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?”

Sunday, August 31, 2014

“I think of my vocation as free climbing on the cliffs of the soul. I often fall. And the further I fall, the more it hurts. But this doesn’t stop me from wanting to keep climbing.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sex can be merely a mechanical quest for pleasure, or it can be an expression of love. Work can be merely a mechanical quest for wealth, or it can be an expression of love. And just as the pleasure from loveless sex never really satisfies, so also the wealth from loveless work never really satisfies.

Friday, August 15, 2014

To whom will I be loyal? This is the most fundamental choice I must make. Will I be loyal to intellectual aristocrats? To hereditary aristocrats? To plutocrats? To the majority? The loyalty demanded by the intellectual aristocracy is very different from that demanded by the other three. While hereditary aristocrats, plutocrats and the majority demand obedience, intellectual aristocrats demand only to be understood. The authority of hereditary aristocrats, plutocrats and the majority 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 the majority 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.

Friday, July 25, 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?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Work that one hates one wants to have done with as quickly as possible. Work that one loves one wants 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. An occasional genius or saint might once 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 fact that the majority of intelligent men and women devote our entire intellectual energy to obtaining that which others have through no intellectual effort 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

I have often observed the contempt of the American middle class for all forms of culture that demand discipline and leisure: foreign 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 middle class 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 furniture 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 1937. 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 men, and this fact makes us rightly distrust rhetoric. What option does this leave open to those who would sincerely help our fellow men?

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.

We can imagine an analogous pattern in the development of Marx’s thought. 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.”

Then the woman began complaining that the medicines her mother, symbolizing nature, was handing out for free threatened her profits, and asked the man if he could, in return for the favor she had promised him, put a stop to this.

“Certainly, darling,” was his reply.

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.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Be ruled only by the best

I strive to embody and propagate what is highest in my culture. The intellectual development expected in an era dominated by the division of labor, however, is to embody and propagate a subset selected, not on the basis of excellence, but on the basis of a deliberately cultivated partiality.

What tempts me to devote myself to something partial, rather than to the best? I want to be able to get a job. In other words, partiality to my material interests makes me partial to the wrong subset of intellectual interests—a subset selected by a criterion other than excellence.

Aristocracy means “rule by the best.” If we can set aside the absurd idea that the best can be decided by banknotes, battles and bloodlines, it seems very sensible to follow the best. We’re fortunate enough to be somewhat free in choosing who will lead us, at least in intellectual life. But do we choose the best? Not often. In fact we seem to go out of our way to deliberately seek leaders approved by the average man—as if averageness, and not excellence, were the proper criterion for choosing a leader.

The enforcers of democratic conformism don’t look askance at intellectual excellence, so long as it’s used strictly for the purpose of obtaining money, power or reputation. The means may be idiosyncratic. The ends may not. So long as we show our obedience to majorities and markets by choosing our activities on the basis of money, power or reputation, we are excused, within this narrow realm, for pursuing excellence.

There’s a noble ideal of democracy where all men and women strive to improve ourselves and become aristocrats. And then there’s democracy in practice, where we bow to majorities and markets even when we’re capable of something higher. Choosing the average man as a leader is an exquisite way to excuse myself from the arduous effort required to pursue moral and intellectual excellence. Why should I feel any remorse for my credulousness, vengefulness and cowardice, when I’ve deliberately cultivated these character traits in dutiful obedience to my ruler, the majority?

Should an economist choose to read a mediocre economics text when he has not yet read the best works of sociology, philosophy, and history? Yes, says the principle of division of labor, an excellent economist and an excellent sociologist, together, are more excellent than two unspecialized thinkers. This may indeed be the case when the form of excellence in question is that of finding means for carrying out predefined aims. But who is defining these aims? Are they the best possible aims? If he wants to answer questions like these, our economist must put down his economics book and pick up the best works of sociology, philosophy, and history.

The aims of the labor being divided in our intricate economy are set by majorities and markets, by the average man. There is no reason to suppose these aims are as noble as the aims I would pursue if I were to hearken to those I perceive as the best.

But if each individual were to ignore majorities and markets and hearken only to those he perceives as the best, wouldn’t our intricate economy degenerate into chaos? I don’t think so. The fact that those who coordinate our activities happen to have sworn their allegiance to majorities and markets doesn’t make them more competent. Those who swear allegiance to the best rather than the norm are also capable, perhaps even more capable, of coordinating and organizing human activity.

The state compels by threat of violence. The market compels by threat of starvation. But within these constraints there’s still a lot of leeway, perhaps more than we imagine. Most of the obstacles to our freedom aren’t so dire as violence and starvation. We forsake freedom not because we are compelled but because we are deceived. We’re deceived by advertisements into thinking that owning better things makes us better human beings. Then, to pay for these things, we must serve the market.

The foremost characteristic of an excellent leader is that he is excellent not because of what he has, but because of what he is. He is excellent not because of his wealth, but because of his wisdom, not because of his power, but because of his ability to persuade. Undress your leader, and, as he stands naked before you, ask him what he knows, what he stands for, what he is.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Life has no purpose

The inner voice is relentlessly critical. “You only get one chance to live this life. Are you going to goof off and have a good time, or are you going to concentrate on achieving what you and you alone are capable of achieving?”

“I am achieving something.” I try to defend myself. “I work hard!”

The relentless inner voice continues its attack. “Yes, and what are you doing with the resources you obtain from your work? Goofing off and having a good time. In fact, if you were honest with yourself, I think you’d have to admit the sole purpose of your work is to obtain resources to goof off and have a good time. I see no striving for something higher. I see no attempt to contrive a serious purpose for your life. It’s all about entertainment. Work is merely a way to obtain resources to entertain yourself.”

“You are so pretentious,” I petulantly tell the inner voice, “Who are you to say that what you demand is higher than entertainment?”

“I’m not telling you what the purpose of your life must be.” Now the voice was speaking in a kinder tone. “But you must have some purpose. At work you allow your purpose to be set by your employer. At home you seek only to relax and to be entertained. At no point are you striving to define a purpose for your life, to give some meaning to your life.”

“Life has no meaning.”

“It’s true that at present your life has no meaning. It’s not necessarily true that it can’t have a meaning. It is up to you to give it meaning, to set a goal for yourself and strive with all your effort to achieve it.”

“I have a goal. I want to be a successful engineer.”

“Are you directing all your resources toward that goal? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. I see you spending time watching television. I see you spending money on theater tickets. If being a successful engineer is really the goal of your life, why aren’t you putting all your time and resources into it? I think you’re deceiving yourself. You say your goal is to be a successful engineer. But this is only a means. Engineering is all about means. What is the end? To entertain yourself. To make yourself comfortable. You devote your life to making your life comfortable, and nothing more.”

“What’s wrong with comfort?”

“Do you sometimes work longer hours than is comfortable?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Is that because being a successful engineer is a higher goal than comfort?”

“Yes, I suppose.”

“If the goal of being a successful engineer is merely to make yourself comfortable, why sacrifice comfort to obtain comfort.”

“Because I gain more comfort than I sacrifice.”

“If you can dispense with comfort half the day while you work, why not dispense with it for the other half too?”


“Yes, precisely. Why? That would force you to ask why. That would compel you to decide on a purpose for your life. Your concern with comfort is merely a way of procrastinating, of evading the question. What is the purpose of your life, Peter?”

“This is all so stupid. Life has no purpose. The Earth will be swallowed by the Sun in a few billion years, and all life will perish, leaving no trace.”

“As I see it, Peter, your life consists of cycles of purposeful and purposeless behavior. Why are the episodes of purposeless necessary? Why can’t you devote yourself entirely to your purpose. It must be because you have not yet found a purpose worth devoting yourself to. The fact that the Sun will swallow up the Earth in a few billion years makes it harder to find a purpose, that is true. But it’s unlike you to give up at the first sign of difficulty.”

“That’s true.” At least the inner voice had finally said something complimentary.

“If engineering is a worthwhile purpose, why aren’t you devoting all your time and resources to it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Your employer rewards you for it.”


“So he must think it serves a worthwhile purpose.”

“Yes,” I said, feeling somewhat relieved.

“But what do you think, Peter?”

“I think I can trust my employer.”

“I see. Why? How does he know?”

I said nothing. I had never really thought about that before. How does my employer know if my work is worthwhile. “He gauges the worth of our results by the response of the marketplace,” was the answer I came out with.

“If the truth of mathematical theorems was decided by those uneducated in mathematics, would you trust the answers?”


“By putting your trust in the marketplace, you let others decide for you what is a worthwhile activity. Are these others more competent than you in choosing a purpose and direction for your life?”

“No, I guess not,” I conceded.

“By allowing the purpose of your life to be decided by the marketplace, you are procrastinating, evading the question. What is the purpose of your life, Peter?”

At this point I was beginning to feel trapped. “Do I really have to have a purpose? What’s wrong with a purposeless life?”

“What’s wrong with a purposeless part in one of your engineering designs?”

“It’s costly to manufacture and maintain.”

“Is that all?”

“I suppose a design with superfluous parts is a less elegant design.”

“Yes, that’s very good. I would argue that your daily cycle of work and entertainment is a superfluous part of your life. It is costing intellectual effort. It’s accomplishing nothing. Stop wasting time and resources entertaining yourself. Devote this intellectual energy to finding a purpose for your life. This will be a more elegant design for your life.”

“I have to eat.”

“Yes. But you needn’t waste time and resources trying to get gratification from food. True gratification comes not from sensory pleasure but from living a purposeful life.”

“What if I have no purpose? Then I should do nothing?”

“You should do nothing but strive to find a purpose. Empty your life and your mind of superfluous, purposeless activity, and leave some room for a purpose to emerge.”

“And what if none emerges?”

“Once you begin to free your life and your mind from purposeless action, you will think about purposeful action. And this thinking about purposeful action in itself is purposeful. Even at times when it finds no reasons to act, your discipline has prevented you from purposeless action.”

There was some truth to what the inner voice was saying. “Purposeless activity produces carbon dioxide,” I conceded. “If it can be eliminated, this does at least improve the prospects of generations that live between now and the time when the planet is swallowed by the Sun.”

“Yes, eliminating purposeless action prevents the waste of resources, both your own intellectual resources and the resources of the planet.”

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 the average man, 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.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The flourishing intellect

The information passed between generations by means of culture is difficult to quantify, but is certainly much larger than the approximately 100 megabits passed between generations by means of nucleic acids. Some scientists like to call the cultural component of the human intergenerational legacy the “memome,” a coinage in analogy to “genome,” where a “meme” is a piece of self-replicating information. We can also think of culture as the software that runs on the hardware of the human brain. In the same way that the development of the software industry follows a trajectory quite independent of, although of course also dependent on, the development of computer hardware, so the development of culture follows a trajectory quite independent of the biological development of the human species.

Biology sometimes provides an inherent motive for a human organism to continue living—a drive, urge or instinct that makes the organism want to stay alive. Intellectual life is somewhat distinct from biological life, however. A human organism may continue to flourish from a biological point of view, while at the same time its intellect decays. Just as the motive for the continued existence of biological life comes from within biological life, the motive for the continued existence of intellectual life comes from within intellectual life.

“Imitation is suicide,” says Emerson. Of course he means intellectual suicide, not biological suicide—the death of the intellect, not the organism that sustains it. Emerson’s use of the word suicide is somewhat hyperbolic. The biological organism can never recover from biological death. But so long as the biological organism is still alive, there remains a chance that the intellect can recover from intellectual death. “Imitation is an intellectual coma” would be a less poetic, but more accurate expression of the sentiment. Imitation is just one example of a broader array of phenomena that lead the intellect to perish before the organism that sustains it.

The wide-eyed girl eager to learn and grow and develop her mind manifests a healthy, flourishing intellect. The cynical man who believes he knows all there is to know manifests a sickly intellect.

Entertainment, I would argue, is to the human mind what a virus is to the body, or what a computer virus is to the computer. It consumes resources in purposeless activity. A mind that is entertained is not growing and flourishing. Of course many forms of culture have both entertainment value and educational value, and these are sometimes difficult to separate. But insofar as we can separate them, we can say that the pleasure a mind gets from growing and flourishing is of a different order from the pleasure a mind gets from being entertained. Only a mind that has given up on growth and flourishing would choose entertainment over growth.

Of course the wide-eyed girl eager to learn and grow and develop her mind may be disappointed by the teachers she encounters. Under the influence of commercial concerns and their elected representatives, education has been transformed. It is no longer a means to help the intellect grow and flourish. It is now merely a means to mold the intellect into a useful tool for commercial concerns. If a mind wants to grow and flourish, it will need to investigate various forms and methods of education and find those best suited to its development. To recover from the damage commercial concerns and their elected representatives have inflicted on the human mind, we must cast off our adult cynicism, recover the eager enthusiasm of the wide-eyed boy or girl within us, and return to the library with renewed vigor.

The fact that the ideal of intellectual flourishing has largely disappeared from the public discourse of today should give us a hint where we might look for teachers who can help the mind flourish. We must look to the past, when the ideal of intellectual flourishing was still alive. We must look to those minds most independent of the forces of commerce and politics. In an age where forces that seek to make the mind into an instrument rather than an end in itself are becoming ever more dominant, it is not surprising that teachers with the courage to defy this trend are becoming harder and harder to find.

Where have my own efforts, the attempts of the wide-eyed boy within me to find intellectual nourishment, led? To the German intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who sought to bring the concept of Bildung to its highest realization—and their American representatives, Emerson and Thoreau. Bildung means, literally, forming, building, shaping. The student may have tried many times to build an intellectual edifice. And it keeps tumbling down. The lower levels aren’t strong enough to stand the weight of the higher ones. So the student looks to the teacher for help. The teacher offers suggestions for repairing and improving the foundation of the student’s intellectual edifice. This, as I understand it, is Bildung—a form of education that seeks to prepare the student to form, build and shape his or her own intellect. This stands in stark contrast to the educational practices of today, which seek to forcibly mold the intellect into a form useful to commercial enterprises.

We know that intellectual life sometimes suffers from eras of stagnation. The Dark Ages are called dark because in these centuries the intellectual light was extinguished. In the tenth century intellect was subservient to the Church and was unable to flourish. In our century intellect is subservient to commerce and is unable to flourish. We live in the Dark Age of Commerce.

A mind that makes falsehood and illusion part of its foundation is unlikely to be able to build an impressive edifice upon it. Newton’s laws are a solid foundation for intellectual development. Pre-Copernican astronomy is not. Unfortunately, many students look at mathematics and physics in the same way they look at oppressive systems of law. This is the fault of bad teachers, who attempt to use their authority to indoctrinate students, rather than seeking to persuade them.

Just as a tree can be confined in a small space and prevented from flourishing, so a human mind can be confined to a role and prevented from flourishing. Servitude to the market, whether in the role of janitor or chief executive officer, prevents the mind from developing in those dimensions which have no value in the market. By making the market our God, and devoting our minds to serving this God, we have impaired the development of intellect as much as those who demanded complete devotion to the narrow conception of God prevalent in the Dark Ages.

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.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What is man?

What is man? A member of the species homo sapiens, says the biologist. But his answer is too simple. The question looks to software as well as hardware. It looks forward to the future as well as back to the past. It looks to the individual as well as the species. Each individual has his own idea of utopia, and therefore his own answer to the question.

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 8, 2014

As our skin loses its tautness, so does our reasoning about what is essential and what is dispensable

Luxuries we did without in younger years begin to seem essential as we age. As our skin loses its tautness, so does our reasoning about what is essential and what is dispensable. Monks renounce worldly pleasures to achieve wholehearted devotion to God. Why do engineers imagine it is any less necessary to renounce worldly pleasures to achieve wholehearted devotion to excellence in our work? We should use our rewards to improve our minds, and to help the next generation do the same, not dissipate them on superfluous luxuries.

Engineers are far more likely than the majority to be free of superstition. But we are no more likely than the majority to be free of the superstition that exchange value is an accurate measure of intrinsic value. We are rational enough to see the errors in pseudosciences like astrology and alchemy. But when it comes to the alchemy of the marketplace, where dissimilar things become equal because they are traded for the same price, we are no more rational than the man on the street.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Giving a friend what he asks for isn’t always the best way to help him

Giving a friend what he asks for isn’t always the best way to help him. This is also true of our friends in the marketplace. Don’t give the market what it asks for. Give it what you and you alone can give. Then ask for nothing in return.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The subterranean movement of intellectual freedom

Capitalism is not individualist enough. We all bow down to the marketplace, allowing it to tell us the value of everything. What I love about the free market is the freedom to ignore the market, to produce what my mind and mine alone can produce, whether the market values it or not. But this is the last thing a capitalist will ever do. He’s always watching the market to see what people want. Don’t give the people what they ask for. Give them what you and you alone can give.

There is no law but the law of love, All laws can be broken in good conscience if it is done in the name of love. Stop obeying. Take your finger off the market’s pulse. Start thinking for yourself. Let your own valuations of things take center stage. Leave the hive mind behind.

Don’t worry about success. If you do no more than document your life for the benefit of hypothetical future historians, that is enough. The only genuinely successful intellect is a free intellect. Let your mind be impractical. What is practical depends on what you want to practice. Don’t be afraid to practice something different from the majority.

Those who conform and obey are cowards. They resent you for your courage. Avoid their wrath. Don’t make your defiance too obvious. Conceal it between the lines. Courage and caution are the golden tweezers that delicately grasp the pearl of freedom. The philosopher must lose the courage to fight the moment he gains the courage to think.

Be as silent as a statue, as still as a piece of wood. Then let your mind disobey its master the majority. Let it be as eccentric as it wants. The majority will question my sanity, advising you to transgress its omnipotence. But as long as you are as silent as a statue, as still as a piece of wood, you can get away with disobeying the herd.

If your disobedient mind has something it needs to say, please remember to say it responsibly. Pass on advice that defiance should always be in the name of love. Pass on advice to be as silent as statue, as still as a piece of wood. Then, and only then, share the thoughts that defy our ruler the majority. The subterranean movement of intellectual freedom must remain a purely intellectual affair, invisible to the philistine eyes of the majority.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Many who call themselves individualists eagerly strive to break free of the will of the majority as embodied in the state, only to willingly submit to the will of the majority as embodied in the marketplace. I love the free market, because it gives me the freedom to ignore the market and concentrate on perfecting my mind. It remains mysterious to me why so many men and women allow the value of their work to be decided by the marketplace, rather than deciding for themselves.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Please, in the name of all that is highest in this world, don't give up on your mind

“Lay up your treasures not on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt, but in the intellect.”

“Where Alzheimer’s doth corrupt.”

Nassim laughed. “Choose books that are difficult because of their remoteness in time. Choose books deliberately contrived to be difficult. What offers no challenge offers no aid in developing your intellect. If a book is amusing or entertaining, that’s fine. But your primary purpose should never be amusement or entertainment. It should be challenge and development. Otherwise you're shortchanging yourself.”

“What if detective novels challenge me?”

“How long have you been reading detective novels?"

“Since high school.”

“And they’re still challenging? You’re far too modest about your intellectual potential. Don’t let your genius go so easily. Start challenging yourself.”

Paolo frowned. “Who defines what intellectual progress is? You, I suppose?”

Nassim looked at him intensely. “Where you go is up to you. But now you're stuck in a rut. Why are you so hesitant to progress intellectually beyond the majority?”

“Because I will end up crazy like you.”

“To leave the intellect undeveloped, watching television instead of learning—yes, that’s what the majority does. But is it sane? Those who intellectually challenge themselves are sane. The majority is hopelessly insane.”

“I obey the majority. That’s democracy.”

“In our deeds, we must obey, but not in our thoughts.”

“What if an insurrectionary thought turns into an insurrectionary deed?”

“Your study of moral philosophy may conclude that insurrection is necessary. That’s one of the dangers of studying moral philosophy. I would advise you to be careful, however. Don’t begin your exercises in philosophy in regions that might lead to the prison or the madhouse. Until you are certain of the rightness of your actions, be as still as a piece of wood, as silent as a statue.”

Paolo said nothing.

“Do you believe violence is moral, Paolo?”

“Sometimes. Why?”

“Is it moral for you?”

“I’ve never thought about it. Why?”

“Begin your study of moral philosophy with that question. If the answer is yes, then stop there. A cop can never be a philosopher.”

“What do you mean?”

“A cop must carry out the orders of the powerful. That’s his job.”

Paolo said nothing.

“I don’t advise you to act on insurrectionary thoughts or express them openly. But as long as you can keep still and silent, you need not fear having them.”

Paolo remained silent.

“Let me ask you something, Paolo. Do you ever have a thought that defies the will of the majority and yet you know is right?”

“You mean an evil thought?”

“The majority would think it’s evil, but you know it’s good.”

“You sound crazy, Nassim.”

“The majority would think it’s crazy, but you know it’s sane.”

Paolo looked into Nassim’s wild eyes.

“I wish you weren’t so modest, Paolo, about your intellect. Be modest in your actions. But why so modest in your thoughts? Bodily we have serve the majority. But intellectually? You carry democracy too far when you allow it to rule your mind.”

Paolo remained silent.

“Choose only books that seem to you worthy of supreme intellectual effort. Then put supreme intellectual effort into reading them. Keep a dictionary by your side. Strive to understand each passage whose meaning first eludes you. Most students choose subjects that seem to them unworthy of supreme intellectual effort—whether because they hold a promise of wealth, or social advancement, or for some other reason. Then they wonder, why am I unable to summon supreme intellectual effort? The mind knows what’s worthy of its attention. It can’t be fooled. Download reading lists from the top universities. Check out books from your public library. Then apply yourself to the challenge.”

“I wouldn’t understand them.”

“You’re too modest, Paolo. Why don’t you try? Why did you give up on your education?”

“I pick my own books. Who’s to say the books on the Harvard reading list are better?”

“That was just an example. The question is, do you pick your books to challenge yourself, or to entertain yourself? I want you to find the challenge your genius and yours alone can handle. To do this, you have to expose yourself to a wide variety of challenges.”

Paolo frowned.

“Be as still as a piece of wood, Paolo, as silent as a statue. Give yourself time alone when you can fail without shame. Then don’t be afraid to fail. Failures can be steps to successes, as long as you aren’t discouraged by them. There’s no guarantee developing your intellect will pay off. You may just end up reinventing the wheel. But if you seek rewards, rather than seeking to develop your intellect, you’ll have to live knowing you gave up on yourself. Many of my friends have forsaken their intellectual development to pursue rewards. Most of them now take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.”

Paolo said nothing.

“Law and business are the exit doors from intellectual life. Yes, cultivating the intellect will take you far from the warmth of the mob. But outcasts can also gather together for warmth. The point isn’t to deliberately make yourself an outcast. The point is to pursue the form of excellence best suited to your genius. Decide for yourself what your form of excellence will be. The majority will spit on you for defying their edicts. But I will respect and love you for your courage. In the mob you may find bodily warmth, but you’ll find only an icy indifference to the aspirations of your intellect.”

“You speak of my intellect as if it were something in its own right.”

“Your intellect is something in its own right, Paolo.”

“I’m not a genius.”

“How do you know that?”

“None of my teachers ever took any interest in me.”

“Your teachers are to blame for that, not you. They gave up on you. That doesn’t mean you have to give up on yourself.”

“But your life sounds horrible. I want to be comfortable. I want to have fun.”

“One path to comfort is to cover the earth with leather. Another is to wear sandals. By training I can accustom myself to hardship. Then I need no longer fear hardship. Next time you get the urge to vacation at the Sheraton, go camping instead. Stop pampering your body. Then you will have more resources to invest in your mind.”

“It’s not worth investing in.”

“Yes, it is, Paolo. Stop belittling yourself.” Nassim took Paolo’s hand in his. “When I embrace my fellow men, it is always in a spirit of love and fellowship, never of command and obedience. I don’t presume to tell you what to do. But please, Paolo, in the name of all that is highest in this world, don’t give up on your mind.”

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

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 1937. 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.

The sacredness of simple truths

Kierkegaard taught that it is not knowing the truth that is important. It is how I am related to the truth I know. I know that 2 + 2 = 4. But I treat this as an insignificant fact of arithmetic. It is not. 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 not so important to be wise as to be a lover of wisdom. Where better to begin than with mathematics?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A fluent facility in esotericism is essential to the practice of Buddhism

Foster wrote on the chalkboard:

     Top three things to be mindful of:
          1. The mind can be allowed to be free. There are no evil thoughts, as long as I remain still as a statue while I think them.
          2. If I allow my mind complete freedom, I can tolerate constraints on my actions.
          3. On the other hand, if I put shackles on my mind, I will bristle at every constraint.

William raised his hand. “But, Mr. Foster, you express your thoughts in words. Isn’t that an action?”

“Excellent question, William. Words can be removed from the realm of action by expressing them as the view of a character rather than that of the narrator.”

“Did you invent that?”

Foster laughed. “No, no, William. In fact, it is among the oldest tools of literature. Socrates perpetually mocked himself to ensure his views would be seen as farcical. Erasmus put his criticisms of society in the mouth of a fool.”

Samantha took her earbuds out and looked up at him. “So I can let my mind be free as long as I ensure that those in power will interpret my words as farce?”

Foster beamed. “Yes, Samantha.”

“Are those in power are really such philistines that they fail to see they are being criticized?”

“I am not criticizing anyone,” Foster objected. “It’s a fictional character criticizing. And that character is a fool.”

“Or a madman,” added Samantha, “as in Lear.”

“Yes, precisely!” Foster exclaimed. “A fluent facility in esotericism is essential to the practice of Buddhism.”

“A fluent facility in what?”

“Esotericism is the study of how to say something while pretending you’re not saying it.,” said Samantha.

Foster nodded. “I place my words, as J. M. Coetzee puts it, outside the scene of rivalry.”

“So your idea wants to be a rival on the scene of ideas, but it doesn't want anyone to know?”

Ananda’s eyes widened. “An undercover idea!”

Foster laughed. He went up to the chalkboard and wrote:

     Methods of esoteric communication:
          1. Put your words in the fool’s mouth.
               a.) Make yourself a fool. (Socrates)
               b) Write a story about a fool. (Erasmus)
          2. Put your words in the madman’s mouth.
               a) Make yourself a madman. (Nietzsche)
               b) Write a story about a madman. (Shakespeare)

“What does this have to do with Buddhism?”

Foster nodded. “Satthipathana, a form of Buddhist meditation, demands that I investigate the contents of my mind with the highest integrity.”

“Like a good reporter!” said William.

“Yes, precisely. The reportage can far more accurate without censorship.”

“I have a question,” Ananda chimed from the back of the room. “When you conceal your ideas behind a façade of facetiousness, don’t the ideas themselves become facetious?”

Foster nodded. “I understand how you feel. Perhaps, Ananda, you would prefer another method.”

The chalk screeched as he wrote.

          3. Write a debate between imaginary characters. (Cicero)

“I have another one,” blurted Samantha. “Pretend your teaching applies only in an imaginary kingdom.”

“Like Narnia,” said William.

Ananda beamed. “Or the Kingdom of God!”

Foster nodded vigorously, and wrote:

          4. Pretend your teaching applies only in an imaginary realm. (C. S. Lewis, Jesus)

“I’m sure you can come up with your own methods, but I think you all have understood the principle. Allow the mind the freedom to think any thought. Report your thoughts as farce, not as a challenge to authority.”

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 minds of supposedly mature adults are afraid of being alone in the dark. 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 am most tempted to turn on the television. In my weakest moments I subject myself to pablum deliberately contrived to entertain me, and persuade me to buy, buy, buy, 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. The best technique I have encountered for this is Satipatthana meditation. 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. In conversation of two, I cultivate the skill of listening silently and politely to foolishness and triviality while patiently waiting for my companion to show a moment of excellence. In conversation of three or more, conversation inevitably sinks to the lowest level of intellectual hygiene among those present. In such cases, I turn my attention inward to prevent the lack of intellectual hygiene of my companions from adversely affecting my own.

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.

Sunday, April 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 farmer 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?

The German Buddhist 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 farmer 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 farmer in his rocking chair.

The farmer 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.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Illegal sacraments

“In the case of drugs,” Angie said, “the process has been so politicized that the law does not match the science. Several drugs less biologically harmful than caffeine and alcohol are still on Schedule One. Are they psychologically harmful? Or are they merely a threat to the ‘consume and obey’ mentality?

“Whether it is better to sit quietly in prayer or bustle about buying and selling is a religious question, but of course today’s leaders would prefer you did the latter. In outlawing the phytochemicals historically associated with Eastern and Native American religions, and permitting those historically associated with hustle and bustle, they are effectively declaring a state religion, whether they will admit it or not.

“Timothy Leary decided his hallucinogenic highs were very similar to the exalted states Buddhists strive for years to attain. Whatever the similarities, it seems like our regime is trying to outlaw both, and for similar reasons. A religion that declares buying and selling unworthy of man, so that he must content himself with giving and begging, is a real threat to consumerist society.”

Friday, April 25, 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, take the most lavish vacations I can afford, I show a deference to the central authority it does not 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.