is separate from the body. But many earlier religions did not. For these religions, psychopharmacology is as integral a part of religion as prayer and fasting. The existence of such religions raises a question. How intellectually coherent is the law when it insists upon freedom of religion and simultaneously insists upon its right to regulate psychopharmacology? Courts and legislators have occasionally recognized the connection between religious freedom and psychopharmacology. For example, Section 21.1307.31 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations concedes that “the listing of peyote as a controlled substance in Schedule I does not apply to the nondrug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church.” But why only the Native American Church? Doesn’t this amount in effect to an establishment of a state-sanctioned church within the category of peyote-using religions? Doesn’t it in effect prohibit the founding new churches? One would have hoped that the First Amendment would apply not just to the various strands of Abrahamic religion, but to non-Abrahamic religions as well. If we consider the archaeological evidence for the intimate connection between psychoactive plants and religion throughout history, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs begins to look not so different from the Vatican Council. And dissenters who defy its edicts begin to look not so different from Luther and Calvin. If a drug produces significant risk of bodily harm, then medical doctors have every right to object to its use. But as far as effects on the mind are concerned, how can secular medicine provide authoritative answers when the religions of the world don't agree on what constitutes mental health?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On Analytic philosophy

In the twentieth century a small group of English and American philosophers proposed to overthrow the authority of the classic texts of philosophy. Although these new philosophers did not necessarily have any pretensions of elevating themselves into a new authority, they have clearly become a new authority to the present generation of philosophy students. The question every student of philosophy must ask, it seems to me, is this: If we accept the claim made by the present generation of teachers that Frege, Russell, Quine, Putnam and Davidson are authoritative texts whose content must be learned, how can we in good conscience reject the claim made by earlier teachers that Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Descartes and Kant are authoritative texts whose content must be learned? If we accept the idea that authority is a legitimate factor in deciding what to read, why limit ourselves to the most recent authorities? Is there something about temporal proximity that legitimates authority?

The present generation of philosophers views the new analytic philosophy as a philosophical analog of the Copernican revolution. In the wake of this revolution, earlier philosophical texts, like earlier cosmological texts, have been reduced to antiquarian artifacts of merely historical interest. Are these pretensions justified? Copernicus clearly fulfills cosmology’s aim of describing the universe far better than his predecessors. Philosophy, however, offers not merely descriptive knowledge but also, perhaps even primarily, prescriptions and exhortations. How should I live? (ethics) How should I comport myself with regard to truth? (epistemology) And to beauty? (aesthetics) And to reverence? (theology) A prescriptive text that relies on incorrect facts or fallacious reasoning would be of no more interest today than obsolete cosmology. But few classic philosophical texts can be wholly dismissed on this basis. The Stoics present a certain way of life in the hopes that it will appear beautiful or noble. Plato presents a certain way of comporting ourselves to truth in the hopes that it will appear beautiful or noble. The authority of exhortatory or prescriptive texts is based on the fact that they have been successful in persuading many past readers to alter their behavior and comportment to truth. How could the authority of such texts ever be annulled by something analogous to a Copernican revolution? Texts that offer articulate and compelling aesthetic or moral arguments about the best way to live and to pursue truth never become obsolete in the way that cosmological truth claims sometimes do. Insofar as we accept the legitimacy of authority in philosophy at all, then, the opinions of past teachers about what texts are authoritative are no less relevant that the opinions of present teachers.

The aversion of present-day students to studying the authoritative texts of all times and places arises partly, of course, from mere indolence, but it also comes from a desire to avoid exhortations to ways of life and ways of pursuing truth different from the ones that are held in high esteem in the present. We are all afflicted to one degree or another with a “presentism” that leads us to think that the opinions of our generation are somehow superior merely because we happen to belong to it. This is analogous to, and hardly less objectionable than, the all too common racism that leads us to think that our race is superior merely because we happen to belong to it.

When an authoritative text must be superseded, the noble form of supersession is seldom merely to ignore the text in defiance of its authority, but rather an attempt to retain, and even augment, the exhortatory elements that make the text worthy of its authoritative status, while at the same time refuting false arguments and false cosmological claims. Three examples of this noble form of supersession seem worthy of mention. The first is Spinoza’s attempt, in his Theologico-Political Treatise, to reinterpret Biblical events in symbolic rather than historic or cosmological terms. The second is Kant’s attempt, in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, to reinterpret the New Testament as a call to transform statutory religion into a religion of pure reason. The third is Rudolf Bultmann’s attempt, in his New Testament and Mythology, to disentangle the New Testament proclamation from the “mythical world picture” in which it is embedded.

A far less noble, but unfortunately far more common, form of supersession is one that impudently raises its middle finger to the authoritative texts of the past, and seeks to obviate their authority in its entirety. The most flagrant example of this ignoble form of supersession is perhaps David Hume’s petulant demand that any book that contains no “reasoning concerning quantity or number” and no “experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact” should be summarily committed to the flames. Few analytic philosophers make their contempt for authority as explicit as this. But the dearth of references to classical literature and the flippant, philistine style of writing make the raised middle finger visible enough. In order to be rightfully acknowledged as an authority, it seems to me that a text must show respect and deference to prior authorities, even in the act of refuting them. John Rawls tells us that an intolerant sect has no right to complain of intolerance. And a generation of philosophers with no regard for the authority of earlier generations has no right to complain if later generations disregard its authority. It is laughable that the present generation of analytic philosophers, with their cacophonous, philistine style of writing and their willful refusal to acknowledge the aesthetic, moral and intellectual authority of the great works of the past, now consider themselves to be authorities worthy of emulation.

Today's philosophy teachers have given up the desire to cultivate genius. They seek rather to churn out philosophical proletarians who can diligently do their part in the division of labor economy. Brian Leiter says, “What distinguishes analytic philosophy ... is its adoption of the research paradigm common in the natural sciences, a paradigm in which numerous individual researchers make small contributions to the solution of a set of generally recognized problems.” For the collective good—i.e., advancement of knowledge—we are willing to sacrifice each particular student, make her merely an instrument useful in solving some specific problem, rather than a complete human being capable of appreciating the human condition to the utmost that her intellectual capacity allows. The study of philosophy, which might have consisted of the joyous and exhilarating activity of discovering great books that fan and fuel the quest for truth, is turned into a tedious exercise in learning to recite their doctrines.

The pedants have decided in advance that their students won’t be geniuses. “It is a bit silly,” says Professor Leiter, “to think that Philosophy Departments can train Nietzsches.” Genius, he hopes, will find its way in the world without philosophy departments. Perhaps Professor Leiter is right that he can’t create geniuses. But he certainly can destroy them. He can so overwhelm his students with the division of labor that no trace of desire for the perfection of the intellect remains. Then students, like their teachers, will seek to cramp, contort and distort the intellect until it fits into some insignificant nook in the intellectual biosphere, and then live there, like a sulfur breathing organism in a hydrothermal vent, never coming out to see the light. How much of the pedant’s cruelty to his students derives from a desire to avenge the intellectual cruelty inflicted upon him by his own teachers? I don’t know. But I cannot help but hope that it might be possible to stop the generational cycle of intellectual abuse, and return to cultivating genius rather than trying to make students into sacrificial lambs for the greater good.

Socrates is reputed to have viewed with indifference the attempts of his contemporaries to accumulate facts. What he professed was not a cold-hearted diligence in discovering facts, but a reverent, devoted pursuit of virtue and wisdom. A philo sophos, in the etymological sense of the word, is not a functionary in the global enterprise of accumulating facts. She is a lover of wisdom. This etymological meaning bears almost no resemblance to the activity practiced today in departments that bear its name. American philosophy departments don’t seek to impart or cultivate a passion for truth. In fact, the few students who have this passion will find it in danger of extinction at every step. The genuine lover of truth would find poetry that expresses the passion to learn and bear witness to the truth at least as relevant as the rules of logic. Yet poetry is about as welcome in America’s philosophy departments as in its engineering departments.