Some Freedoms Are Better Than Others, Research Time, 29/05/2015

I've been reading about the First World War because it was the moment when the central concept of totalitarianism was forged, and totalitarianism is the greatest enemy of the Utopias project. The core concept of totalitarian politics is the conception of individuals as entirely functional. There is no singularity to individual lives in totalitarianism, as the value of life is defined only through the service to the whole.

This is the logic that, as I write in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, is used to condemn the environmentalist movement for understanding humanity as systematically integrated and interdependent with ecosystems and the wider biosphere. This is Luc Ferry’s contention that environmentalist politics are eco-fascism because the absolute freedom of the individual is subordinated to the good of an ecosystem. 

A worker slowly begins the process last year of cleaning
up the Elk River chemical spill of 2014, when a
company's purposeful negligence of proper safety for
dangerous chemicals resulted in a spill upriver from
Charleston, West Virginia. Nearly a million people
were unable to drink their tap water.
Environmentalist politics does require us to compromise our freedoms. And these compromises are for the sake of our long-term, or even short-term, survival and overall prosperousness. We cause severe limitations to our freedom and that of many other people when we callously pollute major water supplies with toxic wastes.

Robert Nozick also said that human freedom must include the freedom to renege on social obligations to repay favours or give benefits in return for help you’ve received. That’s the substance of the radio show argument, that no matter how much good and joy others have brought to me, any obligation on me to repay that kindness is a form of oppression. My absolute freedom is violated by social rules that limit my freedom to be a selfish jackass.

Friedrich Hayek similarly said that any attempt to control individual freedom by pressure to contribute to a common social good or large-scale project is oppressive. Totalitarian, even. 

This trio, Hayek-Nozick-Ferry, makes for a fine demonstration that liberalism has become bankrupt. In the name of protecting individual freedom, they enable oligarchy, ethical indifference, and ecosystemic destruction. These are the major destructive forces tearing human civilization down in our era. When they defend such terrible regimes and the moral concepts that such regimes run on, they do so in the name of the liberal tradition.

Every political philosophy that achieves mass success and acceptance eventually grows decadent. Decadence is when what was once a source of creativity, nobility, life, and joy instead promotes misery, resentment, and destruction. All without changing its fundamental concepts. The world has changed, and what was once an absolute good now leaves blood on our hands. 

This is the teleology of Nietzsche’s vision of human history. A revolutionary idea arises, and we pig-headed humans run with it until we run it into the ground, and we become so devoted to the idea itself, that it must be absolutely, inherently good, that we blind ourselves to the misery its guidance now creates. Concepts have finite political lifespans. The prophet (Nietzsche) recognizes this. The revolutionary (internet feminists, black liberators, environmentalists, the sexual and sexuality revolution, Occupy) forges a new political order.

Hannah Arendt was the first to understand totalitarian
government as imperialism's playbook running in the
domestic sphere on the entire population.
The trick is recognizing which new political orders will actually produce creative, life-affirming change that opens up new possibilities for humanity. Because there are many others that will only speed the destruction. 

Totalitarianism was the first revolutionary reaction to liberalism, forging an image of a new kind of humanity. The problem was that it was even more destructive than liberalism ever was, more quickly and intensely. Before the 20th century, liberalism as a political philosophy was articulated most purely in the movements to abolish slavery and build democratic state institutions. 

Totalitarianism was a reaction to liberalism that, I think, came before the true moment of liberal decadence. If anything, I think it was actually the decadent stage of imperialism, when all the destruction that the empire-building powers were always able to offload to its colonies came home to work their horrors. And it used the greater intensity that modern technology was capable of, to push that destruction into an all-consuming inferno.

Sounds like a good metaphor, really. Totalitarianism as a political fluorine fire.

The First World War was the first such fire of imperialism brought to its highest intensity. Imperialism is something that the great industrial powers of Europe could get away with when all the violence was done to colonized people in lands very far away from the seats of their civilizations. You can even get away with it when you colonize a people in your own country, when a minority is racialized or enslaved. 

And when your own political majority population becomes the colonized, the machinery of imperialism turning on itself. The oppressors oppress themselves, destroying their own civilization through military violence instead of some other. Totalitarianism makes you into a self and an other at the same time.

I’m not quite sure what’s going to come of this. All I know is that I’m thinking. This is a long project in progress.

Simulating the Impossible to Learn About Reality, A History Boy, 28/05/2015

Not the most accurate depiction of a typical psychology
lab. I did always find a lot of this movie funny, though.
I have an extremely dark sense of humour.
I think one reason why so many people buy Dan Ariely’s books is that he’s good at talking about the day-to-day process of experimental psychological research in a way that amuses a reader. He makes you laugh.

Given what happens during a lot of his experiments, simply describing them as they happen can put a smile on your face. Psychology experiments are utterly ridiculous, in terms of what they ask us to do. I very vaguely remember participating in one when I was a student, because my friend C, who was an honours psychology student, asked me to.

As I recall, and I don’t recall very well because this happened around 2007, I sat down at a computer while a face flashed on screen, and I had to push one button to indicate my positive or negative feelings about the face. The images of faces were mixed in with images of numbers. Bear in mind that I may also be combining this experiment I did with one I later read about. What it actually happened in the lab doesn't matter for the story, only that I did silly things there and talked about why they were so silly. 

After the experiment was done and her supervisor gave me my $16 for my time, C and I talked about how it worked. I made a guess as to what the experiment was meant to measure. She told me it was actually a pretty good setup for a psychology experiment. 

But her actual experiment was set up entirely differently. What I thought they were really measuring was actually part of what was supposed to distract me so they could observe my unintentional behaviour in reaction to the general framework of what I was doing.

Don’t ask me what either of us actually said.

I thought it was interesting that they’d develop this rather elaborate scenario whose content was so contrived and whose structure was so simple, but which also contained a distraction for your conscious attention from what they were actually trying to observe about you.

Don't you want this? Don't you want this
Ariely describes one of his experiments, where he gives one group genuine Chloé brand sunglasses and tells them so, one group fake Chloés and tells them so, one group real Chloés and tells them they’re fakes, and one group fake Chloés and tells them they’re real. 

To a randomly selected half of each of these four groups, he gives a set of math problems with an answer key on the reverse side. To the other randomly selected half of each, he gives them the quiz without the answer key. How much cash the participant was paid for taking part depended on how well they did on the quiz. 

The experiment was to correlate people’s propensity to cheat (whether they’d take advantage of the answer key being literally in their hands as they write a quiz they’ll get money for) was correlated with wearing counterfeit designer goods and knowing you’re wearing them. If you know you’re already deceiving, will you deceive again?

I remember, on many occasions over the years, having conversations with friends and colleagues who knew nothing about psychology. They’d often say that the experiments were ridiculous* and useless because they were so abstract from real life.

* Well, they are, but scientifically so.

These folks had all taken psychology, though. Psych 1000, the course that’s loaded with mediocre arts students who have to take a science credit to graduate, but who don’t want to do math or spend extra time in a lab. So many people take an introduction to psychology solely for a mandatory credit, but who don’t give a crap about the subject. 

Yet because it’s the only science course that a vast majority of paying customers** bother with, there’s immense institutional pressure to pass them all. You can’t give them a rigorous course and adjust all their marks to pass levels because that would be dishonest as an educator. But you can fill the course content with relative pablum compared to what you learn in higher-level courses after you decide that the degree program is worth pursuing in itself. 

I play this game at least four times every day just on
my own.
** I mean students in our country’s highest learning and research institutions.

The issue is how many good students the psych department drives away through boring them out of their minds. If your first exposure to a discipline of knowledge is dumbed-down to a level where even the barely indifferent can pass it with all the effort of a stoned shrug, you won’t think it’s all that interesting.

I never took a course in psychology, though. I was a smart enough arts major that I did university-level chemistry in high school in a class of eight, where I got personalized instruction from a knowledgeable teacher. Instead, everything I know about psychology comes from reading books and articles by psychological theorists and practitioners. Some specialize in the discipline of psychology itself, and some specialize in others but study psychological theories and techniques for their own work.

Most of my psychological knowledge, I know from reading books and having conversations with philosophers of science who often draw on the history, methods, and theories of psychology for their own ends. Here’s something I learned from philosophy of science about why psychology experiments are so abstract from human behaviour.

The whole idea of an experiment isn’t to replicate the world around us so we can observe things as they really unfold. We can do that by wandering around the world observing things. An experiment is supposed to isolate one particular phenomenon from everything it normally interacts with so we can learn exactly what happens in that one specific process.

So you have to create a very artificial environment to learn anything specific about a process. In real life, no process is truly isolated, so you can never quite get a firm grip on what the essential cause of a phenomenon might be, or whether one kind of activity is happening, or another one that looks superficially similar but is very different. 

Psychology wants to do this with processes in human cognition, so of course their scenarios are going to sound weird and unrealistic. All experiments are unrealistic. Introducing realism would prevent us from learning the kind of knowledge that experiments can produce.

Scars Etched in History Itself III: The Many Is So Different From the One, Research Time, 27/05/2015

Continued from last post . . . I mean, I think I'm going to try. I’ll at least get some speculations off the ground, say what it isn’t. Even just entertaining to speculate whether it's right to call a civilization or culture traumatized is flirting with the boundary of a world of hurt. 

I say this in general, and as someone who’s also engaging the most influential philosopher of liberal individualism in the last hundred years, Friedrich Hayek. Yes, Hayek, the radical individualist who saw most activity of government that required scientific planning as inherently totalitarian.* 

American peace activists on the run from the soldiers
of their own country.
* I have a friend from my time at McMaster who would advocate for John Rawls, but Rawls never founded a network of think tanks that influenced the fundamental economic policies of almost every major Western political party. Rawls influenced a lot of political philosophers at elite university institutions, but universities have been under fire from the political elite since the 1960s (sometimes literally) for fostering political radicalism.

Hayek articulated what would become the genesis of the new liberal opposition to using the state as a tool for public service and the correction of injustice. The socialist thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries conceived of society as a unified organism, and the state as its driving force. 

This subsumed the good of each individual in a society to the good of society as a whole, and allowed the kind of callous utilitarianism that would, for example, starve a significant portion of a country’s population to feed some segment that was more productive, obedient, or somehow moved along the government’s Five Year Plan better than otherwise. Just as a doctor, with his scientific knowledge of medicine, would cut off a limb or remove a thyroid or a breast to save a life. 

It’s a clearly Stalinist move. And its fundamental justification was the presumption that a society was a whole that subsumed its individual parts, just as an organism is a whole that subsumes its individual parts. 

This isn’t actually how we think anymore because Hayek was right to oppose it – thinking of a society as an individual that subsumes all its citizens into the whole is not how society works at all. 

Sometimes, Bergson had an annoying influence
on his followers, as when Gilles Deleuze, a
major influence on Ecology, Ethics, and the
Future of Humanity
, would draw these crude
yet amusing diagrams of massive systematic
Scientific knowledge of complex systems now correctly understand them under ecological frameworks of thought, not organismic ones. Systems affect each other as they relate, integrate, and come to depend on each other. All these processes come together in a massive machine, but the machine doesn’t somehow overwrite the purposes of all the individual parts. If it did, the machine itself would break down, because the autonomy of the parts all acting together keep the machine running as it does. 

These machines, whether they’re an ecosystem or a society, have no primal unity in their identity. They’re massive, plural, complex systems. Any stability in them is a product not of carefully planned and regulated activity, but of dynamic tensions that keep a set of flows (they could be matter, energy, information, money, concepts, or some combination of any of them) within a threshold limit. If the threshold is broken – if any processes spin out of control, die out, or begin to overpower the others – then the system flies or falls apart. 

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity explains in more detail how this is the fundamental character of ecological relationships, and explores its implications for how we should understand the systems in which we all live. 

A society is one of these systems that emerge from the dynamic tension of its autonomous parts. So if I’m going to write about social and cultural traumas, they have to be very different in kind from traumas that happen to individual, those involuntary flashes of perception of a horrifying past event. A society has no mind, no self-consciousness, no self-identity.**

** These are, of course, different words for the same thing.

Is the trauma of a culture more terrifying than the
trauma of a single person? Not if we can see his face.
What could a trauma be for a culture? Cultures themselves don’t conceive of themselves as narratives built from our memories and knowledge. Cultures don’t think at all. Individuals do. 

Cultures are aggregates of affects, processes constantly in collision and tension. A radical change to these processes can destroy the entire system. But a system can also weather such a change, carrying on despite its scars deforming it from the best set of internal relations it could have to work smoothly. The system still functions, but the effects of the injury linger, and the affects of the injury spread throughout.

This is how we can understand trauma at the societal and cultural level. As a catastrophic event whose changes and effects drastically impair a system without allowing it to die. Unable to repair itself or completely break down in the hopes of forming some utterly new assemblage, it limps along as a twisted wreck.

Scars Etched in History Itself II: History Is Real, Research Time, 26/05/2015

Continued from last post . . . I only know the popular psychology version of what trauma is. If I were to use concepts of trauma as an analytic angle of the Utopias project, I'd have a lot of work to do. But I'm using a slightly strange, if enlightening set of ideas from Western philosophy to understand the long-term effects of the First World War.

Men like this lived for four years on land that was
constantly being bombed. You are not normal anymore.
It's weird about the man himself who developed the ideas of time, becoming, and history that will be important to the middle arc of the Utopias manuscript. Henri Bergson himself, even though he lived and worked through the First World War, passed the entire affair by in the Sorbonne.

He was politically idealistic enough after the war to have worked with the League of Nations, as a major figure in the League's organization for intellectual cooperation between France and Germany. But he was politically naïve enough that he didn't understand that all his French co-workers were systematically barring German scientists and researchers from joining. It says Franco-German cooperation on the box label, so that must be what we're all dedicated to.

Bergson the man made a lot of mistakes. Just about everything that's explicitly argued in his book Creative Evolution has been utterly disproven by mainstream biology ever since. Though I do, at some point, want to talk with Steve Fuller about what he'd have to say about Bergson's evolutionary theory as a fruitful critical perspective on evolutionary theory.

But his ideas about time, history, and memory? That's the bomb.

The heart of Bergson's thinking about time is that the past is real. The present is the roiling moment of becoming, the leading edge of a process. But that process is the creation of the past. The intuitive presumption for most of us is that the present is all that's real, and the past isn't any longer. That's why we say it was.

But the past is real, and we literally carry it with us all the time. How we do so is open to interpretation. Bergson doesn't go into much detail about what kind of substance the past is. The closest he comes in Matter and Memory is when he draws a very abstract diagram of a downward-pointed cone. 

This is seriously the most information we
bloody get about this cone. Bergson's weird.
The bottom point of the cone is our current experience of the entire world around us. With every moment, more and more keeps building up in the cone, as it expands, growing taller, wider from the top, and heavier. Of course, this isn't a real cone that we carry with us. But the cone is the reality of each of our pasts. It’s the history of our duration.

Here's where it gets really trippy. And where how we understand personal trauma (at least as far as the popular version goes) returns to the picture. Memory is our mental faculty of perceiving this real past that is a-materially part of us.* Such perception of your past traces a zigzagging path through the cone of your personal duration so far. A moment of the present actually perceives, accurately or hazily, a series of events in your own past duration.

* Bergson seriously never engages in metaphysical speculation as to what kind of substance this past could be composed of, as if it would be any kind of analogy with matter. Why would he? All you need to know is that it’s the real past. Why would you think it had even a fundamental framework anything like matter? Or even its opposite (and maybe negation), spirit? Without even knowing he’s doing it, Bergson finds himself pushing our metaphysical buttons in ways they’ve never been fondled before. Do you see why I enjoy his writing so much? Where was I?

The past is real, and is part of us. We remember by perceiving past events in this collected sack of experience in the present moment. Such perception, and what you perceive, need not be voluntary. And such involuntary memory might perceive something terrifying.

Bergson's psychological reflections were grounded in the cutting edge science of his day. His psychological influences are unique among his scientific studies in that they turned out to be correct, influencing the successful psychological science we’ve developed since then. Aside from the behaviourist ideas, which Bergson never would have let slide. His philosophy worshipped creativity.

But you can see how Bergson's philosophy can help understand the experience of trauma, at least philosophically and ethically. He gives us metaphysical resources to take seriously the notion that the wounds a trauma inflicts on your personality are real, and part of you. Because the experience itself is and always will be part of you. So trauma counselling is learning to control your involuntary memory, so that you no longer perceive so clearly and starkly such horrifying experiences.

The question is whether and how any of this can be articulated on a cultural or civilizational scale. . . . To be Continued

Scars Etched in History Itself I: Figuring Out Ernst Jünger, Composing, 25/05/2015

What I’m about to write over the next two or three entries is going to get a little weird. But it’s also going to make a lot of sense. While also being weird. 

Let me explain. 

One of the purposes of this blog, when it comes to my philosophy writing projects, is taking a first, exploratory, crack at making sense of some idea I’ve come across in my research. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel is a seminal book in understanding the cultural legacy of the First World War: the mechanization of humanity. This is the vision of what humanity is that drives true totalitarianism. 

Yes, those are people in the distance. The cause of this
devastation was constant artillery bombardment. The
First World War was absolutely horrifying.
Storm of Steel is the diary of a veteran. A veteran who served four years on the front line of a war so cataclysmic that it fundamentally transformed European culture forever. I’ve described before how difficult I find it simply understanding the full power of these images – artillery bombardments so powerful that they’ve literally churned the earth over so that the shattered body parts of dead soldiers will stick through the walls of freshly dug trenches.

Jünger experienced these images every day. They were part of his ordinary existence for the same length of time that a lot of folks today spend in full time university. And it was at the same time in his own life that we’d spend in class, volunteering on campus, working part-time jobs, and partying. Jünger enlisted right at the start of the war in 1914. He was born in 1896.

He writes about, for example, seeing comrades from his unit lying dead in a field hospital with each of their mouths bloodily shot off. Even when his unit was out of combat duty and resting in a nearby French village, they’d live in constant fear of warheads flatting their houses and killing them while they slept, because the British artillery were constantly bombing the village to kill German soldiers while they slept. 

As I’ve said before, he uses the same kind of casual tone that we’d use to talk about a class we went to in college, or a story about playing pool in a bar with your old friend. Emotions are absent from a narrative describing four years of sustained horror. On the face of it, it seems incomprehensible.

Of course, I say things like “on the face of it” purely rhetorically, because it’s perfectly clear that Storm of Steel is an expression of soul-shattering trauma. In adapting his war diary into an autobiographical book within two years of the war’s end, Jünger is articulating the trauma of himself, all the veterans and other survivors of the war, his country, and the whole of Western civilization. 

People of my generation, those who are younger, and the fuzzy boundary of my own generation’s upper limit, have a deeper understanding of what trauma is and how it works than any older demographic. The generation that came of age in the 1970s and 1980s discovered the core concepts of trauma through the popularization of psychology and the political engagements of Vietnam veterans in the United States. 

Ernst Jünger
Deutsches Heer
Class of 1918
But my generation was immersed in the popular understanding of trauma as part of our social environment. This was Jeet Heer's point about what trigger warnings in educational environments really are. They aren't a resurgence of the political correctness driven by identity politics.* They’re an institutional way to take trauma seriously.

* This always bugged me about talk of trigger warnings, because no one was advocating that triggering classics be taken off the list. Reading Storm of Steel, I think the book should be taught to middle school children. Jünger's descriptions of life in the First World War is much more affecting and informative than any of the drier descriptions I ever got at school. The trigger warning is like a film rating, only with enough detail to identify what individuals might find the content especially disturbing.

The experience of severe trauma is when emotional torture and horrifying thoughts occur to someone with the most innocuous stimulus because a past event was so unsettling to her in deep and complex ways. In the popular knowledge of psychology, we know that this is a matter for individuals and small groups like families.

Even though my earlier comment about Jünger expressing the trauma of his entire community of veterans, Germany, and Western civilization was metaphorical, that metaphor also expressed a real aspect of how enormous events like the First World War affect a whole culture. It occurred to me that an account of civilizational trauma could be an element in understanding the political drive to perfect the world in a single vision that’s at the heart of my Utopias project.

Of course, I would never simply upscale talk of trauma at the individual level as functioning exactly the same as at the civilizational. These are incredibly different systems, even though one is an aggregate of millions of the other system. That's how aggregates work. But it could definitely help inform the overall narrative of the philosophy. . . . To be Continued.

These Ideas Constantly Mutate With Opportunities, Composing, 22/05/2015

Am I taking too long to write a 2000 word short story? Probably at the moment. I haven’t had the time to write any fiction in a while. Even though it’s only been six months since I’ve put detailed thought into getting a final product on paper, I already feel rusty. Still, given the necessity for reader votes in this Epic Worlds competition, I’m probably going to bang out this story over the weekend. 

I’m glad I took this pause of a few days, though, to bounce some of these ideas off my internet comrades in weird, unwieldy writing projects. In particular, I’m glad I got to hear some of the ideas of Josh from Vaka Rangi after my first post about this story on Monday

If we're going to trace ideas through the pop-culture, I'm
playing with similar ideas as Fritz Lang did 90 years ago.
He talked about the potential of my character Alice as a divine ideal, the living embodiment of what the reader, and what other characters in the story, aspire to be. It’s more than simply a stereotypical Mary Sue, and functions with a constant sheen of meta-fiction, rather like Kei and Yuri of Dirty Pair. She’s a character in her own singular right.

The different character of her mind* means that she understands the world differently than humans. This affected her moral sensibilities, making her radically different from humanity in that she has no desire for revenge or retribution against those who do wrong to her. She simply makes the wrong end as quickly as possible, and repairs the damage done to herself, her world, and the perpetrator (whatever of him may survive).

* Alice being an android with a particular philosophic-technobabbly reason I discussed in another post and another story.

She is benevolence, and restorative justice in a person. But she’s still a person. For example, she knows she’s ethically superior to humans, and can be a little smug about it. But she remains basically kind enough that you aren’t even sure if you should be offended at her smugness. 

When you say something funny and Alice laughs, you’re never quite sure whether she’s laughing with you, laughing at you, or if somehow they’ve become the same thing. 

Josh wondered why a human, as flawed as he is, could never approach and understand such an advanced being. The principle of the shaman is that someone comes from a corrupt society, encounters an embodiment of a better ideal for living, and returns to the world with what he’s learned from that contact to make it a better place.

I think now I have a better sense of how this will play out in the short story. Jorge, the human protagonist, comes from a corrupt world that resembles our own quite a bit. He does leave that world for a career in space as a wanderer. He encounters Alice and the world she’s part of, a world operating according to a different morality. He understands that this might be a better morality than his own world, android society inherently more peaceful, harmonious, and happy than his own.

What if he also cannot escape a terrible sense of certainty** that this revolutionary morality would find no home on his world, and he’d return even more alone than before. First he was a self-exile. Now, he’s an alien.

** However, one man’s certainty gives no sign of what the truth might be.

The Unnoticed Power of Pop Philosophy, Composing, 21/05/2015

Over my time in the university system, I’ve heard a lot of casual talk dismissing some books as less serious than others because they were written for a popular audience. It’s of no use saying who in particular, as I’m thinking of a general trend notable because of how frequently the same points recur over seven years of my experience in a particular system and culture, academia.

Pop philosophy and the pop versions of all the other disciplines have their problems. Most of them do revolve around a common academic complaint, and a genuine one: they oversimplify problems, and draw more of a conclusion than we’re really able from the selection of experiments and examples that often occur in the pop psychology of the Gladwell model. 

The owl shriek'd at thy birth,--an evil sign; 
The night-crow cried, aboding luckless time; 
Dogs howl'd, and hideous tempest shook down trees; 
The raven rook'd her on the chimney's top, 
And chattering pies in dismal discords sung.
Yet there are advantages to Gladwellism, even though it’s so easy to write like a terrible Gladwellian. I’d say Gladwell himself writes like a poor Gladwellian more often than not. Reading Dan Ariely’s Dishonesty, I find some moments of very poor Gladwellianism. His brief use of the famous image of Schrödinger’s Cat as a metaphor to explain how people are more tempted to cheat about their performance when no one but them knows what really happened is a special mangle of both ideas. 

But the form of Gladwellism – discussing actually fundamental ideas of human life in a hyper-casual tone – is bigger than any one practitioner. I wonder how it works.

Let’s return to that quote from yesterday
“We would be unwilling to ask our neighbours to bring in our mail while we're on vacation, fearing that they would steal our belongings. We would watch our coworkers like hawks. There would be no value in shaking hands as a form of agreement; legal contracts would be necessary for any transaction . . . We might decide not to have kids because when they grew up, they, too, would try to steal everything we have, and living in our homes would give them plenty of opportunities to do so.”
It reads like over-the-top rhetorical language, utterly unsuitable to serious academic work. Its descriptions are cartoonish, and makes no real argument against a basic mathematical foundation to scientific models whose conclusions shape governments’ policies around the world. You don’t unsettle professional economists from the very presumptions of their fields with talk like this.

Yet it speaks to a profound human truth: There is more to human society than the question of “Can I get away with it?”. This is an essence question, a rhetorical formulation that nonetheless gets its readers thinking about fundamental matters of reality.

No respectable economist would ever be taken
seriously as a brilliant scientist again if he were to
start writing journalism.**
** I hope you get the irony in this caption.
Wondering about such questions is not the task of disciplinary economics. These aren’t the kinds of texts that economists are ever asked to write, until they begin to write journalism. That would make them less lofty than when they wrote in stern professional journals that were hidden from popular consumption by paywalls.

Writing in such a crass popular form means their thinking must be on the level of any old amateur. And we can take his words just as flippantly. The work and ideas you win Nobel Prizes for isn’t meant to be consumed by the popular press. Asking such a question would be almost philosophical, and we can’t have a psychologist talk like that.

Good philosophy can be understood by anyone who can follow a word in the context it’s written in, and think about what you just read. Anyone, with any background and of reasonable intelligence, can understand philosophical concepts. They’re the concepts we use to make sense of our world.

Sometimes, there can be good philosophy in popular philosophy.*

* Of course, not all the works of popular philosophy are good philosophy, just as good philosophy doesn’t come from every academic article in the discipline. 

Still Tearing Down the Myth of the Rational, Research Time, 20/05/2015

It happened to me again. Reading a book for fun has actually turned out to be philosophically informative for my next major non-fiction book, the Utopias project. In this case, it was Dan Ariely's book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, which my friend Dreamboat lent me a few weeks ago. 

Also, I find it comforting that a writer of Ariely's stance in the academy has no problem writing books that, while they contain some heady concepts, are written in a tone and style that appeals to an intelligent mass audience. The style of my own Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity is a little dorkier, but I think I’m heading along a similar trajectory of writing popular market philosophy that retains the tradition’s natural creativity and general trippiness. 

Not quite how the experiments look anymore.
Ariely became a source for the Utopias project because of his enemy in Dishonesty. He’s a psychologist, so he gives the psychologist’s name, the Simple Model of Rational Crime. SMORC. Because psychology loves its acronyms.

As a philosopher, though, acronyms drive me up the damn wall. So I’ll call it the cost-benefit model of reason, reason as the calculator of pure interest, or something similarly evocative. No major figure in Western philosophy has ever ran seriously with this concept. Normally, we’ve each in our own way argued against it or completely ignored it to build a much more interesting conception of human nature. 

But one field of human knowledge unfortunately has taken this simple concept too literally. The most influential models of human activity in economic science has defined the individual subject as deciding each choice through weighing potential costs and benefits of each outcome. More complex models, for the most part, only vary how much knowledge the subject has of his choice’s outcomes. There are no other motives for any choice a subject makes in most economic analyses.

Ariely quite easily points out the central flaw in this conception of human nature: if it were true, there would be no human communities because trust would be impossible. He expresses the idea with the same post-Gladwell rhetoric that all intellectual books with these marketing influences encourage:
“We would be unwilling to ask our neighbours to bring in our mail while we're on vacation, fearing that they would steal our belongings. We would watch our coworkers like hawks. There would be no value in shaking hands as a form of agreement; legal contracts would be necessary for any transaction . . . We might decide not to have kids because when they grew up, they, too, would try to steal everything we have, and living in our homes would give them plenty of opportunities to do so.”
This is the cartoonish pop-philosophy of the insane world Malcolm Gladwell has thrown us into. But it speaks to a fundamental truth about humanity, or rather, something inescapable about how human society can function. Society can’t persist among people who are only self-interested. 

Not intended to suggest anything at all. . . . 
The minimal self of most economics models is simpler than any functioning human in social life. Maybe this is why libertarians, and those politicians influenced by libertarian think tanks, persist in believing that human phenomena can have no social causes. Of course, it isn’t the only reason why, just a hidden presumption that reveals an interesting aspect of their worldview and their actions when in power. 

Ariely has written a pop-psychology book whose conceptual inventiveness touches on an aspect of the critique of libertarianism. This is the political philosophy of pure individualism that I've cast as my central target in Part Three of what will eventually be my Utopias manuscript.

Ariely’s book isn’t about altruism. It’s about the most banal kinds of immorality, and the process through which we rationalize it. But it’s in these commonplace banal moments of, for example, under-reporting your odometer reading to get a lower car insurance rate, where we find the threshold of our altruism. It’s the limit of our altruism at its weakest power. 

The threshold of our altruism reveals the minimal conditions of the harmonious society. Sounds like part of the strategy to understand Utopia.

An Alternate History of War Stories, Research Time, 19/05/2015

I thought I’d try one more time to get a coherent post about Ernst Jünger onto the blog. If the blog is the pilot testing zone for the core ideas of works that I want to develop in officially published projects, then tackling the greatest diarist of the First World War is necessary.

The story was ridiculous, but Flyboys looked fantastic.
What stands in the way of truly appreciating Jünger’s writing, because you are instead shocked into mute terror, is the ordinary, casual tone he takes with such events as artillery barrages so dense and terrifying that they churn the battlefields of the Somme into a melange, or perhaps a kugel, of dirt, rocks, plants, the fragmented body parts and flesh of soldiers, and unexploded munitions.

Jünger’s style has its advantages, aside from his understated ability to leave his readers frozen with trauma. One is that he overcomes cliché with ease, and this was well before most of those clichés were ever invented. Reading Storm of Steel reminded me of Flyboys, a film that I saw when it came out ten years ago as part of my work on a movie review radio show.

The film, an early James Franco starring vehicle, perhaps an attempt by his agent to turn him into a conventional thinking-folk’s movie star before his artistic projects, scholarly work, and Apatow franchise comedy, has a plot assembled from the most hackneyed war movie stereotypes. 

Of course, this wouldn’t have been stereotypes in Jünger’s day. The square-jawed American war hero, the band of mismatched enlistees who become brothers-in-arms through the alternating battle sequences, the grizzled veteran who meets a heroic end, the climactic battle avenging the inspiring hero’s death, the handsome lead’s romance with a generic brunette actress. 

Wings was the first Hollywood war movie, a film you
watch today to respect its historical innovations, not
for the VERY 1920s morality in the story.
All these are the creations of the American film industry, the earnest dramatic plots of professional mythmakers created in an era before widespread advanced media literacy killed our bright-eyed capacity for inspiration at such stories. It’s just as true of early examples like Wings, patriotic John Wayne vehicles like The Longest Day, and even the acid-headed cynicism of Apocalypse Now. The drama of war is a tale of heroes, where the war is the backdrop for the inspiring play of these figures who are more icons than characters. The war movie is our epic poetry.

Jünger doesn’t give us epic, and he doesn’t give us drama. There’s a story of a sort, or at least a narrative, the succession of event after event and the slow accumulation of a transformation in the narrator. 

But only that kind of war story, the accumulation of bomb after bomb, death after death, horror after horror, the pounding repetition of the same hammer blows over and over again, actually approaches what is it to experience the First World War. The daily reality of the war has no conventional Aristotelian plot, as all life never does. 

The story structure of the small cast undergoing a clear plot whose intensity rises and falls at a set pace within the narrative’s duration, from beginning to end credits, has long been a feature of the mythical stories we tell ourselves. It’s part of the fundamental fabric of our culture, a core template for the entertaining story.

The Big Red One is a film I'd say captures the slogging
ordinariness of a soldier's life with a similar power as
Jünger did with his book.
I wonder if this is why we’re so tempted by the Great Man conception of history, to understand the entire past of the human race as if we only needed to know the highlight reel, that the power of one or a few people is really all we need to shape a civilization’s historical narrative. 

When you read Jünger, it’s clearly not the story of a Great Man who determined the historical path of the world, even though Storm of Steel would itself be so influential as to contribute to the national consciousness of a society. Its power is that it is the story of an ordinary man, and the extraordinary, unspeakable terrors he was lucky enough to live through.

There's one moment where the barest seed of a Great Man concept appears in the narrative. Jünger is walking down a road while the town is under bombardment,* when a friend from another unit calls out hello. As he walks over to his friend at the roadside, a shell lands in the middle of the intersection that he would otherwise have walked right into.

* The town is always under bombardment. 

At this one moment, he allows a brief belief that he’s somehow special in all of this. Well, he is special. None of those seven wounds he got in the war, and some were pretty severe, ever killed him. He lived.

A Vision of a World Better Than Humanity’s, Composing, 18/05/2015

There’s a short story contest running at the writing website, where you can submit for free a single fantasy or science-fantasy story. Now that my college program is finished, my days are still hectic with my internship and applications for jobs, but I at least have more time on the weekends to write. 

I realized this weekend, as I thought about some ways that I could contribute to this writing contest, that it could be an appropriate place for the return of Alice. The short story contest wouldn’t be the best context to display the character in all that she signifies. That would simply be impossible in the condensed form of a 2-3000 word story, and I haven’t even fully thought through all the philosophical implications of Alice as a character.*

* Ethically, politically, morally, sexually, epistemically, ontologically, narratively. I think I’ve made something really interesting with this character. I hope Vaka Rangi sees this post and has something to say in the comments. He’s always very insightful with these concepts. 

The cover image I'll use for my story submission, from Flickr Creative Commons.
I’m not really sure how successful this story will even be in the contest. Its style isn’t what I’d call experimental, but it is different. My girlfriend recently finished Irvine Welsh’s novel Crime. I haven’t yet read Welsh myself, though I’ll steal this and her copy of Trainspotting soon too. 

As she explained his writing style to me, I realized that it resembles the modernist techniques of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf: long, introspective, first-person, stream-of-consciousness monologues delivered with a particular ear for the character’s cultural vernacular. Welsh innovates by drawing his plots and storylines from genre fiction, as with Crime.

While I don’t have a cultural vernacular for my narrator, interstellar space pilot Jorge Patel, the story describes his “Epic World” through digressions in his memories that spark from snippets of dialogue between he and Alice as they travel to the world-ship where most androids live in their fictional universe. The story opens with a remark Alice makes about slavery. 

As they speak, Jorge recalls lessons about Earth’s history on his own homeworld, Delta Pavonis, which vilified the planet as a society addicted to slave economies. But another remark later reminds him of his disillusionment with the economy and society of his own world, which quite resembles ours. 

I also include a dig at Ed Miliband
and the UK’s Labour Party, who
differ from the Conservatives only in
being the pro-austerity political party
that feels a little sad about endorsing
economic policies that drag almost
the entire country’s population into
inescapable poverty. And if Liz
Kendall wins, I doubt they'll even
feel sad about it anymore.
Falling wages and a bloated oligarchy are justified to the public as the cost of staying competitive in an economy that needs planet-wide austerity for the indefinite future to overcome a crisis. He spends his teenage years watching his friends drop out of school one by one, as their families can no longer afford the fees. Unlike the rest of us, he’s able to train to become an interstellar pilot, and fly to other worlds. 

I try to paint a whole world through the digressive memories of one person seeking a better life. The other stories at the Inkitt contest are pretty good, and also quite interesting. But they favour descriptions of events, followed by dialogue. For someone more accustomed to this, I admit that my style can be challenging.

The story’s politics carry an explicit left-wing message and an implicit feminist ideal. I think it’ll definitely have an appreciative audience, but most of the stories that I see at the top of its leaderboards right now are very typical fantasy plots like roguish action heroes kidnapping sarcastic princesses, or stereotypical grimdark fantasies about the horrors of war.

So I’m not sure how well my story, “Dancing in the Harshest Starlight,” will do in this context. In essence, the story is about someone who turns away from the cesspool of misery and violence that his human society has become, then discovers the paradise that superior creatures, the androids, have built. But he remains human, and the community of peace, prosperity, neighbourliness, and happiness that he sees remains forever separate from him precisely because he’s only human.

Another New Feminist Revolution III: Because She's a Great Philosopher, Composing, 15/05/2015

Continued from last post . . . Maybe now you can see why Laurie Penny’s ideas have so quickly become so important to my own projects. From my own position as a blogger with a small following, respectable pageview numbers, and a couple of books either out or on the way out, I’m trying to help change the world through my ideas. 

I’m not as successful as Penny, of course, because I spent my 20s in graduate school and she spent it hustling journalism. Also, I don’t think I would have done as well as she has, or even been able to formulate the ideas I have if I hadn’t taken the path that I did. 

I'm calling it right now: Wollstonecraft, de Beauvoir,
Steinem, Cixous, Penny. She goes on the list.
I started my life as a pretty blinkered guy who thought that status quo was generally alright, and I’m becoming increasingly radical in my political beliefs as I get older. It’s supposed to run in the opposite direction, with youthful, naive radicalism calming down into an oppressive conservatism. The voice that asks contemptuously why you weren’t able to buy a house when you were 25 because I did in 1974.

But if we think that’s the voice of everyone in the previous generation, then we’re just playing into the hands of people who want to profit from the destruction of welfare state institutions. If a young person struggling with debt and wages they can barely live on sees a senior in poverty and spits in their face, “Now you know what it feels like, old man!” . . . Well, I don’t want to become that person.

I don’t want to become that person for the same reason I couldn’t let myself become a man who hates women and thinks that feminists want to torture men. Not just because it’s based on a lie, but because giving in to spite, anger, and revenge is the expression of weakness. 

It’s easy to deal with difficulties by hating the ones who had it easier than you did. The most difficult path of understanding and empathy is the more noble one, and it says a lot about humanity that we’re so hateful and resentful a species. It’s in this sense that I think Penny is very Nietzschean:* she understands that attitudes of resentment and hatred hold us back from progress as societies and as souls. 

* Do ignore Nietzsche’s intense sexism. I do. Nietzsche himself tells you to ignore his sexism, as he sets off those passages in Beyond Good and Evil with an introduction that essentially says that his sexist beliefs are the most contemptible, resentful parts of his own personality, part of what makes him less than the ethical nobility he aspired to be. Would that we could all be so honest with and about ourselves.

A dress that's making a new
activist in New Brunswick
every day. So some very
beneficial outrage for us all.
And as I’ve said, Penny understands the limits of anger. So much of the horrors in the everyday moments of modern life, especially the modern lives of women, find their genesis in systematic causes. When a harm is born from an intention, and the intention was itself the spontaneous genesis of the harm, then we have a reason for anger, revenge, and punishment. 

But patriarchy is a concept which distills a massive system of gendered oppression of both women and men. Women are oppressed in all the ways that we now know are obvious: they are objectified into things whose only value is in how they please others, particularly men. Men are oppressed in being twisted into hateful, raging, abusive, violent beasts, taught to blame women for the violence of their own desires, which only makes them even more violent toward women. 

A morality of retribution, of punishment for wrongs committed, is not appropriate to deal with patriarchy in this sense. We are all complicit in the socialization of gendered oppression, and we can’t punish everyone in society. Fighting systematic injustice requires healing, not punishment and revenge. When you have to heal the entire world, only restorative and reparative models of justice will work.

Advocating for the reality of systemic causation is the ontological and epistemological aspect of the current fight against new liberal ideology. My own government in Canada, the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper, is the most pure embodiment of new liberal thinking I’ve ever seen, and that I think the world has ever seen.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs recently said in Parliament, completely believing his own words, that when an Aboriginal woman is murdered, it is simply an isolated crime, and that when an Aboriginal teenager commits suicide, it is simply an isolated failure of a single family. This is an example of the refusal to see systemic causation. 

The politics of restoration, healing, and love as community organizing within flexible social networks is the endpoint of my giant work of political philosophy in progress, the Utopias project. It’s the set of principles that we have to pick up going forward if we’re going to fight and defeat the injustices of our own era. 

And I’m not delivering this from some lofty position. Then I’d just be one more cis-gendered straight white man with an awesome beard authoritatively telling people how to fight authority. 

I really would like to see some future Doctor Who lead
actress influenced by Penny's style for her costume. It
would be perfect for the aesthetic Doctor Who will
likely try to go for in the 2020s and 30s, when the
current largely female fanbase starts working in
television production, just as Davies' and Moffat's
generation of fandom did.
Laurie Penny has arrived at the same organized anarchism of healing in love through the mess of her own experiences as a journalist and activist, wandering like a vagabond Doctor through the marginalized places of our society and describing them to the safely housed masses. 

That she and I have come to such similar ideas through our very different paths and methods is a sign that my own thinking and writing can, in some small way, help articulate a revolutionary idea that is already in the popular consciousness. Maybe I can wake a few people up, or at least nudge them a little bit more, into changing how they conceive themselves and their lives, and changing how they live and treat people accordingly. 

That is what philosophy is for. I find it a little awkward writing about my contemporary as a research source. My education was in philosophy, a tradition of old white dudes stretching back centuries. But philosophy at its best has this uncanny power to change the world through thinking and writing, the influence of ideas to enlighten. In speaking with this highest power, Laurie Penny has shown herself to be a great philosopher.

Another New Feminist Revolution II: Overcoming Anger, A History Boy, 14/05/2015

Continued from last post . . . It took me a while to understand all the implications of systematic causation’s reality. I’m saying this as a person who wrote, and will release through a major non-fiction publisher, a book of ecological philosophy.* Systematic causation is simply difficult to understand.

* Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, available from an online bookseller with a major global forest’s name sometime this August. 

We’re accustomed to actions being generated from intentions, from personalities and acts of will. This is the conception of action that descended from Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. When I was working on my doctorate, I encountered the field of action theory, which centred on a very human model of what it was ‘to act.’ How could such a profoundly human thing like a framework to marginalize and oppress the already vulnerable not be intentional?

Anger is powerful and cleansing when you let just enough
of it through you. But it can easily cross its point of
This failure to understand how the genesis of actions could be anything other than the individual’s will is the dynamic of thinking that provokes hatred in regard to feminism. Feminist hatred, done correctly as Laurie Penny does, is a rage toward particular men who embody the sexist norms that permeate so much of our society, and the forces and concepts that twist us all into patriarchal shapes. 

A man who harms women deserves anger from two justifications. 1) He harms women through his aggression in violence. 2) He harms women through his idiocy as he acts uncritically, with no attempt to develop real empathy or knowledge of how uncomfortable or frightened women become around him. 

Such a man – the idiot – can become violent towards women if he becomes convinced that the reason women turn from him is not his own way of carrying himself, but in the corruption of women themselves as a species. Because this is their essential and definitive message, this is why I hate Men’s Rights Activist groups. They interpret their mistakes as her evil.

I’ve been such an idiot before, so self-absorbed and unable to conceive that he might make a mistake with someone, that he leaves only a wasteland where there were once happy memories of old friends. 

Yeah, this sure turned into that kind of post. 

If a Men’s Rights Activist group found me at one of my most vulnerable moments, I don’t know what I might have become. I won’t say they definitely would have ensnared me, but I can’t say for sure they wouldn’t have. But instead, at a time when I felt lowest, I actually found love. 

That’s why I almost cried when I read Penny’s second chapter of Unspeakable Things, “Lost Boys.” It’s the chapter that showed me how deeply and perfectly Penny understood systemic causation, the processes that shape human action and society that are beyond all our conscious intentions. This is a feminist perspective that not only understands when to be angry, but also when not to be angry, when a woman must be compassionate.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate. 

You know what they say about small minds . . . 
Once, I put my foot in my mouth on Facebook talking about trans activism before I really knew much of anything about trans activism. I was subject to an enormous pile-on from friends of mine who did know slightly more about trans activism,** but who spent all night yelling at me on that thread, treating my every attempted apology as a fresh provocation.

** I’ve since learned from another friend who knows a whole lot more about trans activism than anyone else I know that my question actually hit on a subtle ideological schism in the trans activist community about advocacy methods. I still sounded pretty douchey when I first asked the question, though.

When one of my now-former right-wing friends read through this exchange, he used it as an opportunity to show me the true colours of feminism, the left in general. They were only interested in taking my dignity from me, forcing me to live subject to constant abuse or fear of violence. The left would take my freedom away, he said.

Of course, that’s just what a privileged person would say at the prospect of losing their privilege: they’re going to throw on me the oppression and violence I’ve been throwing on them for centuries. He didn’t say this explicitly, obviously, but his basic message was that feminism’s goal was women treating men as men have historically treated women. It was a movement to punish, a vengeful attitude.

Until you read Penny talk about how boys and men are twisted by patriarchal social norms and frameworks of thinking until violence dominates their souls. Either we give in completely and embody all the worst possible sexist traits a man can have, or at least most of them. Or we resist, simply because violence isn’t in that individual’s soul to the same intensity as a proud date rapist, and are tortured by social pressure to dominate despite our individual nature. 

This is how you understand systemic causation, the power of a presumption into which you’re socialized from birth. If the teenage girl driven to anorexia and suicide by constant sexual violence and bullying is a victim of patriarchy, then so is a Men’s Rights Activist or the most aggressive #Gamergater. 

Perpetrators of violence whose roots are in systemic causation are victims too, twisted by forces more powerful than they are into demons. And they don’t even know enough of this force to perceive it as it mutates them. Punishment and revenge miss the true cause of destruction. Only healing and educating can fight a systemic cause. . . To be Continued.