Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 5)

“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying.
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining.
That you may see, the meaning of within
It is being, it is being.
That love is all, and love is everything
It is knowing, it is knowing.”

~The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)

The upshot, so far, is that in our moral lives in a material world in any familiar sense of moral, everything is up for grabs. The final realities in the material world are money and power. Reactions to this have varied. Corporate titans pay little attention to such matters as this. The same is true of successful members of the political class. Both have what they want, and have no qualms about using money and political connections to get more. Some, of course, give away plenty of money to causes. This allows them to take tax write-offs.

I am more interested here in the responses of those who don’t have enormous accumulations of money or wield the levers of power.

One response is to escape mentally, by turning to mind-altering drugs. This route was charted by such writers as Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) whose The Doors of Perception (1954) was the source of a different 1960s rock group’s name, and of course Timothy Leary (“Tune in, turn on, drop out”).

Transcendent reality may not exist in the material world, but it can be found in your head!

The 1960s hippies began to “drop acid” (LSD, lysergic acid diethylamide). Some would claim to “see God.” Acid rock was their musical expression, proclaiming mystical revelations of peace, love, revelations from beyond, and blissful harmony.

Others experienced terrifying hallucinations caused by the drug’s radical altering of their perceptions. I recall, from my graduate student days, a former user telling me how he’d seen his stereo grow eyes and a mouth, the music coming from his speakers taking the form of two quavering arms reaching his way as it tried to eat him.

People with latent personality disorders, or just the anxiety-prone, were especially susceptible to bad experiences with LSD. Some users ended up with psychoses. Others, without such conditions, simply “burned out” after a couple of years of constant use. Their problem was permanent brain damage: “acid casualties,” they were called.

All of which makes the reality-is-in-your-head route a risky one to travel down!

The hippies tried to travel it. Among the things tempting them were that many of their parents had turned away from the problems we’ve been discussing. The “greatest generation” may have fought and won World War II, but later, they seemed to bury themselves in their careers and demand only conformity from their progeny. But did they have a choice?

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05), classic treatise by sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920), ends on an ominous note that is relevant here. Weber, having drawn the two together (Protestant morality and can-do capitalism), feared that the economic machine was already developing into an “iron cage” that would encircle everything and everyone.

The world of the 1950s reflects such a development. An era of paradox, it delivered great prosperity — the beginnings of the largest middle class in history — and very early television shows that were family-friendly (think of Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and so on).

But on the other hand, it also produced works expressing unease, such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1953), William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), and Alan Harrington’s Life in the Crystal Palace (1959). These works all seemed to say that in a culture in which the production and consumption of material goods assumed center stage, something in us was stifled. That same era produced the Beat Generation. They refused to be stifled, and instead gave us dangerously freewheeling literary output such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956). The British had their equivalent Angry Young Men, the most famous of whom were the playwright John Osbourne best known for Look Back In Anger (1956) and author Kingsley Amis whose Lucky Jim (1954) made fun of British academia.

There was also the incisive social criticism of Vance Packard (1914 – 1996), author of The Hidden Persuaders (1957), one of the first criticisms of mass consumption culture; The Status Seekers (1959) which looked with cold eyes on social stratification; The Waste Makers (1960) then criticized planned obsolescence, the purpose of which was to keep consumers consuming; and other such books. And finally there was The Power Elite (1956) by C. Wright Mills (1916 – 1962) who did the most to introduce that phrase into the public lexicon.

The stage was set for the 1960s, as already seen. The older generation, successful though it was by its own standards, had made itself vulnerable to criticisms that it was morally shallow, having sold its collective soul to some subbranch of the corporate-state.

“If it feels good, do it” is a phrase associated with the hippies, but there was a sense in which the prevailing ethos at the center of American culture was closer to this sort of phrase than their elders cared to admit. Convenience reigned. This was true in business, in government, in academia. If it’s convenient, do it. This view that convenience is a reliable guide to decision-making grew through the 1960s and then even more in the 1970s.

Consider abortion, which had become an issue well before Roe v. Wade (1973). Sexual license (also a problem in some communities before the liberation movements of the 1960s) led to unplanned pregnancies; simple as that. Despite the prattling about those cases when “the mother’s life is in danger” or cases of rape or incest, over 99% of abortions have always been abortions of convenience.

Abortion’s legal acceptability has led to the killing of over 63 million unborn babies and counting. I will not torture readers with the bizarre rationalizations feminist philosophy professors have produced (it is hard to call them philosophers with a straight face), except to note that the linguistic sleight of hand used seems intended to deprive the unborn and sometimes even the newly born of moral standing, and hence any claim on life that others are obligated to respect. (Exemplar phrases: women’s reproductive rights, a woman’s right to control her body.)

Nazis and Communists did the same thing, using sleight of hand to remove those to be eliminated from their versions of the moral community.

But then again, if Ruth Benedict, Richard Rorty, and other materialists are correct, then the only moral standing anyone has is what their society, the state, or their pocketbooks and bank accounts, give them. What the state and social approval and the banks give, the state and social approval and the banks can take away, whether its targets are Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals under the Nazis; those who resisted collectivized farming under Stalin; or the unborn in our own culture.

It is surely possible, by this reading, that a hypothetical future Christian civilization might regard what has happened to the more than 63 million unborn babies in our culture as one of the largest and most insidious holocausts of all, as its targets were completely unable to speak for themselves much less defend themselves!

The tendency, as we have seen, has been to evade such unpleasantries, to simply not think about them.

Or to change the subject. If there’s a God, does He really care? After all, during the duration of the various holocausts of the past century, He did nothing!

Many theologians succumbed fully to the “death of God” cult in the 1960s, even as their children were “finding Him” in recreational chemistry. Secularization was a major manifestation of materialism having fully captured Western culture. Harvey Cox (1929 – ) wrote in his The Secular City (1965) that secularization “bypasses and undercuts religion and goes on to other things…. The world looks less and less to religious rules and rituals for its morality or its meanings.”

A couple of years ago I read one of the most comprehensive accounts I’ve seen of the modern, secular attempt “to live after the death of God”: The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live since the Death of God (2014) by British intellectual historian Peter Watson (1943 – ). Watson’s account ranges across philosophy, art, poetry, literature, and science — or, more exactly, science-promotion, as he includes evangelical New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, which is materialism promotion in my sense of that term. Watson is a reasonably honest thinker, and those who maintain as I do that materialism has no hope of providing Western civilization with a sound moral foundation and direction will find support for their views in his work. So despite the title and themes (and tediousness at times), the book merits study. At the end, Watson does not endorse mere science-promotion but rather seeks to explain why many credible authors, writers, poets and artists have found the “scientific worldview” too narrow. His answer isn’t especially satisfying.

It comes down to the idea that, given God’s absence, the “central sane activity” (title of the book’s meandering closing chapter) is “sheer wondering inquiry,” and grasping for those lonely moments of meaningfulness and life-affirmation that science alone cannot supply. Different authors have given these moments different names. Abraham Maslow called them peak experiences; James Joyce spoke of epiphanies; Malroux, of temporary refuges; Yeats, of brief moments of ecstatic affirmation; Ibsen, of flashes of spiritual value. These moments, Watson insists, can be had in loving relationships, the satisfaction of one’s desires especially if they add value to others’ lives, the private experience of hearing an especially moving piece of music or seeing a work of art or reading poetry, or in any number of other ways and activities including just the mundane satisfaction of a job well done.

If you’re a materialist or secularist and you’ve read this far, are you really satisfied with this?

Study them closely, and you see that these experiences, real though they may be, are private and personal. One comes away sensing the difficulty the writers had in communicating their content. This is more the stuff of poetry than philosophy. Such experiences are pleasant but momentary and entirely private “highs” — and we are inching our way back to the possibility that psychoactive drugs can be used to trigger them artificially and expand them indefinitely if the results are satisfying enough to outweigh the dangers.

All this seems like denial to me. Denial of the obvious. By turning away from the larger picture, the one both Nietzsche and Russell in different ways were courageous enough to articulate, and instead focusing on these nice little particulars we experience or arrange for ourselves (whether in our private lives or through recreational chemicals), we evade the important consequence of materialism:

That once you’ve removed God and transcendence from your world, there are no binding moral values, binding in the sense of being definitive and authoritative, suggesting a lasting, inescapable, personal penalty for their violation. There is only state and corporate authority, wealth and its accumulation, popularity, physical pleasure (food, drink, sex), and these ephemeral on-top-of-the-world moments — all of which end in death, which the materialist understands as the permanent extinction of consciousness and personality.

You cease to exist as completely as the nonexistence that preceded your conception.

Presumably after those final anxious moments before you wink out, you won’t be worried about it.

Peter Watson correctly observes that many people in secular society seem to have no problem with this. They have either rejected “religion” without further thought, or simply grew up without it. He writes:

We need to remind ourselves … that many people — and perhaps the quieter souls among us — see no problem in God being dead. For them his death is no source of anxiety or perplexity…. [S]uch individuals are not “metaphysical types” and seek no “deep” meaning in existence. They just get on with their lives, making ends meet, living from day to day and season to season, enjoying themselves where they can, untroubled by matters that so perplex their neighbors. They have no great expectations that the big questions will ever be settled, so devote no time to their elucidation. In some ways, they are the most secular people of all and perhaps the most content” (The Age of Atheists, pp. 532-33).

Such folks blend smoothly into the majority, the masses of humanity in advanced civilization, meeting its demands on them, doing what they are told, and no more independent thought than the third or so who were content with British rule in the 1770s and another third who didn’t care so long as they had food in their stomachs. If asked, these contented secularists might say they have no time for such matters as these. They are too busy solving real world problems.

They may start asking questions if they suddenly find themselves with a life-threatening and perhaps bankrupting illness, wondering what it was all for. Or, if the “leaders” they trusted with their votes send their kids off to die in foreign wars as cannon fodder. By this time it is too late, of course. So while most are nice people and doubtless good at what they do, should we trust their collective judgment with matters as far from everyday experience as whether or not one should accept the removal of God from our picture of the world?

These forms of escapism are not, of course, the only responses to the situation we were left with at the conclusion of Part 4, in which materialism is fully embodied in strong institutions, corporate and governmental.

There is the possibility of learning all one can about the uses of money and structures of power, exposing them, and rebelling against them in whatever ways are available, can be found, or created.

There is indeed that something in many of us — felt by the sociologists, Beat poets and novelists, many rock musicians, and many others, an inner spirit or sense of right or justice — that rebels instinctively against that sense of being trapped in an invisible “iron cage,” and much more so against exercises of power it sees as immoral, unjust, or merely stifling what they are as human beings.

Something in many of us demands to be free, in some sense of that term. Isn’t this interesting?

Sometimes this rebellion is more important than life itself. “Give me liberty or give me death,” Patrick Henry is supposed to have said back in 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War, a war for independence against what was then the globe’s most powerful empire.

Which is why protestors as well as soldiers have given their lives in defense of a cause they believed was worth fighting for. The cause was more important than their lives.

No one is launching rebellions against materialism, of course. It isn’t that sort of thing. Worldviews are too abstract to inspire such actions. Most people tend to rebel against forces that harm their cultures as with policies of open borders and immigration, hit them in their pocketbooks like massive tax increases, or otherwise outrage their “gut” sense of right versus wrong. Think of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) in France. Elsewhere in Europe there is unrest directed at an EU increasingly seen as run by corrupt banking elites who are hopelessly out of touch with the lives, needs, and concerns of common peoples and their cultures. Seeing no alternatives, they are returning to nationalism.

Could something along those lines happen in the U.S., perhaps after the next major financial meltdown? Given the growing sense that America’s elites are equally corrupt if not worse, could we see parallel developments on U.S. soil? Secessionism of various sorts has existed in a sort of underground in many U.S. states and regions. At least since the 1990s there have been organized groups promoting the idea in Texas, Montana, Vermont, the Southeast, California, Alaska, Hawaii, and elsewhere.

Nothing of the sort will happen immediately, of course. Homeland Security has militarized police forces with an eye to putting down any and all civil unrest in the Land of the Free. Everybody with a brain knows this. The odds, moreover, that these groups could organize and coordinate enough of America’s divided masses to stand up to that kind of power seem to me slim to none. Many (especially those in the South) have already been demonized in mainstream media and governance. Unless something truly earthshattering happens within (or is done to) the U.S. federal government, that is not going to change any time soon.

That said, I expect that the materialism-caused death spiral of the overlapping eras of modernity and postmodernity will continue.

The “experts” have already lost a lot of their credibility, much of this courtesy of the Internet. Their blatantly propagandistic efforts to get it back would be laughable had they not done so much damage to free speech and expression in the process.

None of this will not solve the long-term problems brought about by institutions and practices that will prove unsustainable in the long run — in the context of the ongoing collapse of all vestiges of “conventional” morality.

I am not talking about homosexuality or transgenders, although academic debates over who has the right to use which bathroom, and newly invented pronouns, may cause future generations to wonder why the interlocutors weren’t told to have their heads examined.

I am talking about retirees (if there are any) having less and less to look forward to as social security is increasingly strained, and are forced to work until they drop dead — if they can find work. The reason: fewer people are paying into the social security system because of falling birthrates, and those who are paying in, are paying less because of stagnant wages.

One of the curious things about advanced, prosperous civilization: population growth declines. This is true however we explain it, although the slow fracturing of families seems most credible. What this means is that systems depending for their sustainability on population growth will eventually strain and break.

I am also talking about many university graduates who can look forward to years of debt slavery due to ridiculously high tuition rates. Sometimes this is due to their foolishness in getting degrees in silly pseudo-subjects like gender studies. But not always. It is a given that technology is replacing human labor. Some will argue that this has always been the case. But the rate of replacement of human beings by technology (robots, artificial intelligence) has increased geometrically during the information age.

Driverless vehicles threaten to dump millions of workers in affected industries into the streets. Realistically, most will be too old to “reinvent themselves” as, say, IT professionals, although some will fall for multi-level marketing con games which may multiply.

Corporate profits will, of course, be up, because robots and driverless vehicles don’t demand paychecks.

Those making such policies will be mostly indifferent to those who need income to live.

The long and the short of it: modernity has yielded no answer to Nietzsche. It has not even approached Russell’s ideals.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the near future as the U.S. gets increasingly nihilist on its way into the history books. Anglo-European civilization as a whole is already a civilization of haves and have-nots, where the former ignore the latter as much as possible. Most of the haves will have protected their interests when the next crash hits (including moving inside gated communities with well-paid security). The have-nots either will not organize at all, or will organize only token protests that will be quickly put down or simply ignored, as was Occupy.

So assuming no major change of worldview, the once-Christian West will end slowly and painfully with a dramatic contrast between billionaire CEOs and IT hotshots on the one hand, and tent-cities people on the other. The former will go right past the latter and not even see them.

The U.S. federal government will grow increasingly dysfunctional, as only Twitterverse and Instagram-era celebrity candidates will have a chance at visibility and electability. Corruption will be endemic, and people will gradually cease to look to government for help — having been told too many times about “the need to cut costs.”

Programs like social security and Medicare may not survive. Obamacare almost surely will not.

Adopting policies based on the concept of primary prevention is the only feasible solution to the health care cost crisis — a different essay! All I will say here is that health education for primary prevention presupposes a nonmaterialist ethic where “all lives matter” intrinsically.

If policies based on such ideas are not developed, promulgated and adopted, not even at the grassroots, hundreds of thousands and maybe millions will eventually die in their homes, many from treatable conditions.

Many of the best minds, or just those with the money to do so, will have fled to overseas havens. Sadly, they will take many of their problems with them. How many indigenous cultures, worldwide, have been destroyed by having been pulled against their will into that money-focused, political-economic “iron cage”?

We end this section where we began: with a look at drugs.

For those the expats left behind, who had already been left behind by the economic system and saw no hope for the future, increasingly turned to drugs. This is already happening, as the opioid epidemic illustrates. The drugs done are not psychedelics. You see, among the loose categories of recreational drugs there are mind drugs, and then there are body drugs. Mind drugs tended to be done by the historical optimists of the 1960s-1970s who saw a future of peace, love, and rock ‘n’ roll. Those who have given up on the world and on themselves turn to body drugs such as opioids: welcome to the 2010s and 2020s. What is happening in rural communities now may just be a prelude to what is to come, especially as the real economy outside the big cities continues its ongoing collapse and there is no real recovery outside the ideology-addled imaginations of mainstream “economists” who cite doctored unemployment and inflation figures and recite fabulous productivity stats due to robots and artificial intelligence having replaced expendable human labor.

And whatever else happens, perfectly groomed (and well paid) shills in the financial centers and on CNN will assure anyone who still cares that all is well in the ship of state. Didn’t you know, they will ask through glassy smiles, the stock market just hit a new high?

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Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 4)

Money! Well get back….  /  I’m alright Jack keep your hands off my stack! Money! It’s a hit. Don’t give me that do goody-good bullshit….

Money! It’s a crime. Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.

Money! So they say, is the root of all evil today. But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise they’re giving none away….

Pink Floyd, “Money” (from The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973) 

I’ve always enjoyed old progressive rock. You may have noticed. It raises my Christian friends’ brows sometimes. But much of it was well done, and sounds like some thought went into it.

As implied by my referencing Madonna at the outset of Part 1, popular music is often a good guide to the zeitgeist of a culture. Many rock groups / singers / songwriters are sensitive to this in ways academics are not.

Our prevailing worldview, as I’ve emphasized, is fundamentally materialist, and even those uninterested in the philosophical specifics we outlined in Part 3 will find themselves encircled by its consequences, one of which is the preoccupation with material goods in our culture, amidst a great deal of ethical ambiguity and pressures to conform to whatever is trendy.

What is trendy is constantly changing, of course. One of the questions underwriting the ambiguity was best put by one of the first philosophy professors I worked for as a teaching assistant back in the early 1980s.

Are there any absolute values? she asked students. Needless to say, she did not supply an answer.

Materialism has implied the relentless secularization of Third Stage civilization, the secularism of which called forth attempts at secular moralities, or moral theories. All, however, have struggled against relativistic and nihilistic tendencies — and, as we have seen, against the tendencies of those who are fascinated with power and couldn’t care less about philosophical justifications. The latter include, one might call it, the power of the sword: of those at the helm of the state, able to hand down decrees and rule as they see fit as they answer to no one.

What have major philosophers said on the subject?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) believed we could deduce absolute duties from Pure Reason. Kant’s ethics were just one component of his transcendental turn, one of the pivotal moves in the history of philosophy — Kant’s gallant effort to save the subject from the determinism he perceived coming from physics and also from the skeptical overtones of Hume’s critique of causal inference. Isolating Kant’s ethics of deontology (Gr. study of duty) from his larger systematic philosophy is hard to do. What is interesting is that Kant’s turn posits, on grounds of logical necessity, noumenal “realm” of reason and rational action outside the phenomenal “realm” of causality shaped by categories of the understanding. So as not to get taken off track, we will confine ourselves to Kant’s ethics, its immediate requirements, and what follows.

Kantian duties apply to all rational beings. He called his main principle the categorical imperative: distinguished from hypothetical imperatives which are situation specific. In other words, the categorical imperative is absolute. Kant gave it three formulations. Paraphrasing: (1) Always act as if the maxim or principle guiding your actions could be a universal law (apply to everyone). That is (this is Steven Yates speaking now, not Kant), if x is morally acceptable for me to do, it must be morally acceptable for anyone to do. (2) Treat all rational beings as ends in themselves and never exclusively as a means to one’s own ends. For all rational beings have moral agency and are due respect on grounds of this and their capacity for reason alone. (3) Act as if legislating for all rational beings, oneself and all others, in a kingdom of ends: the community of rational beings, all conscious of the moral law within.

Examples: always tell the truth out of respect for the truth and respect for others as moral agents. For if it is acceptable for me to lie, then it is acceptable for anyone to lie, and the very idea of respect for truth-telling breaks down. For the same reasons, always keep your promises. Honor your contracts. Obviously, no rational being should end the life of another, or his/her own life.

Superficially, Kant’s ethics looks like a sophisticated form of the familiar Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, adding: respect your own rational agency. It is more than that. Kant tells us: act always for the sake of duty and never in mere accordance with duty: for one actions to be done from inclination and merely accord with duty, they are caused externally instead of resulting from one’s rational will, and morally valueless. Thus acting morally may mean going against one’s inclinations, as when telling the truth when it would be far more convenient to lie, or to keep a promise when it would be far easier to break it.

For Kant, the moral community consists of all rational agents who are transcendental subjects, not empirically-perceived objects. Only subjects can be conceived as having the capacity to act for the sake of a duty that applies to all. The bottom line is that the path to immorality is making exceptions for oneself, or treating oneself as a special case. Morality is universal and applies the same way to all, or it is useless. The path to immorality is treating another rational agent as an object in order to get one’s way. A rational agent — a person — is not an object.

Kant had problems, however, when universal duties appeared to conflict in practice, as they sometimes did. It is easy to conceive of the necessity of choosing between telling the truth and protecting a life, as with the standard example of the German citizen living under the Nazis who meant well but harbored Jewish neighbors. When asked by the Stormtroopers if he is doing so, what does he tell them? Later Kantians thus tried to prioritize some duties such as preserving life over others such as always telling the truth or keeping one’s promises. But what neither they nor anyone else could tell us: given the intellectual tendencies we’ve noted, was there really any substance behind these appeals to seemingly free-floating rational agency that Kant places at the center of our moral universe? Absent the transcendental rational will, morality is a fiction. Kant must posit its existence a priori. He cannot prove that it does; the most he can say is that the very concept of proof presupposes it.

Let’s cross the English Channel. Great Britain’s Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), utilitarians, argued the quite different thesis that morality is a matter of consequences, not pure reasoning, and of creating a greater balance of pleasure over pain in society. As the latter would put it, acting morally means following the greatest happiness principle: your action ought to create a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness in the world. Mill never fully separated happiness from pleasure, but unlike Bentham, he prioritized certain pleasures as superior. Those of the mind, such as scientific knowledge or appreciation of the arts, take precedence over those of the body, involving sensuality and appetites.

This kind of position logically permits the sacrifice of some if it brings about a greater balance of happiness for everyone else, via greater knowledge and social benefits for the rest to enjoy. Consider the old adage about not being able to make a truly spectacular omelet without breaking a few eggs! Mill, aware of this, supplemented his basic statement with a harm principle: again paraphrasing, the only justification for the exercise of force against another against the other’s will is to prevent harm to others or to the person himself.

The utilitarian moral community is thus the community of all who experience pleasure and avoid pain and suffering. This would include higher animals, and Bentham became the first philosopher to speak of higher animals as having moral properties human beings ought to acknowledge and respect.

These are clearly not idle games played by intellectuals locked away in academic cubicles. Mill’s two major works in moral philosophy, On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863), were widely read in British society. The former became one of the founding documents of classical liberalism. The latter was utilitarianism’s definitive statement. Utilitarian ideas were absorbed into governing bodies and the political economy of the English-speaking world. They affected policy decisions in a variety of arenas, furthered by people who’d not even heard of Mill himself.

So-called scientific medicine became one of those arenas. Here the weaknesses of utilitarianism became evident. Mill’s harm principle was quietly set aside. The knowing sacrifice of black men in Macon Co., Ala., during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment is otherwise consistent with utilitarian thought. The medical community acquired knowledge about syphilis, from tracking its progress in sufferers. The men were not told the truth about their condition, and in the meantime, they infected innocent others such as their wives who sometimes had children born with the disease.

The public health community got away with this for decades!

Also compatible with utilitarianism is every decision by members of a political elite to send the children of the masses to fight wars of choice! The latter will never, after all, enjoy the same educational opportunities or likelihood of rising to influence! Some may be sacrificed so that the rest will prosper!

Kant’s deontology and Mill’s utilitarianism (or variants on them) became the two most prevalent secular moral philosophies in intellectual centers. Not surprisingly, utilitarianism became the leading ethical theory among English-speaking philosophers who debated its nuances and variants instead of its founding premise: that our primary motive in life both is, and should be, increasing human happiness identified as pleasure of various sorts — that in a business or consumer setting, we both are, and should be, utility-maximizers.

We do, of course, seek pleasure and to maximize utility in a variety of ways. As the marketplace developed, utilitarianism seemed to provide a good foundation for mass-consumerism. Some of Mill’s other distinctions, such as between the “higher” pleasures of the intellect and those of “mere” sensuality and appetite, diminished in influence if the former proved unprofitable. The power of the purse — of money — assured this!

Profitability, though, is no guarantee of health. Unhealthy foods, beverages, drugs, etc., are very profitable! Cigarettes were (still are) profitable! The likely causal connection between cigarettes and both lung cancer and heart disease had become clear by the 1950s. So-called fast food is also manifestly unhealthy. Processed foods contain a multitude of ingredients that increase risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions; some contain flavor-enhancers that are known to be mildly addictive, so that consumers will return for more, not quite knowing why. Corporations continue to produce these goods, most of which now contain nutritional information and even warning labels, because they sell.

One suspects that in materialist civilization, this becomes the only ultimate criteria of valuation in “free” societies. Within constantly shifting limits, what sells is permitted.

So is it the case that, as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821 – 1881) character Ivan Karamazov put it (I am paraphrasing, obviously), “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”?

Modern secular ethical theory has been, in one way or another, a struggle against this wretched conclusion, as well as against the relativism of anthropologists such as Benedict. Thus far, the results are less than promising!

A few major thinkers of the later twentieth century weighed in with fresh proposals. Among the best known is John Rawls (1921 – 2002), who pursued a theory of social justice as fairness. He sought to identify rules that would be adopted by rational persons from behind a veil of ignorance: that is, from the ideal vantage point of an abstract intellect (a legacy of Descartes), which does not know its (?) race/ethnicity or class standing or other particulars. What principles would be most worth embracing by the rational and fair-minded intellect?

The answer, as Rawls saw it: every person should have basic liberties no government can take away, to the extent compatible with equal liberties for all (the liberty principle). And, “offices and positions” should be open to all persons regardless of race and sex (an equality of opportunity principle). Finally: inequalities, to be acceptable, must work to the advantage of the worst off (the difference principle).

Rawls’s was an ingenious effort. His critics noted, however, that his original position (behind the veil of ignorance) works under the assumption that most people are risk averse. They would not want to risk the results of principles that left disadvantaged groups to fend for themselves, as they might be in one such group. Saying this is a bit strange, however, and others wondered if the thought experiment was realistic. Can anyone truly imagine himself behind a “veil of ignorance”? Rawls’s thought experiment certainly doesn’t comport with the identity-politics that has come about since his major work A Theory of Justice (1971). For whatever it is worth, critics from that quarter of academia would denounce his disembodied intellect as no less white and male (and probably straight and Christian) as, well, Descartes.

Rawls, finally, did not see any necessary connection between morality and justice on the one hand and metaphysics or worldviews on the other. The idea that these areas can be completely decoupled from one another is part of secular ethics in the material world. Morality becomes a free-floating abstraction.

Speaking of free-floating abstractions….

There are doubtless readers who have been bursting to argue that I have completely (and surprisingly!) neglected the other side of the classical liberal tradition, that of libertarians who developed individualist ethical theories (or, ethical egoism). One of Rawls’s Harvard colleagues, Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002), developed an individualist ethic, as have other notable libertarian luminaries such as Tibor R. Machan (1939 – 2016). Some, such as Machan, were influenced by Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982). They focused instead on negative rights of individuals, rights to be left alone in ways that imply no duties to others except to leave them alone. These they contrasted with alleged positive rights to specific goods someone is obligated to supply.

Their view, a descendent of the classical liberalism of Mill, and occasionally of Frederic Bastiat (1801 – 1850) usually minus the latter’s Christianity, was that all individuals have the right to act freely, pursue their own goals, and keep the fruits of their labors (private property) so long as they do not interfere with the same negative rights of others. All should deal voluntarily with one another in the free market. According to the non-aggression principle (NAP) central in the libertarian ethos, what is forbidden is physical aggression or coercion against others. Since fulfilling demands based on positive rights cannot be accomplished without state intervention violating the NAP, libertarians reject the validity of the concept of positive rights.

This view appeals to defenders of freedom and Constitutionally limited government, obviously, since to the libertarian, government (the state) is the primary aggressor against individuals’ rights. It must be kept very small (minarchism, what Nozick called the night watchman state) or eliminated altogether (anarcho-capitalism). Shrink the power of the sword to insignificance, or eliminate it. Those who would eliminate the state questioning its legitimacy, just as we rejected the legitimacy of chattel slavery 170 years ago.

The downside of eliminating positive rights, though, and state mechanisms to bring them about, is that individuals rendered helpless or infirm, e.g., by illness or injury late in life, would have no inherent right to be cared for. While libertarians might respond, So what? let us just point out that there are many such individuals for which an absence of care by others would mean the end of their lives within a matter of a few excruciating days, and in some cases within a few excruciating hours. Are libertarians sure they want this result? Negative rights do not do you much good if what they come down to is a “right” to die, helpless. Families are considered responsible for helping their own, but the reality of industrial capitalist civilization is that family members have had to spread everywhere in search of work, often leaving aging parents behind. Today’s nursing homes are filled with elderly people who have been all but abandoned by their “busy” offspring. Charities are often appealed to, as having been effective back in the days before the state got so large and usurped their social role. The problem today would be reaching out to them, getting their attention, not to mention that if such efforts succeeded charities would soon be completely overwhelmed. Need we point out that far more people would need their services today than needed them in the 1800s, if only because there are far more people! And they are far more dependent on the artificial systems advanced civilization has supplied them!

Of course, nothing in libertarianism forbids a person from acting on his own to help, e.g., an Alzheimer sufferer who has ended up alone in the world. It does reject the idea that you, or I, are morally compelled to do so, or that the state should do so as the agency of last resort. The upshot is that an ethic of purely negative rights seems neither realistic nor humane. One reason the Libertarian Party has garnered relatively few followers — even during an era when mainstream political candidates’ popularity has dropped like an avalanche of rocks — is that most people instinctively reject the idea that society consists merely of individuals going about on their own, left to their own devices. This does not reflect most people’s experience of the world outside academic abstractions and think tank cubicles.

Studies into the effects of prolonged isolation on persons, moreover, suggest that the rational individual of ideological libertarianism, no less than Kant’s rational will or Rawls’s intellect “behind the veil,” is an unreal abstraction. We should begin to see a pattern here, of appeals to abstractions which simply do not exist. They are modern secular intellectuals’ fictions. The pure utility-maximizer of utilitarian-grounded classical liberals does not exist. People are driven by many motivations. Most of us are creatures of habit, which means that our lives and actions are circumscribed by behavioral systems, products of expectation, conditioning, and reward. We are parts of larger systems: familial, communal, professional, etc. To isolate a human being conceptually from these in the name of an abstraction is to falsify who/what he is. Just as isolating him physically will eventually destroy him psychologically. This is why some scholars now believe that prolonged (weeks, months, years) solitary confinement in prisons should be classified as a form of torture and discontinued except in cases of real and present danger to someone’s life.

Libertarians assumed, finally, that free market dynamics emerging from individuals (abstractions) acting and transacting voluntarily, within the boundaries of Nozick’s night watchman state, would be sufficient to control corporate greed and malfeasance, or prevent the dominance of state machinery by corporations colluding in a joint hunger after power. In other words, the libertarian view of the marketplace is that it is an entirely self-regulating system. History suggests that this is wrong, as some of our health examples above suggest. What history suggests is that the locus of power in the actual globalized Third Stage world is not government per se (for we do not have a world government — not yet, anyway!) but well-networked corporate leviathans, with international financial institutions and central banks at the top. Corporations can buy political loyalty and will use economic necessity as an instrument of control: the power of the purse supervenes the power of the sword time and time again!

One need only read John Perkins’s (1945 – ) Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004) or the “upgraded” edition, The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2016) to see the role what he calls the corporatocracy has played in controlling governments of all sizes and kinds, bringing about regime changes and cultural catastrophes for those who resisted. The corporatocracy consists, he says, of international banks such as the World Bank, vast construction firms such as Bechtel and Halliburton, other global corporations including “consulting” firms such as the one he worked for, and governments that have been brought to heel, often betraying their own people.

For peoples in “developing” countries have found their local economies destroyed, their land and waterways ruined by pollution, and their lives ruined by poverty once all the local systems have been disrupted and they found themselves at the mercy of a money economy.

This, one might say, is materialism globalized! It is a far cry from a philosophy such as Kant’s, in which rational agents are deemed worthy of respect on grounds of their rationality alone. Or even Mill’s harm principle. Or even the idea that we should never exercise force against another. When the exercise of force is systemic and not direct, the NAP becomes meaningless verbiage. It might forbid the murderer or the thief, but not the two corporations whose voluntary trade deal just destroyed 100,000 jobs!

While a lot of ink has been spilled debating the merits (or lack of) of the various secular ethical theories, at present no one position is truly dominant. Utilitarianism perhaps comes the closest. Peter Singer (1946 –      ) may be the best known bioethicist. His conclusions are that animals have moral properties because they can experience pleasure and avoid pain; but fetuses have no rights if the pregnancy was unplanned and they inconvenience the mother (they can experience pain, but never mind).

This is where contemporary bioethics stands, ever able to deem classes of entities as members of moral communities or exclude them, based in either case on political trendiness and expediency.

Richard Rorty (1931 – 2007), arguably the last major philosopher of the twentieth century (and possibly the last major philosopher the U.S. will produce), put it like this in his Consequences of Pragmatism (1982): again paraphrasing: in the actual world, people have the rights and obligations “society” says they have, no more and no less. With this, we are back to the anthropological view. Secular society, neither Rorty nor his predecessors quite tell us, devolves upon authority: especially the authority of those with the capacity to determine which habits are approved, and are able to enforce their will on others. They may use language in ways ensuring psychological conditioning and de facto control. One may study how words such as racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, fascist, conspiracy theorist, white supremacist, and others are used, to see how language can be used to demonize and discredit: what amounts to verbal club-swinging. Many other words and phrases are far more subtle in their effects: uses of words like moral, just (or social justice), right, rational, objective, etc., can be used to give linguistic “pats on the back” to ideological claims and stances that are popular and trendy, in the absence of truly sound reasoning for supporting them. Virtue-signaling helps, too.

All of the philosophers we have considered, incidentally, were or are atheists except for Kant who believed society benefited from a general belief in God. From a philosophical standpoint, Kant decoupled God from morality. His theory grounds morality on duties of the rational will, not commands from a deity. Kant did not believe our reason was capable of solving the problem of whether or not God exists. The categories of the understanding limited reason’s specific conclusions. If indeed our cognitive capacities are indeed designed to work, to acquire knowledge and solve problems in this world, quite apart from whether or not there is another, then Kant might well have been right.

This is just to say, however, that the first premises of your worldview are a priori: pre-rational and pre-empirical. They are starting points, not conclusions. Some will call them emotional commitments. Others will say they are based on comfort, familiarity, and habit — supporting their fundamentally emotional grounding.

Be that as it may, we cannot really evade the choice: believe in God and His commands, or not. To refuse to choose is to be an operational atheist, acting as if God does not exist while tailoring one’s “personal” ethics to whatever is intellectually and culturally fashionable, or to what one believes one can get away with.

To be an operational atheist living within one’s personal moral sphere, moreover, is essentially to cede the rest of the world to power. To silently concur, that is, that Dostoevsky went in the right direction: if God does not exist, then for those in power, everything is permitted; and for those not in power, everything is permitted except getting caught!

In sum: if materialism is true, then the most morality can be is a code of culturally approved habits and practices which are changeable over time. This might engender stability in somewhat enlightened societies whose thought leaders have convinced everyone else that there are reasons to care for each other strong enough to override convenience and expediency. Culturally approved habits and practices can be changed forcibly from the outside, however. There is, after all, the power of the sword as well as the power of the purse. No one’s morality has any decisive answer to superior might, whether exercised militarily or merely economically.

Thus Rorty’s implicit answer modifies Dostoevsky: “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted that your fellows allow, the state permits, or that you can get away with if you have the bucks or are sufficiently clever and/or clandestine.”

In Western capitalist orders, money rules. The “other” Golden Rule had always held that “he who has the gold, make the rules.”

Founding neoliberal economist Milton Friedman once penned a revealing article entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” (1970). He accused those who spoke of responsibilities of corporations beyond their shareholders and consumers of their products as undermining a “free society.”

Ethical objections to the idea that billionaire-owned corporations may do virtually as they please and call it “the free market at work,” or “the liberal international order,” or whatever they want to call it, turn out in practice to be toothless.

Posted in Christian Worldview, Culture, Libertarianism, Philosophy, Political Economy, Uncategorized, Where is Civilization Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“What Is the Point of It All?”

“What is the point of it all?” asks 97-year old philosopher Herbert Fingarette (1921 – 2018), long retired from the University of California, Santa Barbara, just a few short months before his death from natural causes late last year.

In this short (18 minutes or so), expertly produced video, Fingarette ponders this question, the loss of his ability to do the things he was accustomed to being able to do for himself, the sorrow he still feels at the loss of his wife a few years back (you are likely to shed a few tears yourself between the video’s 12 and 13 minute marks), but above all, the acute discomfort he now feels at the prospects of his life’s end.

Fingarette wrote a book on the subject of death: Death: Philosophical Soundings (1999). His conclusions back then echoed those of Epicurus’s well known, “Death is nothing to us.” By last year, he realized that abstract ponderings about mortality based on a philosophical system are one thing; the impending event is quite another.

Sadly, he appears never to have questioned materialism as a worldview and an outlook on life. His thought seems not to have advanced to that level. As the end of his life rapidly approached, he came to realize that death as an event was the one conundrum his philosophical investigations had not prepared him to face.

At age 97.

[Note to readers: Parts 4 and 5 of “Materialism” are coming. Please be patient. SY.]

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Materialism (vers 2.0., Part 3)

“Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do crumbles to the ground although we refuse to see.
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind.”
~Kansas, “Dust in the Wind” (1977)

What, precisely, is this materialist “ethos” or worldview we’ve been going on about?

As trained philosophers tend to use the term, materialism refers not to a lifestyle or the love of Mammon but to a metaphysics, or theory of reality: or more precisely, a range of such. It may also refer to a methodology, which operates as if the metaphysics can be taken as a given. Some speak of a broader metaphysics and methodology, naturalism, which could include nontheistic religious like Buddhism.

Materialism, in this case, is one form of naturalism. To reduce the risk of confusion, I will speak just of materialism.

There are different forms of materialism. Marxist materialism was/is a quite different animal from the consensus that has come to prevail beneath English-speaking science. I am more interested in what different forms of materialism have in common. This is not hard to summarize:

(1) Reality means spatiotemporal reality, the physical universe we can see or detect with our senses and scientific instruments — that which can be touched, quantified, measured, analyzed, etc. Spatiotemporal just means the three dimensions of space plus time. According to materialism no sense is to be made of anything existing “outside of,” or “beyond” or “transcending” space and time, such as a God, or Heaven or Hell, or an afterlife. These are all cognitively meaningless — fodder for poets, perhaps, but not to be taken seriously otherwise.

(2) What exists in spatiotemporal reality comes down to spatiotemporal, material things — entities the behavior of which is described by unyielding laws of physics and chemistry: material objects, systems, particles, forces, energy, however we cash out the specifics. Again, no sense is to be made of any event violating these unyielding laws, such as God creating the world ex nihilo, or Jesus Christ performing miracles which would suspend or violate universal causality (e.g., being resurrected). The universe as a whole is self-existing and uncreated. It may have an origin and its present form an explanation, but however difficult this explanation, it need not resort to any form of causation “beyond” physical or material nature. We are not to assume anything exists “outside” physical or material nature, or that it is possible for an entity to act outside the causal structure of the universe.

(3) Our only reliable means of knowing the world is empirical science, based according to its own narrative on observation, hypothesis, experiment, data collection, theorizing, further testing, and replication. Natural science is just the use of the collective experience and education of trained and disciplined observers and experimenters in their various specialized domains, reaching the consensus that best fits the available data. This is the body of presumed scientific knowledge, consistent across specialized disciplines. Science, thus conceived, is not infallible. But its method ensures that science is self-correcting and progressive. Its consensus will therefore change as new data become available and are integrated into the body of knowledge.

Religion, on the other hand, purports to reveal, infallibly (as it comes from God Himself or a god or some other transcendent source), eternal and absolute truths of fact and morality unseen and therefore not amenable to scientific testing and validation.

In this view, the consensus of natural science, even if never completely settled, is decisive in what we can legitimately say we know about the universe or some part of it, such as the origins of life or of civilization or the human personality. Outside of empirical science, all is superstition, unreason, and poetry. Scientific methods have given rise to technological and economic progress. They have proven they can be relied upon. When people are sick, they go to doctors trained in scientific medicine. They do not go to faith healers. When a plague or an outbreak of illness occurs, we no longer see it as sent by the devil. We bring in specialists who develop vaccines. We no longer try to cast out demons. We consult psychologists or other counselors.

Thus we now enjoy a world of relative comfort — greater overall prosperity, better sanitation, a lengthened life span — compared with that of our ancestors say, 500 years ago or even more recently.

To those thinking in such terms, this is materialism’s primary validation. Science just is materialism. Technology and medicine, applied scientific principles, offer it further confirmation.

(4) A human being, as just implied, is no less material than anything else in nature. Our differences from other animals are differences in complexity, not kind. We are not “special,” but rather, one species of primate. Evolution did not “aim” to produce us. It had/has no “goals.” Our existence is a grand cosmic accident, as is life itself. The mind is just the brain (or, perhaps, the brain, senses, and central nervous system, along with their contents however understood). Free will, according to the behaviorist, is an illusion created by ignorance of the actual causes of our behaviors. Again, it makes no sense to say we can act outside the world’s causal structure.

(5) The materialist diagnosis of the human predicament comes down to the prevalence of superstition or lack of disciplined scientific reason, and flawed institutions based on outdated modes of thought (governmental, commercial, educational, ecclesiastical). There is also irrational prejudice, hatred, and fear of what is different; and — in general — ignorance. The cure: knowledge, through universal education, leading to better uses of science and technology, more responsible and accountable governance, through consciousness of the need for a proper balance between private enterprise and public goods.

Thus we will find our way to our Comtean third stage philosophical adulthood, giving up childish notions about a ghostly man in the sky. Adults stand on their own feet. They do not accept statements on untestable faith. They face the universe, however emptied of their earlier superstitions, with determination and courage.

(6) In term of ethics, if there is no God or transcendence, then as Russell observed, morality must be found in this world, or in ourselves, in our highest ideals however hard they are to put into practice, however often we stumble and fall in the process. While Darwinians have had ideas about morality as an evolutionary adaptation, in the last analysis if materialism is true there is no moral authority standing over us, even figuratively, outside of human culture, insisting that we “be moral” and threatening punishment us if we disobey. There is just our sense that happiness is better than unhappiness, pleasure is superior to pain, that progress is possible so that the future can be better than the past, that each of us should work to make it so, and that there should be social sanction for those who don’t.

There is, of course, the state, as an agency of punishment for those who initiate violence (cause pain) to their fellows, or otherwise break the rules their society has adopted over time.*

Morality is in this sense an invention of cultures (a cultural artifact), not a discovery of something somehow “built into” nature. What does this last even mean?

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887 – 1948) put it like this in her magnum opus Patterns of Culture (1934): to paraphrase, morality differs from place to place and from time to time. It is no less amenable to scientific study than anything else. There are many possible patterns of human behavior a culture can draw on. What is moral in a given culture are the behaviors that are expected and socially approved. Immorality, for a given culture, is just those habits the culture has refused to use. The ancient Greeks around the time of Socrates and Plato saw homosexual love as a higher type of love than heterosexual love. Homosexuality was condemned when Christianity, which rejected homosexual conduct as sinful, became the dominant worldview. Once materialism began to replace Christianity, these injunctions began to weaken. Over the past few decades the public ethos has shifted from rejection to acceptance of homosexual conduct, relationships, and even marriages. Given the materialist outlook presupposed by Ruth Benedict, in which morality is fundamentally cultural and changes as a culture changes, nothing we have seen in the Western embrace of homosexuality is out of the ordinary.

It is philosophers who have struggled since the late 1700s to find some basis for stable universal morality in a material world. Most have never been comfortable with cultural or moral relativism. Theirs is hardly an impractical or otherworldly endeavor, even if the “practical” men (and women) across the worlds of government and commerce mostly ignore it. We assume we made moral progress when we got rid of chattel slavery, or afforded women the right to vote. Do we not? We assume that a world free of racism and racial prejudice is morally superior to a world which sustains them. Do we not?

But in the absence of an articulate standard outside both our present and our past, how do we justify the claim that we made progress, as opposed to mere changes of accepted beliefs, behaviors, and institutions? When cultures meet, moreover, begin to communicate, and discover they have deep disagreements on fundamentals, how do they resolve their disagreements? The usual means, historically, has been for the two to battle it out, one finally overwhelming and offering the other a Pickwickian choice: adopt our mores, or perish! A generation passes, and the new cohort accepts the formerly alien mores as normal and expected. Again, would we call this progress?

Why be moral, moreover? This is a question that has often reared its less-than-pretty head. It has long been clear: if the majority of people did not behave with “practical ethics” at least most of the time in the sense of being honest in their dealings with others, respecting them, not stealing from them, not acting violently towards them, helping them and not hurting them, taking responsibility for their own mistakes, etc., very soon they did not have a culture. They had breakdown and chaos.

This realization, though, seems compatible with the idea that what morality does is serve as a kind of glue that cements cultures together by supplying a basis for laws or at least a set of best practices for personal conduct, resolving disagreements, and solving societal problems, without any transcendent grounding. Darwinians say that morality has survival value. Cultures not embracing a range of mores such as the above do not survive. Simple as that.

And if no one is harmed, then what is wrong with Madonna being a “material girl” and celebrating her sexuality all these years? Or a Miley Cyrus? Or, for that matter, a group that disclosed in advance its choice to perform in public nightclubs stark naked and engage in sex acts on stage? One can surely imagine, and possibly find, cultural forms of life that do not share Western hang-ups about nudity. Perhaps “lewdness” is in the eye of the beholder. Especially if no one is forced to go inside and watch.

But of course, the materialist is not necessarily a mere hedonist who loves pleasure (which, one should note in passing, different hedonists may define in quite different ways).

The materialist appealing to, say, the Libertarian proscription against initiating force (the non-aggression principle) may ask: why do I need a god to tell me that deceiving my fellow humans for personal gain, stealing from them, or acting violently towards them, is wrong?

But how does the materialist who goes this route profess to know that murder is wrong? Because it deliberately initiates force again, and destroys, a human life? Why is that wrong?

The abortionist forcibly ends a human life, and may be condemned by some but not by all.

Do we get to pick and choose? Who is “we”?

The man who injects a prisoner condemned to death by the legal system also forcibly ends a life, and many regard it as a plus that the Ted Bundys of the world are removed permanently from society.

What is interesting is that we do not call this killing. We use a euphemism: capital punishment. (Well, some people do call it the death penalty, which is more accurate. But then again, the state has always killed people legally, even if some have disagreed that this was a good thing.)

Is cultural approval versus disapproval, grounded in law if possible, or simply disseminated through education until it gains traction, the only justification we can find for moral sanction in a material world?

Surely it is self-evident that this is a sociological and not a rational justification. Or are we still making that distinction?

Finally, what if I have discovered how easy it is to flout the moral rules of my culture without getting caught? This could be something small, such as stealing office supplies from my employer, or something large, such as setting up a “business” that scammed people out of their hard-earned money.

The situation might be worse. What if my friends and I have decided, and figured out a way, to accumulate not just immense wealth but power over the body politic (immense wealth leads to power when it can buy a governmental apparatus), to rule over as we see fit. We may ignore whether those under our thumbs approve or disapprove? What can they do about it? If we are sufficiently powerful (including having bought control over military leaders), no outside force dares challenge us!

According to materialism, there is no Higher Authority to bring us back into line.

Is there any ultimate reason we shouldn’t make the attempt? Or any basis for challenging those who have made it?

Has this already happened, at least in part? In Part 2, we saw that it has.

Continued in Part 4.

*I am leaving discussion of the possibility of rejecting the state as a legitimate institution for a future installment.

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Comment on Robert Greenleaf Brice, “Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Facts and Our Stubborn Attitude Towards Them” APA Blog, January 21, 2019

[Author’s note: this is obviously not a contribution to “Materialism” which will continue early next week. What it is, is a lengthy comment written for the American Philosophical Association’s APA Blog. While it is always annoying that one of my comments is given a de facto rejection by virtue of its simply never appearing, this ceased to be unexpected long ago. Posting anything on someone else’s or some organization’s blog is a crapshoot, obviously. Fortunately I always have this site to fall back on. Here is the comment, essentially as it was submitted — I have deleted a few words that are unnecessary in here, and added a few lines where explanation of what I was responding to seemed called for.]

This article might serve as a reminder why many non-academics (especially if they are Republicans) do not trust the judgment of academics, seeing their views as steeped more in arrogance and a sense of their own superiority to the common rabble instead of being based on facts or logic. The arrogance and superiority here is reflected in the assumption that anyone who voted for, and still supports, Donald Trump, is by definition irrational, and when trying to change their minds, as if that was a mission for academics, their emotions should be appealed to. That appears to be the basic thrust of the article.

Few sensible person hold that facts don’t matter. But there is plenty of room for disagreement over what the facts are and who has them, especially if possession of the facts is systematically confused with authoritative pronouncement (and sufficient resources to disseminate one’s pronouncements). This surely includes appearances on the APA Blog, which is hardly an open forum. It particularly applies to the election of an outsider such as Trump, which has the U.S. as divided as I have ever seen it.

First, if I wanted to sustain an argument that Trump is a liar, I think I’d rely on a source other than The Washington Post whose bias is palpable. I don’t think you had to be a Trump supporter to notice that the WP collectively hated Trump’s guts from the get-go, or suspected that their writers (and billionaire owners) deep and abiding hatred for the man and whatever it was they believed he stood for might have colored their judgment somewhat. Has anyone actually compiled a separate list, for evaluation purposes, of at least some the supposed 7,645 lies Trump has told, or are we supposed to believe a number like that because WP “fact checkers” said it?

Now has Trump always told the truth? Probably not. Did Obama always tell the truth? (Remember, if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor?) Did George W. Bush? (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq)? Did Bill Clinton? (I did not have sex with that woman….)  The point being, if we live in a post-truth world, the nations political class did much to make it that way. Trump would be an amazing exception if he always told the truth.

Even granting that, the WP is hardly free of its own brand of dishonesty. If you need an example, the obvious one is the story that basically started both the (still unproven) allegation that the Trump campaign colluded directly with Russians working under Putin and the fake news meme that has been with us ever since. This story appeared under the title Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” November 24, 2016. This, arguably, was where “Russia-gate” began.

The experts mentioned in the title turned out to be an anonymous group called PropOrNot, relying on unsourced information about 200 or so alternative news and commentary sites on the Web many of which had supported Trump. This article left me with three realizations: (1) The WP would publish anything anti-Trump, even allegations backed up with no evidence whatever (a few Russian trolls on Facebook do not count as evidence of Russian collusion, sorry); (2) we are supposed to believe that what the WP publishes is factual simply because they said it, i.e., they implicitly appeal to their own authority; and (3) such articles, via their strong emotional appeal to Democrats who doubtless felt blindsided by the Trump upset, absolved them of the need to hold their Party (especially the DNC) responsible for the fact — for fact it is — that they blew it! The 2016 election was theirs to lose, after all!

People who earn their paychecks teaching logic ought to be interested in this kind of perspective … even if they’ve awakened to the fact that the human masses are moved more by emotion than logic (Hume was right, after all).

Trump is a symptom, not the problem as most Trump haters seem to assume. He’ll be gone in a few years, whatever happens. Were he removed from office tomorrow, the things that got him elected would still be there.

What things are we talking about, that others aren’t?

(1) Trump rose to the top of the heap amidst a 17-candidate pile-up as an outsider because the mainstream Republican narrative had collapsed. I don’t think any of the corporate-sponsored insiders even knew what it was anymore. If the neoconservative narrative was about something other than war, money, and Israel, it was well-hidden. The billionaire class initially wanted Jeb Bush. Voters did not. So for the first time in our lifetimes, a non-politician who had never held elected office before got into the White House!

This has not changed.

(2) Trump knew how to use both traditional media and Internet-based social media to his maximum advantage. He understood instinctively how today’s masses worship celebrities, and played the part. He understood that, yes, they respond to emotion … but so do left-liberals, so Trump supporters are hardly unique in that regard. More than any of that, though, he knew how to turn the slings and arrows of those who hated his guts against them. He understood that the louder and nastier their insults, the greater his support from his base out in flyover country which, similarly, was sick and tired of being insulted when not simply dismissed out of hand by wealthy, arrogant, big-city media elites who want to tell everybody how to behave and who they should associate with (see (4)).

All of this should have been clear even before the debates with Hillary Clinton. I do not believe major media were even trying to hide their pro-Clinton bias. But no matter what they did, Trump came out on top. His supporters loved it! His haters were already getting violent, physically assaulting supporters outside Trump rallies, blocking traffic on freeways and at major intersections, and then dishonestly trying to blame Trump or his supporters for the violence they started!

(3) Speaking of Hillary, the Democrats misplayed their hand from the get-go. Are there really any grounds for doubt that Clinton had the DNC in her pocket; that she’d cheated (with superdelegates,) to nudge Bernie Sanders aside when he, not she, had the support of the Party’s progressive base; and that she had the full backing of powerful banks such as Goldman Sachs and others of the globalist Wall Street cartel? The Democratic Party mainstream has also collapsed, after all. If Democrats’ narrative is about anything except war, money, and identity politics, they keep it well hidden. Hillary Clinton was their anointed insider candidate, who came across as a cold, calculating technocrat who believed herself entitled to be the First Woman President. So great was her arrogance that she’d simply stopped campaigning in states filled with baskets of deplorables” (her infamous phrase) even though some of those states had gone to Obama just four years before! In other words, her campaign was — may I steal a line from Trump? — a complete and total disaster.” Did it ever dawn on her — or on whoever wrote her speeches — that if you insult people on national television, they’re just apt to pull the lever in the voting booth for the other candidate whether they like him personally or not?

None of this has changed. If anything, media elites still go out of their way in efforts to destroy the lives of those they consider the deplorables. We saw this just this past week, with the latest high-tech lynching of the Catholic school boys wearing MAGA hats. They had attended the pro-life rally and were simply awaiting a bus to take them home when they were verbally assaulted first by a group of blacks and then by a Native American activist who lied about his status as a Vietnam veteran, among other lies he told. Their thought crime wasn’t even that. It was simply to stand their ground, and then refuse to apologize (as they had nothing to apologize for).

(4) Trigger warning: extreme political incorrectness in this paragraph. Trump appealed not just to working men and women whose jobs have been outsourced to third world countries for cheap labor, but to middle class white men who, to put it bluntly, are sick of identity politics. Most of us, like it or not, are sick and tired of being demonized as history’s villains just because no major organizations, universities or corporations, have been able to fill their quotas of blacks and women. Point of logic: the concept of under-representation depends on an unstated concept of correct representation (or perhaps ideal representation). This latter is why it is actually accurate, if not politically correct, to use a word like quotas. We are sick and tired of being called “racists” or, these days, “white supremacists,” for pointing all this out. Fortunately I do not work for a university that can terminate my employment for noting this particular logical-linguistic relationship. Triggered minorities cannot threaten me or disrupt my classes because I no longer teach any classes. So I can speak here for the many, many people, not all of them straight white cis males by any means, who wonder if identity politics will destroy higher education before it runs its course. Trump represents opposition to identity politics that has no other voice, simply because people do not want to see their lives upended and their careers in ruins, so they censor themselves. “Diversity is our strength” is arguably academia’s religion, adhered to with a fervor (and a will to punish dissidents) no less extreme than that of any religious fundamentalist. It is another belief without a scrap of evidence to back it up.

(5) Finally, as a member of the billionaire class himself (although hardly one of its insiders), Trump was self-funding his own campaign, in its early stages, anyway. It is a shame that one has to be a billionaire to pull off that kind of stunt, but that’s a different comment. The fact that Trump was not on the take from the usual cadre of corporate insiders impressed a lot of working people who then went out and voted. Trump was, and is, an outsider. He came in lacking knowledge of how Washington works (or sometimes doesn’t work). One wishes he was more focused, that he would read more and tweet less, that he could articulate a few guiding principles (but he’s surely no worse at this than anyone else in Washington) … but guess what, boys and girls, we didn’t get to choose! There was a profound uneasiness for what the U.S. was becoming, not just under Establishment Democrats (the Clintons, Obama) but Establishment Republicans as well (the Bushes, McCain, Romney, that whole ilk). Trump became the lightning-rod expression of this unease, whether about the open borders policies of his predecessors, the outsourcing of jobs to cheap labor countries, or the growing identity-politics based attacks on straight white Christian males.

This is not about left versus right even though it is usually portrayed as such. Everyone with a functioning brain is aware of worsening inequality, the disappearance of decent-paying jobs, and the rise, almost like a counterpoint, of theatrical agendas being forced down everyone’s throats (think about stupid stuff like transgenderism and bathrooms). Behind the theater: wealth and power is being consolidated into the hands of a tiny, cosmopolitan, global elite with no loyalties to anything except wealth and power — the culmination, as I will argue in that series, of materialism as a worldview.

This power elite is centered in central banks and the leviathan corporations that have grown up around them, with national governmental Establishments bought and paid for. This is not the one percent but a point-zero-zero-zero one percent. What we are seeing is hardly limited to the U.S. Rejection of EU elites and their open borders agenda was reflected in Brexit, and has since exploded worldwide into increased rejection of elitism and its collective vision of wealth-über-alles, mass importation of unassimilable Muslim immigrants, and increased “global governance” to manage it all. Witness the yellow vest movement occurring in France right now. Major media, who answer to those in power, would like to portray national uprisings as resurgences of “fascism. They are not. They are visceral demands, more felt than articulated, by many, many peoples who wish to be left the hell alone, to not have to have their lives upended by policies they never signed off on (such as those of pro-EU globalist Macron) that are leaving their communities and cultures in ruins.

So what contributions do professional philosophers have to make to what may become the major conversation of the 2020s: nationalism versus globalism. So far as I can tell, few professional philosophers are even at the table. Alas, they’re not even in the room! This doesn’t stop them from hating Trump, issuing superficial denouncements of him at every turn, verbally attacking those who voted for him or who visibly support him, all the while pushing agendas that haven’t worked, and believing narratives that have not a scrap of evidence behind them while accusing Trump of lying.

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Materialism (Vers 2.0, Part 2)

“… Knowledge is a deadly friend / when no one sets the rules / the fate of all mankind, I fear / is in the hands of fools.

“Confusion will be my epitaph / as I crawl a cracked and broken path / if we make it, we can all sit back and laugh / but I fear, tomorrow, I’ll be crying.”

~ King Crimson, “Epitaph” (1968), lyrics by Greg Lake (1947 – 2016)

For Part 1, click here. Part 1 left us with a dilemma: Nietzsche’s realization that the removal of God from our intellectual-moral landscape also removed everything the idea of God and/or God’s Providence gave meaning to. The danger was an “advent of nihilism.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) tried to answer this challenge (though he was not addressing Nietzsche specifically, of course). Although Russell is best known to professional philosophers for technical works of analytic philosophy such as Principia Mathematica (1910 – 13) written with Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947) which tried to reduce mathematics to logic, or the classic philosophy-of-language article “On Denoting” (1905), his most important essay for our purposes is “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903).

It would be possible to write an entire blog entry on this essay alone. It clearly represents a turning point for the English-speaking world, as it issues its own challenge parallel to Nietzsche’s: build a new moral and philosophical framework predicated on the rising materialist view of nature, based on humanist ideals, and make them work.

“A Free Man’s Worship” begins with a depiction, in the form of a whimsical and sardonic play, of the scientific view of the origins of the universe and of humanity as it existed at the start of the twentieth century. It was, for Russell, clear that man had created God instead of God creating man. Man had concocted the idea of sin, of a “hidden purpose” or divine master plan for his God, working behind the scenes as it were, to make sense of the pain and suffering in this world and ensure that in the end they would be compensated for, that all things would work out for the best. God’s wrath would be appeased by humans doing good and making the future better. The play has a nihilistic ending, however. God smashes another sun into ours “and all returned again to nebula.”

Russell opines:

Such in outline … is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforth must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand…. 

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day;…

This sounds like a recipe for abject pessimism. But Russell was not a pessimist. He was hopeful that humanity, collectively, could create the kind of ethos modernity called for, finding a moral compass in ideals such as economic justice and world peace, in addition to the value of scientific truth itself. These ideals were indeed our free creations. The onus was on us to realize them. We had no choice. Russell agreed with the implication left behind by those whose views we considered in Part 1: the blind, deaf, and dumb forces of nature would not care one way or the other. But we care, Russell was implying, and we can do something to improve ourselves.

Thus he articulated a contrast between Power and Morality. “Power,” he wrote,

may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain. But gradually, as Morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage.

Thus the “free man’s worship”:

When we have realized that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?

This choice, Russell continues, is “very momentous” and must “maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe …” These ideals being

our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain…. If Power is bad … let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments.

I hope it is clear how this essay reflects the kind of turning point for Anglo-American modernity that Nietzsche’s challenge represented for the Continent. Russell’s materialist ethos is an ethos of a Humanity standing and asserting his freely created ideals against a universe indifferent at best, hostile at worst (a theme that emerges in much existentialist thought, one might note). These are peace over war and force, working to alleviate suffering wherever possible whatever its cause, and affirming the goodness of life and of what we are doing to improve it despite its always ending in death. Our freedom is found in our capacity to take this stand in defiance of that outcome.

Russell tries to emphasize the benefits of doing so, not the nihilism that results from failing to do so. Even though it is hardly clear that Russell’s ethos is the same as Nietzsche’s, which, echoing the world’s hostility, hardly rules out the warrior!

But Russell made these choices in his own life. No one can accuse him of not practicing what he preached. His activities as a pacifist cost him academic positions on more than one occasion. He was arrested and jailed for opposing Great Britain’s entry into the Great War, as it was about to be called. He continued opposing war and urging programs to alleviate poverty for as long as he lived (and he lived to be 97!).

Sadly, the impotence of the Russellian ethos for a materialist world was revealed in the disasters to come. These would include the carnage of the two world wars, the brutal dictatorships and casual genocides, the threat of nuclear annihilation, not to mention the many “smaller” casual cruelties such as global sex trafficking (young girls kidnapped and forced into prostitution so that sociopathic pimps could get rich).

Finally, there was the specter of a rising scientific oligarchy, or technocratic elite, the sort of thing Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) warned about in his Brave New World (1932) and again, more directly, in Brave New World Revisited (1958). Regrettably, despite his earlier overtures against Force, Russell favored an idea becoming popular among elite intellectuals: world government as the logical the next stage in human political and social evolution. World government would end war by eliminating the nation state, just as socialism would bring justice by ending capitalist exploitation of labor.

In Russell’s vision, the most important developments would be guided by technocratic “experts.” He defended the rise to authority of such “experts” in two books: The Scientific Outlook (1932) and The Impact of Science on Society (1952). By this time it was clear: modernity’s masses would not rise voluntarily to the occasion. They clung to images and superstitions past, religious and nationalist. They responded to incentives, though, and tended to warm to new technologies if these increased their convenience. They could therefore be led. New wants and desires could be manufactured. Those studying, e.g., how advertising works, showed that manipulating the masses was not all that hard. Capitalism, if controlled in this way, wasn’t such a bad thing after all! Come to think of it, war wasn’t always a bad thing, if it was necessary to maintain access to resources Western powers needed! Subterfuge was the elitist’s best bet, and millions were poured into research into how incentives of various sorts could be used to lead the masses in desired directions, via advertising as well as other media once they became accessible. And it was important that the masses believed they lived in a democracy.

Organized education thus ratcheted down the influence of subjects like philosophy and critical thinking which would inspire a few voices from among the masses to rise up against their erstwhile leaders, some exposing these kinds of controls. Harvard behaviorist B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) would speak openly of the advent of a technology of behavior in his works Science and Human Behavior (1953), and its later popularization Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). As with Russell, a scientific-technocratic elite would lead the way. The masses would respond under the “right” circumstances to operant conditioning, the process through which behaviors could be modified through reinforcement or punishment. One of the debates of the era was “nature” versus “nurture.” Was human nature fundamentally rooted in biology, which made it fixed with respect to elite-desired social goals and rendering all but the most superficial forms of social engineering impossible? Or was it rooted in immediate experiences which shaped fundamentally fluid personalities and so were amenable to social engineering. Naturally, the technocrats favored the latter. To believe in a biologically fixed human nature was soon labeled “unscientific” or worse.

Hence the social engineers went to work in various venues — from advertising so that the masses would spend and consume as capitalism required, to education policy to discourage the masses from questioning the structures being assembled and laid into place all around them. Most of the latter did. A few did not. Those who did not, tended to be children of the most prosperous and upwardly mobile people in history, the rising financially independent middle class that came of age during the post-World War II years. The irony is that many of the latter were in a position to further Russell’s original ideals of political-economic justice and world peace.

Yet an Establishment had fallen into place that did not want justice or peace: the Deep Establishment, I called it in an earlier post, developing the basic idea there. The Deep Establishment, as it grew, fomented (and bankrolled) numerous wars to control resources, especially fossil fuels. Doubtless to some, the Deep Establishment is a “conspiracy theory.” Some, of course, are good at staring facts in the face and denying that they exist, because all their lives they have been told untruths. They have been told, e.g., that they live in a democracy and not a plutocratic oligarchy, the kind of system that arises naturally when a technocratic elite rises to power, empowering (through lavish donations) a political class to hide behind.

Is this the freedom of a “free man’s worship”? I don’t think so. Were these specters of gathering unaccountable power just the growing pains of a civilization being slowly freed of its past superstitions? Or were these signs of something far more fundamentally wrong with modernity, and with the materialist ethos at its core? (To be continued in Part 3.)

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Materialism (Vers 2.0, Part 1)

[Author’s note: this series of posts is a much-expanded and hopefully much-improved version of the series that began here, which is desirable to reprint lest it disappear from that site. The question that came to me was, Why not refurbish as well? Most of my philosophical works are works in process, anyway, with nothing ever in an absolutely final form. Hence this vers. 2.0. In this republication, the breaks between parts have come out different, because I wanted to keep each part to a size as accessible as possible to readers many of whom, at this stage of my life, are not trained philosophers.]

 “ … we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl.”

Madonna, “Material Girl” (1984)

Madonna’s first big hit defined, in part anyway, the mindset of a generation. What did this generation want? Material affluence, which became an ideal in the 1980s and beyond after its repudiation two decades before. While that earlier era had its problems as we’ll see, the new materialism, which we might call “Gekkoism” (“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good …” Gordon Gekko, portrayed by Michael Douglas, told a startled audience in an infamous scene in the 1987 film Wall Street), opened the door to the kind of business behavior which brought about the S&L crisis, a couple of decades later the Enron and Worldcom debacles, and then finally in 2007-08, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

No, unbridled greed is not good! Greed by itself does not work! But the story is longer and more complicated than this.

The word materialism has more than one meaning. It does not refer just to a preoccupation with material goods, affluence, or pleasures and excesses, though those are legitimate uses of the term. As explained in my Four Cardinal Errors (2011), and in my ebook Philosophy Is Not Dead (2014), materialism also names a comprehensive philosophical worldview which began to replace Christianity as an intellectual and cultural force, first in Europe in the mid to latter half of the 1700s and then more rapidly in the 1800s. Arguably by 1900 this process was complete in the major intellectual centers.

In the 1830s, Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) offered a philosophical ideology known as positivism, which would ensure that materialism became the dominant philosophy of science. Among its targets was that branch of philosophy known as metaphysics: the theory of reality in the broad sense. According to the positivist view of language, declarative statements were either analytic, empirical, or cognitively meaningless. Statements of worldview did not clearly belong to the first two, which ruled them out of legitimate intellectual discourse: a stance we might call antimetaphysics, which also has roots in the extreme empiricism of David Hume (1711 – 1776) as we will see below.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), meanwhile, developed his dialectical materialism underwriting a theory of historical progress resulting from material economic forces that would culminate in Communism. Marx was essentially an Hegelian who drew his materialism from Ludwig Feuerbach (1804 – 1872). Communism was his Hegelian Absolute. But material forces and their embodiment in human social relations would bring about his ideal world as capitalism gave rise to socialism, which in turn gave rise to communism which Marx, interestingly, saw as stateless (there were no longer class interests for the state to be used to defend and so it would “wither away”).

In the life sciences, materialism was rapidly replacing all that had come before. Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) offered a materialist theory of the origins of species, including humanity, with his theory of evolution by natural selection. His theory drew on the population-growth model put forth by Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834), who held that as food production improved, the population growth this gave rise to would invariably outstrip the improvements, leading back to such factors as ruthless competition for the necessities of life and abject poverty for those who lose out. Darwin combined this with the uniformitarian geology of Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell rejected earlier models of Earth history, nearly all of them based on the idea that something akin to a Biblical flood, and instead asserted that “the present is the key to the past.” That is, when interpreting the records left in rocks, including fossils, we should assume that they can be explained in terms of natural processes we can observe happening today.

Darwin’s theory quickly became a cornerstone of modern science. Paleontologist J. Marvin Weller (1899 – 1976), writing in his classic text The Course of Evolution (1969), observed:

The announcement of Darwin’s theory of evolution in the mid-nineteenth century marked the beginning of a new era in biologic science. Actually this theory embodied no fundamentally new idea, but it did combine older concepts in a fresh and convincing way and carried them to their logical conclusion. Darwin was particularly fortunate in his timing because the intellectual atmosphere in England was favorable for the consideration of a new materialistic theory of evolution, and he promptly gained the active support of several able and aggressive young biologists (pp. 1 – 2; emphasis mine).

The combination of antimetaphysics and rising materialism in metaphysics began to drive the development of the social sciences as well. Consider the “experimental psychologist” Wilhelm Wundt (1832 – 1920). He developed a program for studying human beings conceived as responding to stimuli: children as organisms: material boys and girls. According to Wundt there was no such thing as a “soul.” The human “psyche” could be understood empirically, without reference to anything that could not be observed in the laboratory, and the results of laboratory science were directly relevant to epistemology and ethics. Wundt explicitly rejected the idea that ethical imperatives needed either a Christian transcendent or Kantian transcendental basis.

Wundt’s program became central to what became known as the Leipzig School, based as it was at the University of Leipzig in Germany. This school became enormously influential via its students. These included Americans such as G. Stanley Hall (1844 – 1924) of Johns Hopkins University who became one of the early leaders in behaviorism in psychology. Hall’s most influential student was John Dewey (1859 – 1952), who founded progressive education under the assumption that education of children should adjust them to groups and to society instead of impart to them the aggregate wisdom of our civilization: its traditions, accomplishments, and so on.

The major French thinker to follow Comte, meanwhile, was Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917). As a sociologist Durkheim refined positivism in the context of establishing sociology as the primary science of societies as they embraced modernity. His work focused more on institutions than persons, and more on social facts, as he called them, than personal experiences. It simply presupposed, in our terms, the ongoing replacement of Christianity with materialism, seeing this as a necessity of scientific method in inquiry and a product of modernity, its focus on this world, not some other.

Durkheim’s work reveals the beginnings of a darker turn. He recognized that Christianity had been a bulwark within Western institutions and social facts. He looked to ways in which institutions could retain their integrity and coherence, given the changeover. He sought solutions in what he called social integration, the process of bringing peoples and institutions together under an assumption of the possibility and desirability of social unity, of common objectives. Durkheim appears to have been guardedly optimistic that this was possible in the long run, although he worried about the bulwark traditional Christianity supplied not having been replaced in his lifetime. He wrote both that “[r]eligion gave birth to all that is essential in the society,” and at one point described modernity as “a period of transition and moral mediocrity.”

Philosophically, the full implications of the replacement of Christianity with materialism and antimetaphysics had already emerged. Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844 – 1900) Zarathustra proclaimed in the late 1880s that “God is dead!” followed by his call for a “revaluation of all values.” Nietzsche was one of the most ruthlessly honest thinkers who ever lived. He realized that once God and transcendence vanished from your worldview, everything changed. Every moral and even epistemic conviction those notions made meaningful had stood on a conceptual scaffolding, as it were, the solid ground on which it stood being the God of Christianity. The death of God meant the death of morality as it had been understood since the founding of the Christian Church, and this could not be evaded indefinitely. In a cosmos without God, human beings were on their own, and it was no more helpful to talk about “social integration” or “unity” or some such than it was to invoke Kantian duties, greatest happiness principles, or other philosophical abstractions.

Nietzsche warned that the twentieth century faced an “advent of nihilism.” What is nihilism? Again, the idea is nuanced and can have many different manifestations, but the basic idea is that given no such thing as valuation that is part of the structure of reality, life is valueless, pointless. There is nothing worth believing or doing (etymologically, the term nihilism derives from the Latin word nihil: nothing). Politically and culturally, the specter of nihilism is the specter of delegitimizing all traditions and institutions and razing them to the ground unless their legitimacy can somehow be proven with scientific-Cartesian logic, whatever this would amount to. Nietzsche, contrary to one popular misunderstanding, was not a nihilist. He was not promoting nihilism. He was warning against the nihilism that was inevitable if the purveyors of modernity failed to create a viable ethos for the worldview that had “killed God,” as it were, and for an industrial civilization generally that placed science, technology, and commerce at its center.

Thus we arrived at the end of the nineteenth century — not with a promise of modernity leading towards a scientific / technological Utopia of eternal sunshine, where human beings and their scientific-technological leaders could bask in the warmth of their accomplishments, but rather the threat of major storm clouds gathering on the horizon lest they fail to rise to this occasion.

(To be continued in Part 2 in a few days.)

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