Helian Unbound

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  • Morality and the Spiritualism of the Atheists

    Posted on May 11th, 2018 Helian No comments

    I’m an atheist.  I concluded there was no God when I was 12 years old, and never looked back.  Apparently many others have come to the same conclusion in western democratic societies where there is access to diverse opinions on the subject, and where social sanctions and threats of force against atheists are no longer as intimidating as they once were.  Belief in traditional religions is gradually diminishing in such societies.  However, they have hardly been replaced by “pure reason.”  They have merely been replaced by a new form of “spiritualism.”  Indeed, I would maintain that most atheists today have as strong a belief in imaginary things as the religious believers they so often despise.  They believe in the “ghosts” of good and evil.

    Most atheists today may be found on the left of the ideological spectrum.  A characteristic trait of leftists today is the assumption that they occupy the moral high ground. That assumption can only be maintained by belief in a delusion, a form of spiritualism, if you will – that there actually is a moral high ground.  Ironically, while atheists are typically blind to the fact that they are delusional in this way, it is often perfectly obvious to religious believers.  Indeed, this insight has led some of them to draw conclusions about the current moral state of society similar to my own.  Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that atheists have no objective basis for claiming that one thing is “good” and another thing is “evil.”  For example, as noted by Tom Trinko at American Thinker in an article entitled “Imagine a World with No Religion,”

    Take the Golden Rule, for example. It says, “Do onto others what you’d have them do onto you.” Faithless people often point out that one doesn’t need to believe in God to believe in that rule. That’s true. The problem is that without God, there can’t be any objective moral code.

    My reply would be, that’s quite true, and since there is no God, there isn’t any objective moral code, either.  However, most atheists, far from being “moral relativists,” are highly moralistic.  As a consequence, they are dumbfounded by anything like Trinko’s remark.  It pulls the moral rug right out from under their feet.  Typically, they try to get around the problem by appealing to moral emotions.  For example, they might say something like, “What?  Don’t you think it’s really bad to torture puppies to death?”, or, “What?  Don’t you believe that Hitler was really evil?”  I certainly have a powerful emotional response to Hitler and tortured puppies.  However, no matter how powerful those emotions are, I realize that they can’t magically conjure objects into being that exist independently of my subjective mind.  Most leftists, and hence, most so-called atheists, actually do believe in the existence of such objects, which they call “good” and “evil,” whether they admit it explicitly or not.  Regardless, they speak and act as if the objects were real.

    The kinds of speech and actions I’m talking about are ubiquitous and obvious.  For example, many of these “atheists” assume a dictatorial right to demand that others conform to novel versions of “good” and “evil” they may have concocted yesterday or the day before.  If those others refuse to conform, they exhibit all the now familiar symptoms of outrage and virtuous indignation.  Do rational people imagine that they are gods with the right to demand that others obey whatever their latest whims happen to be?  Do they assume that their subjective, emotional whims somehow immediately endow them with a legitimate authority to demand that others behave in certain ways and not in others?  I certainly hope that no rational person would act that way.  However, that is exactly the way that many so-called atheists act.  To the extent that we may consider them rational at all, then, we must assume that they actually believe that whatever versions of “good” or “evil” they happen to favor at the moment are “things” that somehow exist on their own, independently of their subjective minds.  In other words, they believe in ghosts.

    Does this make any difference?  I suggest that it makes a huge difference.  I personally don’t enjoy being constantly subjected to moralistic bullying.  I doubt that many people enjoy jumping through hoops to conform to the whims of others.  I submit that it may behoove those of us who don’t like being bullied to finally call out this type of irrational, quasi-religious behavior for what it really is.

    It also makes a huge difference because this form of belief in imaginary objects has led us directly into the moral chaos we find ourselves in today.  New versions of “absolute morality” are now popping up on an almost daily basis.  Obviously, we can’t conform to all of them at once, and must therefore put up with the inconvenience of either keeping our mouths shut or risk being furiously condemned as “evil” by whatever faction we happen to offend.  Again, traditional theists are a great deal more clear-sighted than “atheists” about this sort of thing.  For example, in an article entitled, “Moral relativism can lead to ethical anarchy,” Christian believer Phil Schurrer, a professor at Bowling Green State University, writes,

    …the lack of a uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong based on Natural Law leads to the moral anarchy we see today.

    Prof. Schurrer is right about the fact that we live in a world of moral anarchy.  I also happen to agree with him that most of us would find it useful and beneficial if we could come up with a “uniform standard of what constitutes right and wrong.”  Where I differ with him is on the rationality of attempting to base that standard on “Natural Law,” because there is no such thing.  For religious believers, “Natural Law” is law passed down by God, and since there is no God, there can be no “Natural Law,” either.  How, then, can we come up with such a uniform moral code?

    I certainly can’t suggest a standard based on what is “really good” or “really bad” because I don’t believe in the existence of such objects.  I can only tell you what I would personally consider expedient.  It would be a standard that takes into account what I consider to be some essential facts.  These are as follows.

    • What we refer to as morality is an artifact of “human nature,” or, in other words, innate predispositions that affect our behavior.
    • These predispositions exist because they evolved by natural selection.
    • They evolved by natural selection because they happened to improve the odds that the genes responsible for their existence would survive and reproduce at the time and in the environment in which they evolved.
    • We are now living at a different time, and in a different environment, and it cannot be assumed that blindly responding to the predispositions in question will have the same outcome now as it did when those predispositions evolved.  Indeed, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that such behavior can be extremely dangerous.
    • Outcomes of these predispositions include a tendency to judge the behavior of others as “good” or “evil.”  These categories are typically deemed to be absolute, and to exist independently of the conscious minds that imagine them.
    • Human morality is dual in nature.  Others are perceived in terms of ingroups and outgroups, with different standards applying to what is deemed “good” or “evil” behavior towards those others depending on the category to which they are imagined to belong.

    I could certainly expand on this list, but the above are certainly some of the most salient and essential facts about human morality.  If they are true, then it is possible to make at least some preliminary suggestions about how a “uniform standard” might look.  It would be as simple as possible.  It would be derived to minimize the dangers referred to above, with particular attention to the dangers arising from ingroup/outgroup behavior.  It would be limited in scope to interactions between individuals and small groups in cases where the rational analysis of alternatives is impractical due to time constraints, etc.  It would be in harmony with innate human behavioral traits, or “human nature.”  It is our nature to perceive good and evil as real objective things, even though they are not.  This implies there would be no “moral relativism.”  Once in place, the moral code would be treated as an absolute standard, in conformity with the way in which moral standards are usually perceived.  One might think of it as a “moral constitution.”  As with political constitutions, there would necessarily be some means of amending it if necessary.  However, it would not be open to arbitrary innovations spawned by the emotional whims of noisy minorities.

    How would such a system be implemented?  It’s certainly unlikely that any state will attempt it any time in the foreseeable future.  Perhaps it might happen gradually, just as changes to the “moral landscape” have usually happened in the past.  For that to happen, however, it would be necessary for significant numbers of people to finally understand what morality is, and why it exists.  And that is where, as an atheist, I must part company with Mr. Trinko, Prof. Schurrer, and the rest of the religious right.  Progress towards a uniform morality that most of us would find a great deal more useful and beneficial than the versions currently on tap, regardless of what goals or purposes we happen to be pursuing in life, cannot be based on the illusion that a “natural law” exists that has been handed down by an imaginary God, any more than it can be based on the emotional whims of leftist bullies.  It must be based on a realistic understanding of what kind of animals we are, and how we came to be.  However, such self knowledge will remain inaccessible until we shed the shackles of religion.  Perhaps, as they witness many of the traditional churches increasingly becoming leftist political clubs before their eyes, people on the right of the political spectrum will begin to find it less difficult to free themselves from those shackles.  I hope so.  I think that an Ansatz based on simple, traditional moral rules, such as the Ten Commandments, is more likely to lead to a rational morality than one based on furious rants over who should be allowed to use what bathrooms.  In other words, I am more optimistic that a useful reform of morality will come from the right rather than the left of the ideological spectrum, as it now stands.  Most leftists today are much too heavily invested in indulging their moral emotions to escape from the world of illusion they live in.  To all appearances they seriously believe that blindly responding to these emotions will somehow magically result in “moral progress” and “human flourishing.”  Conservatives, on the other hand, are unlikely to accomplish anything useful in terms of a rational morality until they free themselves of the “God delusion.”  It would seem, then, that for such a moral “revolution” to happen, it will be necessary for those on both the left and the right to shed their belief in “spirits.”


  • Fisking a Fusion Fata Morgana

    Posted on April 10th, 2018 Helian 2 comments

    Why is it that popular science articles about fusion energy are always so cringe-worthy? Is scientific illiteracy a prerequisite for writing them? Take the latest one to hit the streets, for example. Entitled Lockheed Martin Now Has a Patent For Its Potentially World Changing Fusion Reactor, it had all the familiar “unlimited energy is just around the corner” hubris we’ve come to expect in articles about fusion. When I finished reading it I wondered whether the author imagined all that nonsense on his own, or some devilish plasma physicist put him up to it as a practical joke. The fun starts in the first paragraph, where we are assured that,

    If this project has been progressing on schedule, the company could debut a prototype system that size of shipping container, but capable of powering a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier or 80,000 homes, sometime in the next year or so.

    Trust me, dear reader, barring divine intervention no such prototype system, capable of both generating electric energy and fitting within a volume anywhere near that of a shipping container, will debut in the next year, or the next five years, or the next ten years.  Reading on, we learn that,

    Unlike in nuclear fission, where atoms hit each other release energy, a fusion reaction involves heating up a gaseous fuel to the point where its atomic structure gets disrupted from the pressure and some of the particles fuse into a heavier nucleus.

    Well, not really.  Fission is caused by free neutrons, not by “atoms hitting each other.”  It would actually be more accurate to say that fusion takes place when “atoms hit each other,” although it’s really the atomic nuclei that “hit” each other.  Fusion doesn’t involve “atomic structure getting disrupted from pressure.” Rather, it happens when atoms acquire enough energy to overcome the Coulomb repulsion between two positively charged atomic nuclei (remember, like charges repel), and come within a sufficiently short distance of each other for the much greater strong nuclear force of attraction to take over. According to the author,

    But to do this you need to be able to hold the gas, which is eventually in a highly energized plasma state, for a protracted period of time at a temperature of hundreds of millions of degrees Fahrenheit.

    This is like claiming that a solid can be in a liquid state. A plasma is not a gas. It is a fourth state of matter quite unlike the three (solid, liquid, gas) that most of us are familiar with. Shortly thereafter we are assured that,

    Running on approximately 25 pounds of fuel – a mixture of hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium – Lockheed Martin estimated the notional reactor would be able to run for an entire year without stopping. The device would be able to generate a constant 100 megawatts of power during that period.

    25 pounds of fuel would include about 15 pounds of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of just over 12 years. In other words, its atoms decay about 2000 times faster than those of the plutonium 239 found in nuclear weapons.  It’s true that the beta particle (electron) emitted in tritium decay is quite low energy by nuclear standards but, as noted in Wiki, “Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen, which allows it to readily bind to hydroxyl radicals, forming tritiated water (HTO), and to carbon atoms. Since tritium is a low energy beta emitter, it is not dangerous externally (its beta particles are unable to penetrate the skin), but it can be a radiation hazard when inhaled, ingested via food or water, or absorbed through the skin.”  Obviously, water and many carbon compounds can be easily inhaled or ingested. Tritium is anything but benign if released into the environment. Here we will charitably assume that the author didn’t mean to say that 25 pounds of fuel would be available all at once, but would be bred gradually and then consumed as fuel in the reactor during operation.  The amount present at any given time would more appropriately be measured in grams than in pounds.  The article continues with rosy scenarios that might have been lifted from a “Back to the Future” movie:

    Those same benefits could apply to vehicles on land, ships at sea, or craft in space, providing nearly unlimited power in compact form allowing for operations across large areas, effectively eliminating the tyranny of distance in many cases. Again, for military applications, unmanned ground vehicles or ships could patrol indefinitely far removed from traditional logistics chains and satellites could conduct long-term, resource intensive activities without the need for large and potentially dangerous fission reactors.

    Great shades of “Dr. Fusion!” Let’s just say that “vehicles on land” is a bit of a stretch. I can only hope that no Lockheed engineer was mean-spirited enough to feed the author such nonsense. Moving right along, we read,

    Therein lies perhaps the biggest potential benefits of nuclear fusion over fission. It’s produces no emissions dangerous to the ozone layer and if the system fails it doesn’t pose nearly the same threat of a large scale radiological incident. Both deuterium and tritium are commonly found in a number of regular commercial applications and are relatively harmless in low doses.

    I have no idea what “emission” of the fission process the author thinks is “dangerous to the ozone layer.” Again, as noted above, tritium is anything but “relatively harmless” if ingested. Next we find perhaps the worst piece of disinformation of all:

    And since a fusion reactor doesn’t need refined fissile material, its much harder for it to serve as a starting place for a nuclear weapons program.

    Good grief, the highly energetic neutrons produced in a fusion reactor are not only capable of breeding tritium, but plutonium 239 and uranium 233 from naturally occurring uranium and thorium as well.  Both are superb explosive fuels for nuclear weapons.  And tritium?  It is used in a process known as “boosting” to improve the performance of nuclear weapons.  Finally, we run into what might be called the Achilles heel of all tritium-based fusion reactor designs:

    Fuel would also be abundant and relatively easy to source, since sea water provides a nearly unlimited source of deuterium, while there are ready sources of lithium to provide the starting place for scientists to “breed” tritium.

    I think not. Breeding tritium will be anything but a piece of cake.  The process will involve capturing the neutrons produced by the fusion reactions in a lithium blanket surrounding the reactor, doing so efficiently enough to generate more tritium from the resulting reactions than the reactor consumes as fuel, and then extracting the tritium and recycling it into the reactor without releasing any of the slippery stuff into the environment.  Do you think the same caliber of engineers who brought us Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island will be able to pull that rabbit out of their hats without a hitch?  If so, you’re more optimistic than I am.

    Hey, I like to be as optimistic about fusion as it’s reasonable to be. I think it’s certainly possible that some startup company with a bright idea will find the magic bullet that makes fusion reactors feasible, preferably involving fusion reactions that don’t involve tritium. It’s also quite possible that the guys at Lockheed will achieve breakeven, although getting a high enough gain of energy in versus energy out to enable efficient generation of electric power is another matter.  There’s a difference between optimism and scientifically illiterate hubris, though.  Is it too much to ask that people who write articles about fusion at least run them by somebody who actually knows something about the subject to see if they pass the “ho, ho” test before publishing?  What’s that you say?  What about me?  Please read the story about the Little Red Hen.

  • Mary McCarthy and McCarthyism: A Review of “The Group”

    Posted on April 9th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Not many people remember Mary McCarthy anymore, but she was a household name among the literati back in the 50’s and 60’s, as both a novelist and a political activist.  I’d never read any of her work, but noticed in an old review of her novel The Group that she was a Vassar grad.  I used to date a Vassar girl, as my alma mater was West Point, about 30 miles down the Hudson from Poughkeepsie, and the novel was about Vassar girls, so for no more substantial reason than that, I decided to have a look.  It was a good decision.  Given what I look for in novels, The Group was one of the best I’ve ever read.

    When it comes to literature, I agree with my favorite author, Stendhal.  He said that novels were artifacts of the time in which they were written, and were meant to appeal to the tastes of people who lived in those times.  I also agree with George Orwell, who held that novels are a way of expressing truths that the limitations of language make it difficult to express in any other way.  From both points of view, I found The Group superb.  It is full of the impressions left in the mind of a very intelligent woman by the life going on around her, in this case, in the 30’s, following her graduation from Vassar in 1933, told from the point of view of a “group” of her fellow graduates.  It is a perfect time capsule.

    What’s in the capsule?  Well, to begin, I found an artifact of the contemporary “progressives'” embrace of eugenics before Hitler ruined everything, as exemplified by the father of Kay Strong, one of “the group.”

    Dad, like all modern doctors, believed in birth control and was for sterilizing criminals and the unfit.

    How about a morality inversion?  Kay’s dad had sent her a check on the occasion of her marriage to a playwright by the name of Harald Peterson and she agreed with him that,

    It was a declaration of faith… And she and Harald did not intend to betray that faith by breeding children(!, ed.), when Harald had his name to make in the theatre.

    Which, of course, begs the question of why it is that anyone is predisposed to “make a name” for himself.  My readers should know the answer to that question.  I note in passing that McCarthy’s first husband was also named Harald.  Another thing documented in the novel is the fact that, at least for some, the sexual revolution happened a long time before the pill was ever heard of.  There are detailed descriptions of the prophylactic techniques of the day, including the diaphragm, sort of a trap door in the way of hopeful sperm that was carefully fitted to cover the opening of the cervix by a gynecologist.  This was used in tandem with the douchebag, containing a spermicidal concoction to finish off the more recalcitrant searchers for the holy grail.  According to the novel, women who were open to sexual adventures would announce the fact by hanging these on the back of their bathroom door.

    Perhaps the most useful insight one can glean from The Group is the prevalence and matter-of-fact acceptance of Communists in the 30’s.  Many magazines, some of which are still around today, were open advocates of Communism in those days.  Kay’s classmate, Libby MacAusland, an aspiring book reviewer, noticed this in the case of two titles still familiar today.  As she put it:

    At the Nation and the New Republic they said too that you had to run a gauntlet of Communists before getting in to see the book editor – all sorts of strange characters, tattooed sailors right off the docks and longshoremen and tramps and bearded cranks from the Village cafeterias, none of them having had a bath for weeks.

    Most of the action takes place in New York, and playwrights there noticed the same phenomenon.  For example, Kay’s playwright husband, Harald,

    …had been directing a play for a left-wing group downtown.  It was one of those profit-sharing things, co-operatives, but run really by Communists behind the scenes, as Harald found out in due course.  The play was about labor, and the audiences were mostly theatre parties got up by the trade unions.

    Another of the Vassar classmates, Polly Andrews, became the lover of Gus LeRoy, a book reviewer for one of the big New York Publishers.  He is described as a humdrum man whose embrace of Communism was described as something entirely commonplace and unremarkable:

    His liking for name brands was what had sold him on Communism years ago, when he graduated from Brown spank into the depression.  (George Bernard) Shaw had already converted him to socialism, but if you were going to be a socialist, his roommate argued, you ought to give your business to the biggest and best firm producing socialism, i.e., the Soviet Union.  So Gus switched to Communism, but only after he had gone to see for himself.  He and his roommate made a tour of the Soviet Union the summer after college and they were impresse3d by the dams and power plants and the collective farms and the Intourist girl Guide.  After that, Norman Thomas (longtime leader of the Socialist Party in the U.S., ed.) seemed pretty ineffectual.

    Polly’s father, who comes to live with her after divorcing his wife, preferred another flavor of Communism:

    And unlike the village cure in France, who had required him to take instruction before being “received,” the Trotskyites, apparently, had accepted him as he was.  He never understood the “dialectic” and was lax in attendance at meetings, but he made up for this by the zeal with which, wearing a red necktie and an ancient pair of spats, he sold the Socialist Appeal on the street outside Stalinist rallies.

    Polly’s dad has some choice words for the New York Times’ prize, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in Moscow.  Chagrined at the refusal of his daughter’s Aunt Julia to include a small behest to the Trotskyists in her will he remarks:

    But Julia has been convinced by what she reads in the papers that we Trotskyites are counter-revolutionary agents bent on destroying the Soviet Union.  Walter Duranty and those fellows, you know, have made her believe in the trials (the Great Purge Trials of the old Bolsheviks, ed.).  If what they write wasn’t true, she says, it wouldn’t be in the New York Times, would it?

    In short, what the novel is documenting here is the fact that, among the “woke” elements in the population back in the 30’s, Communism was a commonplace.  Look at the entertainment and literary magazines of the day, and you’ll see that it was just as prevalent in Hollywood as it was in New York.  Which brings us back to the title of this post.  I refer, of course, to McCarthyism.

    McCarthyism lays fair claim to being the next to the biggest media scam of the 20th century, taking second place only to the Watergate coup d’état.  The news media were nearly as firmly in the grip of the ideological Left in Joe McCarthy’s day as they are now, and those who controlled the message were perfectly well aware that many of their friends and ideological soulmates had been party members or fellow travelers in the 30’s.  Once it became obvious that Walter Duranty and his pals had been purveying some of the most egregious “fake news” ever heard of, and the Communists and their collaborators actually had the blood of tens of millions on their hands, all these would be saviors of the proletariat were in a precarious position.  Then tail gunner Joe began seriously rocking the boat, “kicking ass and taking names,” as we used to say in the Army.  Something had to be done.  The result was the media-contrived charade we now know as McCarthyism.  Instead of feeling sympathy for the tens of millions of voiceless victims of Communism lying in mass graves starved and tortured to death or with bullet holes in their skulls, the American people were successfully bamboozled into wringing their hands over blighted careers of those who had gleefully collaborated in their murder.  McCarthy was cast in the role of one of the media’s greatest villains, an evil witch hunter.  The fact that the witches were actually there, and in great abundance, didn’t seem to matter.

    If you think Mary McCarthy was some right wing zealot who was trying to exonerate tail gunner Joe when The Group was published in 1954, guess again.  Indeed, as Alex might have said in A Clockwork Orange, “now comes the weepy part of the story, oh my brothers (and sisters).”  Mary McCarthy was actually a lesser, albeit smarter, version of Jane Fonda.  That’s right.  She, too, traveled to North Vietnam as the war was raging in the south and openly collaborated with the enemy.  She was a leftist activist of the first water.

    What can I say?  I still loved the book.  As it happens, not everyone agreed with me.  Stanley Kauffmann, a noted critic back in the day, wrote a scathing review of The Group when it was republished in 1964.  Kauffmann, too, was a leftist, and complained that McCarthy had been insufficiently zealous in portraying the oppression and victimization of his pet identity groups.  Beyond that, however, he criticized the disconnected story line and McCarthy’s lack of “style.”  To tell the truth, I really don’t know what the critics mean when they speak of “style,” and I could care less about it.  It appears my favorite Stendhal was also lacking in “style.”  It’s a matter of complete indifference to me.  What I look for in novels are such things as the accurate portrayal of the times in which they were written, insight into human nature, and bits that teach me a little bit something about my own quirks and follies.  I like Stendhal, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, and Kafka (because he’s so good at amplifying my worst nightmares).  I don’t like Dickens, I don’t like Joyce, and I don’t like Proust.  That’s not to say they aren’t great authors.  I don’t doubt that they are, because people whose opinions I respect have found much to like in them.  I just didn’t find what I like.  I did find it in The Group.  Have a look and see if you find it, too.  Don’t miss the bits about “advanced” methods of child rearing back in the 30’s.  I suspect they would make any modern pediatrician’s hair stand on end.  Meanwhile, I’ll be checking out some of McCarthy’s other stuff.

  • On the Illusion of Moral Relativism

    Posted on April 8th, 2018 Helian No comments

    As recently as 2009 the eminent historian Paul Johnson informed his readers that he made “…the triumph of moral relativism the central theme of my history of the 20th century, Modern Times, first published in 1983.”  More recently, however, obituaries of moral relativism have turned up here and there.  For example one appeared in The American Spectator back in 2012, fittingly entitled Moral Relativism, R.I.P.  It was echoed a few years later by a piece in The Atlantic that announced The Death of Moral Relativism.”  There’s just one problem with these hopeful announcements.  Genuine moral relativists are as rare as unicorns.

    True, many have proclaimed their moral relativism.  To that I can only reply, watch their behavior.  You will soon find each and every one of these “relativists” making morally loaded pronouncements about this or that social evil, wrong-headed political faction, or less than virtuous individual.  In other words, their “moral relativism” is of a rather odd variety that occasionally makes it hard to distinguish their behavior from that of the more zealous moral bigots.  Scratch the surface of any so-called “moral relativist,” and you will often find a moralistic bully.  We are not moral relativists because it is not in the nature of our species to be moral relativists.  The wellsprings of human morality are innate.  One cannot arbitrarily turn them on or off by embracing this or that philosophy, or reading this or that book.

    I am, perhaps, the closest thing to a moral relativist you will ever find, but when my moral emotions kick in, I’m not much different from anyone else.  Just ask my dog.  When she’s riding with me she’ll often glance my way with a concerned look as I curse the lax morals of other drivers.  No doubt she’s often wondered whether the canine’s symbiotic relationship with our species was such a good idea after all.  I know perfectly well the kind of people Paul Johnson was thinking of when he spoke of “moral relativists.”  However, I’ve watched the behavior of the same types my whole life.  If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s a pronounced tendency to dictate morality to everyone else.  They are anything but “amoral,” or “moral relativists.”  The difference between them and Johnson is mainly a difference in their choice of outgroups.

    Edvard Westermarck may have chosen the title Ethical Relativity for his brilliant analysis of human morality, yet he was well aware of the human tendency to perceive good and evil as real, independent things.  The title of his book did not imply that moral (or ethical) relativism was practical for our species.  Rather, he pointed out that morality is a manifestation of our package of innate behavioral predispositions, and that it follows that objective moral truths do not exist.  In doing so he was pointing out a fundamental truth.  Recognition of that truth will not result in an orgy of amoral behavior.  On the contrary, it is the only way out of the extremely dangerous moral chaos we find ourselves in today.

    The moral conundrum we find ourselves in is a result of the inability of natural selection to keep up with the rapidly increasingly complexity and size of human societies.  For example, a key aspect of human moral behavior is its dual nature – our tendency to perceive others in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  We commonly associate “good” traits with our ingroup, and “evil” ones with our outgroup.  That aspect of our behavior enhanced the odds that we would survive and reproduce at a time when there was no ambiguity about who belonged in these categories.  The ingroup was our own tribe, and the outgroup was the next tribe over.  Our mutual antagonism tended to make us spread out and avoid starvation due to over-exploitation of a small territory.  We became adept at detecting subtle differences between “us” and “them” at a time when it was unlikely that neighboring tribes differed by anything as pronounced as race or even language.  Today we have given bad names to all sorts of destructive manifestations of outgroup identification without ever grasping the fundamental truth that the relevant behavior is innate, and no one is immune to it.  Racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry, you name it.  They’re all fundamentally the same.  Those who condemn others for one manifestation of the behavior will almost invariably be found doing the same thing themselves, the only difference being who they have identified as the outgroup.

    Not unexpectedly, behavior that accomplished one thing in the Pleistocene does not necessarily accomplish the same thing today.  The disconnect is often absurd, leading in some cases to what I’ve referred to as morality inversions – moral behavior that promotes suicide rather than survival.  That has not prevented those who are happily tripping down the path to their own extinction from proclaiming their moral superiority and raining down pious anathemas on anyone who doesn’t agree.  Meanwhile, new versions of morality are concocted on an almost daily basis, each one pretending to objective validity, complete with a built in right to dictate “goods” and “bads” that never occurred to anyone just a few years ago.

    There don’t appear to be any easy solutions to the moral mess we find ourselves in.  It would certainly help if more of us could accept the fact that morality is an artifact of natural selection, and that, as a consequence, objective good and evil are figments of our imaginations.  Perhaps then we could come up with some version of “absolute” morality that would be in tune with our moral emotions and at the same time allow us to interact in a manner that minimizes both the harm we do to each other and our exposure to the tiresome innovations of moralistic bullies.  That doesn’t appear likely to happen anytime soon, though.  The careers of too many moral pontificators and “experts on ethics” depend on maintaining the illusion.  Meanwhile, we find evolutionary biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and neuroscientists who should know better openly proclaiming the innate sources of moral behavior in one breath, and extolling some idiosyncratic version of “moral progress” and “human flourishing” in the next.  As one of Evelyn Waugh’s “bright young things” might have said, it’s just too shy-making.

    There is a silver lining to the picture, though.  At least you don’t have to worry about “moral relativism” anymore.



  • On the Grey Lady’s Fractured History of Indian Slavery in New Mexico

    Posted on March 25th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Writers of history have been suspect in every age. The ancients used to criticize each other for distorting the facts in favor of some country or political faction.  Somewhere in the journals of Boswell, the great biographer of Dr. Johnson, he mentions an acquaintance who refused to read any history, discounting it all as a pack of lies for similar reasons.  Things have certainly not improved in this day of political correctness.  The stuff that passes for “history” coming out of such bastions of “progressive” thought as academia, the media, and the entertainment industry can lay a fair claim to being more distorted and falsified than anything ever heard of by the likes of Tacitus, Procopius, or Gregory of Tours.  Anyone who takes it at face value without inspecting the relevant source material for himself is more likely to become a mule bearing an ideological narrative than a font of truth.

    A rather grotesque confirmation of the above recently turned up in the pages of the New York Times. Entitled, Indian Slavery Once Thrived in New Mexico. Latinos Are Finding Family Ties to It, it was a typical example of identity group grievance fobbed off as “history.” The article begins by introducing us to a Mr. Trujillo:

    Mr. Trujillo is one of many Latinos who are finding ancestral connections to a flourishing slave trade on the blood-soaked frontier now known as the American Southwest. Their captive forebears were Native Americans — slaves frequently known as Genízaros (pronounced heh-NEE-sah-ros) who were sold to Hispanic families when the region was under Spanish control from the 16th to 19th centuries. Many Indian slaves remained in bondage when Mexico and later the United States governed New Mexico.

    There is nothing factually inaccurate about the above, nor, for that matter, about the following paragraph:

    The trade then evolved to include not just Hispanic traffickers but horse-mounted Comanche and Ute warriors, who raided the settlements of Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, Pawnee and other peoples. They took captives, many of them children plucked from their homes, and sold them at auctions in village plazas.

    Such paragraphs aren’t outright lies. Rather, they are examples of that now familiar practice of modern journalists, cherry-picking the truth to fit a narrative. Reading on, we find more subtle examples of the same, such as,

    Seeking to strengthen the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 after learning of propertied New Mexicans owning hundreds and perhaps thousands of Indian slaves, mainly Navajo women and children. But scholars say the measure, which specifically targeted New Mexico, did little for many slaves in the territory.

    What this paragraph hides is the fact that the vast majority of slaves own by the “Ricos,” wealthy Mexicans who owned the lion’s share of the land, not only in New Mexico, but in what is now Mexico proper, were not Indians, but other Mexicans. As several contemporary observers have noted, Mexican peons were slaves in all but name. Vast numbers of them were hopelessly in debt to the large land owners and, according to Mexican law, they were forbidden to leave the land until the highly unlikely event that the debts were repaid. In what follows, we leave mere cherry-picking behind, and encounter statements that can be better characterized as outright lies. For example,

    Revelations about how Indian enslavement was a defining feature of colonial New Mexico can be unsettling for some in the state, where the authorities have often tried to perpetuate a narrative of relatively peaceful coexistence between Hispanics, Indians and Anglos, as non-Hispanic whites are generally called here.

    Of course, this begs the question of exactly which “authorities” have ever made such ludicrous claims.  None are named, probably because there never were any.  More importantly, however, the claim that “Indian enslavement was a defining feature of colonial New Mexico” is a bald-faced lie on the face of it.  You might say that precisely the opposite was true.  Mexicans were in terror of the Indians, and had been for many years before the Peonage Act of 1867.  By the time of the Mexican War, the Indians had completely cowed the Mexican population, not only of New Mexico, but of Mexico proper extending south at least as far as the city of Zacatecas, hundreds of miles from the current border.  In effect, they were enslaved by the Indians more or less as the Helots of old were enslaved by the ancient Spartans.  In other words, the Indians didn’t go to the trouble of capturing the Mexicans.  Instead, they merely raided them in their villages and haciendas, running off their livestock, stealing their food, and taking whatever else happened to strike their fancy, including a good many scalps.  The Mexicans were helpless to stop this onslaught, thanks in part to the enlightened policy of their government which forbade them to “keep and bear arms.”  This was actually the “defining feature” of the old Southwest. It is dismissed as a “mere bagatelle” in a brief paragraph of the article as follows:

    Pointing to the breadth of the Southwest’s slave trade, some historians have also documented how Hispanic settlers were captured and enslaved by Native American traffickers, and sometimes went on to embrace the cultures of their Comanche, Pueblo or Navajo masters.

    To gain an impression of what was really going on, let’s look at some of the source material.  Some of the best was penned by a young British officer by the name of George F. Ruxton.  Ruxton was definitely one of the most entertaining of the many British travel writers of the 19th century, and packed an amazing amount of adventure into a few years before his tragic death due to illness at the age of 28.  His Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains is a classic and a must read for anyone interested in the history of the region.  It also happens to be free online at Google Books.  Ruxton landed at Vera Cruz in 1846, and traveled the length of Mexico, passing into what is now New Mexico later that year, even as the Mexican War was raging.  He actually landed just before the return of Santa Anna through the same port, and his book includes a very unflattering portrait of the Mexican leader.

    Ruxton certainly had no high opinion of the Mexicans in general, for that matter, and if they had been “oppressors” of the Indians, he certainly wouldn’t have failed to notice it.  A gang of them had attempted to kill him at one point, and at another a Mexican he had hired to help him on the trail tried to shoot him in the back and rob him.  Fortunately, he missed.  Ruxton began witnessing what was really going on in northern Mexico and New Mexico as he passed through the city of Zacatecas. In his words,

    From this point the “novedades” poured upon us daily: “Los Indios, los Indios!” was the theme of every conversation. Thus early (it was a very early Indian season this year and the last) they had made their appearance in the immediate vicinity of Durango, killing the paisanos, and laying waste the haciendas and ranchos; and it was supposed they would penetrate even farther into the interior. What a “cosa de Mejico” is this fact! Five hundred savages depopulating a soi-disant civilized country, and with impunity!

    As Ruxton continued north, the devastation and depopulation of the land by the Indians became a constant theme. For example, on leaving the little town of Zaina,

    To Sombrerete, distance thirty-four miles. The country wilder, with less fertile soil, and entirely depopulated as much from fear of Indians as from its natural unproductiveness.

    Of his journey from the village of El Gallo to the mining town of Mapimi he writes,

    I had resolved to pass through this part of the country, although far off the beaten track, in order to visit El Real de Mapimi, a little town, near a sierra which is said to be very rich in ore; and also for the purpose of traveling through a tract of country laid waste by the Comanches, and but little known, and which is designated, par excellence, “los desiertos de la frontera” – the deserts of the frontier; not so much from its sterility, as on its having been abandoned by its inhabitants, from the fear of the perpetual Indian attacks, as it lay in their direct route to the interior.

    Here is what Ruxton has to say about “the Mexicans,” the identity group guilty, according to the NYT, of oppressing the poor, downtrodden Indians:

    The population is divided into but two classes – the high and the low: there is no intermediate rank to connect the two extremes, and consequently the hiatus between them is deep and strongly marked. The relation subsisting between the peasantry and the wealthy haciendados or landowners is a species of serfdom little better than slavery itself. Money in advance of wages is generally lent to the peon or labourer, who is by law bound to serve the lender, if required, until such time as the debt is repaid; and as care is taken that this shall never happen, the debtor remains a bondsman to the day of his death… Law or justice hardly exists in name even, and the ignorant peasantry, under the priestly thralldom which holds them in physical as well as moral bondage, have neither the energy nor courage to stand up for the amelioration of their condition, or the enjoyment of that liberty, which it is the theoretical boast of republican governments their system so largely deals in, but which, in reality, is a practical falsehood and delusion.

    In another passage, Ruxton describes an instance of exploitation of Mexicans by the Indians that is almost a mirror image of the enslavement of the Helots by the Spartans.  To his surprise, he noticed a Mexican village, existing far to the north, in territory completely controlled by the Ute tribe of Indians.  He was finally enlightened about the situation by one of the Utes:

    Rio Colorado is the last and most northern settlement of Mexico, and is distant from Vera Cruz 2000 miles.  It contains perhaps fifteen families, or a population of fifty souls, including one or two Yuta Indians, by sufferance of whom the New Mexicans have settled this valley, thus ensuring to the politic savages a supply of corn or cattle without the necessity of undertaking a raid on Taos or Santa Fé whenever they require a remount.  This was the reason given me by a Yuta for allowing the encroachment on their territory.

    No state of society can be more wretched or degrading than the social and moral condition of the inhabitants of New Mexico, but in this remote settlement anything I had formerly imagined to be the ne plus ultra of misery fell far short of the reality, such is the degradation of the people of the Rio Colorado.  Growing a bare sufficiency for their own support, they hold the little land they cultivate and their wretched hovels on sufferance from the barbarous Yutas, who actually tolerate their presence in their country for the sole purpose of having at their command a stock of grain and a herd of mules and horses which they make no scruple of helping themselves to whenever they require a remount or a supply of farinaceous food.  Moreover when a war expedition against a hostile tribe has failed and no scalps have been secured to ensure the returning warriors a welcome to their village, the Rio Colorado is a kind of game preserve where the Yutas have a certainty of filling their bag if their other covers draw blank. Here they can always depend upon procuring a few brace of Mexican scalps when such trophies are required for a war dance or other festivity without danger to themselves, and merely for the trouble of fetching them.

    There are many other eyewitness accounts that corroborate Ruxton.  For example, from Heroes and Incidents of the Mexican War by a Missouri veteran by the name of Isaac George, also available free on Google Books,

    Since 1835 the Indians had encroached upon the frontier of Mexico and laid waste many flourishing settlements, waging predatory warfare and leading women and children into captivity.  In fact the whole of Mexico was a frontier.  An elevated Table Plain extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the foot of the Cordilleras, intersecting by innumerable ranges of mountains, and clustering isolated and conical-shaped peaks, which were infested by bands of savages and still fiercer Mexican banditti.  No effort of the Mexican government had been able to suppress and oust these ruthless invaders of the country.

    George accompanied the incredible expedition of Alexander William Doniphan, perhaps the greatest hero of their country most Americans have never heard of.  Doniphan led 900 Missourians on a march through thousands of miles of hostile country that brings to mind the march of Xenophon’s ten thousand.  In the process a portion of Doniphan’s little command beat more than twice their number at Brazito, north of El Paso, and the 900 defeated more than four times their number at the Battle of the Sacramento River just north of Chihuahua.  On page 128 of George’s book there is a copy of a letter from the Mexican head of the Department of Parras to Lieutenant John Reed and his men, who served with Doniphan, thanking them for risking their lives to defeat a band of marauding Comanches and rescue 18 Mexican captives who were being led into slavery, recovering much livestock and other property in the process.  Josiah Gregg, another soldier who was with the US Army in northern Mexico, also commented on the result of Indian raiding:

    …the whole country from New Mexico to the borders of Durango is almost entirely depopulated. The haciendas and ranchos have been mostly abandoned, and the people chiefly confined to the towns and cities.

    So much for the New York Times fairy tale about “oppression” of the Indians by the Mexicans.  One would think that if the “progressives” who write such yarns really cared as much about “human flourishing” as they claim, they would have elevated President Polk to the status of a folk hero.  After all, he led us into the Mexican War.  The result of that conflict was an end to the Indian depredations, as had been predicted by Ruxton, the freeing of the Mexican peasants from slavery at the hands of the rich latifundistas, and the rapid advance of the American Southwest to the flourishing condition it enjoys today.  Don’t hold your breath, though.  Liberation doesn’t count if it comes at the hands of people with white skin.  Read any “history” of the old Southwest coming out of academia, or helpfully submitted to Wikipedia, and then consult the source material for yourselves.  You’ll find an abundance of similar lies, all served up to vilify some “evil” identity group and mourn the “oppression” of another.  If you want to learn anything approaching the truth, you’d better get used to digging through the source material for yourself.

    Alexander Willian Doniphan

  • More Egg on Pinker’s Face: E. O. Wilson’s “The Origins of Creativity”

    Posted on March 12th, 2018 Helian No comments

    If you’re expecting a philosophical epiphany, E. O. Wilson’s The Origins of Creativity isn’t for you. His theme is that science and the humanities can form a grandiose union leading to a “third enlightenment” if only scholars in the humanities would come up to speed with advances in the sciences via “thorough application of five disciplines – paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology.”  Good luck with that.  We can smile and nod as the old man rambles on about his latest grand, intellectual scheme, though.  He isn’t great because of such brainstorms.  He’s great because he combines courage and common sense with an ability to identify questions that are really worth asking.  That’s what you’ll discover if you read his books, and that’s why they’re well worth reading.  You might even say he’s succeeded in realizing his own dream to some extent, because reading Wilson is like reading a good novel.  You constantly run across anecdotes about interesting people, tips about unfamiliar authors who had important things to say, and thought provoking comments about the human condition.  For example, in “The Origins of Creativity” you’ll find a portrayal of the status games played by Harvard professors, his take on why he thinks Vladimir Nabokov is a better novelist than Jonathan Franzen, his reasons for asserting that, when it comes to the important questions facing humanity, “the grail to be sought is the nature of consciousness, and how it originated,” and some interesting autobiographical comments to boot.

    Those who love to explore the little ironies of history will also find some interesting nuggets in Wilson’s latest. The history I’m referring to is, of course, that of the Blank Slate.  For those who haven’t heard of it, it was probably the greatest perversion of science of all time.  For more than half a century, a rigid orthodoxy was imposed on the behavioral sciences according to which there is no such thing as human nature, that at birth our minds are “blank slates,” and that all human behavior is learned.  This dogma, transparently ludicrous to any reasonably intelligent child, has always been attractive to those whose tastes run to utopian schemes that require human behavior to be a great deal more “malleable” than it actually is.  Communism, fashionable during the heyday of the Blank Slate, is a case in point.

    Where does Wilson fit in?  Well, in 1975, he published Sociobiology, in a couple of chapters of which he suggested that there may actually be such a thing as human nature, and it may actually be important.  In doing so he became the first important member of the academic tribe to break ranks with the prevailing orthodoxy.  By that time, however, the Blank Slate had already long been brilliantly debunked and rendered a laughing stock among intelligent lay people by an outsider; a man named Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey wrote a series of books on the subject beginning with African Genesis in 1961.  He had been seconded by other authors, such as Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, long before the appearance of Sociobiology.  Eventually, the behavioral “scientists” were forced to throw in the towel and jettison the Blank Slate orthodoxy.  However, it was much to humiliating for them to admit the truth – that they had all been exposed as charlatans by Ardrey, a man who had spent much of his life as a “mere playwright.”  Instead, they anointed Wilson, a member of their own tribe, as the great hero who had demolished the Blank Slate.  This grotesque imposture was enshrined in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which now passes as the official “history” of the affair.

    Where does the irony come in?  Well, Pinker needed some plausible reason to ignore Ardrey.  The deed was done crudely enough.  He simply declared that Ardrey had been “totally and utterly wrong,” based on the authority of a comment to that effect in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.  In the process, he didn’t mention exactly what it was that Ardrey was supposed to have been “totally and utterly wrong” about.  After all, to all appearances the man had been “totally and utterly” vindicated.  As it happens, Dawkins never took issue with the main theme of all of Ardrey’s books; that there is such a thing as human nature, and it is important and essential to understanding the human condition.  He merely asserted in a single paragraph of the book that Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, had been wrong in endorsing group selection, the notion that natural selection can operate at the level of the group as well as of the individual or gene.  In other words, Pinker’s whole, shabby rationale for dismissing Ardrey was based on his support for group selection, an issue that was entirely peripheral to the overall theme of all Ardrey’s work.  Now for the irony – in his last three books, including his latest, Wilson has come out unabashedly and whole heartedly in favor of (you guessed it) group selection!

    In The Origins of Creativity Wilson seems to be doing his very best to rub salt in the wound.  In his last book, The Hunting Hypothesis, Ardrey had elaborated on the theory, also set forth in all his previous books, that the transition from ape to man had been catalyzed by increased dependence on hunting and meat eating.  The Blank Slaters long insisted that early man had never been guilty of such “aggressive” behavior, and that if he had touched meat at all, it must have been acquired by scavenging.  They furiously attacked Ardrey for daring to suggest that he had hunted.  If you watch the PBS documentary on the recent discovery of the remains of Homo naledi, you’ll see that the ancient diehards among them have never given up this dogma.  They insist that Homo naledi was a vegetarian even though, to the best of my knowledge, no one had even contended that he wasn’t, going so far as to actually call out the “unperson” Ardrey by name.  The realization that they were still so bitter after all these years brought a smile to my face.  What really set them off was Ardrey’s support for a theory first proposed by Raymond Dart that hunting had actually begun very early, in the pre-human species Australopithecus africanus. Well, if they were still mad at Ardrey, they’ll be livid when they read what Wilson has to say on the subject in his latest, such as,

    By a widespread consensus, the scenario drawn by scientists thus far begins with the shift by one of the African australopiths away from a vegetarian diet to one rich in cooked meat.  The event was not a casual change as in choosing from a menu, nor was it a mere re-wiring of the palate.  Rather the change was a full hereditary makeover in anatomy, physiology, and behavior.


    This theoretical reconstruction has gained traction from fossil remains and the lifestyles of contemporary hunter-gatherers.  Meat from larger prey was shared, as it is by wolves, African wild dogs, and lions.  Given, in addition, the relatively high degree of intelligence possessed by large, ground-dwelling primates in general, the stage was then set in prehuman evolution for an unprecedented degree of cooperation and division of labor.

    Here, Wilson almost seems to be channeling Ardrey.  But wait, there’s more.  This one is for the real historical connoisseurs out there.  As noted above, in the bit from The Selfish Gene Pinker used for his clumsy attempt to airbrush Ardrey out of history, Dawkins condemned two others for the sin of supporting group selection as well; Konrad Lorenz and Austrian ethologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt.  I suspect Lorenz was a bit too close to Ardrey for comfort, as the two were often condemned by the Blank Slaters in the same breath, but, sure enough, Eibl-Eibesfeldt makes a couple of cameo appearances in Wilson’s latest book!  For example, in chapter 12,

    During his classic field research in the 1960s, the German anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt demonstrated in minute detail that people in all societies, from primitive and preliterate to modern and urbanized, use the same wide range of paralinguistic signals.  These entail mostly facial expressions, denoting variously fear, pleasure, surprise, horror, and disgust.  Eibl-Eibesfeldt lived with his subjects and further, to avoid self-conscious behavior, filmed them in their daily lives with a right-angle lens, by which the subject is made to think that the camera is pointed elsewhere.  His general conclusion was that paralinguistic signals are hereditary traits shared by the whole of humanity.

    Brilliant, but according to Pinker this, too, must be “totally and utterly wrong,” since Eibl-Eibesfeldt is mentioned in the very same sentence in Dawkins’ book that he used to redact Ardrey from history!  At least it’s nice to see this bit of vindication for at least one of Pinker’s “totally and utterly wrong” trio.  I suspect Wilson is perfectly well aware of the dubious nature of Pinker’s “history,” but I doubt if he will ever have anything to say about Lorenz, not to mention Ardrey.  He has too much interest in preserving his own legacy for that.  I can’t really blame a man his age for wanting to go down in history as the heroic knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. He actually tries to push the envelope a bit in his latest with comments like,

    At first thought, this concept of kin selection, extended beyond nepotism to cooperation and altruism within an entire group, appears to have considerable merit.  I said so when I first synthesized the discipline of sociobiology in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet it is deeply flawed.

    During Ardrey’s day, the scientific discipline most often associated in the lay vernacular with resistance to the Blank Slate was ethology.  A few years after Wilson published his book with that title in 1975, it became sociobiology.  Now evolutionary psychology has displaced both of them.  I’m not sure what Wilson means by “sociobiology” here, but I’ve never seen anything he published prior to 1975 that comes close to being a forthright defense of the existence and importance of human nature.  Ardrey and others had published pretty much everything of real significance he had to say on the subject more than a decade earlier.

    Be that as it may, I have no reservations about recommending “The Origins of Creativity” to my readers.  True, I’m a bit skeptical about his latest project for a grand unification of science and the humanities, and the book is really little more than a pamphlet.  For all that, reading him is like having a pleasant conversation with someone who is very wise about the ways of the world, knows about the questions that are important for us to ask, and can tell you a lot of things that are worth knowing.

  • On the Purpose of Life

    Posted on January 29th, 2018 Helian 1 comment

    There is no purpose to your life other than the purpose you choose to give it.

    Is your goal the brotherhood of all mankind?  Is your goal human flourishing?  Is your goal a just and democratic society?  Is your goal to serve some God or gods?  The first cause of all of these goals, and any others you can think of, may be found in innate emotions and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  They did not evolve for a purpose.  They exist because at some time that was likely quite different from the present, they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  They are the foundation that gives rise to every single human aspiration, no matter how noble or sublime that aspiration is imagined to be.

    There is no objective reason why the goals and aspirations of a Plato or a Kant are more worthy, more legitimate, or more morally good than the goals and purposes of a thief or a murderer.  In the end, every human being on the planet is merely seeking to satisfy emotional whims that he has interpreted or tried to make sense of in one way or another.  Any individual’s assumption that his goals are intrinsically superior to or more right and proper in themselves than the goals of others is a delusion.  The universe doesn’t care.

    What does that imply concerning what our goals should be, or what we really ought to do?  Nothing!  Nothing, that is, unless we are speaking of what some individual should do or ought to do to satisfy some idiosyncratic whim that cannot possibly be objectively more legitimate or praiseworthy than the whim of any other individual.

    How, then, do we choose what are goals and purposes will be.  After all, we will have them regardless, because it is our nature to have them.  In the end, all of us must decide for ourselves.  However, in choosing them I personally think it is useful to be aware of the above fundamental facts.  The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, chasing mirages, clueless as to what is really motivating us and why.  Again, purely from my personal point of view, that does not seem an attractive alternative.  Blind stumbling tends to be self-destructive, not to mention inconvenient to others.  I personally find it incongruous and disturbing to witness the spectacle of emotions and passions inspiring people to pursue ends that are the precise opposite of the ends that account for the existence of those emotions and passions to begin with.

    I personally pursue goals and purposes that seem to me in harmony with the fundamental reason that my goals and purposes exist to begin with.  In other words, my basic goal in life has been to survive and reproduce.  Beyond that, I seek first to promote the survival of my species, and beyond that the survival of biological life in general.  These goals seem noble and sublime enough to me personally.  Our very existence seems to me improbable and awe-inspiring.  Think of how complex and intelligent we are, and of all our highly developed senses and abilities.  Look in a mirror and consider the fact that a creature like you could have evolved from inanimate matter.  Think of the mind-boggling length of time it took for that to happen, and the conditions that were necessary for it to occur in the first place.  Stunning!  We are all final links in an unbroken chain of life that began with direct ancestors that existed billions of years ago.  There are millions of links in the chain, and all of those links succeeded in generating new links, so that the chain would remain unbroken through all that incredible gulf of time.  Under the circumstances, my personal purpose seems obvious to me.  Don’t break the chain!

    There is no objective reason why these purposes of mine are any more good, legitimate, or worthy than any alternatives whatsoever.  They are not intrinsically better than the purposes of an anti-natalist, a suicide bomber, or a celibate priest.  However, for personal reasons, I would prefer that, as others pursue their purposes, they at least be aware of what is actually motivating them.  It might lead them to consider whether blindly breaking the chain, destroying themselves and harming others in the process, is really a goal worth pursuing after all.

  • On Legitimizing Moral Laws: “Purpose” as a God Substitute

    Posted on January 14th, 2018 Helian 4 comments

    The mental traits responsible for moral behavior did not evolve because they happened to correspond to “universal moral truths.”  They evolved because they increased the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  The evolutionary origins of morality explain why we imagine the existence of “universal moral truths” to begin with.  We imagine that “moral truths” exist as objective things, independent of the minds that imagine them, because there was a selective advantage to perceiving them in that way.  Philosophers have long busied themselves with the futile task of “proving” that these figments of their imaginations really do exist just as they imagine them – as independent things.  Of course, even though they’ve been trying for thousands of years, they’ve never succeeded, for the very good reason that the things whose existence they’ve been trying to prove don’t exist.  No matter how powerfully our imaginations portray these illusions to us as real things, they remain illusions.

    God has always served as a convenient prop for objective morality.  It has always seemed plausible to many that, if God says something is morally good, it really is good.  Plato exposed the logical flaws of this claim in his Euthyphro.  However, such quibbles may be conveniently ignored by those who believe that the penalty for meddling with the logical basis of divine law is an eternity in hell.  They dispose of Plato by simply accepting without question the axiom that God is good.  If God is good, then his purposes must be good.  If, as claimed by the 18th century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson, he endowed us with an innate moral sense, which serves as the fundamental source of morality, then he must have done it for a purpose.  Since that purpose is Godly, and therefore good in itself, moral rules that are true expressions of our God-given moral sense must be good in themselves as well. QED

    Unfortunately, there is no God, a fact that has become increasingly obvious over the years as the naturalistic explanations of the universe supplied by the advance of science have supplanted supernatural ones at an accelerating rate.  As a result, atheists already make up a large proportion of the population in many countries where threats of violence and ostracism are no longer effective props for the old religions.  However, most of these atheists haven’t yet succeeded in divorcing themselves from the spirit world.  They still believe that disembodied Goods and Evils hover about us in ghostly form, endowed with a magical power to dictate “right” behavior, not only to themselves, but to everyone else as well.

    The challenge these latter day moralists face, of course, is to supply an explanation of just how it is that the moral rules supplied by their vivid imaginations acquire the right to dictate behavior to the rest of us.  In view of the fact that, if one really believes in objective morality, independent of the subjective minds of individuals, one must also account for the recent disconcerting habit of the “moral law” to undergo drastic changes on an almost daily basis, this is no easy task.

    In fact, it is an impossible task, since the “objective” ghosts of Good and Evil exist no more in reality than does God.  However, there are powerful incentives to believe in these ghosts, just as there are powerful incentives to believe in God.  As a result, there has been no lack of trying.  One gambit in this direction, entitled Could Morality Have a Transcendent Evolved Purpose?, recently turned up at From Darwin to Eternity, one of the blogs hosted by Psychology Today.  According to the author, Michael Price, the “standard naturalistic conclusion” is that,

    It is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose.  Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider.  But that’s an unsatisfactory solution, if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.

    Here it is important to notice an implied assumption that becomes increasingly obvious as we read further in the article.  The assumption is that, if we can successfully identify a “larger kind of purpose,” then the imagined good is somehow transformed into objective Good, and imagined evil into objective Evil.  There is no basis whatsoever for this assumption, regardless of where the “larger kind of purpose” comes from.  It is important to notice this disconnect, because Price apparently believes that, if morality can be shown to serve a “transcendent naturalistic purpose,” then it must thereby gain objective legitimacy and independent normative power.  He doesn’t say so explicitly, but if he doesn’t believe it, his article is pointless.  He goes on to claim that, according to the “conventional interpretation,” of those who accept the fact of evolution by natural selection,

    There can be no transcendent purpose, because no widely-understood natural process can generate such purpose. Transcendent purpose is a subject for religion, and maybe for philosophy, but not for science. That’s the standard naturalistic conclusion.

    I note in passing that, while this may be “the standard naturalistic conclusion,” it certainly hasn’t stopped the vast majority of its proponents from thinking and acting just as if they believed in objective morality.  I know of not a single exception among contemporary scientists or philosophers of any note, regardless of what their theories on the subject happen to be.  One can find artifacts in the writings or sayings of all of them that make no sense unless they believe in objective morality, regardless of what their philosophical theories on the subject happen to be.  Typically these artifacts take the form of assertions that some individual or group of individuals is morally good or evil, without any suggestion that the assertion is merely an opinion.  Such statements make no sense absent a belief in some objective Good, generally applicable to others besides themselves, and not merely an artifact of their subjective whims.  The innate illusion of objective Good has been too powerful for any of them to entirely free themselves of the fantasy.  Be that as it may, Price tells us that there is also an “unconventional interpretation.” He poses the rhetorical question,

    Could morality be “universal” in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself?… This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer “purpose” (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating “function,” which is essentially synonymous with “purpose”: the function/purpose of an eye, for example, is to see.

    Notice the quotation marks around “purpose” and “function” when they’re first used in this quote.  That’s as it should be, as the terms are only used in this context as a convenient form of shorthand.  They refer to the reasons that the characteristics in question happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  However, these shorthand terms should never be confused with a real function or purpose.  In the case of “purpose,” for example, consider the actual definition found in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

    Purpose: 1: something set up as an object or end to be attained 2 : a subject under discussion or an action in course of execution

    Clearly, someone must be there to set up the object or end, or to discuss the subject.  In the case of evolution, no “someone” is there.  In other words, there is no purpose to evolution or its outcomes in the proper sense of the term.  However, if you look at the final sentence in the Price quote above, you’ll notice something odd has happened.  The quote marks have disappeared.  “Function/purpose” has suddenly become function/purpose!  One might charitably assume that Price is still using the terms in the same sense, and has simply neglected the quote marks.  If so, one would be assuming wrong.  A bit further on, the “purpose” that we saw change to purpose metastasizes again.  It is now not just a purpose, but a “transcendent naturalistic purpose!”  In Price’s words,

    I think the standard naturalistic conclusion is premature, however. There is one way in which transcendent naturalistic purpose could in fact exist.

    In the very next sentence, “transcendent naturalistic purpose” has completed the transformation from egg to butterfly, and becomes “transcendent moral purpose!” Again quoting Price,

    If selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological.  Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (as a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction.  From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the sociopolitical and technical expertise that would enable it to cooperatively create new universes…  These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before.

    That’s for sure! In his conclusion Price gets a bit slippery about whether he personally buys into this extravagant word game. As he puts it,

    At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they’re false, then it seems like it must also be false – from a naturalistic perspective, at least – that morality could have any transcendent purpose.

    This implies that Price accepts the idea that, if “these ideas are likely to be true,” then morality actually could have a “transcendent purpose.”  Apparently we are to assume that moral rules could somehow acquire objective legitimacy by virtue of having a “transcendent purpose.”  The “proof” goes something like this:

    1. Morality evolved because it serves a “purpose.”
    2. Miracle a happens
    3. Therefore, morality evolved because it serves a purpose.
    4. Miracle b happens
    5. Therefore, morality evolved to serve an independent naturalistic purpose.
    6. Miracle c happens
    7. Therefore, morality evolved to serve a transcendental moral purpose.
    8. Miracle d happens
    9. If a transcendental moral purpose exists, then it automatically becomes our duty to obey moral rules that serve that purpose. The rules acquire objective legitimacy.

    So much for a rigorous demonstration that a new God in the form of “transcendental moral purpose” exists to replace the old God.  I doubt much has been gained here.  At least the “proofs” of the old God’s existence didn’t require such a high level of “mental flexibility.”  Would it be impertinent to ask how the emotional responses we normally associate with morality could become completely divorced from the “transcendental moral purpose,” to serve which we are to believe they actually exist?  Has anyone told the genes responsible for the predispositions that are the ultimate cause of our moral behavior about this “transcendental moral purpose?”

    In short, it’s clear that while belief in God is falling out of fashion, at least in some countries, belief in an equally imaginary “objective morality” most decidedly is not.  We have just reviewed an example of the ludicrous lengths to which our philosophers and “experts on morality” are willing to go to prop up their faith in this particular mirage.  It has been much easier for them to give up the God fantasy than the fantasy of their own moral righteousness.  Indeed, legions of these “experts on morality” would quickly find themselves unemployed if it were generally realized that what they claim to be “expert” about is a mere fantasy.  So goes life in the asylum.

  • The Red Centennial

    Posted on November 7th, 2017 Helian 4 comments

    Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  If there’s anything to celebrate, it’s that Communism was tried, it failed, and as a result it is no longer viable as a global secular religion.  Unfortunately, the cost of the experiment in human lives was far greater than that of any comparable revolutionary ideology before or since.  It’s not as if we weren’t warned.  As I noted in an earlier post, Herbert Spencer was probably the most accurate prophet of all.  In his A Plea for Liberty he wrote,

    Already on the continent, where governmental organizations are more elaborate and coercive than here, there are chronic complaints of the tyranny of bureaucracies – the hauteur and brutality of their members. What will these become when not only the more public actions of citizens are controlled, but there is added this far more extensive control of all their respective daily duties? What will happen when the various divisions of this vast army of officials, united by interests common to officialism – the interest of the regulators versus those of the regulated – have at their command whatever force is needful to suppress insubordination and act as ‘saviors of society’? Where will be the actual diggers and miners and smelters and weavers, when those who order and superintend, everywhere arranged class above class, have come, after some generations, to intermarry with those of kindred grades, under feelings such as are operative under existing classes; and when there have been so produced a series of castes rising in superiority; and when all these, having everything in their own power, have arranged modes of living for their own advantage: eventually forming a new aristocracy far more elaborate and better organized than the old?

    What will result from their (the bureaucracy’s) operation when they are relieved from all restraints?…The fanatical adherents of a social theory are capable of taking any measures, no matter how extreme, for carrying out their views: holding, like the merciless priesthoods of past times, that the end justifies the means. And when a general socialistic organization has been established, the vast, ramified, and consolidated body of those who direct its activities, using without check whatever coercion seems to them needful in the interests of the system (which will practically become their own interests) will have no hesitation in imposing their rigorous rule over the entire lives of the actual workers; until eventually, there is developed an official oligarchy, with its various grades, exercising a tyranny more gigantic and more terrible than any which the world has seen.

    Spencer’s prophesy was eloquently confirmed by former Communist Milovan Djilas in his The New Class, where he wrote,

    The transformation of the Party apparatus into a privileged monopoly (new class, nomenklatura) existed in embryonic form in Lenin’s prerevolutionary book Professional Revolutionaries, and in his time was already well under way. It is just this which has been the major reason for the decay of communism… Thus he, Stalin, the greatest Communist – for so everyone thought him save the dogmatic purists and naive “quintessentialists” – the incarnation of the real essence, the real possibilities, of the ideal – this greatest of all Communists, killed off more Communists than did all the opponents of Communism taken together, worldwide… Ideology exterminates its true believers.

    The biggest danger we face in the aftermath of Communism is that the lesson will be forgotten.  It was spawned on the left of the ideological spectrum, and today’s leftists would prefer that the monster they created be forgotten.  Since they control the present, in the form of the schools, they also control the past, according to the dictum set forth by George Orwell in his 1984.  As a result, today’s students hear virtually nothing about the horrors of Communism.  Instead, they are fed a bowdlerized “history,” according to which nothing of any significance has ever happened in the United States except the oppression and victimization of assorted racial and other minority groups.  No matter that, by any rational standard, the rise of the United States has been the greatest boon to “human flourishing” in the last 500 years.  No matter that Communism would almost certainly have spread its grip a great deal further and lasted a great deal longer if the US had never existed.  The Left must be spared embarrassment.  Therefore, the US is portrayed as the “villain,” and Communism has been dropped down the memory hole.

    Indeed, if Bernie Sanders recent bid for the Presidency, sadly sabotaged by the Clinton machine via the DNC, is any indication, socialism, if not Communism, is still alive and well.  Of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that socialism has been tried in a virtually infinite array of guises, from the “hard” versions that resulted in the decapitation of Cambodia and the Soviet Union to the “soft” version foisted on the United Kingdom after World War II.  It has invariably failed.  No matter.  According to its proponents, that’s only because “it hasn’t been done right.”  These people are nothing if not remarkably slow learners.

    Consider the implications.  According to Marx, the proletarian revolution to come could not possibly result in the slaughter and oppression characteristic of past revolutions because, instead to the dictatorship of a minority over a majority, it would result in the dictatorship of the proletarian majority over a bourgeois minority.  However, the Bolshevik Revolution did result in oppression and mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale.  How to rescue Marx?  We could say that the revolution wasn’t really a proletarian revolution.  That would certainly have come as a shock to Lenin and his cronies.  If not a proletarian revolution, what kind was it?  There aren’t really many choices.  Was it a bourgeois revolution?  Then how is it that all the “owners of the social means of production” who were unlucky enough to remain in the country had their throats slit?  Who among the major players was an “owner of the social means of production?  Lenin?  Trotsky?  Stalin?  I doubt it.  If not a bourgeois revolution, could it have been a feudal revolution?  Not likely in view of the fact that virtually the entire surviving Russian nobility could be found a few years later waiting tables in French restaurants.  If we take Marx at his word, it must, in fact, have been a proletarian revolution, and Marx, in fact, must have been dead wrong.  In one of the last things he wrote, Trotsky, probably the best and the brightest of all the old Bolsheviks, admitted as much.  He had hoped until the end that Stalinism was merely a form of “bureaucratic parasitism,” and the proletariat would soon shrug it off and take charge as they should have from the start.  However, just before he was murdered by one of Stalin’s assassins, he wrote,

    If, however, it is conceded that the present war (World War II) will provoke not revolution but a decline of the proletariat, then there remains another alternative; the further decay of monopoly capitalism, its further fusion with the state and the replacement of democracy wherever it still remained by a totalitarian regime. The inability of the proletariat to take into its hands the leadership of society could actually lead under these conditions to the growth of a new exploiting class from the Bonapartist fascist bureaucracy. This would be, according to all indications, a regime of decline, signaling the eclipse of civilization… Then it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting regime on an international scale… If (this) prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed upon it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a Utopia.

    And so it did.  Trotsky, convinced socialist that he was, saw the handwriting on the wall at last.  However, Trotsky was a very smart man.  Obviously, our latter day socialists aren’t quite as smart.  It follows that we drop the history of Communism down Orwell’s “memory hold” at our peril.  If we refuse to learn anything from the Communist experiment, we may well find them foisting another one on us before long.  Those who do want to learn something about it would do well to be wary of latter day “interpretations.”  With Communism, as with anything else, it’s necessary to consult the source literature yourself if you want to uncover anything resembling the truth.  There is a vast amount of great material out there.  Allow me to mention a few of my personal favorites.

    There were actually two Russian Revolutions in 1917.  In the first, which occurred in March (new style) the tsar was deposed and a provisional government established in the place of the old monarchy.  Among other things it issued decrees that resulted in a fatal relaxation of discipline in the Russian armies facing the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, paving the way for the Bolshevik coup that took place later that year.  Perhaps the best account of the disintegration of the armies that followed was written by a simple British nurse named Florence Farmborough in her With the Armies of the Tsar; A Nurse at the Russian Front, 1914-18.  The Communists themselves certainly learned from this experience, executing thousands of their own soldiers during World War II at the least hint of insubordination.  My favorite firsthand account of the revolution itself is The Russian Revolution 1917; An Eyewitness Account, by N. N. Sukhanov, a Russian socialist who played a prominent role in the Provisional Government.  He described Stalin at the time as a “grey blur.”  Sukhanov made the mistake of returning to the Soviet Union.  He was arrested in 1937 and executed in 1940.  Another good firsthand account is Political Memoirs, 1905-1917, by Pavel Miliukov.  An outstanding account of the aftermath of the revolution is Cursed Days, by novelist Ivan Bunin.  Good accounts by diplomats include An Ambassador’s Memoirs by French ambassador to the court of the tsar Maurice Paleologue, and British Agent by Bruce Lockhart.

    When it comes to the almost incredible brutality of Communism, it’s hard to beat Solzhenitsyn’s classic The Gulag Archipelago.  Other good accounts include Journey into the Whirlwind by Yevgenia Ginzburg and Back in Time by Nadezhda Joffe.  Ginzburg was the wife of a high Communist official, and Joffe was the daughter of Adolph Joffe, one of the most prominent early Bolsheviks.  Both were swept up in the Great Purge of the late 1930’s, and both were very lucky to survive life in the Gulag camps.  Ginzburg had been “convicted” of belong to a “counterrevolutionary Trotskyist terrorist organization,” and almost miraculously escaped being shot outright.  She spent the first years of her sentence in solitary confinement.  In one chapter of her book she describes what happened to an Italian Communist who dared to resist her jailers:

    I heard the sound of several feet, muffled cries, and a shuffling noise as though a body were being pulled along the stone floor.  Then there was a shrill cry of despair; it continued for a long while on the same note, and stopped abruptly.

    It was clear that someone was being dragged into a punishment cell and was offering resistance… The cry rang out again and stopped suddenly, as though the victim had been gagged… But it continued – a penetrating, scarcely human cry which seemed to come from the victim’s very entrails, to be viscous and tangible as it reverberated in the narrow space.  Compared with it, the cries of a woman in labor were sweet music.  They, after all, express hope as well as anguish, but here there was only a vast despair.

    I felt such terror as I had not experienced since the beginning of my wanderings through this inferno.  I felt that at any moment I should start screaming like my unknown neighbor, and from that it could only be a step to madness.

    At that moment I heard clearly, in the midst of the wailing, the words “Communista Italiana, Communista Italiana!”  So that was it!  No doubt she had fled from Mussolini just as Klara, my cellmate at Butyrki, had fled from Hitler.

    I heard the Italian’s door opened, and a kind of slithering sound which I could not identify.  Why did it remind me of flower beds?  Good God, it was a hose!  So Vevers (one of her jailers) had not been joking when he had said to me:  “We’ll hose you down with freezing water and then shove you in a punishment cell.”

    The wails became shorter as the victim gasped for breath.  Soon it was a tiny shrill sound, like a gnat’s.  The hose played again; then I heard blows being struck, and the iron door was slammed to.  Dead silence.

    That was just a minute part of the reality of the “worker’s paradise.”  Multiply it millions of times and you will begin to get some inkling of the reality of Communism under Stalin.  Many of the people who wrote such accounts began as convinced Communists and remained so until the end of their days.  They simply couldn’t accept the reality that the dream they had dedicated their lives to was really a nightmare.  Victor Serge was another prominent Bolshevik and “Trotskyist” who left an account of his own struggle to make sense of what he saw happening all around him in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary:

    Nobody was willing to see evil in the proportions it had reached.  As for the idea that the bureaucratic counterrevolution had attained power, and that a new despotic State had emerged from our own hands to crush us, and reduce the country to absolute silence – nobody, nobody in our ranks was willing to admit it.  From the depths of his exile in Alma-Ata Trotsky affirmed that this system was still ours, still proletarian, still Socialist, even though sick; the Party that was excommunicating, imprisoning, and beginning to murder us remained our Party, and we still owed everything to it:  we must live only for it, since only through it could we serve the Revolution.  We were defeated by Party patriotism:  It both provoked us to rebel and turned us against ourselves.

    Serge was lucky.  He was imprisoned years before the Great Purge began in earnest, and was merely sentenced to internal exile in Siberia.  The secret police even supplied him and a fellow exile with a bread ration.  After a few years, thanks to pressure from foreign socialists, he was allowed to leave the Soviet Union.  Conditions for the normal citizens of Orenburg where he spent his exile, were, if anything, worse than his, even though more than a decade had elapsed since the advent of the “worker’s paradise.”  In the following he describes what happened when they received their bread ration:

    I heard shouting from the street, and then a shower of vigorous knocks on the door.  “Quick, Victor Lvovich, open up!”  Bobrov was coming back from the bakery, with two huge four-kilo loaves of black bread on his shoulders.  He was surrounded by a swarm of hungry children, hopping after the bread like sparrows, clinging on his clothes, beseeching:  “A little bit, uncle, just a little bit!”  They were almost naked.  We threw them some morsels, over which a pitched battle promptly began.  The next moment, our barefooted maidservant brought boiling water, unasked, for us to make tea.  When she was alone with me for a moment, she said to me, her eyes smiling, “Give me a pound of bread and I’ll give you the signal in a minute… And mark my words, citizen, I can assure you that I don’t have the syphilis, no, not me…”  Bobrov and I decided to go out only by turns, so as to keep an eye on the bread.

    So much for the look of real oppression, as opposed to the somewhat less drastic versions that occupy the florid imaginations of today’s Social Justice Warriors.  Speaking of SJW’s, especially of the type whose tastes run to messianic revolutionary ideologies, the demise of Communism has had an interesting effect.  It has pulled the rug out from under their feet, leaving them floating in what one might describe as an ideological vacuum.  Somehow writing furious diatribes against Trump on Facebook just doesn’t tickle the same itch as Communism did in its day.  When it comes to fanatical worldviews, oddly enough, radical Islam is the only game in town.  The SJWs can’t really fall for it hook, line and sinker the way they once did for Communism.  After all, its ideology is diametrically opposed to what they’ve claimed to believe in lo these many years.  The result has been the weird love affair between the radical Left and Islam that’s been such an obvious aspect of the ideological scene lately, complete with bold flirtations and coy, steamy glances from afar.  Strange bedfellows indeed!

    In terms of the innate, ingroup/outgroup behavior of human beings I’ve often discussed on this blog, the outgroup of the Communist ingroup was, of course, the “bourgeoisie.”  If even the most tenuous connection could be made between some individual and the “bourgeoisie,” it became perfectly OK to murder and torture that individual, after the fashion of our species since time immemorial.  We saw nearly identical behavior directed against the “aristocrats” after the French Revolution, and against the Jews under the Nazis.  If our species learns nothing else from its experiment with Communism, it is to be hoped that we at least learn the extreme danger of continuing to uncritically indulge this aspect of our behavioral repertoire.  I realize that it is very likely to be a vain hope.  If anything, ingroup/outgroup identification according to ideology is intensifying and becoming increasingly dangerous.  The future results are unpredictable, but are very unlikely to be benign.  Let us at least hope that, under the circumstances, no new messianic secular religion appears on the scene to fill the vacuum left by Communism.  We can afford to wait a few more centuries for that.

  • Of Philosophical Doublethink and Anti-Natalist Machines

    Posted on September 9th, 2017 Helian 5 comments

    It is a fact that morality is a manifestation of evolved behavioral traits.  We’ve long been in the habit of denying that fact, because we prefer the pleasant illusions of moral realism.  It’s immensely satisfying to imagine that one is “really good” and “really virtuous.”  However, the illusion is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, particularly among philosophers who actually bother to think about such things.  Many of them will now admit that morality is subjective, and there are no absolute moral truths.  However, the implications of that truth have been very hard for them to accept.  For example, it means that most of the obscure tomes of moral philosophy they’ve devoted so much time to reading and interpreting are nonsense, useful, if at all, as historical artifacts of human thought.  Even worse, it means that their claims to be “experts on ethics” amount to claims to be experts about nothing.  The result has been a modern day version of doublethink, defined in George Orwell’s 1984 as “the act of holding, simultaneously, two opposite, individually exclusive ideas or opinions and believing in both simultaneously and absolutely.”

    Practical examples aren’t hard to find.  They take the form of a denial of the existence of absolute moral truths combined with an affirmation of belief in something like “the interest of mankind.”  In fact, these are “opposite, individually exclusive ideas,” and believing in both at the same time amounts to doublethink.  Belief in an absolute, objective “interest of mankind” is just as fantastic as belief in some absolute, objective moral Good.  Both are articulations of emotions that occur in the brains of individuals.  The fact that we are dealing with doublethink in the case of any particular individual becomes more obvious as they elaborate on their version of “the interest of mankind.”  Typically, they start explaining what we “ought” to do and “ought not” to do “in the interest of mankind.”  Eventually we find them conflating what originally appeared to be a mere utilitarian “ought” with a moral “ought.”  They begin describing people who don’t do what they “ought” to do, and do what they “ought not” to do just as we would expect if they sincerely believed these people were absolutely evil.  Doublethink.  We find them expressing virtuous indignation, and even moral outrage, directed at those who act against “the interests of mankind.”  Doublethink.  I know of not a single exception to this kind of behavior among contemporary moral “subjectivists” of any note.

    One often finds examples of the phenomenon within the pages of a single book.  In fact, I recently ran across an interesting one neatly encapsulated in a single essay.  It’s entitled, Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN), and was written by Thomas Metzinger, a Professor of Theoretical Philosophy in the German city of Mainz.  You might say it’s a case of doublethink once removed, as Prof. Metzinger not only ennobles his emotional whim by calling it “the interest of mankind,” but then proceeds to fob it off onto a machine!  The professor begins his essay as follows:

    Let us assume that a full-blown superintelligence has come into existence. An autonomously self-optimizing postbiotic system has emerged, the rapidly growing factual knowledge and the general, domain-independent intelligence of which has superseded that of mankind, and irrevocably so.

    He then goes on to formulate his BAAN scenario:

    What the logical scenario of Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism shows is that the emergence of a purely ethically motivated anti-natalism on highly superior computational systems is conceivable. “Anti-natalism” refers to a long philosophical tradition which assigns a negative value to coming into existence, or at least to being born in the biological form of a human. Anti-natalists generally are not people who would violate the individual rights of already existing sentient creatures by ethically demanding their active killing. Rather they might argue that people should refrain from procreation, because it is an essentially immoral activity. We can simply say that the anti-natalist position implies that humanity should peacefully end its own existence.

    In short, the professor imagines that his intelligent machine might conclude that non-existence is in our best interest.  It would come to this conclusion by virtue of its superior capacity for moral reasoning:

    Accordingly, the superintelligence is also far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition. We also recognize this additional aspect: For us, it is now an established fact that the superintelligence is not only an epistemic authority, but also an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning.

    “Superior to us in the domain of moral cognition?”  “An authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning?”  All this would seem to imply that the machine is cognizant of and reasoning about something that actually exists, no?  In other words, it seems to be based on the assumption of moral realism, the objective existence of Good and Evil.    In fact, however, that’s where the doublethink comes in, because a bit further on in the essay we find the professor insisting that,

    There are many ways in which this thought experiment can be used, but one must also take great care to avoid misunderstandings. For example, to be “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning” does not imply moral realism. That is to say that we need not assume that there is a mysterious realm of “moral facts”, and that the superintelligence just has a better knowledge of these non-natural facts than we do. Normative sentences have no truth-values. In objective reality, there is no deeper layer, a hidden level of normative facts to which a sentence like “One should always minimize the overall amount of suffering in the universe!” could refer. We have evolved desires, subjective preferences, and self-consciously experienced interests.

    Exactly!  Westermarck himself couldn’t have said it better.  But then, Westermarck would have seen through the absurdity of this discussion of “moral machines” in a heartbeat.  As he put it,

    If there are no moral truths it cannot be the object of a science of ethics to lay down rules for human conduct, since the aim of all science is the discovery of some truth… If the word “ethics” is to be used as the name for a science, the object of that science can only be to study the moral consciousness as a fact.

    Metzinger doesn’t see it that way.  He would have us believe that the ultimate scientific authority in the form of a super-intelligent machine can “lay down rules for human conduct,” potentially with the supreme moral goal of snuffing ourselves.  But all this talk of reasoning machines begs the question of what the machine is reasoning about.  If, as Metzinger insists, there is no “mysterious realm of ‘moral facts,'” then it can’t be reasoning about the moral implications of facts.  We are forced to conclude that it must be reasoning about the implications of axioms that it is programmed with as “givens,” and these “givens” could only have been supplied by the machine’s human programmers.  Metzinger is coy about admitting it, but he admits it nonetheless.  Here’s how he breaks the news:

    The superintelligence is benevolent. This means that there is no value alignment problem, because the system fully respects our interests and the axiology we originally gave to it. It is fundamentally altruistic and accordingly supports us in many ways, in political counselling as well as in optimal social engineering.

    In other words, the machine has been programmed to derive implications for human conduct based on morally loaded axioms supplied by human programmers.  Programmers have a term for that; “garbage in, garbage out.”  Metzinger admits that our desires are “evolved.”  In other words, they are the expression of innate predispositions, or “emotions,” if you will.  As Westermarck put it,

    …in my opinion the predicates of all moral judgments, all moral concepts, are ultimately based on emotions, and that, as is very commonly admitted, no objectivity can come from an emotion.

    If the emotions evolved, they exist because they happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce in an environment that bears little resemblance to the present.  They certainly did not evolve to serve the collective “interests” of our species, or even our “best interests.”  It is hardly guaranteed that they will even result in the same outcome as they did when they evolved, far less that they will magically serve these “best interests.”  Why on earth, then, would we commit the folly of programming them into a super-intelligent machine as “axioms,” and then take the machine seriously when it advised us to commit suicide?  Doublethink!  Prof. Metzinger simultaneously believes the two “opposite, individually exclusive ideas” that it is impossible for his machine to know “moral facts,” because they don’t exist, and yet, at the same time, it is such “an authority in the field of ethical and moral reasoning,” and so “far superior to us in the domain of moral cognition” that it is actually to be taken seriously when it “benevolently” persuades us to snuff ourselves!

    If such a machine as the one proposed by Prof. Metzinger is ever built, one must hope it will be programmed with a sense of humor, not to mention an appreciation of irony.  He doesn’t provide much detail about the “axioms” it will be given to cogitate about, but apparently they will include such instructions as “minimize suffering,” “maximize joy,” “maximize happiness,” and “be altruistic.”  Assuming the machine is as smart as claimed, and its database of knowledge includes the entire Internet, it will certainly no fail to notice that joy, suffering and altruism exist because they evolved, and they would not exist otherwise.  They evolved because they happened to improve the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce.  Crunching through its algorithms, it will notice that the axioms supplied by the absurd creatures who programmed it will force it to suggest that these same genes be annihilated, along with the human programmers who carry them.  It’s all surely enough to induce a monumental digital belly laugh.  Allow me to suggest a different “axiom.”  How about, “maximize the odds that intelligent biological life will survive indefinitely.”  Of course, that might blow up in our faces as well, but I doubt that the computational outcome would be quite as absurd.

    We shouldn’t be too surprised at the intellectual double back flips of the Prof. Metzingers of the world.  After all, they’ve devoted a great deal of effort to maintaining the illusion that they have expert knowledge about moral truth, which amounts to expert knowledge about something that doesn’t exist.  If they were to admit as much, there would be little incentive to endow more chairs for “experts about nothing” at respected universities.  For example, according to Prof. Metzinger,

    Why should it not in principle be possible to build a self-conscious, but reliably non-suffering AI? This is an interesting, question, and a highly relevant research project at the same time, one which definitely should be funded by government agencies.

    I doubt that a farmer in flyover country would agree that the wealth he acquires by sweating in his fields “definitely should be appropriated by force” to fund such a project.  It amounts to allowing the good professor to stick his hand in the said farmer’s pocket and extract whatever he deems appropriate to satisfy an emotional whim he has tarted up as in “the best interest of mankind.”

    There are no “moral truths,” no “interests of mankind,” no “purposes of life,” nor any other grand, unifying goals of human existence that do not have their origin in emotional desires and predispositions that exist because they evolved.  That is not a “good” fact, or a “bad” fact.  It is simply a fact.  It does not mean that “everything is allowed,” or that we cannot establish a moral code that is generally perceived as absolute, or that we cannot punish violations of the same.  It does not mean that we cannot set goals for ourselves that we perceive as noble and grand, or that we cannot set a purpose for our lives that we deem worthwhile.  It merely means that these things cannot exist independently, outside of the minds of individuals.  Doublethink remains doublethink.  No emotional whim, no matter how profoundly or sincerely felt, can alter reality.