Tuesday, October 14, 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 slips of paper and plastic. 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 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. Before the islanders realize what’s happening, they have 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 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 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 the best way I know how.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Les bêtes noires de laissez-faire

As the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism becomes ever more influential in our society, it becomes important to investigate the intellectual coherence of the theory that underlies it. In the eschatology of capitalist utopia, the most abhorrent institution is the table of fixed prices. Prices must be set by free actions of individuals, not legislated by the force of a central authority. But when a crime is committed, how is the punishment determined? By a table of fixed prices for deviance legislated by the central authority—precisely the sort of table libertarians most abhor. The statute of limitations is another example of a fixed table set by the central authority. The tendency of capital to beget capital means the effects of arbitrary decisions are amplified with every passing year.

Although libertarians are wary of central authority, they concede that a central authority must exist to keep track of who owns what. When dissenters question the decisions of the central authority, libertarian theory never has had an intellectually coherent way of dealing with them. The examples by which the beneficence of free trade are demonstrated always assume we are unanimous in regard to who owns what to begin with. In reality there is no such unanimity. Our prices may one day be free from arbitrary authority. But what good is that if the distribution of property is rife with arbitrary authority to begin with?

When I assume without question that I should buy the biggest house I can afford and take the most lavish vacations I can afford, I show a deference to the central authority it doesn't deserve. The central authority doesn’t know if I really deserve these privileges. And I don’t know if I really deserve them. Because of my skepticism, the idea of pampering myself while other human beings suffer is abhorrent to me, whether the central authority tells me it's acceptable or not.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The mistake of engineers

When a patient demands medicine, the physician does not immediately assume the demand must be fulfilled. She first decides if the medicine will be beneficial. A medical science that took as its premise that patients know what is healthy and unhealthy would reach incorrect conclusions. It wouldn’t really be a science at all.

If a man asks me to go a mile with him, I go two miles with him. But if he is going toward self-destruction, I don’t remain silent on the way. I try to persuade him to alter his course. Commercial enterprises, on the other hand, hasten him on the path to self-destruction and collect profits on the way.

When a spoiled child demands more and more toys, we ignore his incessant demands and teach him the virtues of self-denial and self-restraint. But when a billionaire demands a three hundred million dollar mansion, the architect is all too eager to comply.

With exception of a few noble professions such as medicine, commercial enterprises are ruled by a morality deliberately stripped of all difficult demands and reduced, in effect, to amorality. Commercial enterprises never take an oath to do no harm. Those who work for them are complicit in the harm they do.

Many of the demands of consumers are the demands of undisciplined minds driven by ignoble passions. The premise of commercial enterprises is that all consumer demand constitutes an opportunity for profit and none should be passed up. The inevitable consequence is that when we allow ourselves to be ruled by commercial enterprises we allow ourselves to be ruled by the ignoble passions of undisciplined minds. Under such conditions it is impossible to maintain intellectual discipline. Under such conditions it is impossible to remain noble.

The mistake of engineers is that we place the intellect in service to the body, the pure forms of mathematics in service to the impure forms of the marketplace, the higher in service to the lower. The barbaric idea that the development of the intellect must invariably lead to a means of temporal livelihood leads us to think that we must either become professional mathematicians or else find some other professional use for our mathematical talents. But mathematics, like philosophy, is on a higher plane than bodily needs which give rise to the existence of professions. In the same way that the sublimity and beauty of love is corrupted when it is offered for sale, the sublimity and beauty of mathematical talent is corrupted by debasing it into just another ware in the marketplace.

In order for people of differing religions to work together, the organizations we work for must be secular. We conclude from this that they must be scrupulously amoral. But there are secular forms of morality. Aristotle and Seneca, to cite just two examples, give accounts of virtue that are not partisan to any particular religion.

We teach virtue by leading virtuous lives, setting an example of humility for others to follow. If our leaders refuse to learn the lessons of virtue we teach, we must certainly not serve them and thereby make ourselves accessories to their vices.

Monday, October 6, 2014

You’re too smart to be an engineer

Intellectuals in the Middle Ages distinguished between liberal arts, pursued by free men out of sincere intellectual interest, and servile arts, pursued by slaves in service to their masters. Engineering is deceptive. It lures us in with interesting mathematical problems, making us think it’s a liberal art. But in fact engineering is a servile art. Every activity must ultimately justify itself by showing it’s useful to the marketplace or the majority.

Mathematics and other liberal arts are ruled by an intellectual aristocracy. We need only submit to those we recognize as intellectual superiors. Servile arts are ruled by majorities and markets. We must submit to the brute force of votes and dollars, even when those who wield them are our intellectual inferiors. Even if I’m fortunate enough to work for a manager who is my intellectual superior, he is still ultimately accountable to the market. If I have my own business, I must hold myself accountable to the market.

The practitioner of a liberal art is free. He may choose a master when he needs a master to help him advance intellectually. He may be independent when independence suits him. The practitioner of a servile art doesn't get to choose his master, and is certainly never independent.

Liberal arts are open to two sorts of people: those who are already wealthy, and those who despise wealth and live simply and rudely. If you’re determined to earn a living from work, this determination imposes a constraint. If you imagine the constraint is temporary, think again. Thoreau aptly ridicules the foolishness of spending the best part of life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part. He cites the case of an Englishman who went to India to make his fortune so he could return to England and live as a poet. Why didn’t he just move into a garret and begin writing?

It’s impossible to serve a master without being influenced by him. As soon as I consent to be ruled by markets and majorities, the excellences that once placed me above them will begin to fade. What’s worse, I will begin to question whether they were ever really excellences at all.

Saturday, October 4, 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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Johnny can’t meditate

I close my eyes. I concentrate my attention on my breath. I notice thoughts circling around my mind. I berate myself for embarrassing moments in the past. I worry about things that aren’t under my control. The silly thoughts, once I become aware of them, scurry timidly back into their hiding places, as if ashamed of themselves. Finally my mind falls silent. I’m aware of nothing but my breath and the chirping of the birds.

But no, there is one other thing. It’s an intense feeling not quite like any I’ve felt before. What is it?

If this state of self-awareness I’m cultivating right now is the summum bonum, as some Buddhists seem to think, then all the time and effort I have spent in the past—my careful planning to provide a life of material comfort to myself and my loved ones—the intellectual achievements I made in order to support that quest for comfort—all this has been merely wasted time and effort. In fact, it’s quite possible, after all my hard work, my generation may end up leaving the planet uninhabitable.

If, on the other hand, a frenetic pace of nonstop intellectual achievement is the sole source of meaning in life, then the skill I’m learning now could be a really bad influence. What if I enjoy this state of meditative calm? Could it sap my will for all productive activity and send me into a downward spiral of unemployment and indolence? The first chapter of the meditation book told me about the benefits of homelessness. By experimenting with meditation, am I exposing myself to a perverse influence that will lead me to become homeless?

My entire life has been defined with reference to my work. Recreation is intended to re-create my will to work. Rest is intended to give me energy for work. This exercise in meditation, which I expected to be just another interesting form of entertainment, seems to call the fundamental principle of my life into question. Buddha persuaded many of his contemporaries to leave their homes, quit their jobs and live the homeless monastic life. Now I see why.

The consequence of this intense feeling, whatever its source, is that I can’t meditate for more than a few minutes at a time. The idea of confronting the meaninglessness of my life, if it really is meaningless, is too daunting. The risk of disturbing my life is too daunting. Meditation feels like a subversive activity, an act of rebellion against the system of regulated work and regulated pleasure that keeps our whole economic apparatus in motion. Aside from a few years of teenage angst, I have never felt like a subversive force or wanted to be one. So how can I meditate?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Down home meditation

The cross-legged posture. The yellow robes. The Pali and Sanskrit texts. These foreign trappings make meditation seem like something strange and exotic. But is it really? The man clad in overalls in his rocking chair on the porch may very well be meditating better than the urbanite decked in robes sitting cross legged in the Zen Center. He doesn’t call his form of rocking contemplation meditation. The peace he finds he doesn’t call nirvana. But does the lack of foreign names for his calm contemplation make it any less effective?

As far back as I can remember I have spent entire days, even weeks, lying in bed doing nothing. No television. No music. Just lying silently thinking. Perhaps if I had put on a yellow robe and sat cross-legged on the floor with a statue of Buddha at my feet, my mother would have been impressed by my exotic piety rather than appalled by my indolence. But would my thoughts have been any different?

Buddhist teacher Nyanaponika Thera reminds his Western readers that the mindfulness achieved in meditation is not by any means a “mystical” sate. It is not at all foreign to the experience of the average person. “It is, on the contrary, something quite simple and common, and very familiar to us.”

The urbanite jets around the globe seeking entertainment. She spends vast sums of money to stimulate her senses. To her the uncouth country man in his rocking chair is an object of ridicule and derision. But listen to the urbanite’s conversation for a few minutes, and you will see what all the cosmopolitanism and refinement she’s so proud of really amount to. She talks about the Louvre and the Uffizi, not to recount what they have taught her, but to brag where she has been. Proudly recounting the great paintings she has seen, she shows only that they failed to teach her what they might have taught—how to see the beauty in ordinary people and ordinary things. And what does our jetsetter do the moment she gets home? She turns on the television. Her mind never stops looking outward to others for entertainment. Not for a single moment does she achieve the calm, self-reliant reflectiveness of the rocking chair.

The man in the rocking chair may not have exotic names for his wisdom. The examples he uses to illustrate it may be drawn from his village rather than the world. But talk to him for an hour, and you may find that he has discovered, all on his own, important things calm thought can teach, and a perpetual stream of entertainment never will.

Sunday, September 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. Ideas that would have been deemed contradictory according to outdated rules of logic are now harmonious, since they flow from the harmonious whole. 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 logic, 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 this 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 in one particular case: the stage hands that work lighting and cameras, helping to fulfill the sacred function of transmitting images of adored celebrities, are permitted, while concerned with petty technical problems of their trade, to think independently. This exception has been specially carved out because boring, insignificant problems about electrical circuits are beneath the dignity of the majority.

In superstitious ages, when we still believed in the possibility of independent thought, some men and women 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'll find we've arranged to have a newspaper delivered to your door. 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, cozy joy of 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 have 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 accidentally got the slips of paper intended to vouch for approval of the majority, while in fact he continues to defy the majority. No wonder 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.

Friday, September 5, 2014

What's your sign?

Scientific opinion and popular opinion differ so widely and so often that it sometimes seems not only that they come from different worlds, but that the world they're describing must be an altogether different one. One of the most common examples of such disagreement is the case of astrology.

Within the confines of today’s scientific understanding of the universe, it is unlikely that there is any mechanism that could plausibly explain how the position of the stars and planets at the time of a person’s birth could influence his behavior or his fate. The advocates of astrology apparently do not intend to call this scientific understanding of the universe into question. Their intention seems rather to be to assert that science is only one among many ways of thinking, all of which should have an equal right to exist.

The right to exist of differing ways of thinking is of course indisputable. Everyone should be able to have his own opinion on any subject. An equal right to existence is not the same as an equal right to attention, however; nor does it imply an equal right to praise. Those who care about justice, for example, will find unjust opinions, such as racism, entirely repulsive. Although one can recognize that such opinions have a right to exist and be expressed, one can nonetheless despise them.

If someone felt uncomfortable with an opinion because of a concern for justice, no one would find him unreasonable. The question I would like to ask is this: If there were someone who felt uncomfortable with an opinion, not because of concern for justice, but because of concern for truth, would it be fair to call him unreasonable?

The serious, passionate scientist does not consider his way of thinking as merely “one among many” equally valid ways of looking at the physical world. For him, science is the one way of thinking which attends most carefully to truth. The fundamental principle of science is that every truth claim must be justified, either by experiment or by deduction from previously established results. The truth must always be handled with the utmost caution, never merely carelessly fabricated. In real life it is not always handled this way, but this is the ideal.

In everyday conversation, however, things are of course not so serious. There the aim is not a conscientious search for truth, but only a carefree search for entertainment. A topic of conversation is raised, not to instruct and enlighten, but to entertain and amuse. Everyday conversation consists predominantly of jokes and small-talk.

When those participating in the conversation have differing opinions, however, the possibility arises that someone will chose a topic for his jokes and small-talk which for him is cheerful and amusing, but for someone else is a very serious and sensitive topic. This latter person might be someone who cares about justice, when the conversation relates to justice, or someone who cares about truth, when the conversation relates to truth.

When someone is faced with this situation, there are three alternatives. First, he can join in the conversation with his own jokes and small-talk, and thereby abandon or betray the seriousness of his ideals. Second, he can attempt to transform the casual conversation into a serious discussion about justice or truth, and thereby spoil the fun of everyone else. Third, he can maintain an embarrassing silence.

This is the situation in which the admirer of science, the lover of truth, finds himself when someone—merely with the intention of being friendly—asks him, “What’s your sign?”

Friday, August 15, 2014

To whom will I be loyal?

Will I be loyal to intellectual aristocrats? To hereditary aristocrats? To plutocrats? To the majority? This is the most fundamental choice I must make. The loyalty demanded by intellectual aristocracy is very different from that demanded by the other three. While hereditary aristocrats, plutocrats and majorities demand obedience, intellectual aristocrats demand only to be understood. The authority of plutocrats and majorities resides in the living, but intellectual aristocracy includes the dead as well as the living.

All forms of loyalty demand faith in those to whom I am loyal. But here again, the faith demanded by intellectual aristocrats differs from that demanded by the others. Hereditary aristocrats, plutocrats and majorities demand blind acceptance of the facts and values they propound. Intellectual aristocrats rule by persuasion rather than by command. Their only command is: Listen carefully!

For all but brief stretches of its history, mankind has been ruled by unenlightened rulers. The probability that my mind, my brief flash of consciousness between two eternities of darkness, will happen to occur in one of those brief stretches is very small. If I am to have any hope of achieving enlightenment, I must learn how to achieve enlightenment in an unenlightened regime.

Although intellectual aristocracy undoubtedly stretches much farther back in time, the earliest intellectual aristocrats of whom we have evidence do not occur until about three thousand years ago. The first and foremost requirement of membership in the intellectual aristocracy is loyalty to the entire past lineage of intellectual aristocrats, all the way back to the most ancient sages. Most teachers at our universities are not intellectual aristocrats, because they have, explicitly or implicitly, repudiated their loyalty to the ancient sages. Instead, they swear allegiance to one or more of the so-called “revolutionary” movements in intellectual life.
Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
These are the words of eighteenth century philosopher David Hume, one of the greatest rebels against the intellectual aristocracy. Rebels ignore the command of their predecessors to listen carefully and try to understand their doctrines. Like petulant children, rebels thumb their noses at their elders. The French and American Revolutions attempted to establish a new form of governance in temporal life free of influence of the past. Intellectual rebels like Hume attempt to establish a new form of governance in intellectual life free of the influence of the past.
Time, like a river, bears down to us that which is light and inflated, and sinks that which is heavy and solid. … Our only remaining hope and salvation is to begin the whole labor of the mind again.
These are the words of another great revolutionary, seventeenth century philosopher Francis Bacon. For Bacon, the true end of knowledge is to gain control over nature so it can be reshaped for man’s comfort and convenience. The ancient desire to understand for the sake of understanding alone, and not for the sake of “operation,” Bacon holds in contempt.

The ancient sages taught that comfort and convenience are to be despised. Pain in the body can be overruled by discipline in the mind. The mind must be ruler of the body. Rebels like Hume and Bacon seek to reverse this hierarchy.
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists then in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor to think well; this is the principle of morality.
These are the words of Pascal, one of the greatest intellectual aristocrats who has ever lived. Hereditary aristocrats, plutocrats and the majority don’t understand that human dignity consists in thought. For them, it consists in material wealth and power. They would make mind a mere servant of matter, reversing the proper hierarchy.

Hume demands that any book containing no mathematical or empirical reasoning be committed to the flames. But his book contains no mathematical or empirical reasoning. He has consigned himself to the flames along with the philosophy he despised. Those who rebel against the intellectual aristocracy demand their place within it. They too want to be carefully read and understood. Yet by flaunting the claims of earlier intellectual aristocrats to be read and understood, they justify later generations leaving them unread. Philosophers who blatantly disregarded the authority of the past now find their own authority blatantly disregarded, as indeed it should be. By now there have been so many revolutions that many of today’s philosophers have no idea how their theories relate to the past.

As the intellectual aristocracy is undermined by revolutionary forces, it loses the potential it once had to stand as an alternative to the ubiquitous power of plutocrats and majorities. Revolutionary ideas sometimes oppose plutocrats and majorities. But they can never endure. Once the precedent of revolution has been set, another revolution is sure to follow. And the final revolution will inevitably be one cleverly crafted by plutocrats and majorities. Without any serious opposition, the power of plutocrats and majorities in the temporal realm will easily conquer the intellectual realm, and solidify their power into an impenetrable solid mass impervious to opposing thoughts.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

If I apply my intelligence wholeheartedly to the pursuit of material wealth, I will use up my intelligence in the process, and, if I’m lucky, I will end up with what many unintelligent people have without effort. This seems to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of the idea that intelligence should be used in the pursuit of material wealth. Intelligence is the capital that, when put to use in the economy of mind, produces more intelligence. The more of my intellectual capital I use up in pursuit of material wealth, the less I have to pursue greater intellectual wealth.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Work that I hate I want to finish as quickly as possible. Work that I love I want to last forever. The penchant for efficiency arises as a consequence of the dehumanization and alienation of the modern workplace, which make love of work impossible. We go to work not because we love work but because we love money.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What is Freudian vocabulary if not a form of Orwellian “newspeak” that strives to erase previous ways of thought such as Buddhist, Christian, Confucian and Socratic psychology, and make the superficial modern form of psychology, utterly devoid of introspective discipline, sound more plausible and sophisticated than it is?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The ancient idea that prayer is a more worthwhile activity than work finds its contemporary manifestation in the fact that intellectual work is more lucrative than manual labor. Of course the contents of intellectual life have changed along with its form. Our thoughts are no longer free to rise up to what we conceive to be the highest pitch of perfection, to our conception of Truth, Beauty, or God. Now we must limit ourselves to something more in line with the needs of the ordinary man, something more democratic, something the market will appreciate. Those who dedicate our lives to thought must adopt, as the goal of our thought, service to those who don’t dedicate themselves to thought. In the past an occasional genius or saint might have been excused from the grind of manual labor by revealing her dedication to Truth or to God. But now the only God we recognize is the marketplace. We all must prove ourselves there.

The majority of intelligent men and women devote our entire intellectual energy to obtaining that which others have through no intellectual effort. This ought to tell us there’s something profoundly wrong with the way we employ the intellect. The intellect, rather than striving to achieve a realm of freedom, places itself in servitude to what it is not, to institutions and principles that can never represent it or express its needs and aspirations.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The is/ought distinction

The path from science to morality is a very short one, if we would care to take it. Fundamental to science is the norm of objectivity, the demand that I judge the truth or falsity of a claim without considering my personal interests. If I apply the same norm I apply to epistemic actions to other actions, then it follows I must judge the goodness or badness of an action without considering my personal interests. A scientist will reach the same diagnosis when confronted with a wound in the another human being’s arm and a wound in his own. A moral man will take the same action when he observes another human being’s hunger and when he observes his own. The norm of objective observation dictates that in the observed universe the observer is just another element, and must be treated, epistemically and morally, just like any other.

As Hume says, we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is.” But I only know what “is” because I am objective. And the norm of objectivity is by no means silent about what I “ought” to do. The so-called “fact/value distinction” or “is/ought problem” arises only when we forget that facts are not independent entities, but can only be discovered by an objective observer.

Just as my own drives, urges, wishes and desires have no legitimate influence on my epistemic decisions, so they must have no influence on my moral decisions. Perhaps the reason we’re so ready to invoke fact/value and is/ought distinctions is that the moral rigor imposed by the norm of objectivity is uncomfortably stringent. It demands that I love my neighbor as I love myself. It demands that I extinguish my drives and urges. It demands that I behave as well as the founders of religions. And this few philosophers are willing to do.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Luxury and leisure

I have often observed the contempt the American middle class shows for all forms of culture that demand discipline and leisure: ancient languages, literature, philosophy, and essentially every other intellectual pursuit that does not open immediate prospects of wealth. The grimaces that contort the faces of acquaintances when I so much as mention the existence of poetry have always astounded me, and at the same time mystified me. Only now is the source of aversion becoming clear. Although we love to brag about our exotic vacations, we know perfectly well that the leisure required to actually understand the cultures we occasionally visit is far, far beyond our means. Our dedication to middle class luxuries deprives us of the leisure we need to improve our minds. After all, we couldn’t possibly afford leisure and nice furniture too.

Twentieth-century science represents the flowering of the nineteenth-century humanistic ideal of the pursuit of truth. Now that scientists have discarded this ideal, and consider science no more dignified than any other bourgeois profession, the question arises whether the relation of science to what preceded it has the form of a journey or an edifice. If we disavow previous stages of a journey, we are still where we are. If we destroy underlying layers of an edifice, we fall along with it.

Emerson describes one of his motives for keeping a journal as a profound need to rewrite the encyclopedia of human knowledge in the way most intelligible to him, “each mind requiring to write the whole of literature and science for itself.” Does each mind really have such a need? If so, the middle class have been brutalizing ourselves, are still brutalizing ourselves, and intend to continue brutalizing ourselves, by depriving ourselves of its fulfillment. All so we can have nice furniture!

Even to raise the possibility in middle class society that there might be a need for intellectual development sends everyone present into squirms of discomfort. It’s almost as if we had mentioned religion—the other subject that claims we need it, and whose claims we’re determined never to listen to. What, after all, if the claims turn our to be right? They might deprive us of the comfortable couches on which our pampered asses our squirming.

Even though we haven’t understood it, we know beforehand that all this “culture” stuff must be pomp and pretense. Because if it weren’t, we would be forced to admit to ourselves that even in our forties and fifties, we’re still procrastinating remedying the deficiencies in our education. The rhetoric of those who tell us we must learn the arguments for both sides of an issue before we make up our minds is no more than an advertising tactic for those peddling their alleged ability to show us both sides of the issues. The image of the “cultured man” they try to implant in our minds is no different from the image of the happy husband in the driver’s seat of his Cadillac. This is culture’s way of peddling its wares. The humanities is one gig among others. This elusive thing they call intellectual development is nothing more than a marketing ploy. This is what I tell myself, as I sit on my comfortable couch and continue to procrastinate.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

By obeying the will of the majority, whether expressed in polls or markets, I delegate responsibility for the ethical consequences of my actions to the majority. But groups don't have a conscience. Only individuals do. By letting polls and markets decide which actions are worthwhile and which are not, whom I help and whom I ignore, I forsake moral responsibility for my actions. Our economic leaders proudly declare their allegiance to the will of the marketplace. If the majority seeks to entertain themselves rather than morally and intellectually improve themselves, then our economic leaders will provide vapid entertainment rather than challenging art. They see it as a virtue to conform to a popular vice. Our political leaders proudly declare their allegiance to the will of the majority. If the majority is spiteful and vengeful, our political leaders will forsake mercy and diligently cultivate spite and vengeance. They too see it as a virtue to conform to a popular vice. We certainly need leaders to coordinate our actions. But today’s presumptive leaders, with few exceptions, lead only by spinelessly following markets and majorities. Where are the genuine leaders who have the courage to defy market and majority and stand up for what they believe is good and true and just?

To see that following public opinion is not a reliable path to virtue, we need only look at public opinion in Germany in 1933. Are today’s trends as barbaric as these? No, of course not, but they are barbaric, and must be resisted. By allowing spite and vengefulness to overtake mercy, we are degenerating into a police state, where those who dissent from economic and psychopharmacological authorities are locked up for decades with no mens rea requirement. By allowing entertainment to overtake efforts at moral and intellectual improvement, we are degenerating into a nation of vapid consumers. Even our intellectuals have become spineless pedants, documenting the opinions of majorities and markets without ever challenging them. Political scientists no longer debate what political order is good and just. They merely document the opinions of the majority on these subjects. Economists no longer debate questions of objective value, but assume a priori that market values are the values they must use in their calculations. Cigarettes and Elmo are included in their calculation of GNP right along with soybeans and Shakespeare.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


Because all the finest rhetorical techniques are used to sell toys to children, it is no longer possible to use rhetoric to teach any of the virtues, in particular the virtues that might allow children to recognize the superficiality and falseness of the values television has instilled in them. The problem, of course, is hardly new. Constantine managed to transform a philosophy hostile to all authority, in which all laws but the law to love one's neighbor as oneself were explicitly repudiated, into the state religion of his empire. Those who strive for worldly power use rhetoric just as adeptly as those who sincerely strive to help their fellow human beings, and this fact makes us rightly distrust rhetoric. What option does this leave open to those who would sincerely help our fellow human beings?

Sunday, June 29, 2014


Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within; why may we not say, that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art is created that great Leviathan called a commonwealth, or state, (in Latin civitas) which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which, the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; The magistrates, and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members, are the strength; salus populi (the peoples safety) its business; counselors, by whom all things needful for it to know, are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the “let us make man,” pronounced by God in the creation.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), Chapter 1
If Leviathan, the giant machinery of society, is to continue its great strides of progress, the individual sentient being can be no more than a gear in its mechanisms. If the individual sentient being has a dignity too great to be a means to an end, then it makes no sense for it to play its role in Leviathan, nor ask adjacent gears to play theirs. Leviathan has now succeeded in creating an artificial cell. “There’s not a single aspect of human life,” Craig Venter tells us, “that doesn’t have the potential to be totally transformed” by the technologies of the future. Leviathan has succeeded in completely absorbing the flesh and minds of mankind, and all other parts of nature, into its gears, leaving nothing outside. To fight against Leviathan is hopeless. To try to accomplish something outside of its massive spinning gears is hopeless. And to work within them is to treat sentient beings as a means to an end. What choice does that leave?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Passion and work

Marx worked not from compulsion, but from passion. He hoped that the bliss of passion-driven work could be made universal for humanity. We all have a fundamental psychological need to work on projects we are passionate about. But so long as our projects are set by the market rather than by passion, our work will never be “the satisfaction of a need, but only a means for satisfying needs external to it.” Work that is only means to an end, not an end in itself, is tedious. The superficial gratification we seek in place of the profound satisfaction we might have gotten from work will always pale in comparison.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What imaginary entity rules us today?

A riddle: I am an imaginary entity. All men and women allow their thoughts and actions to be ruled by me. What am I?

In the seventeenth century, the answer would certainly have been God. But now, after three centuries of Enlightenment, we are free of such illusions. Or are we? If we ask what imaginary entity rules us today, the answer is clear enough.

Was this replacement of one ruling fiction by another one an improvement? Perhaps some clues to the answer can be found by comparing the music Bach composed under the inspiration of his idea of God to the music pop stars compose under the inspiration of today's ruling imaginary entity.

God can represent the highest aspirations of mankind—our aspirations to be truthful, kind, loving and brave. Under God all men and women are ends in themselves, never means to an end. But apparently money can represent only our petty desires to be pampered and entertained. It transforms all men and women into means to our selfish ends.

The Enlightenment has not removed falsehood from our lives and made us more truthful. It has merely replaced sublime ruling fictions by baser ones. Today’s ruling religion is very well expressed by George Orwell in has “adaptation” of 1 Corinthians 13:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not money, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not money, it profiteth me nothing.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Reverence and love

The fact that reverence and love require a direct object is a limitation of our language. Reverence and love can exist as emotional states that pervade our entire being, that color our disposition toward the entire universe. Bliss and elatedness don’t grammatically require an object. So we don’t feel compelled to imagine they always have an object. If only our language could allow reverence and love the same privilege.

In the Buddhist texts I’ve been reading lately, love and reverence don’t play a major role. These texts teach me how to cultivate states of awareness, not states of reverence and love. Of course they teach me to revere and love the Dhamma and its teachers. But reverence and love for an excellent text or an excellent teacher are very different from reverence and love as states of mind.

I’m accustomed to dispensing love judiciously and discriminately as a way of showing when I do and don’t approve. But now I realize this is a mistake. With this method, when I need to show the world I disapprove, I must turn off feelings of reverence and love. Why should I allow something I disapprove of to have so much influence on me? When my soul is filled with reverence and love, I love the unworthy as well as the worthy. My love doesn’t make the unworthy worthy. It’s not a declaration of assent or approval. It’s a state of mind, and radiates to everything I come in contact with.

Those mired in the world of things consider all discussion of emotion flaky and unscientific. But my emotional state is the most important thing about me. It determines whether I experience joy or sadness. It determines whether I bring joy or sadness into the lives of others. Those who say it’s impossible to reason scientifically about emotion give up the most important science they will ever do. They may be very competent in the science they do instead. But they will often be sad, and they will often bring sadness into the lives of others.

One thing the texts I’ve been studying do teach, and teach very well, is how to scientifically cultivate desirable states of mind. When I achieve a desirable state of mind, I must look for the “origination factors” that produced it. When I lose the desirable state of mind, I must look for the “dissolution factors” that destroyed it. I must do this with all the discipline of the most rigorous scientist. There’s nothing the least bit flaky or unscientific about it.

When I treat another human being as a means to an end, rather than an end in him- or herself, I can’t help but become cynical. When I allow another human being to treat me as a means to an end, I can’t help but become cynical. Why? Because feelings of reverence and love are incompatible with feelings of domination and submission.

The fact that I feel welcome in almost any store or restaurant, that I can select from a huge variety of things and get them just by asking, is little short of miraculous. I should be profoundly grateful to every worker in every store who’s willing to help me. But most of the time I lose this feeling of gratitude. I complain the service is too slow, or the prices too high. I take the miracle for granted, and complain when it doesn’t occur precisely as I expect. Feelings like gratitude and patience sometimes arise spontaneously. But they can also be cultivated.

It’s very difficult to look at all the greed and cynicism in the world without losing my feelings of reverence and love. But as soon as I lose them, I have allowed greed and cynicism to vanquish me. These are precisely the moments when the scientific techniques of cultivating reverence and love are most indispensable.

Sayings like “turn the other cheek” and “bless them that curse you” are repeated often, but rarely taken seriously. This is a shame, because these sayings represent some of the most effective techniques for maintaining feelings of reverence and love as I confront institutions and behaviors I disapprove of. We’re accustomed to scowls and sour faces when we do something wrong. These become our role models. So we too deliberately put on sour faces when we see something we disapprove of. But is this really the best way to show our disapproval? Probably not.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Gandhi and Marx

When Gandhi was thrown off the train for the color of his skin, he didn’t ask, “Why do they treat me so badly?” Instead, he asked, “Why do men treat one another so badly, and what can I do about it?” He didn’t seek to make himself a privileged exception. He sought to ameliorate the situation of all mankind.

Karl Marx saw how tedious and meaningless work could be. But instead of seeking special privileges for himself so he would be immune from the tedium, he sought to understand why tedious, meaningless work was necessary, and what changes in economic organization might make it unnecessary.

When I was younger, I too saw how tedious and meaningless work could be. But unlike Gandhi and Marx, I didn’t seek to ameliorate the condition of mankind. I just made sure that my own job would be one of the rare privileged ones that are interesting and meaningful. Now, in middle age, this decision comes to haunt me. Even if I have one of the few interesting jobs, my existence depends on the miserable existence of millions of factory workers condemned to mind-destroying repetitive tasks.
Jaron Lanier notices that a tablet computer runs only programs and applications approved by a central authority, and sees this as a trend toward centralized authority in computing. Every technological advance creates new opportunities for nonconformity and dissidence, which a ruler must diligently suppress. When it becomes necessary to outlaw programs that might allow individuals to control their own digital destiny, we’ll have to declare war on the rogue file sharers. The war on digital freedom might very well follow a similar pattern to the war on psychopharmacological freedom in the 60s. All our programs will have to be approved by our digital doctors, carefully preened and selected by the state. If we want to enforce conformity and obedience, we can no more tolerate unlicensed computer programmers than unlicensed psychopharmacologists.
A man symbolizing the state and a woman symbolizing the pharmaceutical industry lay in bed together. The man began complaining about dissenters.

“I want to silence them,” he said, “but my constitution prohibits it.”

“Can you force them to take whatever medicines I demand?” she asked.


“Then I can silence them for you, darling.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Moral monstrosities who choose to live in luxury while other human beings suffer would, one might imagine, be treated with revulsion and scorn by all intelligent men and women. But what we find is precisely the opposite. In business and politics it is precisely these moral monstrosities who command our respect and adulation. We report to their offices every day, eager to serve their every whim. We imagine that in obeying them we fulfill our moral duty, as if our duty were exhausted merely in obeying, and not in rightly choosing whom we obey. In cases of doubt in moral matters, the strictest course must always be followed. We must choose as our leaders kind, selfless men and women, not selfish monsters who live comfortably in mansions while other human beings suffer in the streets.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Demythologizing salvation by faith

At any moment, I can begin anew to seek to embody my ideal of the good. In order to do so, I must break free of identification with past acts that don’t correspond with my ideal of the good. It’s not that I’m forgiving myself, but rather that my ideal is forgiving me for my flawed attempts to embody it. I have faith that my ideal will see my attempts as a noble striving, rather than condemning or ridiculing me for my failures. Each instant is an opportunity to reassert my faith in my ideal of the good, to accept its forgiveness for my failures, and to strive with renewed vigor to live up to its demands. The part of me that failed in the past isn’t the part I identify with in the present. The part I identify with is the merciful part who forgives my past self for its failures, the nurturing part who encourages me to do better. The mistake that makes me most unhappy is to define myself by my failures, as if the failures were my defining characteristics and my striving to overcome them were trifling and insignificant.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


My friends worry that I’m not looking out for my self-interest. They are, in a sense, right. I want to transform myself into a self worthy of preservation and interest. Unless I do that, I have no reason to preserve myself, and no interest in doing so.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Everyone has heard those fables and legends from the formative years of all civilizations which ascribe to music powers far greater than those of any mere art: the capacity to control men and nations. These accounts make of music a kind of secret regent, or a lawbook for men and their governments, From the most ancient days of China to the myths of the Greeks we find the concept of an ideal, heavenly life for men under the hegemony of music.
Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (1943), R. and C. Winston, trans. (1969), p. 17
Now that music, in keeping with the ideals of democracy, is under control of the marketplace, and seeks to entertain rather than to educate, to be ruled rather than to rule, it has, like all the arts that once claimed aristocratic status for themselves, forsaken its role as leader of men and nations and adopted a meek, subservient role. Now, instead of men leading a heavenly life under the hegemony of beautiful music, music leads a stunted, crippled existence under the hegemony of men.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The brutality of a man purely motivated by monetary considerations … often does not appear to him at all as a moral delinquency, since he is aware only of a rigorously logical behavior, which draws the objective consequences of the situation.
Georg Simmel, “Domination,” On Individuality and Social Forms (1971), p. 110
I don't mind being ruled by a man, if he is a good man. I don't mind being ruled by a principle, if it is a true principle. But at present we are ruled by spineless men who bow to markets and majorities. At present we are ruled by a principle which is the negation of principles—the principle that makes the unprincipled whims of unprincipled men, as expressed in polls and markets, the foremost arbiter of the goodness of our thoughts and actions.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Nonconformists, past and present

As I read about the oppression faced by sodomites like myself throughout history, I cannot help but observe how widely the arguments used by our oppressors are still used by those who persecute practitioners of other alternative lifestyles today. When confronted with the sodomite’s claim that, to him, his choice seemed moral and rational, and that he might have a right to decide his conduct for himself, his oppressor’s response was that he was deluded by his sinful lust, and incapable of ratiocination. Perhaps this is a foolish and uneducated question, but I would like to know, how, exactly, does this differ from the arguments today’s rulers use to justify their ruthless suppression of psychopharmacological dissent? Once a wayward soul tastes the forbidden fruit of sodomy, he rarely returns to upright heterosexual behavior. If we are to judge forbidden acts by their addictive potential, then experiments in sexuality seem to rank on a par with experiments in psychopharmacology. Those supposedly scientific studies that find practitioners of today’s forbidden lifestyles are subject to behavioral maladjustments, if conducted in a past era where sodomy was forbidden, would find similar behavioral maladjustments in sodomites. When psychological health is defined as “adjustment” to present conditions, it can hardly surprise anyone that those who have the courage to resist the pressures to conform to present conditions will be considered maladjusted. The “common sense” which oppressors of alternative lifestyles fall back on is a reflection of the prejudices of the present moment, and reflects majority opinion rather than scientific fact. Personally, I am ashamed to be the beneficiary of a liberalization that tolerates and even supports my lifestyle, while treating other alternative lifestyles with ever renewed ruthlessness. I was courageous enough to defy the irrational prejudices of the majority and decide for myself, based on my own individual assessment of scientific evidence and my own personal experience, what sexual regimen I would adopt. I support the outlaws of today who have the courage to defy the irrational prejudices of the majority and decide for themselves, based on their own individual assessment of scientific evidence and their own personal experience, what psychopharmacological regimen they will adopt.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Technology seems like a pristine manifestation of scientific rationality, until we look at it more closely. Then we see that it depends not only on the pristine pursuit of scientific truth, but also on the still rationally unjustified institution of private property. The discrepancy becomes more readily apparent when we look at real life engineers, who, despite our pristine rationality at work, use the resources we obtain from our enterprises no more rationally than any other professionals, squandering them on monuments to our egos while other human beings suffer from lack of food, shelter and education.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Is it moral to live in luxury while other human beings suffer?

The question, “Is it moral to live in luxury while other human beings suffer?” must already have been answered in the affirmative. It is, after all, inconceivable, that the leaders of our society could be immoral. In case we begin to have doubts, a panoply of advertising for luxury goods and services reminds us hundreds of times every day that the question is already settled. The tiny voice in the back of our minds reminding us that repeated assertion does not amount to proof is easily drowned out in the cacophony of repeated assertion, so that repeated assertion, in effect, amounts to proof.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


If, as scientists say, the mind is no more than an ephemeral sequence of electrochemical signals, it’s implausible to suppose my particular sequence of signals will be preserved. Not unless I actively do something to preserve it.

You can be sure there will be plenty of nonconformists in the future, each one searching the internet for comrades. If there is something unique about you, some way in which you differ fundamentally from others, and you succeed in capturing it in writing, then, have no doubt, some nonconformist soul will find it on some bright future day. There’s no need to lament an inadequate afterlife.

Even if, like me, you’re not famous, future historians might still be interested in the experience of early twenty-first century life. They might seek out your testimony to what it was like. The better you are at capturing what’s unique about you, the more likely it is that what’s unique about you will be preserved.

You’re important enough to capture your thoughts for posterity. Even if you have no reason to expect anyone will ever read them. You are unique. You are exceptional. Try to understand what it is about you that is unique and exceptional. Resist the ubiquitous pressure to make yourself useful in the short term. Perfect that unique thing about you. Then you can be quite sure you’ll be useful in the long term.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why study science?

The command “Say nothing but what can be scientifically verified” says nothing that can be scientifically verified. The advocate of this kind of restraint, if he is consistent, must remain resolutely silent. The question “Why study science?” can’t be answered by science. When scientists attempt to answer it they cease to be scientists and become philosophers—more often than not, incompetent ones.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The new form of Hegelian synthesis

The new form of Hegelian synthesis is to blur black and white into gray. The more subtle form of dialectical thought that sought to understand the reasons for an opposition before abolishing it has vanished.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

There are two rational responses to the dialogs perpetually going on inside my mind. The first is to pay careful attention to them, write them down, and try to understand if they have any value. The second is to silence them. In fact what I do most of the time is very irrational. I allow the dialogs to proceed without observing them, consuming attention and intellectual energy in endless rehearsals of a show that will never be performed.

Friday, May 9, 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.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Buddha advises me to avoid feelings of attachment to life, even my own life. At first I thought he must be hard-hearted. But today I understand what he means. Don’t try to grasp and hold life, he says. Concentrate instead on making it a happy life. Grasping concentrates only on preserving life, and not on making life worthy of preserving.

Does this mean I will live recklessly? No. If I devote my attention to making myself and others happy, I will palpably feel in each moment that life is worth preserving. If, on the other hand, I follow the American Dream, pursuing trophies rather than happiness, then I will need selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to provide an artificial lust for life when the intrinsic one is lost.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The sacredness of simple truths

Kierkegaard taught that it's not knowing the truth that's important. It's how I'm related to the truth I know. I know that 2 + 2 = 4. But I treat this as an insignificant fact of arithmetic. It isn't. Every true statement is sacred. Those who sever mathematics from religion fail to appreciate the sacredness of simple truths. Those who sever mathematics from art fail to appreciate the beauty of simple truths. Socrates taught that it isn't so important to be wise as to be a lover of wisdom. Where better to begin than with mathematics?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Intellectual hygiene

All intellectual progress depends on cultivating order in the mind, and can be undone in a single moment when the mind falls into chaos. All moral progress depends on cultivating moral feelings—love, mercy, kindness—and dispelling immoral feelings—hate, cruelty, vengefulness—and can be undone in a single moment when the mind falls into chaos. Intellectual hygiene refers to the discipline of keeping in the mind those things that are conducive to intellectual and moral progress, and dispelling from the mind those things that are not.

The mathematician G.H. Hardy once casually remarked over dinner that a falsehood implies anything. Another guest asked him if he could demonstrate that 2 + 2 = 5 implies that McTaggart is the Pope. Hardy replied, "We also know that 2 + 2 = 4, so that 5 = 4. Subtracting 3 we get 2 = 1. McTaggart and the Pope are two, hence McTaggart and the Pope are one." More prosaically, we can prove that (A and not-A) implies X, for any statement X whatsoever. If A is true, then it follows that either A or X is true. And if either A or X is true and A is false, it follows that X is true.

These examples demonstrate the importance of one aspect of intellectual hygiene: keeping the mind free of falsehoods and contradictions. A single contradiction, if not confronted, can corrupt the functioning of the mind even in far removed and apparently unrelated areas. Skepticism, controlled experiments, devils advocates, confirmation bias, p values—these time-honored methods of keeping falsehood at bay are indispensable not just to the scientist, but to anyone striving for intellectual excellence. This doesn’t mean I must have precise knowledge of every subject. It means that where there is no precision, there should be silence.

This brings me to a second aspect of intellectual hygiene: the cultivation of mental silence. The Western world spends its leisure hours seeking entertainment. Moments that might have been used to improve the mind are instead spent entertaining it. The cultivation of intellectual excellence demands that I spend as much time as possible reading books that are difficult and challenging. But of course there always comes a time when the mind needs rest. When my mind is tired, when my guard against triviality, falsehood and error is at its weakest—this, tragically, is precisely the time when I'm most tempted to turn on the television. In my weakest moments I subject myself to pablum deliberately contrived to entertain me, and allow it to defile the sacred sanctuary of the mind. Thoreau points out the dangers to intellectual hygiene in the preferred method of distraction of his day: the newspaper. Why, he wonders, would anyone deliberately invite the details of trivial affairs, the incidents whose significance will disappear within weeks or months, into the mind, which might have been sacred ground for thought? “Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed?” asks Thoreau, “Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself, an hypæthral temple, consecrated to the service of the gods?”

In order to cultivate mental silence, the mind must not only avoid intentional distraction, but must also learn to turn off the constant stream of noise the mind produces on its own. In order to turn off the noise, it is first necessary to listen to it carefully. This requires turning my attention inward and becoming fully aware of the contents of the mind. The Satipatthana method suggests that I focus my attention on my breath. At first this seemed somewhat arbitrary to me, but now I understand the logic. Unlike the heartbeat, which is always automatic, unlike the motion of the hands, which is always deliberate, we can breathe both unconsciously and deliberately. By directing my attention to my breath, I look right at the threshold between conscious and unconscious. If we say, metaphorically, that the thoughts that intrude on my mental silence are bubbling up from my unconscious, then by concentrating my attention on the threshold, I see them as soon as I possibly can.

It might help to distinguish two different meanings of democracy. In the first, the majority is the ultimate arbiter of all values and the ultimate arbiter of truth. In the second, the majority is entitled to rule in the material realm, but in matters of intellect, each mind is free to pursue excellence in its own way. The second conception of democracy is compatible with intellectual hygiene. The first is not.

In social life, the aids to intellectual hygiene are the teacher the friend. The obstacles to intellectual hygiene are the advertiser, the showman, the gossip and the tyrant. It is an unfortunate fact of life that in today’s world we encounter far more obstacles than aids. From an ethical point of view, I must always strive to be a teacher and a friend, and scrupulously avoid being a advertiser, showman, gossip or tyrant. In a world where many of us get our economic sustenance from advertising, showmanship and manipulation, this has profound implications.

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.

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

Charm and good looks

In the quest to win friends and influence people, what's more important—charm and good behavior—or money and good looks? The cynics are probably right that most people don’t really care if 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. 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.

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 kingdom of intellect

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 we 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. A cowardly intellect, when it begins to get close to a boundary where further logical thought will lead away from peaceful intellectual coexistence with rulers, immediately backs down. To the cowardly mind, rulers, whether monarchs or majorities, must always be right. Even if the values rulers commend are contradictory, there's no reason to question them. My ruler was rational enough to build the most tanks. I must be rational enough to fear 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'm 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. He recognized that to refuse to commit himself to a position, to make his assaults upon truth merely tentative, was among the foremost intellectual virtues.