Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why Do Engineers Need the Humanities?

Despite the vast and ever-increasing evidence that continued energy consumption on the present scale will annihilate human civilization—and possibly the human species—engineers continue to place our intellects at the disposal of the system that orchestrates the destruction. In the twentieth century, engineers dutifully and credulously served our governments, leading to the most murderous wars in human history. In the twenty-first, we dutifully and credulously serve an economic system in which a ten degree rise in global temperature and the inevitable resulting obliteration of humanity are considered “externalities.”

The premise in both cases is the same. A mind must train itself to perform some particular task exquisitely, then dutifully place this highly trained mind into the service of aims chosen by other minds, never questioning the wisdom of these aims.

This premise is almost universally accepted in the present age. But it has certainly not been accepted in all ages. There is a tradition, unpopular if not unknown in the intellectual world of today, in which intellect has a responsibility not only to perform its assigned function competently, but also to question the wisdom of the assignment. In this tradition, it would be unthinkable to give a young mind knowledge of physics—and all the power that entails—without also giving it the critical spirit that allows it to assess the validity of the projects for which this knowledge and power will be used.

When we train young minds to reason exquisitely about means, and not to think at all about ends, we should hardly be surprised at the result—exquisitely crafted machines used in a poorly crafted economic system, geared toward short-term pleasures and indifferent to the long-term flourishing of our species. The modern form of education, which teaches science without philosophy, has twice led to the eclipse of human civilization in the twentieth century, and will soon lead to its demise in the twenty-first.

The first thing an intellect ought to have learned is that it is a fine and exquisite thing, which need not—and should not—place itself indiscriminately in service to lesser things. But instead we teach intellect to be modest, as if it had no greater dignity than the tricks of circus performers.

When intellect places itself in service to the commands of a non-intellectual society, it leads to the destruction of that society. This is one of the most important lessons of history. It is a lesson engineers are never taught.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nietzsche's Zarathustra: Rescuing religion from the death of the creator-God

“Hold your highest hopes holy,” says Zarathustra in one breath, and “God is dead” in another. For Nietzsche the creator God is forever gone. But the God that represents man’s highest hopes and aspirations remains very much alive.

What Nietzsche fears most is that creator-man will die along with his creator-God, leaving nothing but “the last man” who has transformed himself into a mere component of an orderly industrial machine. The last man “makes all things small,” including himself. He no longer aspires to create something great, but only to play his tiny part in the machine. The last man enjoys his entertainment, but it must always remain superficial. “He's careful that his entertainment never takes hold of him.”

When duty makes man small, as it does in an industrial society that asks him to become a gear in a vast machine, man must cast a “holy no” in the face of duty. Creating freedom is the first step of all creativity. In the past man put “thou shalt” in his holiest place. “Now he must find frenzy and willfulness in his holiest place.” Creativity demands saying no to the duty that makes man small, and then “a new beginning, a first movement, a holy yes-saying.”

“If you can’t be the holy men of insight, at least be its warriors, the vehicles and harbingers of its holiness.” Nietzsche envisions a new religion where all the piety and reverence we had once directed to the unknown God is directed to a God of insight. He wants us to retain all the evangelical fervor we have lavished on the gospel, but now directed towards a new gospel of creative searching.

What is most praiseworthy is what is most difficult. The next step on the path to greatness is the one that leads uphill. You will invariably seem eccentric. No one will understand your path, except the friend willing to walk beside you.

“To value is to create.” The last man no longer creates. So he can no longer value. What his neighbor seems to value, he avidly adopts as his value. But his neighbor doesn’t create either. The carcasses of dead values circulate in place of living ones. And the stench is overwhelming.

“You must want to burn up in your own flame. How will you become new if you haven't first turned to ashes?” Nietzsche, like Jesus, wants his disciples to die to the world and be born again. Baptism of fire prepares us for a new life of courageous creativity.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Wasted life

In the evening I look for meaningless entertainment. The next day I must do meaningless work to pay for it. If I could only resist the temptation to consume what doesn’t help me flourish intellectually, I would no longer need to produce what doesn’t help me flourish intellectually. How can I escape the cycle of meaningless activity, and begin a life of disciplined contemplation and study?

In America we’re trained from birth to fulfill the demands of consumers, and ruthlessly ignore the demands of intellect. Our teachers imagine they’re doing us a favor by training us for an economically useful role. This, after all, is what allows us to have our own arbitrary demands fulfilled, so that we too can secure our place in the great cycle of mindless production and consumption.

Of course production is necessary to fulfill the needs of the flesh. The problem is, I exaggerate those needs. So I’m left with no time and energy to fulfill the needs of the mind. I busily preen and pamper a body hardly different from that of apes, and ignore the one thing that sets me apart from them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The best 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 best 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 best 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 bĂȘtes 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 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're 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, 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 mind that seeks to perfect itself

One day I’ll throw my computer on the scrap heap. But first I’ll transfer the software to a new machine. My brain will soon be rotting in the ground. But my words come alive each time you read them.

Of course there can’t be words without human bodies to speak them. Hardware requires proper maintenance and care. But the purpose of my life is to perfect my mind—and, someday, to convey its perfected contents to other minds. It remains mysterious to me why so many devote so much attention to pampering and grooming their mortal hardware, and so little to perfecting their immortal software.

The mind that seeks to perfect itself is in one sense humble. It’s aware how far it still has to go. But in another sense the mind that seeks to perfect itself is exalted. No matter how many setbacks it encounters, it never gives up its aspiration to perfection.

As a scientist, I can account for observed facts in nature with rigorous and plausible theories. I can understand how and why the marvels of engineering and medicine work. But in other respects my worldview seems unpalatable. I live in a meaningless mechanical universe. I’m just a biological machine. My mind’s aspiration to perfect itself seems like a pointless idiosyncratic form of arrogance, or simple foolishness.

The religious worldview also has advantages. My aspiration to be perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect is glorified. I have an image of a loving community where all seek to help one another flourish and grow nearer to God. But this worldview also has its problems. My aspiration to be perfect can’t include an aspiration to understand the facts of nature. Technical marvels shouldn’t work at all in my worldview, and yet I continue to rely on them every day.

I hope to persuade you there might be a third choice, a form of intellectual life that preserves the virtues of the scientific worldview, and also has some of the virtues of the religious worldview. I make no claims of anything supernatural. My only claim is that the life of the mind, whether you choose to call it intellectual life or spiritual life, is worthy of the attention and reverence the world’s religions have accorded to it.

Siddhartha didn’t know a thing about axons, dendrites, neurotransmitters, receptor sites, ion channels and membrane potentials. And yet he provides an exquisite way of taming the vast profusion of rogue processes that perpetually plague my mind.

A programmer with no clue how a microprocessor works can still write good code. And a saint or sage with no clue how the brain works might still have exquisite advice for care and maintenance of the mind.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Healing the divided mind

In our age we witness the near universal acceptance of the principle that a mind must adopt two distinct roles: a “professional” role devoted to disciplined intellectual work, and a “personal” role devoted to pleasure. The mind is divided into a producing part and consuming part. We strive to perfect each part in isolation, becoming ever more efficient in making money in the first part, and ever more efficient in producing pleasure in the second. Such a divided mind, far from eliminating pleasure from its intellectual ecology, has made pleasure its defining principle.

The marketplace offers us tasks that seem serious and dignified, until we consider more carefully what their purpose is. Often these tasks demand intellectual rigor, and in this respect they might be helpful to a mind that seeks to perfect itself. But eventually we're bound to ask, if the desired end result is determined by whim rather than intellectual rigor, what’s the point of exerting intellectual rigor in fulfilling it?

Indulging my body’s desire for pleasure is sinful not only because it distracts me from the task of perfecting my mind, but also because it condemns those who produce the tools of pleasure to tasks that don’t help them perfect their minds either. Ten dollars I spend on pleasure, if they were instead used to fund a scholarship, would allow a Third World student to spend one day less in the factory and one day more in the library.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From a falsehood anything follows

The mathematician G. H. Hardy once casually remarked over dinner that a falsehood implies anything. Another guest asked him if he could prove that 2 + 2 = 5 implies that he is the Pope. Hardy replied, "We also know that 2 + 2 = 4, so that 5 = 4. Subtracting 3 we get 2 = 1. The Pope and I are two, hence the Pope and I are one."

When an architect makes her decisions based on spreadsheets in which a dollar offered by a billionaire building yet another ten million dollar mansion is equal to a dollar offered by a homeless man, from this false equation she draws ethical conclusions no less absurd than the factual inferences Hardy draws from his.

Rarely do we find anyone seriously claiming that the present pattern of ownership of material resources is the true and just distribution. The tendency of capital to beget capital means unremedied past injustices never disappear. When someone offers me a dollar for my services, do I ask if the claim this particular dollar makes on me is justified? Even if I wanted to ask, how could I? The precise equality of one dollar with every other dollar conceals the vastly disparate history of each.

A mathematician who begins by grouping unlike things together and then making elaborate calculations based on the aggregate, no matter how competent her mathematical reasoning, is not a competent mathematician. This is the position of bankers who make sums of just and unjust wealth. This is the position of producers who tabulate consumer demand for food, shelter and education alongside consumer demand for mansions and caviar. This is the position of economists who include both production of penicillin and production of psychologically manipulative advertising for children in their gross national products.

We call money a “medium of exchange.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a “medium of persuasion.” By offering money, others persuade me to help them. The mind that seeks to perfect itself demands rigorous arguments, not only about facts, but also about who is genuinely in need of help—and who is behaving like a spoiled child.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The mistake of engineers

When a patient demands medicine, the physician doesn't 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's 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 boy 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.

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 you in with interesting mathematical problems, making you 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. You need only submit to those you recognize as intellectual superiors. Servile arts are ruled by majorities and markets. You must submit to the brute force of votes and dollars, even when those who wield them are your intellectual inferiors. Even if you're fortunate enough to work for a manager who is your intellectual superior, he is still ultimately accountable to the market. If you have your own business, you must hold yourself accountable to the market directly.

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 you consent to be ruled by markets and majorities, the excellences that once placed you above them will begin to fade. What’s worse, you 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.

No, wait. There's 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 sublime?

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 evidence and 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 the 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.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

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 each day to thinking and questioning, sharing dialectical conversation with our fellow men. The ideal of Jesus was to dedicate each 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, 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, there is no 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?”

Thursday, September 4, 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 doesn't 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.

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 to ignore. What, after all, if the claims turn our to be right? They might deprive us of the comfortable couches on which our pampered asses are 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 just culture’s way of peddling its wares. The humanities is one gig among others. The elusive thing they call "intellectual flourishing" 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, September 3, 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.

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.

Friday, July 25, 2014

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.

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.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Where are the genuine leaders?

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?

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.

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.

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 my society could be immoral. In case I begin to have doubts, a panoply of advertising for luxury goods and services reminds me hundreds of times each day that the question is already settled. The tiny voice in the back of my mind reminding me 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.

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?

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.

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's 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?” 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 sentences he wrote in exceptional states of mind if he tried to weave them 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.

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.

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.

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.