The Philosophy of Responsible Freedom – Announcing An Online Course / Tutorial with Jack Carney and Steven Yates


Online & Ongoing, Free & Freeing, Adventure in the Academy of Ideas

Join Two Contrarian Minds in the Rock Tumbler of Time Along with the Great Minds and the Grit of Truth

Academy of Ideas Videos Brought to Life for You By Two Very Different Philosophers

STARTING SATURDAY, 4 PM EST, OCTOBER 22 – Jack Carney and Steven Yates


Worth noting is that there are three presentations.

1. Fridays 9 PM New Zealand Time where Jack will be the sole facilitator-teacher. These days and times are targeting Oceania, S.E. Asia, and Asia.

2. Saturdays 9 P M New Zealand time where Jack will be the sole facilitator-teacher. These days/times are targeting Oceania, S.E. Asia, and Asia.

3. Sundays 9am New Zealand time which are Saturdays 5pm Chile and 4pm E.S.T. time, where Steven will be joining Jack  and Co-Presenting. This day/time is targeting the U.S., Canada, S. America, Europe, and Africa.


1. FRIDAYS, 9PM, starting October 21, 2022 New Zealand time

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 828 7050 1796

Passcode: 772388

2. SATURDAYS, 9PM, starting October 22, 2022 New Zealand time

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 860 9663 1190

Passcode: 772388

3. SUNDAYS, 9AM, starting October 23, 2022 New Zealand time / 4 pm Eastern Standard Time.

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Meeting ID: 841 5629 1310

Passcode: 772388


“It is important to note that we will be presenting and reviewing video material from our independent perspectives. Our presentations will involve, therefore, disagreements but we pledge to keep our disagreements mutually respectful, and to respect our audience by encouraging them to do their own thinking on the topics we shall be covering. We hope that by engaging polar opposites this way, we can set an example for others to follow that may help get us past the divisions currently rending Western civilization — or point toward a new way forward, in case that ship has sailed.”

Jack’s perspective: Materialist Naturalism, Atheism, Voluntarism, Autodidact.

Steven’s perspective: Christian Worldview (non-denominational, non-dispensationalist), Conservative “Populist,” with a PhD in Philosophy and four books the most recent of which is What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory (Wipf & Stock, 2021).

Jack is seeking an audience in the East (including China), given his New Zealand location, but is also seeking a Western audience, hence his joining with Steve.

Steven seeks an audience in North and South America, and perhaps Europe if Europeans by any chance see this.   

The same video(s) will be presented in three sessions. You are welcome to attend all. Not to worry, these sessions are free. (Perhaps we will put up a tip jar. 😊 )


“My conception of Responsible Freedom (includes Self-Actualization):

To be Free means that you understand how your Mind from birth has been captured (programmed, indoctrinated, ordered) by Nature (Genes) and Nurture (Upbringing) to obey Authority — Something or Someone other than You. We are born to conform to and obey the Authority of our Parents, Culture, Government, Religion — the totality of the Belief Structures we inherit. To be Free is to discover and disable this default setting of Obedience to Authority and to reset it so as to become your own, sole, ultimate Authority.

To be Responsible for your Freedom means you have taken the time and effort to free your Mind as described above and that you allow no one to control your Mind. You think your own thoughts rather than being thought by them; you regulate your emotions rather than being driven by them. You control yourself using the scientific method, reason, and your own experience. You become your own, sole, ultimate Authority obedient only to Reality.

These four Au- words comprise the Gold (Au) Standard of the Responsibly Free Individual (etymological definitions):

AuTonomy (Self Law Maker)

AuThencity (Self Doer/Being)

AuThority (Master, Leader, Author)

AuThor (Originator, Creator, literally “One Who Causes to Grow”)

To Self-Actualize is do the above and become as fully as possible, Responsible for your Freedom. The degree to which you do this is the degree of your Self-Actualization. This is a never ending, forever ongoing task that must be committed to, reviewed and renewed, consistently and frequently. This Self-Education to value Freedom and become Responsible for it is generally not taught anywhere and it does not come naturally. To help others discover and disable the default setting of Obedience to Authority is why I have created this Adventure of Ideas. See my Free Friends Project 


My provisional definition of Responsible Freedom:

The conscious capacity to live according to one’s own choices, not those of someone else (or the dictates of an institution not of one’s choosing), establishing goals of one’s own choosing and working toward achieving them, learning what one needs to learn or acquiring the skills one needs to acquire, in association with those of one’s own choosing provided those others have made the association one of their choices.

Why I have introduced this as provisional should become clear shortly.

The caveats and qualifiers: (1) The chooser has agreed de facto to accept the consequences of his/her choices and associations. (2) Freedom is not the freedom to do anything one pleases. Freedom is not an absolute — an abstraction — but a concrete reality or particular. Freedom is enhanced by systems (physical, historical/cultural, behavioral). These are all around us, and part of our heritage. They have been maintained because, sometimes with necessary modifications, they have solved the major problems of civilization. The good news is that you can create behavioral systems for yourself, and these become your habits, including habits of thought.

This all means that responsible freedom is both made possible by, but also invariably constrained by, physically/systemically available options, one’s knowledge of those options, and one’s capacity to make use of them. This will include one’s beliefs or mindset about what is possible for oneself and one’s associations. (3) Absence of immediate physical coercion is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for freedom, if other forms of coercion are present: hidden and unrecognized perhaps (psychological), or systemic (sociological or organizational). Recognizing their existence is the first step towards getting rid of them.  

Final caveat (4): this is a reflection of freedom understand where we are now: in a liberal civilization that arguably is collapsing (collapse being understood as a process, not a singular event as a Hollywood film would depict — see, e.g., Dmitry Orlov’s work on the topic). As we’ll see in a minute, there are almost surely societal states of affairs in which my conception of responsible freedom might not even be understood. I don’t consider it “frozen in time,” as it were.

It is also a given that believers in different Worldviews will come to different conclusions about What is responsible freedom? The question will also be answered differently in different Stages of Civilization.

It is also a given that believers in different Worldviews will come to different conclusions about What is responsible freedom? The question will also be answered differently in different Stages of Civilization.

Auguste Comte gave us what he called the Law of Three Stages. We do not have to be “disciples” of his (I am not!) to find the idea at the beginning of his Introduction to Positive Polity useful. Comte also calls them states or conditions. His conceptual system implied Progress: each stage invalidates its predecessor. I will suggest that we jettison that assumption. In most advanced nations in the West we find all the stages existing side by side, however uneasily. I believe that stages of civilization are more akin to stories or floors of a building with competing enterprises on the various floors. There are, moreover, stairwells and elevators connecting them despite the competition between them, and possibly a commons area on the ground floor where all can meet and discuss, perchance over morning coffee, hopefully in front of a picture window with a view able to remind those inside that we inhabit a common world.   

With that as background:

At the First Stage of society in its highest development, the worldview is invariably monotheistic or some equivalent, and so it could be called the stage of faith. Institutions develop accordingly. Obvious examples include Christian, Judaic, and Muslim societies. Freedom in these societies is the freedom to submit to and serve the will of God/Yahweh/Allah (the word Islam means submission in Arabic). Focusing on Christianity since I know it best. Freedom according to Christianity is found through the process of acknowledging one’s sin (separation from God), that one cannot save oneself, that one must therefore appeal to Jesus Christ for salvation (absolution for one’s sins, for which Christ paid the price on the cross). It is then service to one’s fellow humans in Christ’s name, especially the attempt to win more souls. The long and short of it: freedom is found in the submission or subordination of one’s private will to God’s will as best as one understands it. (Caveat: none of this denies that in-house disputes will not arise, as they obviously have. Muslims have Shiites and Sunnis; Christianity has its broad divisions between Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. Judaism has its own divisions, although Ashkenazi Jews have become strikingly dominant.)

Worth noting here is that in all these cases, God’s existence is a given, not the product of a philosophical attempt at proof. One could therefore speak of the Age of Faith.

Key drawback of first stage thinking: philosophical thought does not bow to institutional authority and its claim to speak for God, meaning that philosophers (even theists) are likely eventually to rebel against first stage thinking. The human tendency to ask questions, even within the bounds of the assumption of the Authority of Scripture, is one of the main reasons the in-house disputes happened, and why they remain.

At the Second Stage of society — at least as it emerged in the West — the dominant worldview (beginning around 300 A.D.) remained Christian, but philosophers had emerged who sought to prove the truth, e.g., of God’s existence with a philosophical argument. In other words, reason (logic) and not faith is the bottom line in this stage. Even for the theist, that is, reason is epistemically more basic than unaided belief. Institutions have developed which are able to nurture the intellect and enable theological debate at a level that the first stage will not permit. By medieval times, monasteries served as examples. Freedom is the freedom to use one’s reason to arrive at one’s own conclusions independent of that of ecclesiastical or other institution-bound authorities, within a community of likeminded thinkers (e.g., Kant’s “kingdom of ends”). Second stage civilization eventually gave rise to both the scientific revolution and the Protestant revolution in Christianity (helped along by the Gutenberg press!).  

Worth noting: the variant on the Christian worldview that emerges at the highest level of this stage affirms God’s ideal rationality (logos) and ethos — as Creator of a universe that is therefore rationally ordered (designed), and of beings created in His image (us) who therefore have the cognitive ability to grasp the Creation as it is, at least in part if not in whole. Science becomes possible if fallible. The capacity of technique to solve specific grand problems (e.g., of energy-production, propulsion, etc.) and make dynamic advances is explained.

Theologians made peace with the idea of offering a philosophical proof of God’s existence, such as the ontological proof of St. Anselm of Canterbury or the cosmological proof of St. Thomas Aquinas, or the second ontological proof of René Descartes.

Steven’s opinion: this was a wrong turn. If second stage thinking subjects belief in God to the rational test of philosophical argumentation (ontological, cosmological, etc.), it leaves theism in limbo if/when the proofs cannot stand up to criticism. Descartes in particular made God just a stepping-stone of his methodological quest for absolute epistemic certainty (“I think; therefore, I am.”)

Another potential drawback: in seeking explanations for physical phenomena, how far can scientific explanation go? Why, given the failure of the philosophical proofs, should science presume the existence of a Creator? It might have seemed like a logical question to ask at the time. Why not just be an empiricist — in epistemology, empiricism is the thesis that all our knowledge comes through the senses (that pure reason discloses nothing except abstract logical relations and that claims to divine revelation that cannot be publicly validated disclose nothing at all). (Rationalism is the contrary stance in epistemology holding that some knowledge of matters of fact can be reached through abstract reasoning alone.)

This progression began the shift within Western civilization from the Christian worldview to the materialist one, i.e., an extrapolation from sense experience allegedly corrected by emerging scientific method: the ideas that the universe is self-existing, not created; that it is known exclusively through science / scientific methods, which are empiricist. This shift was underway by the start of the 1800s among the more avant garde Enlightenment thinkers. It got legs within the intellectual centers (universities) at large when Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection (1869), and began to infiltrate the larger culture in the early 1900s, especially under the spreading influence of Freudian psychoanalysis. Turning points included such events as the Scopes Trial and, later, the abolition of prayer in government schools. By this time, we were in the third stage of civilization.

The Third Stage of civilization — what Comte called the Positive stage — is the stage of empirical science, technique (technology), commerce (even though Comte himself was a socialist and would not have enjoyed capitalism’s triumphs), and universal education. It encourages cosmopolitanism and liberalismhaving replaced the idea that all men and women are equal in the sight of God with the idea that all are rational beings and therefore, on this basis, moral equals. Respect for tradition dissolves if its basis cannot stand up to scientific scrutiny; there is no respect for place if respect for place inhibits the spread of markets and monetization. The idea of Progress already noted is especially important to third stage thought: yesterday’s theories in science are supplanted by today’s better ones; today’s techniques improve on yesterday’s; commercial enterprises (corporations, businesses) bringing new products into the marketplace are making our lives better and better as they spread across the globe; universal education is making even the masses smarter so that they can work for corporations or (in a few cases) create their own, etc., etc.

That could be viewed as a very long historical background for our subject matter in this course.

It is during this period — late 1800s onward — that things get very interesting for our purposes. And, I would argue, a shift began from a third stage of thinking to a fourth stage Comte did not see and would not have understood.

We were all increasingly a part of “the system” (supervening economic systems driven by the need to earn one’s living under the circumstances of emerging industrial civilization). Søren Kierkegaard was the first philosopher to stand up and shout, “I am not in your system! I demand the right to be free, by being different!” (Nowhere did he say this literally, of course, but his voluminous writings that are regarded as “founding Christian existentialism” began a trend of rebellion towards what were perceived as the strictures of industrial, third stage civilization resulting in unfreedom.)

Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” by which he meant: everything that God’s existence had given meaning to was gone, had been destroyed by scientific progress as he understood it, which had fostered the materialist worldview as it then existed. Nihilismbelief in nothing — knocks on our doors, like the proverbial figure in black bearing a tall poker whose eyes are hidden by a black hood. All previous ethical systems, including the “secular” ones of Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers, are useless, because they try to maintain a fundamentally Christian ethos stripped of its supernaturalist foundation (God). They must go. We must have a “revaluation of all values.” We must recognize that our actual freedom is found when we create our own values. For Nietzsche, these were the values of survival and advancement in the universe described by materialists: strength (including physical prowess), health, determination, and resilience in the face of the universe’s manifest hostility to human life.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, over in Russia, however, had warned that “if God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Except, perhaps, getting caught. Or, if one has sufficient power via the backing of others, or through having instilled fear in them, one can do essentially as one pleases. In this he probably anticipated Communism (and Nazism and other twentieth century “isms”). Dostoevsky also scolded us for any temptation to think the masses really want freedom. “The Grand Inquisitor” portrays them as having been told by Christ, “the truth will set you free” and then having laid that freedom at the feet of the Almighty Church! (Later merged into the Almighty State!)

Bertrand Russell, writing in “A Free Man’s Worship,” described the materialist’s universe, emptied of transcendent meaning, and stated that “in it our highest ideals must find a home,” these being peace and social justice (Russell was jailed more than once for his pacifism, so at least he put his money where his mouth was). Russell eventually embraced the slowly emerging technocratic view that the masses could be conditioned to accept and even love their servitude through proper forms of conditioning being served up by behavioral psychology.

Arguably, right around 1914, the Utopian tendencies of third stage civilization collapsed at once, with the Great War (later: World War 1) illustrating how little real, moral progress the human race had made, including its governing elites and the intellectual and technological forces now driving them consciously or otherwise.

Was a materialist world a meaningless world, and human life in a materialist world therefore meaningless, morality a meaningless concept?

The early twentieth century art world was already portraying a meaningless world by producing meaningless art (Duchamp’s “found objects” are an example). Music would follow when composers such as Schoenberg abandoned the tonality of his predecessors, producing compositions that verged on unlistenable. Literature was, more and more, portraying human beings acting in, and responding to, a meaningless world, a world they found nauseous (Sartre’s La Nausée) or in which murder could be committed for no reason because meaningless lives are expendable lives (Camus’s L’Etranger).

Science was not helping. It was furthering its own shift from a third stage to a fourth stage interpretation of the world (Nietzsche would have called it). Via some of the interpretations of quantum mechanics, theoretical physics was beginning to cast doubt on the knowability of physical reality as it is, in itself. Whether light consisted of particles or waves seemed to depend on how the experiment was set up and how observation took place. Reality came to seem “observer dependent.” Was Schroedinger’s cat alive or dead? Neither: until you opened the box and looked!

Philosophy, sadly (with rare exceptions), had become an exclusively academic enterprise retreating completely into the articulation of formal logic and detailed explorations of “ordinary language”: perfect for an industrial civilization that placed no commercial value on ideas that did not lead to something that could be sold to consumers.  

Meanwhile, evidence was emerging that this civilization was empowering a sociopathic elite embarked on a campaign of global dominance. Although you had to know where to look, because increasingly, mass media, mass education, and other dominant institutions were structured to hide this development. This elite did not philosophize about freedom much. They just saw it as the freedom to do as they pleased, answerable (perhaps) only to each other.

Third Stage thinking regards truth as determined by empirical science — the scientific method. Practical problem solving, science applied to technology — plus the generalizing from particular results — was the test. Knowledge is had through the five senses, not from revelation (because God either does not exist or can be treated as nonexistent: operational atheism) or pure reason which yields only the empirically empty truths of logic (Kant’s analytic-synthetic dichotomy, emerging as the difference between truths of logic and definition, versus truths of empirical fact.

As far as ethics goes, we are on our own — to pursue what Russell called our “highest ideals,” Maslow’s “self-actualization,” or anything else, because we do not answer to anything Higher.

Third stage thinkers see science and technology (some) and commerce (others) as having set us free from superstition, slavery, institution-bound authority, and in principle, poverty, injustice, and war. They saw a future of boundless prosperity and unending progress.

In that case, they failed. The Great War was behind us, after all; an even more destructive war loomed, and we still had to learn about how many people totalitarians who certainly believed they answered to nothing / no one Higher than themselves could kill!

Fourth Stage thinking (and civilization) is the result of the manifest failures of third stage thinking (and civilization).

In various ways, fourth stage thinking either denies the reality of objectively-knowable truth, or denies the meaningfulness of such: objectively-knowable truth doesn’t matter even if is obtainable, because it is obtainable only in limited and trivial cases (e.g., “The cat is asleep” is objectively true if whatever cat you are talking about is indeed asleep). If its purveyors were fully honest with themselves (they are not), they would acknowledge Nietzsche as their most important forebear and add that we did not “transcend” nihilism because, given only the tools of third stage thinking, we could not — because the designing of a workable universal ethic on the foundations supplied by materialism in metaphysics and empiricism in epistemology make this impossible.

The twentieth and (so far) twenty-first centuries have witnessed a playing out of this unpleasant reality.

Even as leading intellectuals have struggled mightily to evade or avoid it!

Postmodernists are fourth stage thinkers in my sense, although I would not limit fourth stage thinking to postmodernism. Everyone who looked at where industrial civilization was going and saw Dystopia instead of Utopia and thus threw cold water on the third stage “myth of progress” (as he/she would call it) could be classified as a fourth stage thinker (this includes Huxley, Orwell, others).

Fourth Stage thinking celebrates hedonism (“the good is pleasure”) and the absoluteness of personal choices and associations, because it sees no reason not to celebrate them. It views every moral norm not of one’s own creation or choosing — or the creation or choosing of one’s peers — as an unjustifiable imposition of “authority.” Ultimately human life itself is a mere option, and not a gift (along with one’s abilities) from that which is Higher however we understand this last. Hence life’s ultimate cheapness and expendability (think of the abortion-mill death culture, the longstanding Western war machine, and the likelihood that the covid-19 “vaxes” will bring about a hidden euthanasia of “useless eaters” before the latter can gobble up scarce resources).

The test of this worldview, which is the worldview of materialism, is that the civilization that embraced it is collapsing. The collapse is becoming so obvious that the mainstream can no longer avoid it.

Money long ago became its real god — even as its monetary/financial system collapses. Note the one thing that the abortion death culture, the war machine, and the covid-19 “vaxes” have in common: all are extremely profitable, with profit being an end in itself for corporations and not a means to a better life for all concerned.

During the mid-twentieth century (before materialist premises had fully taken hold in both business and popular cultures), the economy really was a rising tide that lifted all the boats. During the 1970s and 1980s, capitalism shifted from this towards a financialized system that redistributed wealth upwardscorporate welfarism, or the welfare state in reverse.

Now we have a state of affairs in which the top .001 percent, a group of people that would fit comfortably into a high school auditorium, control more wealth than the entire bottom half of the world’s population.

The middle class created from the 1940s up through the 1960s began to diminish in size during the 1980s and beyond. Today it threatens to pinwheel over the economic cliff.

Government is everywhere, of course. But the real locus of power is the global corporation, or the superelite-controlled network of such, partnering with government and non-governmental organizations of various sorts (the UN, think tanks, semi-secret societies such as the Trilateral Commission and others). The reason for this is simple: corporations have the money, and ways of getting more. Their CEOs have mastered the art of “passive income,” (i.e., money obtained without working for it, or contributing anything to the real economy:“money making money”).

In other words, poverty has not been extinguished. If anything, it is increasing (stats showing income increases aside: all they mean is that more and more people, the world over, have been pulled into the global money political economy, even as their currencies lose their purchasing power). Economic hit men have gone around the world, luring “developing nations” into the web of global indebtedness. Local leaders who resisted often died in “accidents” or were overthrown, and someone “more reasonable” replaced them. (See John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man 2004; 2nd Ed. 2015,)

War has not been extinguished, because wars are profitable!

Nowhere to be found is a “justice system” that can be trusted to deliver justice, anymore than there is a public school or university to be found that dispenses real education (the “liberal arts” including academic philosophy fell to the agendas of the wokesters long ago—possibly because very little that preceded their rise, going back at least half a century, was exactly setting the world afire).

The Superelite, mentioned above, gravitated into the corporation long before that, so that legitimate institutions could be hijacked. Its members created the Federal Reserve (1913), the Bank for International Settlements (1930), the U.N. (1947), and other means of dominating the world by dominating the economic systems of individual nations. (“Free Trade” agreements going back to GATT furthered their goals for specific nations.) They did this not based on any system of “rights” but because they could.

They had sought to dominate mass media by the 1910s (so that the Great War could be presented in ways favorable to their interests), and set out to dominate “public education” before that.

They understood that the masses could be controlled if the information reaching their more intelligent members could be controlled (the rest would then go along, and the populations as a whole could be herded like sheep). Hence control over public education, which actually goes back well into the 1800s.

Being responsibly free, if it means anything it all, means transcending and getting past this kind of civilization! At the fourth stage (with plenty of the third still admixed), freedom is freedom from all constraints whatever — except those approved by wokesters, of course, which typically work against real freedom (which includes free speech). This includes freedom from constraints imposed by Reality (e.g., the reality that there are two and only two sexes, and that this is not a fact we can be responsibly free from. 

I am assuming the unlikelihood that we can go back to earlier stages — any more than you can unscramble an egg (though anyone who wants to, is welcome to try). We are where we are, and we can only go forward — not into the Brave New World or the Great Reset but around them, and past them!

Into what I call a Fifth Stage, difficult as it will be to envision.

We can, of course, speculate — using such ideas as a means of negotiating our way in the direction we want to go even if we aren’t entirely clear where we will end up.

At the Fifth Stage …   we’re still trying to find out … but should it be possible, it might include freedom from the hidden authority and tyranny of a money political economy.

How might we accomplish that?

Perchance by reinvestigating and then making use of Nikola Tesla’s ideas (?), learning how to create systems based on the possibilities of abundance, especially regarding energy and food, instead of maintaining systems based on a presumption of scarcity which enables the further enrichment of corporations able to control governments. Abundance by its nature brings down prices to next-to-nothing. We need energy to power an advanced civilization, and an abundance of energy would bring down its costs far more than anything being done now (because what is being done now keeps the corporate-governmental machinery in business).

This would enable decentralization of power away from central points dictated by that corporate-governmental machinery for those who claim it. Recent technological marvels such as 3D printing have the potential to create abundance in other areas such as housing, bringing down costs in that realm.

This, of course, is just one theme to be explored in transcending the morass where third and fourth stage thinking have left us.

Others including revisiting the earlier stages and identifying specific strengths they might still offer. (I do this in the final chapter of my What Should Philosophy Do?

The Fourth Stage teaches us to at least be skeptical of authority structures of whatever sort, and to be wary of those who indeed confuse positions enabling authoritarian gestures with knowledge of what is true; or which confuse consensus with truth.

The Third Stage teaches us that objective knowledge is at least possible, that what science and technology do, they do very well, and that no other enterprises are as well suited to discovery of truths about spatio-temporal reality. It tried (unsuccessfully) to caution us about demanding absolute certainty as a condition for knowledge.

The Second Stage gave us the structures of reasoning, which are well suited for the organizing and classification of ideas.

The First Stage teaches us, finally, that in the absence of certainty — if we are ruthlessly honest about it — that our first premises, ultimate starting point, is a profession of faith in those premises. (Obviously we cannot “prove” them, because whatever we used as proof would then be more basic than those premises.)  

Steven will thus ask, is your faith going to be in God as Creator, or in that which is Higher; or in something called Matter (Mammon?)?

Steven will invoke the most important advance in philosophical theology in the past century: Presuppositional Apologetics: a challenging term for a fairly simple concept: that (as was the case for the first stage thinker) God’s existence — or nonexistence — is your starting premise logically speaking, or starting point, not the result of a chain of reasoning or inference from a range of experiences. There are—surprise, surprise—different versions of it, such as that put forth by Cornelius Van Til and that of Gordon Clark, but we need not get into what divided them.

Being free surely includes being free to choose your first premises, based on your best judgment given all that you have learned and all that you have experienced. Being responsibly free surely includes recognizing the gravity of the matter, because the choices we make as individuals do not just affect us. They affect those around us, and thus have ripple effects within our families, associations, and communities. Thus, the importance of choosing wisely — fully conscious of the reality that choices have consequences, not just for us but for those our words and actions will affect. 




“This is not, first of all, an academic philosophy tutorial. It is presented with the intention of providing a thoughtful but practical and relevant exploration of ideas, both historical and more recent, that are critically important to anyone who wishes a freer life and a more peaceful world, in which the barriers to these are neutered. My portion of the discussion will draw on the stages-of-civilization material presented above, and what it might mean to “progress” to civilization’s fifth stage—which I firmly believe we either do, or the West soon goes out of business! We will be going through, and discussing, 50 videos from the Academy of Ideas 

Our presentations will be conducted over Zoom. This is necessary because Jack and I are on different continents, and those who join in will be on still other continents. This is a global scale (but not globalist!) project, in other worlds.”

It is free, no charge; and hopefully, freeing. There is no commitment required. Each of the three sessions, two with Jack only and the other with the two of us trading ideas and sharing our individual perspectives, will last around one hour + (up to 1.5).

The only thing we ask is that you enter the Zoom session a few minutes before the starting time. We will close entry to the session around 10 minutes after the starting time. You will be recorded with the possibility of the video being published. You can have your video and audio on or not if you want some degree of anonymity. You can leave the session whenever you want without notifying us. You can participate to whatever degree you wish including remaining silent and simply watching. You will be allowed to record each Zoom session which will appear on your device after the end to watch again.

Please inform one (or both) of us letting us know ahead of time if you plan to attend a session — although this is not necessary. You can just drop in unannounced if you want.

Email Jack at

Email Steven at


The “Academy of Ideas” is a Canadian based (two brothers) Voluntaryist education service with some 200+ YouTube videos on all aspects of philosophy, especially as they relate to Responsible Freedom and Self-Actualization. Each video is 7 to 12 minutes long, and includes beautiful, classical paintings to illustrate the ideas presented as well as many focusing quotes from a variety of ancient to modern philosophers, especially those concerned with living the morally good life and not abstruse academic arguments. There are transcripts as well as copies of the paintings, so you can prepare ahead or explore more afterwards.

Each video explores and explicates a set of ideas on a central topic or theme.

The first of the fifty videos is “The Benefits of Reading Great Books.”

The theme is how the body, or canon, of cultural classics of both the East and the West including literature, music, philosophy, and works of art can serve us if our goal is to free our minds, especially from the dominance of institutions and the constant barrage of noise from the political system and mainstream corporate media. 

These quotes give the flavor of this first video, from the transcript:
“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use?…They are for nothing but to inspire.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We need to learn not simply to read books but to allow ourselves to be read by them.” Mark Edmundson

The Brothers’ script and the concluding quote: 

“And if we decide to be one of the few to make reading great books a priority what we are likely to discover is that as we become more fixated on the wisdom contained in them, the pull of technology and the white noise of culture around us, will lose its grip on our mind. For as Edmundson explains: ‘People who have taught themselves how to live — what to be, what to do — from reading great works will not be overly susceptible to the culture industry’s latest wares. They’ll be able to sample them, or turn completely away — they’ll have better things on their minds.’”

The final, 50th, video is “How to be Free in an Unfree World”.

From the transcript:

“If such epics were the highest values of life — our peace, our independence, our basic rights, all that makes our existence more pure, more beautiful, all that justifies it — are sacrificed to the demon inhabiting a dozen fanatics and ideologues, all the problems of the man who fears for his humanity come down to the same question: how to remain free?” Stefan Zweig, Montaigne

“Moral autonomy is life promoting under any conditions it is especially important at times of social upheaval and rapid change. If this crisis proves significant enough to fundamentally re-order the structure of our society many of us will soon discover that the ways of life that supported us up until now have become obsolete. Change or perish is the motto of a Brave New World, and unless we are willing to take responsibility for our own future, to act with autonomy and to cultivate the traits that autonomy necessitates, such as curiosity, self-directed learning, a willingness to take risks, and an openness to new experiences, then the only alternative is to place our life in the hands of another. Asserting our moral autonomy and doubling down on our psychological freedom has benefits that extends beyond the merely personal. For in choosing to retain our status as a free man or woman, and striving to behave in ways that reflect this, we become a force that pushes the world back in the direction of freedom.”


Jack will oversee playing the videos, with English subtitles (for English-as-Second-Language learners).

Sometimes we play them once only, stopping to give our explanations and interpretations of ideas we find inspiring or to clarify words and ideas we think might be challenging to understand.

We invite your responses — comments and questions — as we go, inviting each of you to share your questions or understandings of the ideas being discussed.

Sometimes we play them twice: once all the way without stopping for comments; then a second time stopping for comments.

Our aim is to facilitate — make useful and enjoyable — your exploration of the ideas presented, adding our respective own comments as we go that we hope will deepen your understanding.

Before, during and after our seminars we will also mention and supply access to relevant books, articles and videos (as well as URLs) so that you can prepare for or review and add further to your exploration and understanding.

Jack has put the 50 videos below into a specific sequence that he believes will be progressively accumulative and synergetic, leading you at the end to understand what it means to Self-Actualize Responsible Freedom.

Steven used to ask his classes, at the end, “Are you free? Why or why not? How can you become more free, i.e., what beliefs and specific courses of action does this call for?”


1.The Benefits of Reading Great Books

2.Suffering and the Meaning of Life life/

3.Ernest Becker and the Fear of Death

4.What is Religion

5.Nietzsche and the Death of God god/

6.Introduction to Nihilism

7.Overcoming Nihilism

8.Nietzsche and Morality–The Higher Man and The Herd

9.Abraham Maslow and the Psychology of Self-Actualization actualization/

10.Life as a Quest +The+Antidote+to+a+Wasted+Existence

11.Philosophy as a Way of Life

12.Diogenes the Cynic

13.The Ideas of Socrates

14.Epicurus and Ethics

15.Introduction to Stoicism & Stoicism vs. Epicureanism

16.Ralph Waldo Emerson and The Psychology of Self-Reliance

17.Introduction to Existentialism

18.Introduction to Ethics

19.Frans de Waal and Our Inner Ape war-peace/

PW: innerape83

20.The Psychology of Conformity

21.The Psychology of Authenticity

22.Why You Should Strive for a Meaningful Life, Not a Happy One

23.Social Media and the Psychology of Loneliness

24.Performing Therapy On Yourself–Self-Knowledge and Self-Realization

25.Existential Psychotherapy–Death, Freedom, Isolation, Meaninglessness isolation-meaninglessness/

26.Collectivism and Individualism

27.Fear and Social Control

28.Machiavelli–The Rulers vs The Ruled struggle-for-power/

29. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind – Gustave Le Bon

30.Eric Hoffer — The True Believer and The Nature of Mass Movements

31.Edward Bernays and Group Psychology manipulating-the-masses/

32.Introduction to Propaganda

33.What is Brainwashing?

34.Do We Live in a Sick Society

35.Public Schools, the Fixation of Belief, and Social Control

36.Why Public Schools and the Mainstream Media Dumb Us Down down/

37.How We Enslave Ourselves

38.The Psychology of Obedience and The Virtue of Disobedience

39.How the Greater Good is Used as a Tool of Social Control

40.George Orwell and 1984: How Freedom Dies

41.Aldous Huxley and Brave New World

42.Democracy and the Road to Tyranny

43.Spontaneous Order vs. Centralized Control

44.Why We Can’t Vote Our Way to Freedom

45.The Individual vs. Tyranny

46.How Civil Disobedience Safeguards Freedom and Prevents Tyranny freedom-and-prevents-tyranny/ mb_logo

47.The Psychology of Power – How to Dethrone Tyrants

48.Freedom vs. Force — The Individual and the State state/

49.How to Fortify the Mind in Times of Crisis

50.How to Be Free in an Unfree World



News With Views, Steven Yates

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Lost Generation Philosopher

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Amazon – Steven Yates

PhilPaper – Works by Steven Yates

Greenville to Santiago: Why I Left the United States for Chile Should You Do It Too?

Prof. Steven Yates Speaks To The Remnant



1.Responsibly Free School for Self-Directed Learners, Home-Un-Schoolers

2.Pairing Today for Committed Consummate Relationships

3.Parent Effectiveness Training for Peaceful Parenting

4.Resource For Your Source for Self-Actualization and Everything Voluntary

Substack – Jack’s Responsibly Free News Letter


Blog Themes Of Jack

Slideshare Jack Carney

YouTube – Jack’s Channel (57 videos)

Linkedin Business – Libertarian Community Personal Promotion



October 13-17, 2022

Posted in applied philosophy, Education (Independent) - Course Materials, Philosophy, Where is Civilization Going?, Where Is Philosophy Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Saul Kripke, R.I.P

Saul Kripke (Nov 13, 1940 – Sept 15, 2022), one of the most important logicians of twentieth century philosophy and possibly the last analytic metaphysician of note, passed away at the age of 81. Another philosopher of genuine importance who rose to prominence in the last century is gone, and given the overall deterioration of academia in our time, including academic philosophy, he is not likely to be replaced.

I first heard of Kripke when I was a graduate student in the early 1980s. We were assigned “Naming and Necessity” in a philosophy of language class I took winter semester 1981. I recall my amazement at learning that he had delivered the entire work as a series of three lectures without using notes. His lectures criticized the descriptivist theory of reference and offered an original causal theory. Later we studied Kripke’s possible world semantics (an implication of the causal theory of reference developed in “Naming and Necessity”), the most original contribution to analytic metaphysics (probably analytic philosophy generally) of the second half of the twentieth century.

Kripke was one of the few analytic philosophers to be noticed outside professionalized academic philosophy, having been profiled in a few general publications aimed at educated readers. This is not surprising. He appears to have been a child prodigy and was unquestionably a genius. One of the profile articles records that he was asking his parents complex questions about the implications of God’s omnipresence at the age of six, and was reading Descartes when he was in elementary school. He basically taught himself symbolic logic as a teenager and was publishing papers in professional journals with original developments in the subject before he was out of his teens, e.g.,  “A Completeness Theorem in Modal Logic” (1959). When he began his teaching career he was no older than the average university undergraduate. He was able to lecture at Harvard without having completed a doctorate (apparently his genius was so overwhelmingly obvious that he was given a pass on this).

A good summary of Kripke’s contributions to professional philosophy, especially modal logic, semantics, and analytic metaphysics, can be found in the Wikipedia article on him. Brace yourselves: the article is dense and technical! But then again, Kripke was light years ahead of probably 99.99 percent of his fellow academic philosophers.

He spent the bulk of his career at Princeton University, the press of which published Naming and Necessity as a slim volume in 1982 (the version we read was one chapter of a volume of works on semantics and natural language which came out in 1975; Kripke had delivered the lectures themselves back in 1970 (he was 30 years old and already clearly one of the leaders in philosophical logic). Later he moved to CUNY Graduate Center which eventually established the Saul Kripke Center.

Why do I respect Saul Kripke? When reading him in the past, I had the sense of being in the hands of a first-rate intellect, a very streamlined thinker who sought the truth in whatever areas he explored. The fact that he did not write papers with meaning-of-life themes should not count against him. One of the things that struck me about him is that despite the fact that his work was difficult and technical, he managed to write it with sufficient clarity that a patient graduate student (that would have been me at the time!) could follow it. I would have described his writing as gripping; no one else wrote analytic philosophy the way he did. I have information suggesting that he was actually a pretty nice guy, although obviously we moved in entirely different circles. Pancreatic cancer is what got him. I learned of his death here.

Posted in Academia, analytic philosophy, Philosophy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Is Alex Jones Defensible? A Look at Heresy.

It’s been a while, again, but the time is passed to revive this blog … if only because my days on Facebook may be numbered. I had plans to start off with a post on the need for a “broadening” of the purview of philosophy to accommodate the kinds of public issues I post about elsewhere, but the refusal of Facebook to post a censored URL drove me here prematurely. So here we are. This platform does not appear to censor, and Lost Generation Philosopher does not accept censorship.

In any event, on to the question in the title. Paul Craig Roberts thinks so. Read his article here.

Like Roberts (who long ago became one of my favorite online writers), I do not claim to know the full truth about what happened at Sandy Hook. Do you? Were you a witness? Given that neither of us was there, who do you trust to bring you accurate information about what happened, assuming you care?

The point is … people claiming that the government has lied, whether about this or about other significant events, cannot be convicted a priori of being tinfoil hat wearers, when it is clear that a confirmed list of government and corporate media lies would probably fill several pages of printable text.

Or so argues Roberts in his highly provocative and politically incorrect defense of Alex Jones, which cites Lew Rockwell and Ron Unz (censored by most of Big Tech). The latter has inquired into the activities of one Cass Sunstein, Obama-era operative, and his strategy of cognitive infiltration, I picked up on in a recent article I wrote for

This is not really about Sandy Hook, of course. It is about corporate media failure. This is assuming corporate media was ever about reporting the truth, accurately. Arguably, it has been about reporting events, some real and some manufactured, within the parameters of elite-approved narratives. Big Tech just further reinforces these narratives with censorship.

The point is, most “news” today, like most “education,” is about indoctrination, cognitive programming, and the reinforcement of elite-approved narratives. That may sound blunt for a philosophy blog. Can it be further explored and demonstrated? Of course it can, had I the time or inclination to post those pages of documented corporate media lies, often reflecting government lies (some now half-a-century old, and some older still).

But read Paul Craig Roberts defense of Alex Jones here.

Heresy? Maybe a little heresy is good for us!

Decide for yourself what you think. You still have that right. It has not been taken from you. Yet.

Posted in Media, Political Economy, Workarounds | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Who Are We, Really?

Human Nature

In his celebrated Treatise of Human Nature (Book II, Section 3) David Hume opined:

Nothing is more usual in philosophy … than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and to assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates…. The eternity, invariableness, and divine origin of the former have been display’d to the best advantage; the blindness, unconstancy, and deceitfulness of the latter have been as strongly insisted on. In order to shew the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will….

We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of reason and of passion.  Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than so serve and obey them….

Back in the eighteenth century when Hume wrote, this was a controversial opinion. A certain kind of rationalism dominated Western letters. Its dominance would only grow, and Hume would be credited with contributing to it (for, e.g., his assault on the credibility of belief in miracles). In recent decades rationalism has lost a lot of ground. It still has forceful voices, but its credibility as a system seems to be overall on the wane. What (if anything) will replace it?

Theories of Human Nature.

The history of Western thought alone discloses at least nine theories of human nature (Leslie Stevenson, in an interesting little introductory volume, aggregated seven).

  • (1) “Man, the rational animal.” The theory of the Platonist-Aristotelian axis, in which reason or rationality is our essence and uniqueness among the many life forms we see around us, and the job of working out both the structure and applications of reason falls to philosophers. For Plato, as with Descartes much later, reason is first exemplified in mathematics and geometry, where exactitude reigns supreme, where operations provide complete logical closure and deductive epistemic certitude, and which point to a realm of perfect Universals or Forms apprehended in a prior existence and relearned in the course of education for wisdom (Plato’s “The Cave” in The Republic being one illustration of the process). Aristotle followed up with his working out of the first (that we know of) comprehensive systems of logic in words such as Prior Analytics. Hume, though, was not the first philosopher to argue in response that this applies only to relations of ideas as he called them, not matters of fact. (Leibniz, for example, distinguished truths of logic from truths of fact.)  
  • (2) “We are sinners.” The view of Christianity, as seen in the Old and New Testaments. We are capable of reason, but as “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Our reason has fallen as well, and is as vulnerable as any other human capacity to error and corruption. In his Summas St. Thomas Aquinas tried to unite Aristotelianism and Christianity into a single system, and the result was such concepts as natural law as well as the cosmological argument. We have “two books,” the Holy Scriptures and the “book” of nature, and can learn something of the divine intellect by studying the latter. But when push comes to shove, because we are sinners only Christ can save us. For quite a while after Aquinas’s time, few major philosophers would have argued with this. Even the first architects of the scientific revolution would have agreed with its essence.
  • (3) “We are machines.” The view of early materialists such as Etienne de la Mettrie, author of L’Homme Machine (Man, the Machine) — in which we are, first and foremost, made of material substance (as Descartes called it) with all that this implies, including no Christian “life everlasting.” The view that death is the end for us — lights out, totally — goes back at least to Epicurus. In modern times, early materialism is one consequence of the failures of Cartesianism: explaining, for example, how two fundamentally different “substances, corporeal and incorporeal, could interact. Far easier to cut one or the other out of your ontology. Idealism or immaterialism eliminated “matter” (Berkeley). Materialism eliminated “mind” (de la Mettrie and several  Enlightenment philosophers who came in his wake).  
  • (4) “We are products of class.” The view of Karl Marx, noted for the detailed analysis of capitalism (he coined the term) in his multi-volume Das Kapital, in light of his “materialist theory of history”; his materialism differed markedly from that of de la Mettrie and Enlightenment materialists, from his incorporating Hegelian dialectic into his thinking. History disclosed a progression of revolutions. The bottom line for human societies: we have to produce the means of our survival and advancement. Consciousness is thus tied to the means of production, and to who owns / controls it. That is, those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) “dictate” this consciousness and all its manifestations, including philosophy and religion, while those who own only their capacity for labor (the proletariat) are subverted into a false consciousness. Under capitalism, Marx argued, the conditions of the proletariat would worsen until they precipitated mass revolution on a global scale, during which control of the means of production would be wrested from the bourgeois capitalists and placed in the hands of the proletariat workers. We need not review the whole worldview. Human nature, for the Marxian, is tied to history and economic arrangements. It changes when these change. Utopia will someday be not only possible but an inevitable product of economically-based historical development.
  • (5) “We are products of drives” such as the unconscious: Sigmund Freud’s view. What our unconscious is doing may be revealed in dreams; hence Freud’s first major work was The Interpretation of Dreams. We have different drives, those of the id (which is instinctive, biological, and sexual, seeking immediate satisfaction), the ego (the conscious mind in its dealings with the world around us), and the superego (the “societal mind” from which the ego derives societal “right versus wrong” obtained in childhood and continually reinforced, by religion, public education, and other institutions). These can clash with one another, and the result will be neurosis, to be cured or at least diagnosed and alleviated through psychoanalysis. Freudianism became the first “depth” psychology.
  • (6) “We are products of conditioning of various sorts,” argue behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner whose first premise was that only empirical science can tell us anything useful about human behavior, that its methods are experimental, not merely intellectual, and that what we’ve learned is that not just can we understand behavior in terms of conditioned responses to stimuli but actually learn to control behavior by supplying stimuli that lead to desired forms of human mass behavior. Skinner held that not taking charge of the causes of human behavior was jeopardizing civilization. “We can no longer afford freedom” in the conventional sense: a single-phrase paraphrase of his bestselling Beyond Freedom and Dignity. While the idea of technocracy had been around since the 1930s, its programs received a boost with this kind of thinking, from Skinner’s specific idea of a “technology of behavior,” although he had lesser-known predecessors such as Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Thorndike. Where Skinner excelled was in being a kind of scientific celebrity who could sell his ideas to the scientistic wing of the literati. What some picked up on were hints of an actual scientistic-technocratic Utopia.
  • (7) “We are innately aggressive as products of evolution,” contended Konrad Lorenz in his On Aggression. To be sure, all of the above except (1) and (2) accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and it is likely that adherents of (3) would have accepted it had they known it was coming. Adherents of (4) made some changes to it (not approved of by “orthodox” Darwinists). Where Lorenz and his associates believe the behaviorists and others go wrong is their being compelled to play down the innate drives that explain our aggressive and warlike tendencies. We are, in the last analysis, an aggressive species. Conflicts are inevitable; resolutions only temporary until the next source of conflict erupts. Historically, perceived scarcity of the resources necessary to power an advanced civilization have become a source of conflict, even when ideological differences are blamed.
  • (8) “We are absurd, a ‘futile passion.’” This is the view of existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, and in a less extreme form, Albert Camus. We are born into this world, not having been asked, and in the absence of a God to reveal morality and give us direction, it is up to us to decide what to make of ourselves. We have absolute freedom to decide; we are “condemned to be free,” Sartre said. To rely on any theory — even an evolutionary one — or any justification outside one’s own will and choice is to refuse to assume responsibility for our choices and lives. When choosing, what we are saying is that “This is what it means to be a human being.” Yet since there exists no “rational” (logical, eternal) basis for choice any more than there is a theological one, our choices must be made “in anguish.” Full recognition that life is absurd but must be lived anyway is what it means to live “authentically.” Unless one decides life is not worth living. For Camus, this was the fundamental philosophical problem: suicide (“The Myth of Sisyphus”). A person can still enjoy life in its moments, though, even if death extinguishes it. What is interesting is how the existentialists expressed themselves most clearly not in philosophical treatises or essays but in novels, plays, and short stories (e.g., Sartre’s La Nausée and Camus’s L’Etranger). Arguably, members of the Beat Generation (1950s) and possibly some of the Hippies (1960s) became “native existentialists” (see Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aide Acid Test).
  • (9) “We are problem-solvers.” This view seems to be inherent in a form of pragmatism that may or may not embrace some of these other views in modest form, but emphasizes our capacity as creative agents, relying on experience, discerning patterns within it, and turning to reason for explanations, predictions, and solutions. While there are elements of a “proto-pragmatism” in Hume, pragmatism that is conscious of itself is an American phenomenon. The founding American pragmatists are C.S. Peirce who wrote essays such as “The Fixation of Belief” and William James who penned “The Will To Believe” among many others. John Dewey is typically cited as a third figure in a triad, but Dewey’s thought has always seemed to me to derive from a cross-pollination of Hegel, Darwin, and perhaps behavioral psychologists such as Thorndike. More likely follow-ups to Peirce and James might be George Herbert Mead and Clarence Irving Lewis; later, Willard Van Orman Quine “shifted” analytic philosophy “toward pragmatism” (see his famous article “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”) having incorporated technical logic and analyses of science. The final figure worth mentioning is doubtless Richard Rorty, whose book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature subjected epistemology and philosophy since the time of Kant to a detailed critique and found it “optional”; drawing on the later writings of twentieth century philosophers Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein to more recent thinkers such as Kuhn, Feyerabend, Derrida, and others, he urged a rejection of any kind of philosophy that seeks to be “foundational” with respect to the rest of culture or any specific institution such as science or practice such as politics.

For a pragmatist the bottom line is that we are problem-solvers. This is as open-ended as it looks. For what is a problem? It can be anything that motivates a person to at least consider pursuing a course of action that will relieve or solve the problem. This will doubtless change from person to person, and will definitely change from one historical epoch to the next, and from community to community. But if a person believes his/her actions really will succeed in solving an identified problem which may be a severe pain point, that is a definite plus! It seems to me that a pragmatist could look at the edifice of modern technological systems and what economic progress we have made and conclude that some of us have been very good at problem-solving — and that there are literally millions of unsung heroes out there who are competent and in control of the bulk of their lives because they have faced and solved a sequence of immediate problems. These may be problems associated just with growing up and facing setbacks along the way, assuming the responsibility that comes with becoming an adult, identifying some scientific puzzle and coming up with an original solution for it, or developing some new instrument or using some new technique not seen before, but which solves a problem for a group of people.


These are bodies of ideas, not facts, of course. Some are compatible with others; for surely it is conceivable that no one “theory of human nature” does the job. I’ve not here delved into whether human nature is “fundamentally good” or “fundamentally evil.” Whatever else one says, we’re fairly complex entities with a lot of facets to our personalities and makeup. Many of us are motivated by quite different things. We can all draw on specific events of our lives, or in some cases events in the world we observed, that became turning points and shaped us. I have a certain amount of sympathy for (9), but I see us as still being very far away from having fully faced, much less solved, the massive problem of how to get along with one another, especially in the face of ideological differences, or how to grapple with the problem of how to control that minority in our midst that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that is obsessed with power, or even how to master ourselves where we need to. We remain trapped in illusions, not just about power and the fact that some seek it as an end in itself, but about ourselves and our unwillingness to face truths sometimes staring us in the face but are too unpleasant to spell out. Suffice it to say, I do not believe we will ever see the see the Utopias of (4) or (6).

I doubt that my list above is comprehensive. Readers will doubtless think of ideas I missed, or important variations on those I did discuss. They should feel free to note this in comments. Reviewing such ideas as these seems to me helpful, if we are to arrive at some kind of preliminary answer to, “Who Are We, Really?” That is, after all, the first great problem of philosophy-psychology. And in a world that manifests great simplicity in some contexts but great complexity in others, we might not want to rule out anything even if we disagree with some of their premises or think they got some specifics wrong.


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Posted in Philosophy, Philosophy of Science, Science and Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Superpowers (With Notes on Rules Versus Controls)

What are superpowers?

A decade or so ago, an artist friend of mine and I had an enlightening conversation. I’ll call her Julie. We were comparing notes on our childhoods. What she told me, best as I can remember:

From the time Julie was old enough to grasp a crayon, she was trying to draw. Soon she could draw near-perfect images of faces. Then houses, buildings, landscapes, getting the depth perception just right. How much “work” was involved? Some say it takes hundreds of hours of practice to learn any skill. But if, as a child, you are obsessed with something, you don’t have to be “motivated” to practice it. You just do it, every day. It comes to look like you had a “knack” for it.

Julie’s “motivation” came from within. She didn’t merely enjoy art. It made her feel fully alive in a way no one can put into words when they are doing it. They simply lose themselves in it.  

As an adult, Julie became a photographer, and a good one! Many of the skills transferred. For a while she had her own company, which did weddings, banquets, and personal portfolios.

What I found interesting was the parallel with my own experience. As a child I was writing things down. I copied from books and encyclopedias. I began integrating and piecing together information in new ways, writing my own small items, just two or three pages of handscrawl. I had little booklets on various subjects (the planets were a biggie) by the time I entered grade school. I’d probably spent hundreds of hours writing such things. So to someone observing, it looked like I had a “knack” for it.

Like Julie, I didn’t have to be “motivated” to do this. The “motivation” came from inside. I lost myself and felt fully alive when writing. The hours flew by!

Obviously, upon growing up writing became central to my life, and I’ve written hundreds of items of various lengths for various audiences: articles, reviews, blog posts, forum posts, ghostwriting projects, lectures, and also five books (counting a published novella as well as the nonfiction, and not counting my MA thesis and my doctoral dissertation).

We do have superpowers, I call them: activities we seem born to do. They come natural to us as a drive that appears when we are children, and in which we can simply lose ourselves. I have no trouble imagining others. Think of the kid who figures out how to take his dad’s wristwatch apart and put it back together and it still works! Or the one who becomes fascinated with car engines, studies them obsessively, and is a sharp mechanic by the time he is in high school. The boy (or girl!) who becomes physically adept at a sport at a very young age, and can’t practice at it enough. The boy (or girl!) who has a “knack” for playing the piano (or guitar) and is composing his (her) own tunes as a child, as Mozart is supposed to have been able to do.

It’s not that we can’t learn other things. We can probably learn to do anything we put our minds to and spend the time and effort on, or any subject we choose to take up. But these won’t come as easily and naturally, which means we’ll have to work harder to gain mastery. It will seem like more work. It may even seem like a “drag.” Because we often have to be “motivated” from outside. Grades may be a motivator. Later, the promise of money may be another. Either way, the “motivation” does not come from within, and there is no disappearance of self into the activity.

Thus despite mastery, the person is never as fully alive or as happy doing the work he/she is doing.

Think of the clerk who is a competent number cruncher, let us say, but watches the clock all day. Or the insurance salesman who goes home exhausted after work and does whatever he can to forget about it.

How many middle-schoolers say to themselves as they jump out of bed in the morning, “Boy, I can’t wait to grow up so I can sell insurance policies for a living!”

Superpowers and Formal Education: Ally or Foe?

Do we all have superpowers? Possibly. What percentage of humanity is actually using whatever  superpowers it has? I suspect the number is quite small. This is why so many people honor Thoreau by living lives of quiet desperation.

What does this have to do with education and (since this is a philosophy blog) philosophy?

Imagine, first, an educational system that encourages children to develop their superpowers, instead of one that (intentionally or not) stunts them through regimentation, divides the vast array of information out there into discrete, disconnected boxes called “subjects,” and measures “learning” by an ability to memorize enough content to pass tests. Oppose this to actual learning which involves constant exploration, asking increasingly better questions, challenging assumptions, and getting better at identifying problems and coming up with original solutions.

Seems to me the latter would view children as they are — their default setting one of natural curiosity about everything around them. Curiosity that can be encouraged, or thwarted until it is literally killed.

It is hardly a cliché that “public school” kills most kids’ natural curiosity in short order!

The death march may start as early as kindergarten. The idea of kindergarten is Prussian in origin, not American; translated from German the word means “child garden”: as if children are akin to plants to be grown in a garden!

This became part of a “theory” of education, usually attributed to Horace Mann, a founding father of American “public education”  back in the 1830s, based on a European, not an American, philosophy of personhood and society. The basic idea was that “society” owns the person. The consequence was that children (unless they were children of the ruling elite) should not be encouraged to be autonomous and freely acting agents but instead subordinated to developing industrial civilization, i.e., to business’s need for servile employees, government’s need for loyal subjects (later, taxpayers), and cannon fodder to fight its wars.  

Was this a good thing?

What we can say at this point is that the free use of one’s superpowers may put one at cross-purposes with the needs of industrial civilization.  

The Trajectory of Industrial Civilization.

It can be said for industrial civilization that the standard of living gradually improved — by leaps and bounds.

Diseases were eradicated; new technologies enhanced our capabilities and made life less precarious and more convenient. Violence dropped steadily. People grew wealthier and their capabilities grew still more. Communications eventually spanned the globe. Travel across oceans was eventually reduced from weeks to less than a day.

Probably because enough people were using cognitive superpowers, which can lead to inventions that solve problems.

You will find arguments that the “first world” has never had it better. Although the honest will concede the existence of numerous troubling processes.

Let me mention a couple such developments: at least since the 1970s (1971 being the year Richard Nixon killed the gold standard),. Since then, currencies have lost most of their purchasing power, real incomes have fallen relative to a rising cost of living, and wealth and power have consolidated in the hands of ruling elites.

We’ve also seen a seismic shift in medicine and health care from curing acute conditions to managing chronic ones — because the latter are more profitable to the elite owners of, e.g., pharmaceutical corporations. The masses, who may have become that because their superpowers have been forever stunted, have seen a steady rise in (often stress-related) health problems. Because life, once at least tolerable, has become increasingly precarious with the rise of the “gig economy.” It’s a cinch you cannot really maintain even a developed superpower in the sense I described at the outset if you are working multiple jobs to keep the rent paid, the lights on, and food in the fridge.

Has anyone checked the suicide rate lately?

In many respects (culture is another) we have started slipping backwards. Pollyannish views of Western civilization don’t deal honestly with matters that have had us divided all along (e.g., the division of elites versus peasants, which long precedes that of “left” versus “right”). So much for an honest assessment of the exact factors that are widening the divisions between different groups today.

So perhaps the superpower-dependent gains of industrial civilization were only temporary (?).

Rules and Superpowers.

Civilization needed boundaries, some will argue the obviousness, and these have to be instilled in children if they are to grow up to be responsible citizens. This means learning to live according to rules. These rules may seem to force a curtailing of one’s private superpowers, whether to become that clerk, supplying something some market needs (or an employer needs), being obedient to the law, or for some other reason coming under the general term socialization so that one becomes “well-adjusted.”

We can all agree that we live in a world of causes and effects, and that the whole basis of political economy is supply and demand. In this world we have to produce the means of our survival and advancement. We not only produce but then oversee the distribution of these means. Most serious economists believe that market-driven systems, emerging within populations, are better at supplying people’s needs than command-driven systems that start at the top and go down. Many will claim that industrial civilization did this.

The man or woman who can use his/her superpower to succeed in the market, in that case, is a man or woman to be praised — although envy is more common! I think one of the unnamed factors behind the opposition to market-driven economics is the alienated realization that for most of the human race, this is a dream that will remain a dream. Hence all those lives of quiet desperation. For every writer who earns a good living cranking out bestsellers, there are tens of thousands of us out here who earn little or nothing from it. Some of us teach. Others, less lucky, became bored clerks or insurance salesmen.

The late Gary North thus advocated the sort of personal enlightenment that distinguishes one’s occupation from one’s calling.

Your occupation, whatever it is, is how you pay the mortgage, keep the lights turned on, and put food on the table. Becoming a successful insurance salesman will accomplish this, among many other humdrum “day jobs.”

Your calling is then the exercise of your superpower, whatever it may be. You use your occupation, North explains, to fund your superpower, with each in its place so that the former can accomplish its specific goals while the latter puts you on course to leave a legacy. That legacy may be your version of the next Great American Novel or it may be something else. North penned detailed commentaries on the various books of the Old and New Testaments knowing he would earn very little if anything at all from them. With superpowers, money isn’t “a thing.” They’re labors of love!  

In this way of looking at things, in developing and using your superpower, if the market won’t support it, you are on your own. For some, this means liberation. For others, it has meant deep alienation and resentment. There are analyses, moreover, that industrial civilization does not really liberate but suppresses superpowers the free and full use of which will threaten its structures.

Where Did Nikola Tesla’s Superpower Take Him? From Industrial Civilization to an Economics of Abundance.

Suppose we could create a civilization based on an economics of abundance instead of an economics of scarcity, which is what we have now. Scarcity implies, of anything, that there is never enough to go around — even if “we make a bigger pie,” as Ronald Reagan once put it.

I have elsewhere written, perhaps too optimistically, about the possibility and the prospects. A key is energy and its production. Produce anything in sufficient abundance, and by the law of supply and demand, its price to consumers drops. This applies to energy as much as it does anything else consumers purchase and use.

But this means that an economics of abundance will render today’s leviathan energy corporations obsolete! If the price of energy drops, their profits disappear! Hence the energy leviathans — indeed, all corporate leviathans — have seen technological systems able to generate abundance as an existential threat. They have opted to maintain systems based on a presumption of scarcity, which can be lessened or aggravated through the right manipulations.

But the questioner in me still asks, What if? Specifically: suppose we ask, perhaps pointedly, what was Nikola Tesla working on when J.P. Morgan pulled his funding, and when his laboratories were raided and his scientific papers confiscated and classified?

J.P. Morgan was ruling class, of course.

Was Tesla working on an energy technology that would have created abundance and thus made corporate-based centralization obsolete? I can’t prove it, but some have thought so.

Presumably no one who has read this far would quarrel that Tesla had a definite superpower, had gotten results with it, and that the structural needs of the kind of elite that industrial civilization generates moved to suppress it.

The matter bears thinking about, since allegations of the existence of so-called “free energy” technology have appeared again and again, always in the shadows, their inventors not merely defamed as “cranks” trying to build “perpetual motion machines” but often coming to bad ends.

The better to maintain scarcity, because the demands of an economics of scarcity keep the population under control. Even if it means most live lives of quiet desperation, forgetting whatever superpowers they might have sensed in themselves as children.

Is it just conceivable that corporations, no less than governments and perhaps even more than governments, prefer controlled populations to populations of freely acting agents?

Rules Versus Controls.

What do we mean, controls, and how do they different from rules? For it is true enough, we could not imagine civilization without rules. No one serious has ever proposed such a system — which would not be a system at all. Rules can be moral, legal, or institutional. Without moral rules presupposed within a community (however we “ground” them), trust would be hard to maintain, and those practices (business and otherwise) that form the warp and woof of communities would not even develop, much less be maintained.

Legal rules — “the law” in the formal sense, is there because no one really believes everybody is going to live by the agreed-upon rules of the community, the “social contract” if you will, and there needs to be accountability. Institutional rules are going to be specific for organizations, and are products of those who created the organizations for specific purposes. Their rules exist to ensure that things get done and the goals of the organization are achieved. The better organizations will subordinate these to morality and make as much use as possible of human psychology, so that the actions they desire will emerge automatically.

Including the superpowers of their participants!  

Ultimately, rules as I am using the term reduce to the way the world is put together: cause-and-effect again, to be discovered; the natural world or the human world. Call this natural law if you wish. Rules are necessary conditions for survival, community, and advancement of any sort. They are necessary for people with different personalities and different goals to live together and work together in society. They emerge naturally when adult human beings interact and decide they have common problems that are better solved working together than working separately. Education — the real thing — helps!

Controls are a different animal. Above, we mentioned controls, and the likelihood that corporations (i.e., those running them) prefer a controlled society to a free society, however they couch their explanations around such terms as “the marketplace” and “liberal democracy.”

Rules, articulated, are just formal expressions of conditions for survival, betterments, and advancements of various sorts. Given the right social philosophy, they allow one’s superpowers to come out. The caveat, of course, is not to forcibly interfere with others in using them.

Controls, on the other hand, stifle superpowers (unless someone in the ruling class can put them to immediate use). Among the many things wrong with “public education” is that it depends on controls, not rules in my sense. If anything, such institutions assume that rules in my sense do not work, are not enough — that human beings interacting freely to learn and solve problems is not enough, as it will not allow a sufficient foothold for a ruling elite to increase its power. It is too “messy” and unpredictable — but above all, too decentralized!

Controls, it should also be clear, are imposed from the top down, as opposed to emerging from the bottom up. As opposed to natural, ongoing discoveries of what actually works in the sense of making things better for an increasing number of people, controls tend to be the inventions of ruling elites, those fascinated with power, who develop lines of thought on what is necessary to impose controls on people and either persuade them to accept a life based on controls, or force them to accept such a life.

The majority of political systems, whatever political philosophies and ideologies they embody (if any), are systems based on controls, not mere rules. They often spring full-blown not from natural developments of people working together to solve problems but from the mind of some isolated intellectual, whose ideal could be described as “a place for everybody and everybody in his place.” The idea of the Perfect Society, or Utopia, goes back at least to Plato. Many later philosophers have put forth their versions. Rousseau, Marx and Engels, Skinner — and most recently, Klaus Schwab (mouthpiece of the World Economic Forum).

So against these, free minds (relatively speaking) have counterpoised Dystopias. Huxley’s and Orwell’s are the best known, obviously, but there are numerous others, with more appearing all the time. Science fiction in particular is a gold mine of Dystopian themes, especially “technology gone awry,” having gotten away from its creators who made false assumptions about its possibilities. Generally speaking, Dystopia is Utopia gone away, because human nature cannot be fitted into the boxes the Utopian intellectual wants to shoehorn it into. If people have superpowers that constitute threats to structures built by the ruling elites, these will be suppressed. Since the appearance and use of these is inherently unpredictable, a population subjected to controls instituted in childhood is more desirable to any state of affairs permitting their free development.

Back to Freely Used Superpowers — Someday….  

One day, we might be able to undertake, on a sufficiently large scale, accessible and intellectually honest studies of why industrial civilization has taken the trajectory it has (centralization), what mindsets were responsible, whether any specific groups aided and abetted this project, and more. We might arrive at a better explanation of alienation than Marx gave us (his explanation was purely economic), considering how some, especially intellectual and artistic types, have tried to rebel in one way or another, and why so many of these rebellions have been destructive instead of constructive.

More important is that suppressing people’s natural inclinations always eventuates some form of totalitarianism. This may be covert if it can rely on deception and subterfuge, but will turn overt if its lies are exposed. In any such system, the individual person is invariably a cipher, whatever he/she is told (that he/she can “vote,” and so on). He inhabits “a place for everyone with everyone in his place”: controlled, and ultimately monitored for signs of individual thought that could lead to dissent.  

We might also someday come to grips with what will be necessary to build a civilization based on actual abundance, not scarcity, which would transcend all this, and how we can presently design systems, first personal and eventually societal, that whatever the present conditions will better enable people’s superpowers to come out.


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Posted in personal development, Philosophy, Political Economy, Political Philosophy, Science and Technology, Science Fiction, Where is Civilization Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Back to Basics (3). Self-Improvement As a Core Value

Self-improvement as I use that phrase here is the process of becoming, by effort, just a little better today than one was yesterday, with the prospects of being just a little better tomorrow than one was today. Is this a viable core value? What does it involve?

Like freedom, though the phrase may sound good, it’s not for everybody. Some people just don’t go for “self-help” or think much of the industry they associate with the “law of attraction” and other New Agey “woo-woo” stuff. (I’ve written about the LoA here.) Such folks see it as nothing more than an effort to separate people from their money. And frankly, there are “gurus” out there who fit this description perfectly!

The ancient Stoics, however, surely do not. They might just be the first philosophers who were consciously interested in improving themselves and the lives of those around them, just ordinary people — “commoners” — who became their students, disciples, and proteges. Their lives and their writings that have survived indicate a viable philosophy of nature that merges well with what the best in self-improvement thinking has to offer. Hence the interest in Stoicism that exists today.  

It all began with the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium, who had lost everything in a shipwreck off the coast near Athens. He had to start over again from scratch — completely.  

He could have ended up a beggar on the streets. He probably wouldn’t have lasted long.

Instead, he chose a different path. He involved himself in the intellectual life of the place where he had fortuitously ended up. Doubtless he encountered Platonists, Aristotelians, Sophists, others. At some point he developed doubts about the viability and usefulness of what all were saying. He elected to forge his own path and became a philosopher, lecturing from a painted porch in the town (the word Stoic comes from the Greek word stoa meaning porch).

Borrowing a few ideas from the Cynics (example: Diogenes) who rejected conventional definitions of wealth, power, fame, in favor of a simple life free of cumbersome possessions. In the hands of the early Stoics, this led to a the idea of life of virtue lived “in accordance with nature.”

Early Stoicism emphasized three areas of philosophy: physics, logic, and ethics. Although volumes of writings have been lost, what we’ve discerned is that for the early Stoics, physics was the study of the world and its workings. Logic focused on our best thought about how the world worked. Ethics then considered what we ought to do, how to live a virtuous life, given what our best thought tells us about how the world works. Later Stoics such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius emphasized the third, and for good reason: arguably it is the most difficult of the three.

Today you’ll find armchair philosophers in Silicon Valley who claim to be practicing Stoics. I can’t vouch for the quality of their thought, but for the past several years now Ryan Holiday (not associated with that crowd) has been cranking out interesting books developing aspects Stoic thought.

I’ll consider just one here — what seems to me the central proposition of Stoicism. We’ll then see how it develops and how it applies to self-improvement as a core value.

Epictetus puts it thus (this is from his Enchiridion, or Manual):

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

He then counsels: focus your attention on what is within your power. Let go of the rest, in the sense of attempting to control it.

In other words: there is that which I control directly. I can control when I wake up in the morning by setting the alarm. I can decide to undertake a specific morning routine. I can control how many cups of coffee I have with breakfast. I can control whether I set about doing something useful on my computer first thing, such as researching and writing an article, or whether I take the easier route and just check email or scroll on Facebook.

You can also control what you read online, choosing to read certain things while avoiding others. You can choose to control your emotional responses to what you read.

Everyone reading this has a similar range of things within their — your — control.

If you say you do not, that you have no choice what time you wake up, you are lying to yourself. Everyone has the capability of setting an alarm to get up at, say, 6 am, to work on a priority project.

If your problem is then hitting snooze, the solution is not that hard. Put your phone out of reach from your bed. Put it across the room. Or jack up the volume and leave it on a table in the hall outside your bedroom. Those actions taken the night before will force you to get up to shut the thing off. Let the annoyance (if annoyance it is) energize you. It will be easier just to stay up. The point is, you have these options.

There are things not in your — our — control. Sometimes you’re going to get sick no matter what. I arm my immune system each morning with an arsenal of vitamins and minerals, but every so often, something gets through my body’s defenses and I “catch cold.” What I do about the cold, how I react emotionally, and how I choose to take care of myself to minimize its effects, is then within my control.

I may own my condo, but I do not control the community fee on it — which pays for the upkeep of the building where my wife and I live. Nor do I control the fact that I have to pay a property tax. Arguments as sound and solid as stainless steel that “taxation is theft” aren’t going to make the property tax go away. I have the power of selling the place and going back to renting if this becomes too much. I do not have the power to determine the array of hoops to jump through in order to do this, although I have the power of asking which will cause the least stress and tailor my actions accordingly.  

I write articles, and though I am going off current events when writing the bulk of them — I do not control those, obviously — I control what goes into the articles: how they are argued, what lines I draw, etc. I have no control over the response, or even if there is a response (sometimes there isn’t). I have a visible track record online. I have no control over whatever reputation this has generated (if it has generated one at all outside those who know me personally).

I can apply for a job I might want. The things I can control: the degree to which my CV is polished and tailored to the job description, the way the cover letter is written (if there is one), whether I include a photo, etc. The things I cannot control: the response at the other end to whatever I send, whether it be enthusiastic reception (ha!) or bland indifference.

We can control our thoughts if we try. We cannot control the thoughts of others. We can control our actions, up to a point. We cannot control the actions of others without restraining them physically (generally not a good idea!).

We cannot control the bulk of events going on in our overall environment, human or otherwise.  

If all this seems ridiculously obvious, that’s because it is: on paper.

For how many people gripe about the weather? How many loudly curse the guy who cut them off in traffic? How many complain about their boss or coworkers (or spouse or kids or roommates)?

What has been accomplished? Has it stopped raining, or being cold? Did the guy you cussed at even notice? Does your boss or coworker really care about you personally? Your spouse might, but sometimes spouses have their own personal realities, too. Even more so with offspring, roommates, so on.

Far better, is it not, to refrain from trying to control what you cannot control — by reacting thoughtfully instead of emotionally? Reacting Stoically, that is.

It takes practice — more than you might think. But simply by adopting this one Stoic principle and making learning to practice it a priority item, you are engaging in self-improvement: perchance as a core value(?). Do it, and you will change your life.

We can usefully distinguish our world — as persons — from the world. Our world is everything we can affect or which affects us in one way or another, much of it directly and immediately. The world is everything else: what politicians hundreds of miles away do, what goes on in Russia, the latest mass shooting, etc. The primary difference lies in realizing that none of us is the center of the universe: another obvious point and easy to grasp intellectually but devilishly difficult to practice with any consistency. You’re at the center of your world; that guy who cut you off in traffic is at the center of his world, and you’ve no idea what is going on in his world, only that whatever it is, you’re not a part of it.

There is nothing wrong with having informed opinions about what goes on in the world, so long as we maintain a sense of perspective because there is so much we don’t know. The proper Stoic attitude would seem to come down to: get informed, take your stand based on what information you have and where it seems necessary. Support causes that are clearly just and right, but do not assume you can affect more than you are able.

The ancient Stoics certainly believed in taking stands. They took stands within the bounds of how the world really operates, and how human nature works. The world operates as a system — many systems, actually. Human nature involves many systems as well.

There is, of course, much more to be said, but this post, like its two predecessors, is intended as an overview and not a comprehensive effort. Were this intended to be more comprehensive, we would get into the specifics of Stoic virtues. But keeping in mind that this is a springboard to bigger and better things to come, I will develop three final points which might be helpful.

First: philosophers far wiser than I have concluded that the Aristotelian man the rational animal is so oversimplified as to be useless. We are not rational beings who happen to have emotions; we are emotional beings who happen to be able to reason, with all this implies. Our first premises — our basic worldview — is accepted emotionally, not rationally. There can be no “ultimate rational grounding” for reason itself, since this would be arguing in a circle. For David Hume, reason was the slave of the passions. That, too, oversimplifies, but grasps the basic idea that our reasonings, as he put it, are grounded in the sensitive, as opposed to the cognitive, part of our nature (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV).

What this implies (among other things) is that persuasion is not merely arguing on facts or evidence coupled with logic, but touching the emotions of one’s audience. The applied psychology of learning how to do this is an art and a science — and I suspect that all successful marketing in an “advanced” civilization relies on the marketer’s instinctive knowledge of how to do it (understanding, for one thing, that consumers tend to buy on emotion, not reason).

Second: systems are the one factor unifying our world with the world. What are systems? Entities made up of multiple parts or components, integrated and interdependent in various ways, operating together and reaching an outcome. Systems are everywhere, all around us and inside us, all the time. We participate in many. When we use them properly, they drive our outcomes. The human body is a system; so is a business corporation; so is a government agency; so is the U.S. economy. Systems run the gamut of existence from the micro level — cells, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, it seems to be systems “all the way down” — to the macro level — the ecosystem, planetary systems, the solar system, the galaxy, galactic clusters, the universe itself (?), suggesting systems “all the way up”!  

What we are most interested in are systems in the sense of having a system, one which will get you from point A to point B, from the physical action of turning off that alarm, to getting you in front of your computer (or whatever device you work with) and first priority project of your day without wasting time you won’t ever get back. These we might call behavioral systems. Some call them habits. Our word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos which means habit.

Third: there are numerous ways we can use this information to make the initial definition of self-improvement more specific. Better how? We can be better speakers, but it is probably more important to be better listeners. We are social beings (Aristotle got this right, and the Stoics agree with on this point). All of us can distinguish our world — my world — from the world, in the sense that my world is the totality of what I care about, ranging from loved ones to personal goals and values: all those things that are important to me, including the centrality of my importance to myself.

And by the way, we can get better at anything if we choose to make it a priority. By gaining more knowledge, more skills, more of what is now called emotional intelligence, we can gradually increase the range of those things within our control — a point Epictetus does not emphasize. The caveat, of course, is always to use what we learn and can do wisely. We don’t want to just be better ourselves. We want to help others be better as well. If they want help.

Sometimes all it takes is reaching out. Success coach and entrepreneur Darren Hardy sometimes tells the story (and I am going from memory here) of the woman in a grocery store checkout lane who was obviously having a bad day. Her face was taut and hair somewhat disheveled. Her kid was being a brat. She was having trouble with her credit card, dropping things out of the disorder of frustration, and generally acting harried, telling her kid to shut up as she wheeled her cart out of the store.

As the story continues, the woman in line behind her followed her out into the parking lot, got her attention, told her she had something for her, and handed her a card the size of a regular business card. The card had just two words engraved on it. The harried woman looked at it and burst into tears. After getting introduced, having a conversation, and sharing a hug, they ended up exchanging phone numbers so they could keep in touch.

What were the two words on the card?

“You matter.”

Object lesson: all of us are important to ourselves (the alternative may be a sign of mental illness), and that leads to a principle that should drive self-improvement: acknowledging that everyone wants to feel important: to be noticed, heard, understood; to feel needed, and be significant; to believe they are making (or can make) a difference — in a word, to matter.

The logical, moral, and eminently practical thing to do is acknowledge this, and work with it.

Dale Carnegie probably wrote the first fully modern self-improvement manual with his How To Win Friends and Influence People (orig. 1937) His key to what became an instant bestseller: recognize the above, and act accordingly. For extroverts, this might be easy. For introverts, less so, but we introverts just have to work harder at it. Returning to a thought at the outset, I’ve often wondered if some of the cynicism about self-improvement is a cover for laziness: the recognition that this is a core value intended to pull us out of our comfort zones. Many people are sufficiently happy in their comfort zones, or say they are, and that’s okay, because as I also observed, this is not for everybody. The entire concept of core values is probably not for everybody. But you know who you are.

But some reflection on why you prefer your comfort zone to doing something to grow and be better at being human seems to me an inquiry worth pursuing.  


I should note that this site is not (yet) monetized. Independent philosophers, i.e., philosophers outside of academia, also have to buy groceries and pay bills. If you thought this content worthwhile, please consider my monthly “tip jar.”  One-time private donations through PayPal are also acceptable (email:

My book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory is available here and here.

My earlier book Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons For the Decline of the American Republic is available here.

I have linked to a couple of articles I wrote for the Medium audience. If you go to those and enjoy them, consider becoming a member. It only costs $5 per month.  

And please watch for future announcements.

Posted in applied philosophy, personal development, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Back to Basics (2). Freedom As a Core Value

For this post I start not with a question but a confession: freedom is one of my core values, but it clearly isn’t a core value for everyone. I wish it were a core value for everyone. But the plain truth is, it isn’t. I favor freedom for myself, and for those who want it. I am unsure how to help the rest. All I can do is present freedom’s benefits as we go along.

Several questions come up regarding freedom. (1) What is it? (2) What’s so great about it? (3) Why don’t more people want it, even those who say they do? (4) For those who want it and don’t have it, especially in so-called free societies, what is blocking it? (5) What can be done to remove whatever is blocking it? In that case:  

What is freedom?

I’m not talking about freedom in an absolute metaphysical sense, if only because if one defines free will as somehow acting outside the causal structure of reality, I’m not convinced it even exists or that the idea makes sense. Fortunately there are other senses of freedom readily available.

Here’s my layered working definition of it: the capacity to act in accordance with one’s own choices, and not those of someone else or some dominant institution; the capacity to inquire for oneself how to solve a problem, or just to follow one’s curiosity where it leads, and to write and speak about what one learns without fear of or actual reprisal; the capacity to associate with, and work with, people of one’s own choosing and not that of someone else, provide these others are exercising these same freedoms in all the relevant contexts (freedom does not include, that is, forcing your attention on those who do not want it).

Why does freedom matter?

Here I have to wax personal. I can explain why it is important to me. Others might have different (but possibly overlapping) reasons. I first realized that I was thriving when I was free, and not merely existing.

I suspect this is true of others who have had the experience.

When you are thriving, you are taking action and doing so naturally — not because someone is standing over you with a whip. Historically, did not civilization in the West rise because with the English-speaking world leading the way, we championed personal freedom of thought, freedom of belief, and freedom of enterprise? Did we not begin to eliminate serfdom and slavery? Were we not able to inquire more, learn more, and accomplish more? Did we do all this perfectly? Of course not! We did not become perfect. We just became better — somewhat. I would argue that many of us became happier.

Why don’t more people want freedom?

As I said, freedom is one of my core values. It is clearly not everyone’s core value. I find this unfortunate. Why don’t more people want freedom, even when they say they do? Writers such as H.L. Mencken, who wore no rose-colored glasses, offer us important insights and then some (this is from his muckraking classic Notes on Democracy published slightly over a hundred years ago):

The truth is that the common man’s love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice and truth, is almost wholly imaginary. As I have argued, he is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it. Liberty is not a thing for such as he. He cannot enjoy it rationally himself, and he can think of it in others only as something to be taken away from them. It is, when it becomes a reality, the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority of men, like knowledge, courage and honour. A special sort of man is needed to understand it, nay, to stand it — and he is inevitably an outlaw in democratic societies. The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.

In short, freedom goes against what appears to be one of our human default settings, I like to call them: for security, for safety, for comfort. For freedom challenges all of these. Sooner or later, having it pulls you out of your comfort zone. It demands responsibility, and in multiple arenas of living. A free society is a society of people able and willing to “own” freedom, as it were: to assume this responsibility. This includes being honest and trustworthy, creative and enterprising, also empathetic and charitable. To value freedom means to value its preconditions which come down to the willingness to stand on one’s own two feet, discern what needs to be done in a given situation — what problems need solving — and then having the responsibility to do it, without cheating or coasting.

Freedom does not mean being exclusively self-interested. It is a social value. We are social beings: we have kin, we live in communities, we form a variety of associations ranging from neighborhood groups to businesses. Freedom includes serving others. It includes sincerely caring about them, putting them first. Discerning their needs and filling them. It includes validating the people around you. Because none of us is the center of the universe. We are only centers of our universes. One’s own universe can be a lonely place if it cannot connect with that of others. Especially under even marginal conditions of freedom.

I’d be the first to say, this outlook is not for everyone. I don’t think it is even for the majority. We are left with a minority that values freedom; the rest may say they want to be free, but as always, the cash value of what they say is measured by what they do. But having said that, Menckenesque misanthropy gets us nowhere.

What is blocking freedom for those who want it?

There is more than one answer to this question. If freedom is not a priority for the majority, this alone will make it more difficult to obtain and maintain for the minority. But obviously it does not make obtaining freedom impossible because many have achieved it. You have to choose freedom over one of the many forms of servitude available out there. Freedom is not an absolute. It is not the capacity to do anything one wishes. That isn’t freedom, it is psychopathy. Freedom is the capacity, as we said, to make choices not dictated by others: to choose A over B consistently. One is not free from the consequences of choosing A over B, however, in a world governed by cause-and-effect.

There are plenty of things that can interfere with your ever being as free as you might be, even in this nonabsolute sense. I can only sketch a sampling of items here. The field is too large, and runs the gamut from the personal level to the institutional and socioeconomic level to what I will deem the global level.

At a personal level, bad parenting can do lasting damage, ranging from instilling limiting beliefs that may be subconscious and so are extremely difficult to shake, to actual abuse of various sorts. The former may have been reinforced by years of “helicopter parenting.” Parents who protect their children from the “big, bad world” do them no favors in the long run. Children have to be allowed to skin their knees a few times, to learn from mistakes. Parenting doesn’t come with any instruction manuals, which would be useless in any event because children are too different from one another. That said, parenting that is too controlling can breed fear, a sense of entitlement, and ineptitude at adulthood — even resentment and generalized anger, once discerned as such. The oppose, what could be called absent-parenting, may produce independence of a sort but also breed various degrees of disregard for rules and boundaries that are part of responsible living.

At the socioeconomic level, those born into poverty clearly have hurdles to clear that those born into wealthy or even middle-class families do not have. These hurdles have been cleared by many, though, making me suspect that poor parenting is a worse liability. Those not born into poverty face a different set of threats to real freedom from outside the home, I would argue. Parents and children usually instinctively trust so-called public schools to educate and not miseducate or simply train obedience and docility into most children. Both might tend to trust major media sources, neglecting to realize that all such sources now appear to be agenda-driven and have been for a very long time. Both are affected by the entertainment industry wing of mass media. Celebrities become celebrities because the masses identify with them in some way, want to be like them (but without the paparazzi, I presume).

The more you try to be like someone else, whoever it is, the more you hamper your own capacity to develop your own unique personal strengths, and this hampers your freedom.

Not to mention that the more time people spend pursuing entertainment, the less time they have for education — the real thing, that is.  

The top levels are conceivably both the most obscure and the strongest. We are told we live in a democracy, because we can vote to elect our presidents and representatives in Congress — although once in office they almost never represent the will of voters as has been shown by political scientists. What we have all been told at various times obscures historical truths: that “public education” is far more about socialization into obedience and indoctrination into a society’s narratives than it is about education, and has been for well over a century. Writers such as John Taylor Gatto have documented this extensively. It is well known that back in the 1800s “public education” branched off in two directions: education for the children of elite families who would join the ruling oligarchies, and training for the masses who would either farm or go to work for developing corporations (a few would go into government). It was self-evident that the children of the elites would have far greater control over their choices in life than the latter, and over society generally. However greater the complexity and societal layering, this broad continuum (elites versus masses) would continue into the 1900s and beyond into our own century when the oligarchs have basically come out into the open.

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein summed up (Notebooks of Lazarus Long):

“Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.”

I believe he put his finger on something massively important: the difference between those who have a “vision of society” as a whole that is more important to them than people in society as they really are, and those who have no such vision. This divides those who see people as needing to be controlled — forced down paths not of their choosing and into slots prepared for them — versus those who just want to be left alone.

The latter, whatever their conscious or subconscious views on freedom, are always the majority. But that doesn’t mean they have any power. Majorities never have power as such. While power is a topic in its own right, political power is always in the hands of an elite: in industrial civilization, what we might call the political class.

Call this the Power of the Sword. Governments make laws and enforce them with police power.

There is also economic power — the power of those with money to support specific agendas by funding them, while other agendas and ideas fall behind not necessarily because they lack merit but because they are starved of funds. Call this the Power of the Purse: the power of corporations and other private funding entities (e.g., tax-exempt foundations).

For an example, look at Nikola Tesla and wonder what this genius was working on that caused J.P. Morgan to pull his funding. Not only was his research terminated, his laboratory was raided and his scientific papers confiscated and classified, which they remain to this day. This strongly suggests that he had uncovered and was working on something the oligarchs saw as an existential threat to their dominance.

Back in the 1990s it dawned on me that a free society depends on either (or both) of two things: (1) realizing that every society contains a minority of people who are fascinated with power — they believe people need to be controlled; (2) and that one of the necessary conditions for freedom is being able to create and sustain checks of various sorts on such people. An alternative to (2) is trying to obligate them to control themselves, which has never proven all that promising. The founders of the U.S. tried to create a system of checks and balances built into the American government at multiple levels: three branches of government with different responsibilities able to check one another; state sovereignty to balance the federal level; the idea of government kept small and limited to a few carefully-identified functions; and rights against power “retained by the people” much less limited and not always identified.  

Sadly, the system contained too many loopholes, and some serious structural flaws (its compatibility with slavery, for example). With over two and a half centuries of hindsight, we have found ourselves essentially back where we started, and then some.

I turn, finally, to globalism, the ideology of those who believe humankind’s next step is to transcend the nation-state created by the Treaty of Westphal and establish, at the very least, a global-governance structure based on economics and technology with its locus of control somewhat dispersed and shared between governments and global corporations through numerous transnational, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Some argue that the culmination of this process is not a mere structure, its power somewhat dispersed, but a highly centralized world government, its power concentrated.

Some deny that such a government is possible, because of human diversity alone. Many of us are concerned that all this ensures is that such a government would be technocratic de facto totalitarianism, probably run along the lines of a combination of Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. The ruling oligarchs would have a massive superstructure of surveillance-and-control technology at their disposal, and the ability to “cancel” dissidents by simply shutting them out of all livable economic activity. Under such circumstances it would be very difficult for the freedom-seeking individual to escape. Since it would have encompassed every country on the planet, where could such a person go?

But how would this happen??? Is the situation really that bad??? Some now argue that vaccine passports open the door to a digital global ID system that would encircle everyone, monitoring not a mere vaccination-for-covid status but eventually containing their entire health history, formal education history, work history, financial status, transactions, and so on. The technocratic agenda would be furthered by the reduction and eventual elimination of cash transactions since cash cannot be effectively monitored. Calling this a “conspiracy theory” is not going to cut it. It is not a theory; there is simply too much documentation, some of it from the would-be ruling oligarchs themselves, describing exactly what kind of world they want (and hence it is not a true conspiracy, either since by definition conspiracies are hidden from you).

What can you do to remove the blocks and threats to your freedom?

We come back to: freedom is one of my core values. Therefore I do not want to live in such a world, and inveigh against it regularly in my writings online. These writings presuppose this core value.

Is freedom one of your core values? Why, or why not? If it is, what are you going to do to further it? If it is not, then as the quip goes, “what’re you going to do when they come for you?”

Getting back to the personal level, you increase your freedom by understanding your limiting beliefs and “reprogramming” your subconscious mind to eliminate them. These may be beliefs about money, relationships, health, or numerous other specifics. An entire industry is built around the idea that this is possible.

You increase your freedom through designing systems that will change limiting behaviors and enhance your ability to get things done — be it write a book or start and run a small business. Programs are available to help you do this. (One of my favorites is this one.) 

You increase your freedom through education — again, the real thing! There are now hundreds of videos on every subject, readily available to anyone with an Internet connection and many of them free. You gain new knowledge (of what is true — see my post from two days ago) and build new skills (having learned that P is true and P implies I should do A if I wish to thrive, then if I do A consistently, thriving outcome B will result).

What about the societal level? It would be foolish and Pollyannish to suppose there are no barriers holding people back, or that every barrier is a product of one’s own subconscious limiting beliefs or bad decisions. There are multiple options here: (1) deal with one’s own situation (which is the choice of many); (2) struggle against it by working to change from within the institutions that create and maintain the barriers, using whatever machinery they supply (the goal of reformers); (3) struggle against it by eliminating such institutions altogether and putting new ones in their place (the goal of revolutionaries); and (4) escaping or evading them by various degrees of personal and communal separation, perhaps building a cohort outside them developing “parallel institutions” that operate outside “the system” and reflect one’s or one’s cohort’s core values.

I don’t know what to say to those who choose (1) except, you’ve made your bed and you have to lie in it.

The reformist approach of (2) has always seemed more desirable to me than (3), because revolutionism can go badly wrong very fast — as it did in Revolutionary France beginning in 1789, this being just one example. It is always easier to tear down institutions than it is to build up new ones, one of the reasons U.S. founders were as meticulous as they were.

But what if institutions (i.e., decision-makers running them) resist reform, and continue resisting it? It was the dilemma of choice between these two that one of the first great African-American philosophers and educators, abolitionist Frederic Douglass, touched on in his celebrated speech “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies” delivered to an audience in Canandaigua, New York, in 1857:

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle…. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.

“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

In the choice between (2) and (3) choose carefully. Be aware that even if (2) is to be preferred as the peaceful option, sometimes (3) may be necessary.

As for (4), it is the path of secessionists, separatists, “mini-state” founders (when they are being serious), colonists (assuming people aren’t already living on land they want to colonize), and other independents. Nothing I could write on (4) would be short, but those who believe conservatives are in (or close to) a position of having to separate economically, politically, and spiritually from “mainstream America” might do well to start here. I am not writing exclusively for conservatives. The same basic principles might apply to any other group, whatever its beliefs, whose members believe their freedom is being blocked and that they have exhausted all other options.  


I should note that this site is not (yet) monetized. Independent philosophers, i.e., philosophers outside of academia, also have to buy groceries and pay bills. If you thought this content worthwhile, please consider my monthly “tip jar.”  One-time private donations through PayPal are also acceptable (email:

My book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory is available here and here.

And please watch for future announcements.

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Back to Basics (1). Truth-telling: A Core Value

I start with a question: are we, or are we not, better off knowing what is true, or at least part of the truth?

Of course we are. No one needs a “theory of truth” to see this and understand it. Not even philosophers!

Acting on a false idea or belief will often get you into trouble. Maybe more than often. Maybe not right away — but sooner or later. All thinking people know this. Not all of them face it.

Truth is just the facts of reality. Some facts of reality disclosed in experience, some inferred through reason, some uncovered through some combination of these two, and a few arrived at by selected other means. The results include truths of immediacy (one might call them), logical and mathematical truths, scientific truths, historical truths, truths about ourselves and our psychology (human nature), basic truths about systems that underwrite many of the others, moral truths, religious truths, and perhaps more (and naturally some of these overlap with others),.  

There is merit, that is, to the motivating idea behind a classic such as G.E. Moore’s “In Defense of Common Sense,” however turgidly written that was! Here is one hand. Here is my other hand. One rests on my desk. The other is typing. Both exist independently of my perception of them, as does the desk and my keyboard. Therefore the “external world” exists, and I know this. No Cartesian rabbit holes of methodological doubt are necessary since I’ve no Peircean positive grounds for doubt.


It is true that two people live in my apartment at this particular time and place.

It is true that an apple falls when I drop it because of Earth’s gravity.

It is true that Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981.

It is true that seven plus five equals twelve, that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse, and that all statements that contain contradictions are false. (Unless we’ve cheated somehow, or are not operating under “normal” conditions.) 

It will turn out to be true that we humans are primarily emotional beings with the capacity of reason.

It is true that love is better than hate, and that peace is superior to violence. Therefore the former in each pair is morally praiseworthy.

It is true that systems are ubiquitous — in our experience and behavior, in the world at large (biological organisms are systems; so are corporations; so are government agencies; so is the U.S. economy), in the chemical and subatomic realms, at the level of stars and galaxies, and so on.

I think it true that God exists, even if the most successful arguments are indirect, and if answers to questions about how God works (and the specifics of what He wants) are often elusive.

It should be a given that some truths are very hard to find, and some may well be impossible to find. It is either true, or it isn’t, that there are extraterrestrial civilizations, for example. We may never know which it is, but of one thing we can be sure: one or the other is true.  

I certainly don’t limit my categories of truths to these, and I tend to agree with Richard Rorty that we neither have, nor need, a “theory of truth” that underwrites them all, spells out an “essence” (or abstraction) which we find in every category, beyond our capacity and willingness to see them all as factual. That search for an “essence” was the, er, essence of Plato’s mistake which has haunted Western philosophy for over two thousand years.

Getting rid of the abstraction probably doesn’t accomplish a whole lot. Although it may seem to. This is an indication of the grip it has held on the philosophical imagination. This is something philosophers have struggled with since the Platonist-Cartesian-Kantian axis gripped Western philosophy and has never truly let go, not even in the wake of Peircean pragmatism or Wittgensteinian analysis.

I assert that truth is a core value: not in the Platonist sense of some kind of universal we have to come out of the Platonist cave to see, but as a commitment not divorced from our everyday experience and our desire to discover and communicate.

Our subject divides into: finding (or learning) the truth, as much as is possible; and telling it (our title), to the best of our ability. There is an important caveat: we should wish to avoid hurting others whenever possible.

For sometimes the truth hurts. Truth can be painful. This is why many people don’t want it, and will come up with all kinds of ways of rationalizing ideas that are patently untrue, or methods that lead to comforting illusions.

We soon discover that no one can be forced to accept an idea against his/her will, not even a patently truthful one in front of their eyes, and there is no point in trying. For those who are teachable and can tolerate the fact (or truth) that sometimes the truth hurts, they can learn things that will make the pain go away or at least minimize it. Truth-telling, when it hurts or threats to hurt, should have this payoff.

For whatever else, the world does not appear to have been designed to make us feel good. Our psyches seem filled with tendencies designed to warn us of dangers out there. Some of these dangers are real, some not.

My commentary here makes three assumptions, and it is important to spell them out clearly. (1) I am assuming reality is such that determinate truths or facts exist to be discovered. Call this an assumption of the truth of realism in some sense of that term. And (2), that the human mind is such that it can acquire imperfect knowledge of factual truth; fallibilism. The qualification imperfect is very important. Perfect knowledge, based on perfectly closed systems of proof, does not exist outside of pure logic, mathematics, and geometry. Gallons of ink have been unnecessarily spilled struggling with the consequences, when the simple realization of the imperfection of our senses and cognitive abilities would have sufficed. Epistemic perfectionism leads to a paralyzing skepticism.

What we can hang onto is the fact, for fact it is, that the enormous edifice of aggregate human achievement on which civilizations are built becomes completely mysterious if these two assumptions are false.

This, of course, ties truth and knowledge to problem-solving, and to a post on that subject yet to be written.

It also ties in with the idea that there is plenty of room for disagreement over concrete cases. It is important that this not vitiate realism, because we are fallible. Since our institutions are comprised of fallible human beings, they are fallible from top to bottom. This leads to (3):

We ought to oppose censorship in all forms. C.S. Peirce admonished: Do not block the path of inquiry. John Stuart Mill warned against the potential for harm in censoring even what we believe to be false, On Liberty. Censorship accomplishes little beyond protecting an approved narrative and permitting it to harden into dogma. This protects supporters of the narrative (which may be demonstrably false and is being protected because it satisfies its supporters’ need for emotional comfort but cannot stand up to criticism).

In sum, censorship does not protect the rest of us, nor the mission of any inquiry that aims to serve the finding and reporting of what is true.

I should observe in closing: this is a new series. I am reconfiguring my activity as a philosopher and an author around this site — an obvious choice since I own the domain and control it. Mark Zuckerberg can’t censor it. Google can’t cancel it. Lost Generation Philosopher is on a WordPress platform, and neither of those owns or So I figure I am safe in doing what I want to do on here, which is create a Hub of content that can be spun off in different directions: articles for sites ranging from Medium to, a course I have started writing, some fiction, more.

Hence the Back-to-Basics theme, which will unite this and two posts to come.

Expect more posts here in the future than in the past (although I know that seeing will be believing). The next one will be on Freedom as a Core Value. The third will be on Self-Improvement. There is no better time to articulate these than the present.


I should note that this site is not monetized. Independent philosophers, i.e., philosophers outside of academia, also have to buy groceries and pay bills. If you enjoy this content, please consider my monthly “tip jar.”  One-time private donations through PayPal are also acceptable (email:

My book What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory is available here and here.

Please watch for future announcements.

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Philosophy “Still in the Doldrums”

Time to bring this blog out of its three-month hibernation, and back to its main purpose, which is:  (wait for it)  philosophy.

Whether professionalized, academic philosophy is “in the doldrums” is something I pondered on this blog at least once before, as to my mind it is an obvious topic. More recently, the idea inspired my latest book after all, entitled What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory.  Anyone interested in something that could liven up philosophy by providing it a more substantial self-determining role in the contemporary world owes to himself or herself to have a look at this book.

I was reminded of this by a recent Brian Leiter “Blast from the Past” on his blog, linking to a post from seven years ago. In a comment I opined:

Regrettably away from my desk for over a week & having missed the poll, I would have voted Yes, philosophy is in the doldrums. Part of my evidence would be the absence of imposing or even significant figures under the age of 60, in the U.S. at least. (Timothy Williamson, an imposing figure by any measure, is British; & if I recall correctly, David John Chalmers is Australian & finally returned there.) This is odd considering that with the resources available on the Internet there are probably more people alive exposed to philosophy than ever before. As I try to keep in mind what’s already been said (not succeeding very well), allow me to cut to the chase by submitting that the reasons philosophy is in the doldrums are structural, not intellectual. They have little to do, that is, with metaphilosophical issues about philosophy’s relationship to the sciences, whether it is too specialized, whether it is relevant to public concerns, or what-have-you. Let me offer two suggestions why philosophy is indeed in the doldrums.

In the 1950s & 1960s, universities expanded to serve the GI generation, lavishly funded, & this meant large numbers of philosophers were hired; new doctoral programs were created to supply departments with Ph.D.s. No one really thinks the majority of these people had prospects for becoming the next Kant or the next Wittgenstein or even another Quine. As everyone not in a cave knows, this job market had collapsed by 1975, but the Ph.D.-producing engine kept running full blast (it still is). Moreover, in time the many mediocre professors hired during the boom years were tenured & on the hiring committees passing judgment on which members of the next generation to come down the pike deserved admission to the club: in the interests of full disclosure, my generation. We knew we had a rough road ahead, so many of us prepared accordingly: finding mentors to help us improve our teaching & beginning our publishing careers as graduate students, to increase our competitiveness in what we knew would be a hostile marketplace.

Academia had long since ceased to be a meritocracy, however. Let’s look at it this way: those who shaped the various traditions that made professional philosophy what it was — Kant, Peirce, Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc. — could never have found tenure track jobs after the 1970s, given the caliber of those making the decisions. Not that I am comparing us (or myself) to the giants of yesteryear, mind you. But the truth of the matter was, by comparing CVs it was clear to many of us of the ’80s generation that we were better qualified than many of those on the search committees – assuming publications & teaching experience counted for something, & also that we weren’t applying outside the AOSs/AOCs advertised. (If you get the impression that some of us, or at least one of us, from the “lost generation” doesn’t think much of our immediate elders who found jobs when they were readily available, you’re right! In the absence of stats, it is easiest to invoke Pareto’s 80-20 Distribution Rule: 80% of all that was being accomplished in philosophy was being accomplished by 20% of the profession. The rest were just coasting.)

This was all before the “adjunctification” of the universities really took off. We have no way of knowing if, perchance, the next potential Husserl or Quine or Rawls has no opportunity to develop professionally because he/she is too busy commuting between two or three campuses, teaching five or more classes, being paid starvation wages, juggling late bills, struggling to come up with the rent, & spending all his/her free time looking for his/her next job. This sort of stress-laden environment is not exactly conducive to developing as a philosopher!

The second reason philosophy might have fallen into the doldrums is related. Some will retort (as someone did on the Issues thread a few weeks ago): if you don’t like the labor situation in academia, then find another line of work. I submit that many potentially promising philosophers have done just that! There is no way of knowing how many, but they’ve probably been doing it quietly for going on 20 years now, if not more, mentally gauging the hostility of academia & deciding they would rather be somewhere else! Changing technology opened a lot of doors, after all, & as every thinking person knows, many of the analytic skills that make a person good at philosophy are readily adaptable to computer programming, website development, design, & assorted other information technology fields that continue to grow & change. As someone who walked away from an “adjunct” position (in a manner of speaking), if I’m ever asked, “Where are your generations’ Wittgensteins, Quines, etc.?” I’ll tell them, “Probably working for Google or involving themselves in tech start-ups.”

Do I need to point out that this is talent permanently lost to professional philosophy, whoever we decide deserves the blame?

No one replied directly. I did see this comment a couple days later:

Who’s [sic.] philosophy is in the doldrums? That’s the question.

Confessional: I’ve just about finished my PhD. I can’t and (at this point) don’t even try to make sense of pre-Frege philosophers. I simply have no idea what any of what they say means, have no idea how to go about reading them and, on the rare occasions when I try, end up mostly frustrated and annoyed. The sum total of what remained in my brain post-prelims about early modern philosophy would probably occupy about two pages.

So, if by “philosophy’” you mean that discipline that those old dudes were involved in, then maybe its in the doldrums. Maybe it isn’t. I quite simply can’t tell, because I’m not in touch with that discipline and frankly don’t have an interest in being in touch with it.

But if by “philosophy” you mean that post-Frege heavily analytic, deeply cautiously thought-out branch of inquiry, then I’d say it’s far from in the doldrums. There’s remarkable work all over the place. Metaontology and philosophy of mind strike me as some of the most interesting areas of current inquiry.

So yeah, I guess it depends on who’s [sic.] philosophy is being accused of doldrumity. Mine’s doing fine. Sorry about yours.

It received this one-liner retort:

the decline of analytic philosophy is largely because of this smug anti-historical attitude

I tend to agree. I wonder if this guy (I am assuming it’s a guy) finished and is now teaching undergraduates. I sincerely hope not! I would note that frenetic activity — no one I know of denies the existence of that — is not a sign of significance, much less progress. It may be a sign of something Chomsky somewhere observes (I am paraphrasing): furiously active exchanges being encouraged, and rewarded, but intended to stay within a specific set of parameters. All the while no conversation about the parameters themselves or their limitations is permitted.

This seems to be the state of affairs within a great deal of the philosophy of mind, and the parameters of most conversation within it: the materialist theory of the human person, this being only a special case of the materialist theory of the universe. All of which I discuss at length in What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory.

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Essay: Reading Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country” Published on Medium and Substack (and announcing The Clarity Factory)

Author’s note: this essay, in the works for around three months, is a work of evaluation, not advocacy, and so is probably much “tamer” than a lot of the material to be found on Lost Generation Philosopher. It is an attempt to reach out to that audience (if there is one). It is available on Medium and on Substack (where my publication will be called The Clarity Factory, in light of Wittgenstein’s off-cited remark that philosophy is “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” and this calls for clarity about not just what words and phrases mean but how they are being used. The second, I hold, is probably more important these days than the first. After all, is “meaning” really anything other than a limited consensus on usage?

Why might someone find Richard Rorty interesting? One reason is because back in 2016 or thereabouts, a number of writers discovered Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America and claimed, convincingly, that Rorty predicted the rise of Donald Trump, or at least a Trumpian figure. When I checked this out, I found myself largely agreeing, even if not in every detail. Rorty was very circumspect on the matter, and all he could do was report on how things looked to be going in the 1990s; but was it not the neglect of the worsening economic status of working white men during the era of globalization combined with the gathering power of the culture of “diversity” — and the collapsing of the mainstream narratives about each courtesy of each person’s capacity to use the Internet — that paved “the route to Trumpism”?

In any event, a “teaser” selection from the essay:

A Rorty-esque view of Left versus Right.

Start with Rorty’s view of Left versus Right. His way of putting this is one I’d not seen before, and is far more interesting than a claim about who sat on which side of an assembly back in French Revolution days.

Realize that Left and Right as Rorty sees them are not competing sets of truth-claims about anything. Neither has “accurate representations.” The debate is over “which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forego” (p. 14). It will continue for as long as there exists both a politically active Right and a politically active Left.

Where Right and Left differ is in terms of what they see as problems to solve (p. 14). For:

the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness.

Keep in mind that this is how things might have looked back in 1997. The point: there are things Rightists want to keep in place, anchor-points which if it’s not broken don’t try and fix it is an appropriate injunction.

As for Leftists:

The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved. As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein has said, “All of America’s great reform movements, from the crusade against slavery to the labor upsurge in the 1930s, defined themselves as champions of a moral and patriotic nationalism, which they counterposed to the parochial and selfish elites, which stood athwart their vision of a virtuous society.”

Let’s frame this more clearly. Rorty’s distinction between Right and Left comes down to this:

The Right in general sees America’s greatest achievements as being in the past, made at the time of the country’s founding. It doesn’t need to see these achievements as perfect, just as having created “a more perfect Union.” The Right then struggles to hang onto the great achievement that was the American founding, warts and all. It is not and never has been Utopian (as Rightists might put it). Achievements, Rightists would argue, don’t have to be perfect; they just have to work better than alternatives. If the country has trended away from what seemed to work in favor of things that seem not to work (or not work as well), the Right agitates for preservation and restoration, even when accused of “trying to turn back the clock” (or these days, worse — much worse!).

The Right points to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It observes that part of the latter’s uniqueness is its built-in means providing for its own adjustment over time, and that the difficulty of making adjustments was on purpose — so that change couldn’t be made frivolously and based on emotion-laden trends of a particular time or generation.

Right and Left have a deeper disagreement over human nature. The Right is pessimistic, because it sees human beings as inherently flawed and our societal prospects therefore limited. They will point to the authors of Constitution as having had no illusions about human nature, of explaining clearly the challenges in, e.g., Federalist 51. Concentrations of political power are inherently dangerous because they will be exploited. Divisions of powers are therefore necessary. They enabled adjustments of the document at the “edges,” accepting that limitations on human nature and knowledge apply to them as well. These aren’t points Rorty specifically makes as they fall outside his focus, but I think they are consistent with what he does say.

The Right, finally, tends to believe in meritocracy, at least as an ideal, in a world in which the best results are obtained if everybody can be encouraged and trained to pull their own economic weight. According to the Left, this is delusional, because we do not start in the same places. Claims to meritocracy are therefore deceptive and dishonest, because clearly, American has never been a meritocracy, never could be, never should be.

Why Rorty disdains the Right should be clear. By looking to the past the Right is inherently foundational. It sees our prospects as limited. The Left can acknowledge the importance of achievements made in the past as sources of national pride, without seeing them as closed repositories of absoluteness. The Left sees us as therefore able to experiment in the present in order to build a better future. History is open, not closed. Political actions taken in the present can and should be based on hope, not pessimism.

Two Lefts.

The Left thus sees our greatest achievements as in the future. We have not yet achieved our country, and the present is the scene of our struggles to do so. The Left tries to make progress. Thus the word progressive which many on the Left use as part of their self-identity. What are we progressing towards? A greatness we’ve yet to achieve, based on ideals of equality, peace, and social justice!

The past cannot provide us with a template for the future, because values change with increased enlightenment. Knowledge and know-how change. Leftists reject Rightist pessimism as nothing more than outmoded belief in Christian original sin. We have yet to discover what we can make of ourselves! The most important point is that the future is not a done deal. For this reason Rorty rejects classical Marxism no less than he does conservatism. Marxism was just another form of foundationalism. It posited rigid “laws” of history. Even if the Soviets and the Maoists hadn’t killed tens of millions of people in their pursuit of realizing those “laws” they would be unhelpful since they solve no situation-specific problems.

Rorty is far more interested in the different forms American Leftism has taken. He is severely critical of a Left that — he says — cannot achieve our country because it doesn’t find anything in America worth valuing. It has given up on national pride. A Cultural Left, as opposed to its predecessor the Reformist Left, has fallen into actual loathing of America. It mocks reform efforts as impossible even as it tries to “cancel” what the Right wants to preserve. America is too flawed to reform.

The Cultural Left, that is, sees “warts” no less than the Right — different ones. They are so serious that they force us to question the very legitimacy of America.

Progress, if it can be made at all, will be involve more canceling than achieving our country. (It is interesting that aspects of Rorty’s views also anticipate elements of what Rightists disdainfully call cancel culture.)

[To read the rest, go here.]

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