note: this is very long.
You taught me language, and my profit on ’tIs I know how to curse. The red plague rid youFor learning me your language!
-Caliban, The Tempest
Their ideals had begun to turn on them.
If you want to be a philosopher about it, the problem is being vs. becoming, Heraclitus’ Fire and Flux vs. Parmenides’ Oneness and Rest. Plato unites these, so the story goes. This isn’t exactly true, but it’s close enough: the very highest things are Being, so eternal, and the very top of that is the Form of the Good. The lower things of this world are becoming – shadows in the cave – but they partake in Being via the forms. Man has two natures – flesh and soul – flesh is becoming and soul is being. The best human life, then, is one that partakes in the eternal, and especially in the form of the good. Normally, this is just called “Truth.” It’s important that this work in a particular way: if there is no access to being, then all our knowledge is shadow and wind. This worked out very well for us for a time, truth was a fine friend, it even gave us a God or two for when the nights were particularly nocturnal.
Then the first problem: Truth unsettles everything around it. Empiricism is a very effective way to pursue our ideals, and it pursues them right off a cliff. Turns out there is no metaphysical ground, atoms in a void, many worlds in the multiverse and the You in each of them is terrified and confused. Theoretically, you were supposed to find a sobering and harmonious universe. What you find is a teenage goth’s wildest fantasies: there is no heaven, there is no God, there is no meaning, morality is arbitrary, justice is the will of the stronger, humans are self-deceiving moral monsters, fuck it, I’ll be a gnat next life. But you can’t just lie, that’s still wrong for poorly understood reasons, we can’t go back.
We want a reason to exist, so that’s a bummer, but not really the end of the world. I guess you can just mope or something, Siouxsie was pretty cool. So you Phil 101: “Humans determine their own meaning.” Blatantly untrue if you’ve talked to one, but I understand the significance of the words. It’s a subjective phenomenon, we are subjects, maybe meaning [static and wails]. I don’t even disagree, I just don’t think you understand. Not only did you not make that choice, it’s not even the right one. “How wondrous to exist and Sisyphus really digging the struggle,” is no meaning at all, it’s too abstract, it’s both flabby and hollow at once, it’s only possible for a weakling to raise it because it’s so empty. Everyone wants “good things” and is quite sure that “good things” are rather important. Does that help us coordinate for the specific goods we want?
Here’s your second problem: Truth unsettles itself. What truth does find doesn’t look much like its first mandate. Not only are there no Platonic Forms, there’s nothing that even resembles objective truth. The human mind evolved to lie to itself, to interpret according to experience, but even checking experience against experience is merely the best approximation of a human experience. It may be our best interpretation, but scientific truth is just an interpretation conditioned by the creature experiencing it. No, sadly, there aren’t better ones. Trust me, I’ve looked. Without Platonism you’re screwed for the deep deep grounding. This should change something maybe, if there’s no moral purpose and Truth is just an interpretation then why not discard it for happiness? Deepak Chopra seems like he has a pleasant outlook – I imagine it’s much like thought thinking itself through a lukewarm bath. That it’s “wrong” is no count against it if you can’t justify your own truths, but you still can’t seem to lie to yourself.
Good instinct. But also why silent black screen, slow rise of a single note, cigarette-voice: Their ideals had begun to turn on them.
Here’s your third problem: it is hard to be a creature of becoming that understands being. We judge ourselves by unrealistic standards. “Understands.” Now you know that’s a ridiculous problem to have, an artifact of evolution, just some cave-man shit. Does that make it go away? It’s the thought of it that hurts, not its reality. Zeus isn’t real either but it’s the reason you understand why Homer made Zeus judge: “Of all the living creatures, man is the most wretched.” You are a creature that has some notion of ephemerality, some desire to be more-than-that, and finally the knowledge that this is impossible. Eat up.
The number one question that people ask me is what I mean by nihilism. The second is what I propose to do about it. This is about the first.
Hedge maze: I don’t have the groundwork necessary, because that’s coming the epistemology/math series, and I can’t go over literally every essay I have planned at once, and certain things take time to say. Apparently I tried anyway, because this is now 12,000 words, my bad. Turns out I’m telegraphing the entirety of samzdat, so treat it reasonably: it’s a map, and thus not the territory.
Nietzsche takes are subject to Formula 1 Gresham’s Law and I avoid him for that reason, but evasion isn’t really possible here. Anyone talking about nihilism is going to be talking about him, and I’ve noticed him creeping into my essays more and more. This is almost certainly a sign to just do it and be done with it. He’s not my end, but he is important for this, and he’s often misunderstood. I’m not actually European, but pretend I’m an Italian Grid Girl if it makes it easier.
In a sense, nihilism is merely an observation: the things that we once used to justify our existence are gone. God, nation, virtue, justice, #whatever. Those were unsettled by truth, then truth unsettled itself, and our intellectual culture is still reeling and frantically trying to escape the consequences. If you don’t think that thoughts spring ex nihilo from Cartesian super-reason, then this is likely important for “ideas” plus “everything going on within and after and behind those ideas.”
The closest that Nietzsche gets to defining nihilism is the beginning of the Will to Power: “Our highest values devalue themselves. There is no ‘why’.” This is pretty close to the popular understanding of “nihilism” as meaninglessness. He then uses the term – as I do – in a thousand different ways. This requires some explanation.
In a sense, the easiest way to think about the broader nihilism is as a construct. It stands in for whatever’s behind a bunch of correlated phenomena (vaguely similar to the g factor, I guess). So, say, anomie, meaninglessness, lack of coordination, fanaticism, narcissism, etc. are different things but they correlate. The use of nihilism for all those is a way to point at some underlying, yet-to-be-understood cause beneath them. (Note that some of these run into all the dangers of ordinal scales, e.g. Sam is a 5 in happiness and Sue is a 10. Did that rank happiness, their private definitions of it, what they ate for lunch, their conformism, or how agreeable they are to the tester? W/e, side complaint, moving on.)
“Why call it nihilism?” Well, it explains [some]% of variance in the stuff above, but 100% of the variance between people who say “life is meaningful” and people who say “life is nothingness.” But of course there’s more, because he did think he could define it. He does above. He even thought that he’d figured out very roughly what happened and why it had happened. So in addition to all that it’s also about everything.
“Loss of values” is the normal way I use the term, where value=whatever is important to you or your society. This is slightly different but related to norms for a pretty obvious reason: norms are mostly set up to help us achieve some aim, but that itself implies the value.
An important thing to understand about Nietzsche before going forward: he thinks that the unconscious is vastly more important than conscious thoughts. As in:
With regard to the superstitions of logicians, I shall never tire of emphasizing a small, terse fact, which is unwillingly recognized by these credulous minds—namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish; so that it is a perversion of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” One thinks; but that this “one” is precisely the famous old “ego,” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion, and assuredly not an “immediate certainty.” (From Beyond Good and Evil)
One: that makes the opening section a myth, i.e. my intro was all intellectual development, but the material causes are equally-or-more important. I think more, and that’s why I write about them.
Two: This is also a way to understand why those different things should have any overlap at all, but that’s a much longer argument.
Three: from time to time, Nietzsche amuses himself by proving things from four or five causal directions, generally under the spirit of sussing out the best, but also under the assumption that all of them kind of play into the above. This makes him hard to read, and also explains why five people can return with five interpretations. That’s intentional, reading requires “delicacy and tempo,” (his words) but also why someone will enter the comments section and say nah but here’s a Nietzsche quote that says – Don’t care, they’re wrong. For instance: every mohawk knows about philosophizing with a hammer, which is So Manly. Nietzsche was thinking of a tuning hammer.
Four: This will have profound consequences for resolving the problem that I will not go into. Also: existentialism is hilariously inadequate for the task of not-hating-yourself and not-making-a-bad-world. I admit that it was adequate for Camus’ sex life.
If I don’t think that ideas matter much compared to material circumstances, you might be wondering why I spend so much time writing about them. It’s because we are very bad at consciously recognizing valuations underlying our arguments, we’ve lost the knack for it, and this shines through in argumentation. This is for one unbelievably obvious reason: you have to pull things down to the moral axioms for arguments, which lets me see what’s under the hood.
Another way of putting this: it comes out in how we argue for things, not what we argue for. “I believe in plenty of things! I can tell you all about them.” But what if in the process of getting there you undermine every reason to believe in those things? Why do so many hardcore physicalists make arguments that collapse into really weird metaphysics? The lazy response, find it on reddit: “Uh, it’s just scientism being too stupid for philosophy.” Oh, they’re dumb, is that all? Guess it’s time for a coffee break. Better argument: the particular way we evaluate truth, and especially “True True Truth,” is coming from an old Platonic ideal. Since the “STEM Materialism” vs. “Theist Theism” vs. “Humanities [Romanticism?]” argument is precisely about that “True True Truth,” it’ll get unconsciously invoked. Or:
After Buddha was dead, they still showed his shadow in a cave for centuries — a colossal, horrible shadow. God is dead, but given the way people are, there may still be caves for millennia in which his shadow is displayed. — And we — we must still defeat his shadow as well! (The Gay Science)
This is a Plato joke, and whenever Nietzsche says “Christianity” think “Platonism.” We’re still sucking up aspects of truth that we have no right to without something else. “Good god, you’re an irrrationalist.” No, I love reasons, using them is one of my favorite hobbies. Missing the point. How do you avoid the self-referential statement? Truth must be justified, there are no higher values to justify it, it is the highest, it undercuts itself.
“This is a Plato joke.” The shadows are Christian (Platonic) values like morality, truth, whatever. In Plato’s Republic, those shadows on the wall meant a specific thing: they’re the vague, fuzzy reflection of the Form, of whatever is actually going on, which means this aphorism collapses into itself in a very particular way: a) most obvious, but none of those are real things, the Forms are gone, leave the cave and it’s just emptiness; b) not only are those values not real, but we don’t even understand why they were there, we’re still chained up and seeing the shadows, not the (dead) Forms that once caused them. Get it? Shadows of a Dead God, not even the Dead God in itself. We’re just using a vague remnant of it, something fun for the kids to gawk at.
In other words: God is dead, but Platonic ideals stuck around to curse at us. Chief among them was truth. So why choose this value? What does it do for you?
Nietzsche took the term “nihilism” from a Russian movement that was kind-of-vaguely-left-wing-but-not-really-maybe. It’s hard to say with any precision, because their whole thing was not having set beliefs and terminal values. Assuming you aren’t Jonah Goldberg or a tankie, neither “violence” nor “caring about the people” is a left/right thing. In Nechayev’s words: “Our task is terrible, total, universal, and merciless destruction.” The nihilists were professional revolutionaries, not idealists, and they wanted tear it all down first, build up later. The Nihilists grew moderately popular, the liberal press freaked out, one of their ringleaders killed a member for defecting, the liberal press really freaked out, Dostoyevsky wrote a book based on it, Nietzsche liked a theater adaptation of the book. The end.
Central to Dostoyevsky’s story is the way that, though it quibbled in the papers, bourgeois society enabled nihilists (and by extension all revolutionary movements) because doing so was fun and interesting, like a charade or a good summering or a public execution. Nice liberal society had no actual beliefs it was willing to sacrifice for, which is the same as saying it had no beliefs, but was too self-absorbed to recognize its pleasant, common-sense reasonableness as anything but a vague and arbitrary opinion. By contrast, the revolutionaries really just wanted power, an equally arbitrary opinion, but one that the petty provincial aristocracy could not understand. It was something not-them, and not-them things are not. Anyway, then the nihilists burn the town down in the process of destroying themselves and Whoops! now you have a nothing.
Note well: even if they recognized this, they could not respond. Most were humanists, so all they really had was common-sense and “high sentiments of the spirit”=no moral compass of any kind. If the highest value is “be reasonable, think a fact,” then what can you say to the guy who wants to tear it all down? “It’s mean.” God is dead, weren’t you dancing on his grave a second ago? Is [future fireman] factually wrong? What’s the best argument against him on our own terms, empathy from fucking mirror neurons? Tell that to the gladiators. You get that people enjoy making the enemy suffer, right? “How unreasonable.” Says who? It’s a fact, unsure why, I’m sure you can evopsych a reason for it. It’s probably tigers. “Nice people banged less. Also, fuck sports.” Look at me, I’m Geoffrey Miller.
Nietzsche liked Dostoyevsky, but Dostoyevsky was a committed Christian, and Nietzsche was not even close. He began applying the word “nihilism” to all of society – liberal press, sure, but also conservative autocrats, nationalists, romantics, scientists, etc. – differentiating between “active” nihilism (like Nechayev and the revolutionaries) and “passive” nihilism (everyone else) as a way to get at the following:
The Nihilists, in a sense, cared about the ideals of society much, much more than anyone else. They were basically lionizing Christian morality: care about the poor above all else, etc. Far more importantly, and why “active nihilism” came to include pessimistic philosophy (and Nietzsche himself, to some degree): they actually gave a shit about Truth-capital-T.
Once you rip out the metaphysical backing, but you keep insisting that we be reasonable and fastidious in our thinking – as in, “There is no God, because the truths of science.” – the whole relative-truth thing starts becoming inevitable. One can reasonably say “sure, it’s not Platonic absolute truth, but nothing is,” but note that this is what truth always meant, so saying that is roughly equivalent to saying, “Who cares about truth? This works for now.” Who cares about anything? Serious question, kind of the problem.
You’re going to start pattern-matching to modern days politics here, but I’d be careful with that. I can’t pass judgment without having read Peterson’s book, it’s more expensive than my interest, and mid-write update is that Jacob Falkovich might have convinced me otherwise. Either way, I don’t get Jung, so I judge by what I do know: for someone who lauds Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, Peterson fails to see Spooky Postmodernism on his own terms. It isn’t “cultural relativism” or “anti-Christianity,” it’s the opposite. They care about truth and Platonic moralism all too much. Only if you cared about truth would it be a problem for it to be relative, only with the Christian moral backing would “truth is relative, but let’s go get the oppressor” make sense. Otherwise you’d shrug. “Weird, that path failed. Whelp, time to switch majors to Finance.”
If you claim to take truth very seriously but discard inconvenient aspects because [reason], then how am I supposed to trust anything you say? The Platonic form of truth is out, it’s fried, and if you still care about your own values then that becomes a serious issue. You don’t get to avoid this because It’s Unreasonable, there are practical considerations here. The reason it comes up in debates like Krauss v. Fundamentalists, i.e. the practical matter of how to handle religion in a complex secular society, is that it leads to you overstepping your bounds, flailing through the metaphysical ether, undermining your own points. “So science disproved God because materialism, and you know this because there’s a pre-existent realm of Platonic objects shooting down equation beams? I’m sticking with Moses, you guys are nuts.” If you get called on it, pretending that actually you don’t care that much and it’s they who are just being assholes to you is not a response. Can’t stick it to the damn Christians, you’d have pulled it off if it wasn’t for these meddling philosophers. Krauss: “Philosophy is useless.” Then why do you keep trying to do it?
You’re skeptical, and what do I have against truth? “Sounds humanities.” You don’t know what I studied. Shit-talking aside, I genuinely like STEMlords even if I think the split is ridiculous. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t try to force you to have stronger arguments. “Uh, why give in to these scientismists?” There are a billion reasons, number one is that they do something besides find new ways for coal miners to be oppressing Harvard professors.
Anyway, [equally weakman humanities] does the same thing with [everything]. It’s not just metaphysical ideals that sneak in, it’s moral ones and political ones. Yeah, yeah, “I’m not a Christian ’cause Darwin but only from the neck down,” that’s easy, easy is the enemy. The problem is that they do not take themselves seriously, instead of reaching the point where philosophy ought to make you act a certain way, they pass the buck: “Truth is relative but not a binary, values exist in gradations that are determined by a complex interweaving of the others, the phenomenological experience of the world is a primary and must be investigated to understand how terminal values play into conscious experience, finding new values to judge is the task because otherwise you are stuck repeating archaic and unhelpful valuations, this will likely lead to a horrible future.” Sounds scary and important. Time to do absolutely nothing about it, I guess. Petty deipnosophists, chatting and zinging Krauss when he oversteps because that zinger feeds their own amour-propre. Besides that? “I gave $10 to the faculty union.” Excuse me, take a breather. You earned it buddy. “Yikes-” I know, buddy is a gendered term, which makes me a misogynist. Feel free to spend 30 years of the only life you have proving that in devastating detail.
Despite a modern reputation for romanticism, Nietzsche wasn’t anti-science. He just thought that neither group was willing to accept what the 19th century brought, e.g. how radically moral, scientific, and philosophical stances had to change after the death of god. Another way to put this is the divine irony that each side accuses the other of perpetual deepities and they are both right. Even better: they’re normally the very same deepity. Tear down the abstruse language of philosophy, and a whole lot of modern “meaning” is basically: “you’re free in the universe! Stardust! Wonder!” Science has either the courage or ineptitude to say this explicitly. I’m unsure which; probably depends on the wonderer.
This will not work, and it avoids the actual problem.
Nihilism is a period of decision, because people being the way people are we’re going to freak the fuck out eventually. Nietzsche gives you two: Last Man and Affirmation. Last Man first.
Supposing that life is shit and we want to avoid suffering: Lobotomy seems like a good option, a primitive form of wireheading that needs the wire but once. Wikipedia informs me, and I am indifferent enough to trust it, that icepick-prophet Walter Freeman described a successful case as a “smiling, lazy and satisfactory patient with the personality of an oyster.” So there’s that. Less dire methods exist: astrology, MDMA, Jonathan Franzen. But, of course, you know deep down that lying to yourself won’t cut it, that seeking mindless pleasure isn’t what you’re here for. Even autotrepannation is sold as opening your third eye, not blinding yourself.
The problem is that choosing to be an oyster only makes you capable of certain things, there’s only one particular level you can reach, the best result is, “Meh.” But it probably will make you “Meh. Happy.” Plus you can measure it, so there’s that nice quant stuff.
Consider also that Buddha is basically right and life is suffering, “It’s great!” Everyone you know will die, it will be in agony and terror, you will not do anything because you cannot do anything. Even if you’re lucky and you die before everyone you know, unsatisfied wants overtake satisfaction, there’s a hedonic treadmill but the capacity to suffer is limitless. Mangia, my friends. Eventually avoiding suffering overrules all else, which eliminates most of the things we normally consider “important.” Say, love. You’ll think that I sound like a raging loon, and you will be wrong. Note that this is increasingly how we deal with children, where “children”=25 and younger. “Those are kids.” Will that not affect them later?
The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest.
‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. They have left the regions where it was hard to live, for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs against him, for one needs warmth.
Becoming sick and harboring suspicion are sinful to them: one proceeds carefully. A fool, whoever still stumbles over stones or human beings! A little poison now and then: that makes for agreeable dreams. And much poison in the end, for an agreeable death.
One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one is careful lest the entertainment be too harrowing. One no longer becomes poor or rich: both require too much exertion. Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion.
No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.
‘Formerly, all the world was mad,’ say the most refined, and they blink.
One is clever and knows everything that has ever happened: so there is no end of derision. One still quarrels, but one is soon reconciled—else it might spoil the digestion.
One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one has a regard for health.
‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.
The Last Man is, properly speaking, a response to nihilism, not an image of it, but properly-properly speaking the thing to be most afraid of in all earth. It comes when no values are left, when the only thing we judge anything by is –
In other words: it’s what happens naturally given the path we’re on. “No one wants to be an oyster.” A blatant falsity, but let’s allow it. No one has to want it. Multipolar trap, coordination problem, go back up and reread. How do you resolve a prisoner’s dilemma if no one can agree on what counts as a benefit? You get that it’s worse, right?
Values are subjective, and this is important because truth is the most important, so “it’s a little irrational to enforce yours on anyone.” You don’t really get a choice, you get Last Men, because the one thing we can all agree on is that pleasure is probably fine. At the very least, it’s real – we can poke at a nerve ending and get a good rush of material truth out of it. Enjoy the oyster farm.
The opposite is affirmation.
“Is this where-” No, I have absolutely no answers. This is problematizing it, ha, I’m a hypocrite, does that make me wrong? I’m pointing out places for smarter people to apply smarter brains. Affirmation is exceptionally difficult and art is merely an image of it. It requires us to coordinate new values, which already sounds hard but is even harder than that.
Nietzsche’s infamous “irrationalism” doesn’t come from an attack on science but an embrace of science. When he says “Science is just another interpretation,” he doesn’t mean to discard it. He means that by its own standards, it is an interpretation from a conscious-but-not-objectively-knowledgeable-being, and thus defending it cannot possibly come from fist-fights over truth. This is for the obvious and hilarious reason that trying to defend truth would then necessitate lying about some aspect of that truth. “Whoops.”
The project of affirmation, then, is tied into the general problem of how one goes about affirming mere appearance when most of our valuations have some kind of true/false distinction behind them and a whole inherited sense of morality. It turns out this is a very, very hard problem, because life is kind of shit, and truth keeps cutting your feet out from under you/it.
Bear with me here: I want to live in a world that affirms, but you need to know what you’re affirming. Sure, science reason progress, why not, I’m a red-blooded American and I like equations and cool trinkets just like anyone. I would also like a world that cares deeply about intellectual problems and art, likely because I care deeply about intellectual problems and art, and so [bias].
This is rough, have some friction:
1) There’s the obvious fact that we use values to coordinate towards a goal, but not all goals are equal. Under the assumption that some societies are better to live in than others, no small part of the difference will be due to coordination towards some better goal. But it’s not exactly clear that the coordinating mechanisms are going to be “true” in any real sense, nor that the terminal value itself is actually real. The “benefits” might just be positive externalities, but point that out and lose all of it. Worse, values themselves lead into feedback loops, because new ideas tend to get predicated or argued for based on older values, e.g. Jesus says “I am the truth and the light,” which only means something if truth is important to you. Path-dependency. What now, what path are we on? Answer: the nihilism path, it started a long time ago, it has no conductor but insists you act as though one exists.
2) Humans do have a nature, and it’s much, much uglier than most earlier philosophers wanted to believe, the effect of which is that a whole lot of our moral philosophy is not designed to handle actual, existing humans. There’s a whole lot of condemnation for behaving in ways that you cannot not act. For example: notice that Robin Hanson’s work with signalling theory – regardless of what he personally thinks – is sold as “pessimistic.” Why? The only possible way it would be is if our standard of judgment was still dealing with older moral notions, “don’t lie” or “status-seeking is wrong” or [whatever]. Consider what it means for a society to base its morality on something that aggresively conflicts with its own view of human nature. Truth comes up in the following way: one part of that nature is that things we find really important are, in truth, “not even wrong.” One way to put this: it’s very hard to use Truth to affirm meaning and pleasure found in lying.
Note that this is, more or less, the origin of social narcissism: conflicting signals that endorse certain behaviors while making you hate yourself forever for the very same behavior. Narcissism is not, “Appearance is the only important thing.” It’s the recognition that appearance is all of society coupled with the enduring value judgment “authenticity” or “truth”: “Everyone else is just appearance, and I wear a mask for them, but I am so much more.” But there is no authentic you, and now you have a city-state’s worth of complexes.
3) …Especially if certain human needs, from time to time, attack the foundations of truth itself, are based in mere appearance, perception, falsity. Affirmation, in other words, is affirmation of appearance rather than being. Qualia. Feels. Lies. As in: “pain” is bad because someone has the experience of pain. “Meaning” is important because of a subjective and flawed perception of meaning. For instance, we’re terrible at measuring happiness, and even worse at reporting on it, but we do (roughly) know a few things. It’s tied not to a country’s “freedom” but the percetion of freedom. Corruption does less than perceived corruption, etc. The relationship between income inequality and happiness is ridiculously complex, but the best accounts I’ve heard have to do not with absolute wealth but social rank.
“Sounds like more words for the same thing.” That’s only because they are, because trying to point out the problem means over and over attacking basic assumptions about how we’re tackling it. The point is that some phenomenal experiences we may not have adequate terms for. The Olds talk about them, maybe they’re lying, who knows. Are you sure the good life means what you think it means? The reason you must affirm this is that there is nothing else.
There’s another reason: I’m banging on the phenomenology of it and I want you to understand what I mean by that. If you forget that it’s experience, rather than whatever it is you’re measuring (and thus serves as proxy for) the experience, certain tradeoffs look… well, they look different, because the experience might have qualitative differences that are not grasped by a quantitative measurement. For instance: let’s pretend we actually have decent ordinal scales for happiness. What is a 5? A 6? Is 6 merely “the experience of 5happies plus a bit more?” What would that mean?
I’m going to use IQ, but that’s only an image, don’t get confused and don’t overinterpret my point. I think that “IQ as human worth” is an implicit aspect of our current society, that it’s about as close to “genuinely evil and an absolutely vicious skewering of the state of affairs” as you’ll find, and I’ve written about this before. Ok.
Numerically, 120 is merely 80*1.5. Does this mean that someone with IQ 80 simply has to spend half-again as long on their homework? (The answer is no.) Closer to the point: imagine that someone offered you all the benefits of [your IQ]+30, so wealth, longevity, etc. In exchange, they only have to drop your IQ by 15. Mind you, the offer guarantees associated goods that are not guaranteed by life. Would you take it? You’re half-way through a blogpost on the philosophical difficulties of quantifying progress and decline, my guess is no. There are qualitative experiential differences not captured by an off-hand calculation. But. Try and explain that as objective truth, rather than subjective truth.
Again, IQ is just an image. It’s more than likely we have no measurement for other experiences. We don’t even know what we’re measuring, which means we have no idea how they’re impacted. What if some come from things considered “bad”? Say: violence, malice, etc. Who knows! The ancients talk about those, but you know they lie. If the highest value you have for that is truth (here being objective truth), then all of it will be completely undercut. The things that are actually important to humans are not objective facts about the universe. They’re phenomena, and trying to transmit why they’re important becomes incredibly difficult. “Ugh, feels.” Yeah, unlike all those non-feels you have, right? Is ugh not a feel?
Of course, you have to do something, because there’s another problem: life is awful, and we use lies to get around that anyway. Which means this is about choosing how to lie, not whether or not we’ll base society on it.
Sorry, that’s disrespectful. “Stories” is kinder.
Nihilism means: when we have forgotten that we have to lie, and we have forgotten that we have to affirm lies, and thus we lie badly. Affirmation means: relearning how to tell a good howler. You’re still skeptical. I sound like something between a raving traditionalist and a PoMo loon. I know, I understand.
I believe in truth, and I want a society with more of it in it, and Nietzsche’s point is that to retain that, we’re going to have to figure out how to lie. Harder than that: we’re going to have to affirm those lies with new, stronger values than truth, in order to protect the truths we have.
In one of the best defenses of individualism out there, Sarah Constantin makes a few points well worth considering. I got tagged in it, didn’t respond at the time, and I hope she doesn’t mind me using these examples now. In response to my notes on gri-gri:
Is it then worth protecting gri-gri believers from the truth? Or protecting religious believers from hearing about atheism? Really?
The choiceless mode depends on not being seriously aware that there are options outside the traditional one. Maybe you’ve heard of other religions, but they’re not live options for you. Your thoughts come from inside the tradition.
See: I think we do this literally all the time, and we do not understand that, which is the point.
So your teenager gets vivisected by stardust-and-wonder in the form of a drunk driver, what then? “That’s an extreme example, most of our lives aren’t like that.”
A) Kind of the point. The “wonder and stardust” brand of spirituality is a brainfever that comes when you don’t have problems, a hollow sense of “the divine” that doesn’t conflict with a 9-5 and Tinder for the kids, which is why it won’t work for anything else, which is why it can’t actually address crisis. For something to have any value, you have to sacrifice for it, which sounds V Romantic but is actually just a statement about economics. Scarcity and all that.
B) Who do you go to? “Secularists will comfort you, you don’t need God.” Of course they will, which is a very good way to continue burying your head in the sand. We killed God because he’s untrue, but those secular friends are going to fill you with as many lies as a priest because that is what you need to hear. Try the opposite, discussing the mutilation with an extremely honest mortician: “Yeah, so – died in horrible agony. It was prolonged, like, wild. Upstairs said they’d never seen anything like it. So much blood loss and still conscious! Now I know you want to connect with your dead kid, so I’ve plugged their brain into the Teenager Simulation. Here are the last thoughts, in order: ‘I despise my parents, eating ass is actually pretty banging, I bet if they died I wouldn’t feel a thing, instead of a working I’ll build a tent out of avocado toast, oh god please somebody help me oh god please mom dad help, there is nothing.'”
This is monstrous. “Well, there are shades of truth, and better and worse lies.” Glad to see you’ve absorbed the Spooky Postmodernist canon, welcome to the Counter-Enlightenment, sxldier. Go see Judith in the armory for your Lacan and galouises blondes. On Tuesday we throw Mankiw to the ground and scream at it. Thursdays there’s performance art. Saturday you get cucked.
Nietzsche’s observation that untruth is a precondition of life is predicated on the obvious fact that we don’t want to hear our dead kid’s fetishes. It’s a positive statement, not a normative one. It’s not just a social observation, it’s a psychological principle transmuted into the social, i.e. if your kid goes by autoerotic-asphyxiation, the weakest scrap of counter-evidence shifts the priors to 150% that it was really [anything else]. This is for a simple reason: Being may be pure reason and wonder, but becoming likes to jerk it with a belt. It is hard to be a creature of becoming that knows about being. We need something that protects us, and the brain steps up to bat.
What this means is that we aren’t arguing over “truth” vs. “lies,” we’re arguing over when to lie and for what purpose. And that is when things get interesting. You might tell me, “Sure, in individual situations. But we don’t found socieites on that,” but that is just another bad lie. The choice in individualist society is there is no choice, traditionalists don’t get to escape Moloch, which is fine if you’re Nick Land but then you have to openly be Nick Land. Sarah admits all of this and more that we’ll just gloss as “liberalism is really the best system for people with high IQs, specific traits and time preferences, and everyone else has some issues,” which is why she instinctively pivots to a particularly literal reading of Nietzschean hierarchy and Great Man production affirms it all:
There’s also the fact that in the very long run, only existence proofs matter. Does humanity survive? Do we spread to the stars? These questions are really about “do at least some humans survive?”, “do at least some humans develop such-and-such technology?”, etc. That means allowing enough diversity or escape valves or freedom so that somebody can accomplish the goal. You care a lot about not restricting ceilings. Sure, most entrepreneurs aren’t going to be Elon Musk or anywhere close, but if the question is “does anybody get to survive/go to Mars/etc”, then what you care about is whether at least one person makes the relevant innovation work. Playing to “keep the game going”, to make sure we actually have descendants in the far future, inherently means prioritizing best-case wins over average-case wins.
Who volunteers to tell the commons that this why they get no choice?
Now, I don’t disagree with in the slightest, and I hope Sarah doesn’t misinterpret my snark. I have no moral issue with this, it’s a hard and true thing. She’s one of the brightest and bravest writers out there, so she’s willing to go for it. Good. The point is that how we actually, full-truth justify this society and what we openly say to Steven Pinker’s “progressophobics” (to wit: “You’re whining because you’re stupid. Here’s a pie chart that shows increasing pie chart production.”) is radically different. In short: a social lie.
Untruth is a condition of life. You realize what the inverse of that statement is, right? As a hypothetical, let’s say that blissful ignorance – one form or another – is what keeps us from destroying ourselves and society. If so, how did truth ever appear as a value? Shouldn’t it be the opposite way – that we ran as fast as possible from truth, as though it were a poison, because it is a poison then? The question isn’t “should we abandon truth” because it isn’t a question. It’s a positive statement: we did adopt truth as a social value, in one way or another, and this is seriously worthy of study. It is a non-obvious value from any standpoint but the most naive.
If I had to guess as to why Nietzsche takes are so bad, I’d be here all day. Short answer: we’re not very good readers. The better answer is that despite all the talk about Strength and Will, no one bothers to provide Nietzsche’s own definition of, you know, strength. It’s this:
Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree. Indeed, it might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who would know it completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure—or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified. – BG&E
In case you’re wondering: Nietzsche was fond of strength.
“Well, of course it’s good to tell some white lies.” How often do we lie to ourselves? We’re even lying to ourselves about truth! We’re creatures with a meager empirical understanding of the world, and a form of understanding that has absolutely no bearing on any metaphysical “truth,” and yes that’s actually important for the following reason:
I think there’s one last lie here to undermine, and it’s the one that we tell ourselves, and it’s the one I’m banging on. Sarah selects according to the very long run, which is a great argument, and I’ll do the same: in the very long run, there is no existence. Survival is no aim, it’s a space to fill a gap, the question is “how,” modified by the factors of time preference and manner, i.e. “how long?” and “in what way?”
At what point does “surviving” become merely surviving, when can we drop the charade that efficiency won’t cancel out “flourishing,” what does “flourishing” even look like? Would you know? Moloch is survival and efficiency, but survival and efficiency hate you and everything you hold dear. Depending on those hows, picking Door Number 2: Individualism might lead to Door 3: Collectivist Dystopia of Puking Halfwits anyway, simply due to the fact that coordination of certain values with our current definitions of good might be impossible. The value “survival” is no-value, you’re not choosing the next few generations, you’re choosing a path which means path-dependence, choose well or hate what you find crawling at you and all that means you have to understand the choice you’re making.
In other words: judging from eternity is a bad plan for temporal creatures. You have to judge from becoming.
Nietzsche was not a traditionalist who hated modernity. Nietzsche was ecstatic about nihilism and modernity. He thought it was our ultimate triumph, the first and perhaps only time in we get to make a choice. It is, in his words, “the Great Noon.” The sky is empty of gods, and there are also no stars, as in no fate, no destiny, nothing. Just an imperious blue and the little creatures looking up:
O blessed hour of lightning! O secret before noon! I yet hope to turn them into galloping fires and heralds with fiery tongues—they shall yet proclaim with fiery tongues: It is coming, it is near—the great noon!
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
The hours after that noon depend on valuations. These cannot be answered by truth, don’t even try. Any of them are going to depend on lies here or there, so the real question is: are there better forms of lying? If we’re going to go ahead and form them, why stardust and wonder? Is that really the best we can do?
Look: I use religion as a way to get at this a lot, because it’s the closest we have to a counterpoint for the modern worldview, but I’m not saying we have to invent new gods (if only because I have no idea what that means in practice). The issue is deeper and harder than that.
So: Do you want to affirm life or not?
Retaining Platonic ideals is a bad plan.
I find in my own writing that the more abstract I get, the further tangled and confused and meaningless my own sentences become. They aren’t tied to anything but themselves anymore, they’re just there, statements that can exist in thirty different essays which means they’re not appropriate for any of them. I’m saying this mostly to set up a pun and partially to explain why I’m about to tear into Enlightenment Now.
Sarah’s is an honest argument, and she makes good points. I may have been too quick with it, but I’ll have a serious appraisal some other time. Pinker’s is not an honest argument, which is a shame because I liked Blank Slate a lot. Considering my readership there should be a few hundred hedges here, please pretend there are so I don’t have to write them. Thank you for the assist.
I may be skeptical of some progress-narrative trends, but that’s for another time and a different book. Pinker would probably call me a “progressophobic”, but I’ll stick up for him anyway: the world is absolutely getting materially better and we’d like to keep that going please. Not my bag of doom and gloom.
So when I say “it’s not an honest argument” I mean this: Things are getting materially better, and the reason they are is [static and wails], which is why you should endorse humanism. It completely fails to establish causality, h/t to Pseudoerasmus for the link:
How do we know that all this did not take place in spite of, rather than because of, the Enlightenment? In fact, he doesn’t even pretend to go to the trouble of establishing a causal connection between his contentious version of the Enlightenment and the various improvements that he imagines follow in its wake. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc seems to be the operative principle.
For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don’t be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers – just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.
This book could not make its argument even if it wanted to: Pinker’s vision of the Enlightenment bears very little relation to the actual Enlightenment, which is no small point. Imagine that I wanted to prove that empiricism improved medicine. Seems reasonable. Then I defined “empiricism” as “hating Catholics.” This is obviously not what empiricism is, but I could easily find an empiricist who thinks that particular thought, e.g. Hobbes, and provide a quote. Now, despite getting confused by words, my thesis would not be “empiricism led to the flourishing of the medical sciences.” It would be “hating Catholics led to the flourishing of the medical sciences.” If I pointed at all the thinkers who called themselves “empiricists” it would be sleight-of-hand, even proving that empiricism improved the medical sciences could not prove my own thesis.
In other words: I have no idea what improved the world, Pinker doesn’t bother to make an argument for any of it, and even if he did, it wouldn’t prove that his version of humanism is helpful. What makes this annoying is that anyone who points this out will immediately be attacked as “[bad word] who just can’t handle the statistics.” No, man. I care about causality.
So, I’m going to ignore the charts, because they show nothing. Honestly, the middle section (basically just data) is actually pretty good. It just doesn’t prove anything besides “stuff happened, and an idea or two.” Then again, it’s hard to tell how seriously we’re supposed to take ideas anyway. In the middle of chastising [people], Pinker says the following:
In Decline in Western History, the historian Arthur Herman recounts two centuries of doomsayers who have sounded the alarm of racial, cultural, political, or ecological degeneration. Apparently the world has been coming to an end for a long time indeed.
He never bothers to reflect on the obvious corollary: if so, why is he writing this book? Apparently two centuries of declinism did nothing to stop pleasant trends in the data, nor did it stop Enlightenment ideals spreading (his claim, not mine). Why bother arguing against all the progressophobes?
Obvious answer we all know: there is no argument. It’s sold to comfort the elite and remind them that, actually, they’re great and nothing wrong has been or will happen. In my words: this book is how nihilism thinks about itself.
Let’s be honest enough to admit this much: Most of the earlier declinists were dead right on their own terms. Drop a culturally conservative Christian from 1880 into modern America and ask yourself – will they perceive all this more-stuff-and-reason as progress or the confirmation of their worst jeremiads? 100% decay. All of those cultural chauvinists yelling about the death of art? I’m sure they’ll be perfectly satisfied with the dulcet tones of KidzBop 93.
No, I‘m fine with it, not the point: We have iPhones to sext with and bots to sext at, it’s great for people who want that. You’re crashing into a central problem of the book: Steven Pinker does not understand that some people want different things than Steven Pinker wants. He doesn’t even seem to consider this as a possibility, a genuine choice one can make, it’s just wrong somehow. I’m pretty sure this is what happens when you assume that pseudo-Christian-without-the-hard-parts-morality can be objectively proven via entropy, but then again I’m not a physicist.
I’m not trying to say that “some people don’t like it, must be wrong.” That’s a shit argument, truth is neither consensus nor lack thereof. I’m pointing it out because the closest that Pinker comes to mounting an actual defense is, in fact, consensus:
What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer.
Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.
Granted, not everyone would agree on the exact list. The values are avowedly humanistic, and leave out religious, romantic, and aristocratic virtues like salvation, grace, sacredness, heroism, honor, glory, and authenticity. It’s easy to extoll transcendent values in the abstract, but most people prioritize life, health, safety, literacy, sustenance, and stimulation for the obvious reason that these goods are a prerequisite to everything else. […]
As it happens, the world does agree on these values. In the year 2000, all 189 members of the United Nations, together with two dozen international organizations, agreed on eight Millennium Development Goals for the year 2015 that blend right into this list.
I know for a fact that the world does not agree on those. Those aren’t values, those are pleasant grunts we noise at one another with no content beneath them. The UN just put Saudi Arabia on the Women’s Rights Commission, do they mean the same thing by [any of those words]? Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a signatory, did he have a similar commitment to “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”? Sorry Kurds, we don’t consider you human enough for rights. That would explain a lot about our policies, actually, ignore that, moving on.
Abstracts can easily be agreed upon, it’s the specifics that are hard. Another way to put this: Hindus, Christians, Jains, and Muslims all believe in God. Do those mean the same thing? Do they have the same effect? “Minor variations here to there.” Oh, so it’s just a marginal change. Thankfully those don’t matter.
The issue with this list is not its content (literacy is great), it’s the fact that it’s completely inhuman. Pinker’s whole “transcendent values” thing – you mean the things that we’ve care about most, the virtues upon which we lavish the most praise? Those ones? You’re going to call me a romantic, but the point isn’t “heroism is good” – although heroism is good – it’s that you’re not selecting for the next generation. You’re selecting the path. Choosing “UN Values” is choosing nothing, and choosing nothing is Moloch. “Sounds unreasonable.” You mean inefficient, but we agree. Yeah, dedicated inefficiency is against Moloch, although I’ll grant you that “glory” is almost certainly not real. It’s a human thought, unlike those other real things we know that aren’t human thoughts.
This is not a hypothetical: eventually, Pinker grounds his whole project in his own view of heroism, which makes me suspect that, in fact, these are quite important and he’s just trying to ignore that inconvenience.
This sounds like a romantic outlook, but I mean it in the most material way possible: supposing that “virtue” and “sacredness” are not real, why would we have adopted them as values in the first place? (cf. the question of truth) Since, operating under the assumption they are not real, no society actually ran into these ideals, why retain them? Why come up with them in the first place? They surely served some social purpose. Social cohesion, sense of purpose, informal institutions, all of the above? Alternately, everyone before the 21st century was just unbelievably stupid. We’re going with that one? Ok, great.
One of the things that happened over time – when values became traditions – is that their origin and purpose slowly faded from consciousness. That is to say, we began to fixate on the word (and associated ritual) rather than the purpose of it. In other words, Nietzsche’s cave and shadows metaphor from earlier. In turn, they began to adopt completely different definitions. Most of this is fine if they’re maintained, we don’t need to understand a thing to make it work, but if one of them disappears and you think it served for [reason] when actually it served for [reason] plus [a bunch of other reasons], then it’s going to be very hard to figure out what, exactly, happened. If you care about facts, this is one.
For instance: a whole lot of religiosity, and a whole lot of its associated “transcendent” things, may well have served many, many different purposes. Some of those were the transcendent, elevating ones, but others were more homely. No, we don’t understand all of them. If you’re interested, here’s an overview of the current economics of religion. But. If you misunderstand this and try to replace it with only the “meaning” part, then it’s highly likely you get absolutely nothing. It will be a bizarre, abstract form of the original that serves no purpose anywhere.
We know that “meaning” is important or whatever, and it’s vaguely related to religion because people love metaphysics, but all of those specifics of the church are ugly. I agree, what do we do?
Pinker, on spirituality:
What about a more abstract sense of “spirituality”? If it consists in gratitude for one’s existence, awe at the beauty and immensity of the universe, and humility before the frontiers of human understanding, then spirituality is indeed an experience that makes life worth living—and one that is lifted into higher dimensions by the revelations of science and philosophy. But “spirituality” is often taken to mean something more: the conviction that the universe is somehow personal, that everything happens for a reason, that meaning is to be found in the happenstances of life.
This sense of spirituality is considered in a video sketch by the comedienne Amy Schumer called “The Universe.” It opens with the science popularizer Bill Nye standing against a backdrop of stars and galaxies:
NYE: The Universe. For centuries, humankind has strived to understand this vast expanse of energy, gas, and dust. In recent years, a stunning breakthrough has been made in our concept of what the universe is for.
[Zoom to the Earth’s surface, and then to a yogurt shop in which two young women are chatting.]
FIRST WOMAN: So, I was texting while I was driving? And I ended up taking a wrong turn that took me directly past a vitamin shop? And I was just like, this is totally the universe telling me I should be taking calcium.
If there’s one thing all Americans can agree on, it’s that the fucking plebs are the fucking worst, so that’s not really my problem here. “Hit the yokel with a logic stick” is a popular literary pastime, I assume they’ll write about it as a fascinating vision of 21st century life, our more peaceful age’s version of fox tossing. This one gets a 4/10.
A counterpoint: the only thing that matters is “meaning found in the happenstances of life.” Everything else is worthless.
A) One major benefit of religiosity can only come from such hick nonsense as “I matter” and “someone sees me,” as in:
A set of experimental studies also examine religion’s impact on health behaviors (both mental and physical), crime, and norms toward charitable giving (Lambarraa and Riener 2012). In this context, one interesting wide-ranging experimental study that amalgamates research from anthropology, experimental psychology, and economics, is that of Norenzayan and Shariff (2008), who examine the evolution of religion in the context of prosocial behavior, i.e., good behavior towards others that might engender a cost to the individual. They highlight the role of reputation and selection that reinforces the relationship between religion, prosociality, and cooperation in general. Their findings show that if religious thoughts are imbibed in experiments, then this increases trust as well as altruism toward strangers. The question is, why that might be the case, and they offer one suggestion: “However, supernatural monitoring, to the degree that it is genuinely believed and cognitively salient, offers the powerful advantage that cooperative interactions can be observed even in the absence of social monitoring” (Norenzayan and Shariff 2008, p. 58). The effect on trust is that religious belief increases trust, decreases the cost of monitoring, and hence increases prosocial behavior.
B) I don’t doubt that Pinker finds science and philosophy meaningful – those are the things he practices – nor do I doubt his sincerity in feeling that as immense gratitude and awe. Note also, this is why humanities professors react to people like Pinker with violent disdain. Note thricely, this is why Pinker reacts to those professors with violent disdain. Everyone is correct in this situation.
While we talk a lot about man hunting for or creating meaning, I think it’s better to say that meaning comes to man. By doing a thing you begin thinking it has a purpose, and eventually that purpose overwhelms you, i.e. it creeps up to the conscious and makes itself known. I suspect this has a lot to do with our faculties for self-deception. Note well: another question I get asked is “how to write” and it’s the same answer. Most of your genuinely good thoughts are still subconscious, they are waiting to expose themselves, you need to provide them with something they care about before they’ll greet you.
A result of this is that you will get better at it as it becomes more meaningful, which makes you more confident and makes the act more meaningful. Suddenly people will begin to care, and you’ll see an improvement, and now it’s an improvement in an act you care about that other people have begun to care about. The opposite is also true, i.e. if you let a habit drop you’ll lose confidence, begin to hate it, and the ideas won’t come as quickly, as in a declining number of posts leads to a drop in post quality and author’s interest, which is not coincidentally how I’m rationalizing my writer’s block. Moving on.
Another result of this is that meaningful things may be far-mode, but they’re derived from humble origins. Meaning has a lot to do about the way it relates to self-expression and self-understanding over a lifetime, but all of those are related to the specific, independent things that went into and go into daily life. Another way to put this: when people are scared at night and [existential dread], they aren’t scared for humans in the abstract. They’re scared for themselves.
Practice of an action renders it meaningful and, like all human things, the way we express that is not normally rational. Sometimes that means [guy] with [pointless job] explains how it really keeps the entire company running. Other times that means we transmute human behavior to the gods, create entire pantheons of human labor, find some way to justify the things that we cannot not do.
Robin Hanson makes the following point, remember it forever:
The strong academic emphasis on happiness over meaning suggests that we tend to think of happiness as more what people really want; meaning is more what people pretend to want in far present-a-good-image mode. Of course the crusaders who talk the most about trying to increase the world’s happiness are mostly talking in far mode, and they mainly use that cause to create meaning, not happiness, in their own lives.
So there is a bit of a tension here between the meaning that crusaders choose for themselves and the happiness they try give to others. They might reasonably be accused of elitism, thinking that happiness is good for the masses, while meaning should be reserved for elites like them. Also, since such folks tend to embrace far mode thoughts more, and tend less to think that near mode desires say what we really want, such folks should also be conflicted about their overwhelming emphasis on happiness over meaning when giving policy advice.
Happiness is Pinker’s goal, no matter what’s being said. Meaning is assumed, unproblematic, just a thing that happens. Which it does! Just not in ways that can even vaguely fit this ideology, unless the ideology finds itself at war with them. Which it does!
This form of humanism will not replace God until it replaces humans. Let me explain.
Hanson: Meaning is Easy to Have, Hard to Justify. This is true. Note that much of what makes justifying it hard is social valuations. Truth is a problem because it undercuts any other values you might have, e.g. itself. Humans actually don’t have access to anything but phenomena, which means one can never be sure about anything, which means…
One of the reasons that people intuitively connect art to meaning is precisely because it is so specific. It may irrational to think there’s any grander narrative to your life, and it is definitely untrue, but it is important. I have no study for this, but there’s definitely a way that art is used to justify human existence, and there’s a reason that people turn to music and literature as a source of comfort when terrible things happen. We need to know it is worth it. Art affirms life, in other words. One of the other things about art is that it makes the world good to live in, by which I mean: it’s beautiful. I know, beauty is subjective, it’s merely a phenomenal experience, none of it is true. But it is important to us for whatever reason. So:
Bill Nye may get his kicks staring into a CGI nebula, but that doesn’t seem to work for most people. Humanity has more flaw than mass, but we know shit-tier art when we see it. Christianity produced Bach, Nye gives us Hip Science Raps, and a world of Hip Science Raps is worse than death. There are great atheist artists, but note that all of them wrote about how fucking awful it is. The happiest replace religion with passion and desperation – try Hemingway’s broken heroism – but those aren’t acceptable anymore. “Uh. Sounds a little sexist and, like, violent.” Those guys are hard to control, they don’t even like Rupi Kaur, nebulae unfaze them, they’re bad for business. I get that heroism is only real if you’re 12 or a politically expedient fireman, but you’ve got to give us something, right? “Try Thomas Kinkade but no God.” The peanut gallery would rather fillet itself, thanks.
Very, very few people can be expected to have meaningful careers in philosophy or the sciences, do they get something or no? “They share in the fruits, too.” Here’s a cool trick to make someone hate you and you hate them: provide everything for someone while giving them no meaningful say over it. “The survivalbox arrives Friday, it comes in two colors: choice or freedom. Take your pick.” Over time, they will become ungrateful, you will call them that, they will want a better life because this one is meaningless, you will reply that they were already ungrateful so why should they. Congrats, you just created a ruthlessly hierarchical society wherein no one can actually discuss the hierarchy.
This isn’t a hypothetical, it already happened, which is why Pinker wrote the book. “Why is everyone so ungrateful if things are so good?” Either your theory of humans is flawed or you’re blinding yourself like Oedipus, sort of a proof-is-in-the-pudding kind of thing, right? No? “I bet the issue is that there aren’t enough colors. The next ones will come in Choice, Freedom or Decision.”
Since the 1960s, trust in the institutions of modernity has sunk, and the second decade of the 21st century saw the rise of populist movements that blatantly repudiate the ideals of the Enlightenment. They are tribalist rather than cosmopolitan, authoritarian rather than democratic, contemptuous of experts rather than respectful of knowledge, and nostalgic for an idyllic past rather than hopeful for a better future.
Fundies have a serious, material reason to not do any of that. “Secular spirituality” is watered down Christianity, rendered toothless and acceptable by whatever’s useful to those in power. At least with the Church, undesirables have a fight based on tradition and belief. “Science” as an ideology is constrained only by celebrity and the state, if you’re anything but 18th-century landed gentry prepare to get Catch-22’d: “You have an objection? Well, we believe in reason, and so we’d like to see the studies. Where’s your double blind? Lol @ ‘2 poor 4 lab equipment or a jstor.’ Settle down, rabble.”
I’m not praising fundie tribalism. Missing the point. The point is that to have meaning, and to justify it, you need power. This goes doubly when those in power are telling you: Yeah, your life is basically worthess. Have a popsicle.
Now: let’s say that people derive most of their higher-order meaning from politics. That it, is provides them a sense of identity, tribe, values, etc. It justifies the other aspects of their life in a way that [perfectly rational action] does not, which is one reason it brings out such irrational tendencies. None of these are things I think are good, but I think they’re bad for different reasons, I’ve already written about them. TLDR: happiness and meaning are only associated with institutions of modernity when people have power and competence and are allowed to make decisions. In other words, consider everything I just said about “meaning comes to you as a result of doing.” What happens if “doing” on any grand scale is closed off?
Now, consider what Pinker is arguing here: the phenomenon observed is one particularly negative aspect of trying to extract meaning from social institutions. If that seems weird, note that “meaning” is normally associated with anxiety. Since it’s false and hostile to the state’s rational function, we should do everything in our power to temper it. Note that “disruptive” means inefficient, i.e. less material pleasures or wealth or [whatever].
To understand why this is insane, note that “more material wealth” is supposed to accentuate and heighten human experience, not replace it. Moving it from Dock A to Dock B just for kicks might be cool for the stevedores, but it’s not why we think it’s important. We want meaning and happiness and whatever. Now, we know that Easterlin, so goods->happiness is at the very least confused. We also know that “meaning” tends to come from broader social participation, identity expression, and, yes, conflict navigation. Get it? Pinker is arguing that we should continue doing [whatever we’re doing], while trying to discount the things that people find meaningful, to better serve those people in order that they have meaningful lives.
He does not feel like he needs to make an argument as to why this makes sense, because it does not occur to him that it might not. It does not occur to him because he is not an impartial observer just checking out the data. He is part of a grander social movement that is slowly designing a world people do not want to live in for whatever reason, and then attacking those people for not wanting to live in it: “Why do the plebs hate us?” I dunno, maybe you should rap at them more.
I’m not concerned with the anti-democracy. I have no political dog in this fight. Democracy is also just a pleasant sound, and I have no doubt in mind that 95% of the country would gulag 90% for “being undemocratic.” The issue is the Platonism, and the issue with the Platonism is that maintaining society requires blasting anyone who behaves “irrationally” and the issue with blasting anyone who behaves irrationally is that “anyone who behaves irrationally” is all of humanity.
See: I don’t think that Pinker is just being reasonable with the facts. I think he has an ideal, and a very specific one in mind.
The dream of humans as Enlightenment-rational creatures can only be maintained so long as one assumes that there is a “soul” or a, you know, “thing” independent of flesh. Lose that and by your own research you’re going to be dealing with a very different kind of animal, one that Pop-Enlightenment ideals do not and cannot apply to. The reason that so many Enlightenment thinkers were wildly religious is that it was the only way to make their views of human nature and reason make any sense at all.
So note that when I say we have to affirm life, I do mean “life,” not some vague abstraction of it, because vague abstractions are mostly words. So I will say this as bluntly as I can: reason, in the simple sense we think of it, is maintained by metaphysical ideals, not scientific ones. You’ll note that those are the same ideals that I said make affirming the world so incredibly difficult. And you’ll understand when I say: the reason to affirm the world is that if you do not affirm the real one, the stuff that will come at you is not something you will like.
When I say “You have to affirm the world,” I mean that if you do not, you make it one of two things: an oyster farm or a prison.
The forecasters who did the worst were the ones with Big Ideas—left-wing or right-wing, optimistic or pessimistic—which they held with an inspiring (but misguided) confidence.
A question: how much irrationality will Pinker allow for in his society? On a scale of 1-10, is it 3? 6? 1?
This is a very serious question if you’re making a choice for the future. From here until [far distance], you’re shooting an arrow: if the calculation is even a sliver off, what happens?
If your philosophy only allows for a 2 but we’re actually a 4 at peak capacity, then your philosophy will fall to pieces. Pinker’s rebuttal: “No Enlightenment thinker claimed man was all rational.” Pretending it’s a dichotomy is a fun trick to avoid the problem. How irrational? I’ve read Locke, Smith, Kant and co. I’m going with a median 4. Subsequent experimentation has yielded higher numbers. Pinker’s version looks like a 2.
Or: Imagine you can organize a perfectly humanist society by vigorously suppressing >level-2. What will be the point of such a society? Would you have made a reasonable society, or a torture-chamber? “This is romanticism.” This is a recent historical event, and by “historical” I mean ongoing.
The ideal of progress also should not be confused with the 20th-century movement to re-engineer society for the convenience of technocrats and planners, which the political scientist James Scott calls Authoritarian High Modernism.
The definition that Pinker gives is not the thing Scott points to. Authoritarian High Modernism is a discrete ideology, but the issue is much deeper than one single ideology. What Scott thought was the problem is this:
The tendency to design society for abstract humans rather than real people.
Above, we have an ideology built around an idealized and abstracted version of human nature, in pursuit of abstract values, with an abstract spirituality, for which we may need to temper the concretely irrational plebs.
“Nietzsche was a fanatic who believed people acted according Will to Power.” Yeah, but you proved him right. It’s this book. You get that when he talked about being “cold-blooded and inhuman” he meant building societies based on this same sentiment, right?
Let’s say that Pinker’s ideal world exists, it allows the most reasonable people to try and flourish. But what if “flourishing” requires things above level-2 irrationality? Even your elites won’t be worth anything, you’ll just have cut off a real human experience over a ridiculous and ancient ideal. Are people good? What if “the best human experience” requires a few unpleasant things in it? What about cruelty? Domination? Violence? Frivolousness? I’m not trying to be an edgelord here – you get that we’re animals, right? If you build a society for non-animal humans, then you have built an ideal society for ideally no one. “This is a nice world.” Yeah, a nice world where everyone is miserable. “But at least they aren’t hot-tempered.” What the would you be affirming besides your own egotism?
Enlightenment Now makes a big deal out of Nietzsche’s amorality, but there’s a reason that Nietzsche was so absorbed by that fight. Depending on the moral standard applied, it’s not that it’s “harsh” nor that it’s “peaceful.” It’s that it’s cruel, and the most insane way to reach the desired goal, like forcing a carnivore to survive on broccoli to “better it.” You’re wondering what Nietzsche put beyond good and evil? Love.
“You’re saying to base society on irrationality?” Not even close, I don’t think anything Pinker describes is “irrational,” I’m using his vocabulary. I have no idea what it would mean for something to be “rational” in a way people are not. These things coordinate and solve problems, right? I’m just saying it’s pretty fucking weird to take out metaphysics for the purpose of science and then spin back around and judge that science from a Platonic standpoint. Of course, it’s slightly worse than that, because if you ask anyone about the metaphysics, they’re going to laugh at you:
“God is a fairy tale, we only have uproar and becoming, didn’t you chemistry as a kid? Now stop asking me silly questions, I’m busy hating people who failed at infinity.”
Different time and different system, but like the man sang: my destiny wants a rest.
One of the dangers with the whole “values as a path” thing, which I’ve talked about before, is that at a certain point arguing itself becomes difficult. The terminal values or moral values behind them begin to look so silly that you can’t even get the point across. The argument itself is predetermined, set in its ways, always surging forwards to a destiny it neither willed nor understands but demands nonetheless. But, well. Eventually it’s going to run out, and probably soon.
Affirmation of life is hard because we don’t have the ideals for it yet. There’s a non-trivial possibility that “flourishing” defined as “peak human experience” or fucking #whatever requires affirming things that our current values do not like. “Impossible.” Totally possible, you get that we evolved to enjoy certain experiences, right? “I’m fine with noble lies.” I’m not, but even ignoring that why do you default to the easiest, nicest thing you can? Scream at me about the naturalistic fallacy all you want, but that’s not how that works. “What do you mean we shouldn’t slice an arm off? Because we naturally have two? Take Logic 101.” To be fair, I don’t have a logical reason not to do this. It’s a prejudice, sue me.
We need to fight Moloch, because I do not want a world of last men, but I think it’s a little harder than most. It’s a possibility that most of what makes Moloch work is also something that has to be salvaged for life to be worth salvaging. In other words: coordinating values that will undermine themselves again, some time in the future, for fun. The only other option is that we become Moloch ourselves to avoid Moloch, last men to avoid the possibility of last men, oysters to avoid the possibility of people choosing to be oysters.
I would call this a noble but ultimately misguided plan.
You can call me a lot of things. A romantic or a bad writer or a lazy thinker or whatever. But I’m not a misanthrope. I have full faith and love in us, because there is nothing besides that. That’s not a moral statement, nor a declaration of intent, it’s just a fact. Human consciousness is the only one we have. The particular values we’ve inherited are not real. They are based on abstract humans. They’re lies, which is not bad, and who cares about them being a lie? The issue is that they’re bad lies, not that lies.
Nihilism is not about discarding metaphysical certainties, at least not in our time. It’s precisely the opposite. It’s using those to discount this very real world with its very real people, always bending it around in favor of some revealed truth as though there’s some non-human experience coming from beyond. It whines: “People are bad because [cruelty] and [irrationality] and [frivolity], art’s mostly just [signalling] and meaning is [biases] from evolution. Sure, there’s [nice thing], but it’s a chemical and mostly related to [egotism] and [genetic selfishness]. We will almost certainly destroy ourselves out of stupidity, malice, and lust for false ideals.”
Yes. That is all still true.
top: Transfiguration by Olivier De Sagazan
44 thoughts on “Everything is Going According to Plan”
The issue is, I think, that self-deception is a bigger beast than any particular value design (horrible formulation but probably recognisable), and has better historic memory – it learns, mutates, fixes past exploits and escape routes. Perhaps The Olds had something that protected itself against path dependency, by just ditching temporal dimension and allowing intruding reality to break it down at some point in the future. Platonic Ideals 2.0 stretch themselves into the infinite not because it’s a particular feature of theirs (that can be replaced in a novel framework) – I’d wager the reason that anything that can potentially be dismantled down the line, however intederminetely far, gets dismantled immediately and doesn’t pass quality control. Self-deception is imperative to meaning-solutions and its bearer can’t tinker with it for [likely?] obvious reasons, so it constructs itself, and that seriously limits the range of our options.
Built-to-break – can’t have this, God experiment and its consequences were terrifying; starless skies are wondrous in retrospect but not while nothingness rages above your unprotected heads. “It will last forever until it ends” lasted forever until it ended, so no going off the tracks.
Local system that convinces you it is in fact global – again, scary, better to dissolve people you are modeling and substitute them for the model in itself, or the Lou Keeps of the world will start complaining and might even convince bearers of your framework, not now, maybe, but eventually. That’s the switch from blank slate to xenopolitics, where instead of getting angry at naturalistic phallacies you just alter natures. Intuitively that’s the weak point of Pinkerite beliefs, as abstracting /all/ the flesh will probably fail.
Purposefully designing an alternative will most likely fail, you can’t know how an ignorance engine works. Best scenario is eternal spring in solitary cell, which definetly scales horribly.
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There’s a lip-curling perplexity about parts of this. I understand, but bristle against, all your language of lying. Who is that for? The neo-Platonists? The believers in truth who read this, and will be able to understand nothing else? You know – I sense you know – that there is nothing towards the concept of lying, here. As Loki shows, one who utters no falsehood is the worst and most craven of liars. What I fear like lead is that the language of lying is for you.
Have you not yet been broken? You’re an able mind; your eye is less vulnerable to aching. But isn’t this the exact opposite of what is desired? Knowing precludes understanding; if one may know, one has no reason to then understand. To be overwhelmed, so there is no way forward but to change how one sees – is that not salvation? “The scales fell from his eyes?”
There’s a tension in this piece. It’s tension of the muscles: the cheeks tug at the corners of the mouth, limbs cord into effigaic teak, the nape tightens the scalp over the dome. It’s the lack of anger, the frustration that shards itself up in little cinder-cones of biting wit but avoids blowing out as magmatic outrage. It’s the broken numbness, which speaks of retching (wretching) horror in hacksaw drawl with a carnelian eye. Where is the thunderous rage? Where is the deluge of tears? This piece is mere misery.
I hope you’re well. That’s all there is to it. This is very well-written and well-explained, by the way, and with luck it can weaken the defenses of others.
You’re right, and I am increasingly frustrated, although I am well. I’ll… have a longer response when I figure out quite what that means. Thank you.
I love your writings, Lou, and although this piece is no different, I detect a lot of misery in here. Much of it you preempt by throwing in a witty acknowledgement so that you don’t have to go down the path of articulating it, but it’s there. A great tide of hopelessness which has you running for higher ground.
Keep doing what you’re doing, by all means, but if the weight of all these words is making your head too heavy, don’t forget to go ride a bike or beat the shit out of a punching bag while screaming. Affirm the brute facts of life by doing, if you can’t affirm an ideal by thinking.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting another post. There’s a lot to chew on here. Thank you.
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How does “better” here make sense, if not in the context of preexisting values. And in this context, wouldn’t the “best” values be precisely those preexisting values (modulo self-contradiction)?
Bad answer: yeah.
Better answer: there’s an unwritten followup to this post on affirmation, and how Nietzsche tried to ground it. It has to do with this: “a thought comes when “it” wishes, and not when “I” wish.”
So, consider how your mind works when you’re very sick and compare it to how you think when you’re at your healthiest. If nothing is true, then neither comes up with “true” thoughts. But there’s definitely a difference, and there’s a difference in terms of how you evaluate your own place in the universe.
Nietzsche is interested in societies that can’t not affirm life, and he tends to use metaphors like “healthy” and “strong” for that. Philosophically this is arbitrary, as in “there’s not, objectively, anything better about being healthy than incredibly ill,” but it may not be in terms of experience – I think the idea is that people who affirm have an entire experience leading to that which isn’t necessarily accessible to nihilistic societies. This is, also, kind of metaphors and will take a lot more work to get at. Either way: this is almost certainly one of the reasons he was so concerned with beauty – nothing is more or less beautiful objectively (to the universe itself), but… well, what does that mean? They’re amoral and alogical judgments (not immoral nor illogical, though), but they definitely aren’t arbitrary.
I guess you might say – saying “nothing is objectively true” is not the same as saying “everything is arbitrary” even if we (and by we, I especially mean people who are too deep in books) tend to conflate those two. He was interested in creating a philosophy that recognized the difference and really worked out how to base proper judgments on it. Which is, uh, hard, and goes into a lot about qualitative differences that not everyone would agree on.
Lou, I’m probably just an idiot. But could you please eli5? I find myself understanding less of each subsequent post. And I’ve reached the point where I’m not absorbing anything at all. I know it’s possible for you to write a post more plainly, because the Aeon article didn’t contain the usual flippancy.
For starters, would it be accurate to say that the Death of God replaced traditional values with just a single value, “Truth”? And in doing so, Western liberal democracies used “Truth” to bludgeon other important values into oblivion? Also, I don’t understand what relationship Platonism has with Nihilism. Are you saying the “objectivity” of platonic forms is what allows hoighty-toighty progressives to bludgeon values that are “more relative” (i.e. subjective) and therefore “less real”?
I believe that Platonism in this piece is mostly related to what replaces the Christian Godhead as a source of Truth. One science and rationality made it impossible to believe in much of the supernatural aspects of religion, humans were left without a way to “know that they know”. One solution to this is to think that you don’t need God to have a realm of Truth. Right triangles just have certain properties, man, with or without a God, and we can say true things about them even if the universe runs on chance — this idea, but to a more general application about knowing objectively true things. Nihilism and Lou are rejecting this ability to know objective reality in the absence of God, and, by the way, God is dead.
Didn’t David Hume already acknowledge that humans can directly access neither Noumena nor the platonic realm of Moral Realism? I had the impression that this issue was settled. Perhaps I’m just ahead of the curve?
I’ll put it this way: Lou used Steven Pinker as his foil in this essay, but he could have just as easily used Hume as his foil instead.
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Yeah, this one was kind of dense. I’ll probably do a short recap with the next one, and I’ll make an effort for clarity in the future.
The quick and dirty version here, but it will probably be inferior to an actual recap where I have the time to think about how to clarify certain points:
Truth isn’t the only value, it’s just the last of the higher values. Politics are also retained, though they mostly became a vague Christian sense of morality. This doesn’t mean that we follow either very well. You can imagine it more like, if you ask someone “Should you try and be truthful?” Basically everyone will say yes in a way that they won’t with, e.g. piety. Similarly, “That’s untrue,” is basically a debate-stopper. It’s a difficult one because… well, basically because (scientific) truth is only “is” and you really need “oughts” for society.
Retaining truth wasn’t a decision so much as a thing that happened, the idea being that “truth” in the guess of increasingly sophisticated scientific methods and philosophical movements came to undermine God and other higher values. Or, well, that’s the intellectual story. The material version is that advancing technology and economic growth got rid of the traditions that held everything in place – God was not killed so much as rendered useless (that’s mostly in the Aeon piece).
In Nietzsche’s writing, “truth” as we conceive of it is more or less from Plato (or his subsequent misinterpretations) – the form that it comes down to us in is “objective” truth. It’s a metaphysical concept – absolute certainty or the like, the “thing in itself.” Either way, Nietzsche’s point was that truth itself has been equally undermined. We still retain a lot of the trappings around it, but they conflict a whole lot with the rest of our social views, and that conflict breeds a lot of what drives nihilism. “Truth is subjective” but “god is not real” but “you should do good” but “ethics are subjective.” On top of that, we lost the ability to forge new values simply due to the fact that we know that they wouldn’t be “true.” That is, they’d be approximations, or merely useful, etc.
He tends to think it’s everyone that’s trying to avoid the death of truth, while focusing intensely on whether or not things “are true” to prove their value. Another way to put it: creation science is only something that could happen in a society that was totally absorbed by facts – you don’t trust God himself, got to prove it’s factually true with science to get your believers to listen. God/piety, etc. have less implied value than a “factual” confirmation of their existence.
His point is that, eventually, this is going to come to a head where we lose the ability to either make new values or even retain the ones we have. The kind of misanthropy he worries about comes from people who only really believe in truth – or who value things based on their truth – really trying to confront just how much of human behavior is based on lies.
Edit – I think David and Sam below actually do a better job getting at some of the points than I did in this comment, esp. the issues around normativity vs. description.
Oh. So Truth is the last bastion of virtue. And also a defibrillator. Thanks Lou, that makes a lot more sense.
I’m curious how you feel about the observation that you seem to reject the oft-held equivalence of Truth = Beauty, as, in rejecting the existence of Truth, you also reject Beauty. However, later you describe beauty and art as affirming of life and actually existing, perhaps even succeeding at, however ineffably, affirming the values and lower-case truth you aspire to do so more lucidly. Thus, Truth, not existing, is different from Beauty, which does exist.
To me, part of the value of high art is that it gives us Beauty; because of the many contradictions and value clashes, it is basically impossible for us to articulate Truth very well, but we can recognize the truth of something through its aesthetic value. High art, and natural splendor, are also valuable in that they put us in an imaginative state of mind in which we can tell the lies that I think you are talking about: “not as a god, but as a god might be”.
Yeah, I agree with basically all of this. Qualifications, of course, but that’s for another time.
Glad to hear we enjoy similar flavors of kool-aid. I look forward to hearing about the qualifications in some future post, as the first and second paragraphs of my comment seem opposed to me. Part of the point might be that being able to hold these contradictions or not pay so much attention to them that they collapse your sense of meaning is one of the goals we are trying to approach (and why we must approach these goals through obfuscatory, ambiguous communication styles), but I also have a vague impression that you are not very satisfied with such a modest goal of being chill with a contradiction or three.
Thanks so much for writing, your work is terrific and improving.
“You can call me a lot of things. A romantic or a bad writer or a lazy thinker or whatever. But I’m not a misanthrope. I have full faith and love in us, because there is nothing besides that. That’s not a moral statement, nor a declaration of intent, it’s just a fact. Human consciousness is the only one we have. The particular values we’ve inherited are not real. They are based on abstract humans. They’re lies, which is not bad, and who cares about them being a lie? The issue is that they’re bad lies, not that lies.”
Have you ever spelled out why you don’t want to embrace platonism, or some form of idealism? It seems like it would solve alot of these problems for you to take a stance like: “the meaning is the real part, when you say it’s a subjective experience, at best you mean that others don’t reliably experience it in the same context but the extent to which this is true compared to, for instance a chairis continuous not quantum. Anyway, once you’re justifying the unreality of a subjective experience on the grounds of predictivity you’re asserting a statistical concept as a ground of being where things exist to the extent that they partake in it so you’re still and idealist.” I apologize for the obvious thing i’m probably missing.
“Christianity produced Bach, Nye gives us Hip Science Raps, and a world of Hip Science Raps is worse than death. There are great atheist artists, but note that all of them wrote about how fucking awful it is.”
Christianity hasn’t produced a Bach in a long while, atheists haven’t produced a great composer about how fucking awful it is.
It’s hard for Christians to make great art about how awesome it is. Shelley made great and joyous atheist art. Off the top of my head I can think of two writers since him who made joyous art, Goethe and Whitman, who both believed some bullshit that they probably couldn’t explain to themselves to their own satisfaction. Maybe Eliot and Tolstoy both became christians and wrote bittersweet where their contemporaries wrote bitter, but both did their best work before they were converted. Certainly Shelley and Whitman could be moved to tears by a nebula. They might even like Kaur.
No, I haven’t. I also don’t really reject all kinds of idealism, depending on the use of the term. I’m phenomenology-friendly, and I’d call phenomenology a development from Kantian transcendental idealism (Husserl agrees, Heidegger… is contradictory on the topic). Then again, a whole bunch of other people want to claim that that’s not actually idealism because [scholarship], and I’m not a philosopher nor a philosophy scholar, so I don’t get into that fight.
Whitman almost closed this piece. I think he’s about as close to a Nietzschean poet as we’ve had. Cioran and the edgelords BTFO.
The “CGI” part of the “CGI nebula” was important. The “Bill Nye” part of the entire sentence was probably the most important. I like space, too.
I’ve followed Jordan Peterson myself, and I really like the guy. I think Peterson and you are working on a similar project (albeit from the angle of comparative religion), so I endorse looking into him more.
It’s true that the media tried to make him a poster child for their own ideologies. And that he has a very pragmatic worldview, which was probably influenced by his experience with patients. But the Jacob Falcovich article also mischaracterizes him in some ways. Specifically, the paragraph which makes him sound almost like a Christian fundamentalist.
Peterson’s world view is that organized religion is an instantiation of a dominance hierarchy. He likes to use the example of lobsters to show that the dominance hierarchy is a very old artifact of evolution, and therefore nigh inescapable for human society. Religious myths (e.g. dragon slaying) represent the eternal battle against Chaos and Entropy. God is an abstract alphamale who sits atop the hierarchy, and is roughly equivalent to Yudkowsky’s Current Extrapolated Volition.
When God died, so did many valuable social institutions. Although he does support enlightenment values, he’s simultaneously unsure how to preserve the social technologies that the far left is intent on destroying.
He also often discusses The Big Five Personality Traits and the various ways it relates to gender norms, political ideologies, social interaction, and career success. All of which occur on the substrate of the Dominance Hierarchy. The reason he’s famous is because he publicly disagreed (with Canadian law) to use preferred gender pronouns. Because he recognizes diction is an important resource, which he believes the far left is (subconsciously) trying to monopolize in order to satisfy the same impulse that led communism down the path of totalitarianism. (I myself don’t fully understand his totalitarianism argument yet.)
Hm. Between this comment, the Falkovich article, and this twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Scholars_Stage/status/972400010426896385 I think I’m at least sold enough to read Maps of Meaning sometime soon. If there’s interest, I’ll write a review.
Thanks for the convincing.
Wow. I learned a lot from that Twitter thread too.
For me, it reframes Existentialism as a “High Modernist” response to Nihilism. The Totalitarianism topic I think I have a better grasp on. Though I’m still confused as to exactly how it’s responsible for the Far Left’s fascination with speech policing.
This is a really interesting post, but one thing I noticed is that you introduced a question–if lies are necessary for humans to function, where did truth as a value come from?–and then kind of drop it. If Western philosophy is all footnotes to Plato, perhaps the answer lies in Plato.
Let’s ignore the Platonists. Plato says the highest form is the form of the Good, not the form of the True. The meaning of this is clear: normativity comes before truth. This is the reason why, as you say, Truth as the highest value undermines itself, because Truth cannot justify itself; only normativity can do that. It’s like the liar’s paradox, “this sentence is false” (which, incidentally, famous logician Graham Priest uses to prove that the law of non-contradiction is false). But what we can conclude from this is that Truth is not actually “true,” or more specifically isn’t complete. It’s sort of an offshoot, or a shadow, of Good. (I realize I’m skipping like 300 steps in this paragraph.) As long as this hierarchy is maintained, truth is fine and even beneficial. The problem is that we reversed it at some point and made Truth the highest value, which naturally undercut normativity and thus Truth itself.
On the other hand, Plato and the ancient Greeks in general had a lot of fucked-up views about normativity, so in that sense we can look at its destruction as an opportunity to build a better normative theory in its place. The problem is in finding a theory that appeals to people when there aren’t any traditional values uniting them anymore. …I’ve got nothing.
If I could expand somewhat on Plato:
Plato’s single greatest theme, present in all of his works to greater or lesser extent, is the dual motion of union and dissolution. This is the simple mechanism of his dialectic. First, he draws everything together into one cohesive whole, and then he refutes elements one by one and breaks up the whole, and the process continues for everything he touches. Consider the parts-of-a-face/parts-of-gold argument in Protagoras 329d-e: he discusses the parts of virtue as being distinct and unaligned components of a whole (as do the parts of a face), and then as being divisions of a single united substance (as are the parts of a bar of gold). It’s not for nothing, either, that the Protagoras ends with the titular character and Socrates having switched their positions of argumentation. Plato builds up the idea of the forms over and over, and yet presents some pretty devastating criticisms of them in the Parmenides (and again, it’s not for nothing that the second act of that dialogue is according to the mighty ancient’s claim that “you must not only hypothesize, if each thing is, and examine the consequences of that hypothesis; you must also hypothesize, if that same thing is not.” – 136a).
The consequence of that towards truth and goodness is that truth can be elevated into an identity with goodness, where there is no difference between the two, and that it can be cast down from goodness (as one cast down from Olympus or Heaven) and permitted its own independent existence. The fluctuations here are not perversions of human thought, they are the very element of human thought. It is the movement between uniting distinct values, say, into a concrete whole so that they can be acted upon in unison, and then dividing them again so that they can be expressed on their own terms or even annihilated, as the case may be.
Where we’ve gotten to now is that truth has become inseparable from goodness except by destroying its value as truth. Truth as separate from the good is supposed to be satanic, accusatory, the nagging thorn, but instead it has lost its independent agency and become a mere tool when it cannot partake of the good. And when it is united, of course, it has the power not only to exclude, but to outright negate that which the beholder does not include within good and truth (which summarizes contemporary politics nicely). In a certain frame of mind, one would connect this to the ascendance of the news media. They serve as the sole source of information and the arbiters of truth, in contrast (say) to earlier modes where non-news organizations would communicate directly (and people would listen), followed by analysis and interrogation from news sources. The news media now communicates what the non-news organizations wish to say and analyzes and interrogates in the same breath: “Could we get an interview?” The distinction and dialectic break down, meaning all that’s left for the news organizations to accuse is one another. C’est charmant. This means that the only people who can speak are the ones who let the news speak for them, and the people the news doesn’t allow to speak don’t end up speaking at all. The internet might be a way around this, and then again, might not. Ah, well.
It’s misleading to say that truth is our highest value without any caveats. It simply isn’t. Advertising is incredibly popular, for example, and everyone lies all the time. What has happened is that truth has lost its ability to stand in distinct opposition to something that is good. Now, a claim to truth must also claim goodness, which means that every person in every debate claims complete truth and complete goodness (contrast, say, some of the speeches of the Athenians related by Thucydides). There’s no reason to elaborate on why this makes debate impossible.
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I’m not sure I agree with you about Plato’s greatest theme, but I need to actually read through all of Plato first to say so with confidence (which I will do at…some point).
I think our disagreement here may be a result of us coming from different worlds, or focusing on different parts of the world. I come from academia, philosophy in particular, and academia has basically given up on the project of constructing a stand-alone normative theory. Most philosophers these days basically agree with John Mackie that objective moral claims are literally nonsensical, and so instead focus on finding some sort of non-normative “factual” ground for moral beliefs. On the other hand, you’re focusing on advertising, propaganda, and everyday political arguments, which is a different beast.
That said, I would like to push back on your claims a bit. It is true that most people claim truth and goodness is on their side in every debate, but I think that’s because most people think goodness derives from truth. Most think: if you look at the facts it’s obvious that X political ideology is true, so anyone who disagrees with X must either be ignorant of the facts or have an actively malicious character. (Though I will say this tendency is strongest among older liberals and conservatives, and weaker among younger socialists and fascists.) It’s precisely because truth is the highest value in modern Western society that normative debate is impossible.
The theme, for reference, isn’t so much that Plato talks about it (although I cite a couple of closer references) than that he does it. All of his works have the element of building up and tearing down in them, especially the ones that he actually appears to have written, and so I describe it as being core. What someone says vs. what someone does, you know the drill.
What you noted about analytic philosophers – and this is a deadly important distinction to draw, not between analytic and continental but between analytic and any other possible style of thought – seems precisely what Lou was talking about in this essay. Truth is subject to the impossible standards of the Platonic ideal and Humean skepticism simultaneously (which also encapsulates every facet of contemporary gender relations, which is anything but a mistake), and so of course there’s no way that you can get “objective moral claims.” I’m not sure this is properly separable from the realm of the commoners. Do they claim things are objectively moral, or do they use “non-normative ‘factual’ ground for moral beliefs”? I dunno, let me check the Sociology and Evo Psych journals.
The classical divide between goodness and truth is that while truth is what you believe, goodness is what you act on. (Plato brings these together at many points and divides them at key intervals, such as in the Gorgias and the Hippias Minor.) The death of God, of goodness, has left us with inaction and neurosis as our only two outs. You’re right to criticize my reasoning and conclusions there, as they were incoherent (that’s the preferred word, yes?) as stated. Let us proceed with inaction and neurosis as our stand-ins for goodness. Inaction is derived from “truth,” since information has no inherent action associated, and is well aligned with the pathetic (emotional but without action) symptoms of narcissism which you explicitly call out in the old, as I understand. Neurosis is pure and disconnected action without a guiding principle behind it or a terminal point in front of it (frantic activity to disguise impotence), and as such is insensible to truth and best suited to, well, the neurotic symptoms of narcissism. You describe that in young socialists and fascists. In neither case is there any substance, any content to truth or goodness to allow them to interact in a useful or beneficial way, and as a result even though each individually bears a semblance to the real thing, neither can take on the full form of that which it imitates. The one is always subsumed into the other. It becomes nonsensical to say: where do my loyalties lie? Where do my values lie? Do I side with truth or with goodness? This kind of question is something that people do come into contact with, and more frequently than they perhaps realize, since the inability to recognize them independent of one another precludes their ability to wrestle with the dilemma and become more of a human. The people siding with inaction, often times the academics, are the ones who value “truth” highest. There are also those who value action highest, and they tend to treat truth cavalierly. It is not a uniform belief that truth is paramount, however, but a reliable appeal to monism. Sometimes truth becomes the substance of that monism, and sometimes something else subsumes truth within it.
Either way, that paragraph has grown to be rambling and disjointed, so I’ll leave it. Small and possibly inconsequential thought: you say you come from academia. Do you mean that you have left it, or that you are still in it?
Sorry for the late response (and it seems I can’t respond to your comment directly, prob because we’re too deep into the chain already; I hope this works out).
Regarding the “commoners,” I can only speak from my experience teaching intro to ethics at a public college. Most of my students basically came into class as moral relativists, and I had to try really hard to even convince them that moral realism is plausible. So take that for what it’s worth.
Let me try to summarize your long paragraph. You’re arguing that the real problem is that people only have one highest value, and everything else is subordinate to it (what you call “monism”). So for people who have “truth” as their highest value, they’re doomed to inaction (academics, etc). On the other hand, some people choose something else as their highest value, and they view truth as being (at best) a means to an end. While I think there’s a lot of truth to this, I am concerned about the extent to which any human action could be interpreted as deriving from a belief in one supreme value. You say the classical divide is that truth is what you believe and goodness is what you do, but as (I think) you intimate at other points it’s impossible to really draw a clean line between belief and action (something I’ve heard: “Tell me what you do, and I’ll tell you what you believe”). Indeed, it seems that having two conflicting highest values would just lead to inaction (or psychological collapse), and having two complementary highest values is just a different way of saying you have one highest value. (This is basically my main argument against virtue ethics, for the record.) So is the problem really monism, or is it the fact that we just have the wrong highest value as a culture?
I’m currently in academia (ABD to be specific) but intend to leave it as soon as I get my PhD. Partly for reasons we’ve talked about; partly because I feel that academic culture is extremely stifling. (One example–the format of academic essays is extremely rigid, and as we all know form is content.) Despite the political leanings of its inhabitants academia is actually an extremely conservative institution IMO.
I think you’re basically correct with normativity->truth (Plato says as much), and and Sam is right to point out the truth->utility motion that happens subsequent. Getting at truth as “utility” (or answering the value of truth) is a serious issue I failed to address. In my defense: this was already very long.
The word missing here is telos, which was critical for Aristotelian ethics and metaphysics. Once you have that, you can start incorporating truth into a broader ethical framework (as you point out). In my defense again: this was already very long.
There’s a view (unsure how popular) that Nietzsche was a kind of weird latter-day Aristotelian, trying to ground ethical practice as self-actualization (uh… basically entelecheia). Truth then is a necessary principle, but not the only one. It has the advantage of working within a subjective framework, requiring a non-objective morality, and admitting of epistemic uncertainties. It’s also really, really insanely hard to try and argue for, because telos sounds totally nuts to our conception of naturalism.
For what it’s worth: I’m pretty sure that this view of N is essentially correct. The project itself may be good, and I do think a fair amount about it.
It’s also probably hopeless.
“It’s also really, really insanely hard to try and argue for, because telos sounds totally nuts to our conception of naturalism.”
I agree, but the ironic part is that ‘naturalism’ is entirely infected with telos. I mentioned David Hume above, but he basically took the view that there’s no telos to its full conclusions, and figured out that it means causation is relative. But ‘naturalistic’ science has to assume causation is objective in order to work. So while telos sounds nuts to us, that’s only because we’ve learned to studiously ignore the fact that we still depend on it to make sense of the world.
I am looking forward to seeing what else you have to say on this subject!
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To see the stars from every perspective, and nurture the gardens where atoms spin themselves in to ideas.
To seize the lines of cause and effect with my bare hands, and bend them until hope and sanity are the same thing.
To participate fully in my own creation, and in so doing, to become less clearly distinguishable from the God that may yet exist.
This is my joy, and my covenant, and my nature. I exist in proportion to its fulfillment.
(That’s what works for me, anyway. Some of the ambiguities are intentional.)
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Certainly a bit rambly, but your best work yet!
“Sarah selects according to the very long run, which is a great argument, and I’ll do the same: in the very long run, there is no existence.”
Does your argument turn on this point? What if life could go on forever, performing an unbounded number of computations? (This can’t be ruled out according to the current understanding of physics, see Freeman Dyson’s paper Time Without End.) And what if in the long run there are attractors in the space of possible beliefs, so that in the limit as time and computations go to infinity, different perpetually-growing societies will converge on the same beliefs about what is true with probability 1? Couldn’t that ground a notion of objective truth that some of our puny human beliefs would more closely approximate than others? It may seem a little strange, but I think a lot of philosophical questions about things like the nature of “truth” do depend on the answers to these kinds of ultimate long-run questions.
I loved this piece Lou, and I’ve kept thinking back to it since you wrote it. I think, fortuitously, I had just the right amount of scattered background knowledge for it to make a lot of things clear to me.
I’m reminded of it again reading this review of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2018/03/20/enlightenment-how-pinkers-tutelary-natures
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Ding ding ding ding ding ding! Hermes, tell the man what he’s won.
An all expenses paid trip to an unbreakable rock! Here you’ll be bound with luxurious, unbreakable chains while birds feast just slowly enough on your liver you don’t quite die.
Of course, in all seriousness, I’m referring to alcoholism: one of the few sane responses to this inevitable deadlock in attempting to formulate applied philosophy once you run smack into this inevitable, unavoidable mire. Please mind the flame spurts, lightning sand, and especially the Rodents Of Unusual Size.
This was a great read and it clarified a lot, but ultimately it all turns on the claim that we don’t want the truth, which I found pretty weak. I’m content to affirm that I really do want the truth, my dead kid’s fetishes and agonising death included, and if society can’t handle that then so much the worse for society.
I can empathise with you in trying to communicate an idea this delicate; whose elaboration sows the seeds of an inner conflict. I can imagine a critic of yours saying: well, if there are other values besides the truth, what makes them true. Of course, they’ll miss the point and that’s precisely what you wanted to convey. (But would have failed to do so). This then makes me wonder: was writing this post worth it for you.
I do feel much of the debate between “truth” v/s “goodness” comes down to wordplay. We substitute values and the terms we use to represent them like nobody’s business. I wish you elaborated more on how people in power have an extraordinary influence on what these terms end up getting used for.
Oh man, I found that post again, still a great read. Now it’s resonating harder than I remember the first time.
Hope you’re well.