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.

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“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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The Deep Establishment

In the title of his recent Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017) former Greek foreign minister Yanis Varoufakis introduces this phrase:

The Deep Establishment.

I like it! The phrase, that is.

To my mind, The Deep Establishment is magnitudes better than The Deep State.

The latter implies something I stopped believing years ago: that the state is the locus of power in the contemporary world order (or disorder, if you prefer). The state being government, of course (what else could it be?). Government is just political classes — elected officials and appointees — and divisions of administrative underlings doing their bidding. While most at the top may be scoundrels, some (many?) of the underlings are decent people, even if misled. Most will never rise in the governmental system because of their fundamental decency. That alone is a commentary on our times.

Unless the political classes and their divisions of underlings have found a way to become self-financing, though, they are not independent and able to craft and implement autonomous decisions that matter (e.g., whether or not to go to war, and against whom; what higher level policies to pursue regarding, e.g., health care, etc.).

The Deep Establishment includes the political classes and many divisions of administration, for sure, especially those involved with the military in one way or another. In the U.S., that would include the Pentagon, Homeland Security, the CIA, the NSA, other security-focused entities, and probably groups we outsiders aren’t going to know about.

It also includes — obviously — central banks such as the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank (Varoufakis’s nemesis). It includes the Bank for International Settlements, based in Basel, Switzerland.

It includes investment goliaths like Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street denizens, whose British equivalents are housed in the City of London, home to N.M. Rothschild & Sons and the London Stock Exchange, and in Europe, “private” banks such as Deutsche Bank in Germany.

The Deep Establishment includes other corporations, especially those involved with energy production and distribution (e.g., Exxon), as an advanced civilization cannot be run without energy. It may include the largest corporations in the multibillion dollar pharmaceutical industry, also known as Big Pharma, in the business of producing a “medicated” public. Big Insurance and Big Food are also likely tied in, the latter responsible for all the obesity-inducing processed foods laden with high fructose corn syrup that fill the shelves of the average grocery store, as well as factory farming which artificially fattens animals with hormones that also find their way into our food and into the water table.

The Deep Establishment includes, obviously, the United Nations and organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and so on. When the former came about, its founders and members clearly saw it as a voice of emerging world government. It has not become that (Agenda 21 type efforts notwithstanding). From a Deep Establishment retrospective standpoint, this can be blamed on the world body’s high visibility. Most peoples of the world are nationalists in some sense of that term. Patriots, that is. Their first loyalties are to their own. We see this in France now. This is human nature. Hence the moves towards subtlety and quiet networking towards consolidation of institutions we began to see decades ago.

Close-proximity satellites of the Deep Establishment doubtless include consolidated mainstream media. Since corporate Democrat Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, over 90 percent of mainstream news media in the West have consolidated into six corporate leviathans able to own multiple kinds of media as well as own a multitude of other corporate interests — despite the obvious potential for conflicts of interest of all sorts. (For example, if a corporate leviathan has ownership over both nuclear power facilities and major media outlets, are its upper echelons going to retain a news editor or broadcaster who is vocal about his belief that there are long term problems with nuclear power plants?)  Within this category of mass media in the broad sense are the big New York publishing houses, able to support writers who opine properly. Most if not all major publishing houses are now owned by larger megaconglomerates, after all.

Surely we would want to include as Deep Establishment entities “think tanks” such as those old standbys, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, and other semi-secret organizations, as never far from its apex of influence. We would also want to include tax-exempt foundations such as Rockefeller, Ford, and now Gates, and entities such as the Carnegie Corporation and its various divisions.

Finally, the Deep Establishment surely includes key universities such as Harvard and the other Ivies. The conclusions presented by anointed authorities at the pinnacles of the various disciplines in such institutions, lavishly funded with massive endowment systems, are the conclusions of (e.g.) Settled Science, Settled History, and so on. I do not think every discipline, every department, every administration, in such institutions, is somehow controlled by puppet masters pulling the strings. Just key individuals, able to dispense authoritative opinions in crucial media at crucial times. The rest will go along, and the majority of academic footsoldiers in lower tier colleges and universities around the country will follow suit. If dissidents from Settled points of view in the sciences, social sciences, etc., are hired at all, it will be to lower-tier institutions (e.g., “community colleges”) and their work, assuming they have time to do it amidst enormous teaching loads, and usually published by small, insignificant presses, will be ignored.

Public education more broadly has been a scene of Deep Establishment activity all along. Its purpose, since the last turn of the century, has been to turn out not educated participants in “democracy” but obedient employees and (once the IRS was created) loyal and unquestioning taxpayers. As mass consumption society developed, the masses’ willingness to respond to incentives was noticed, and studies on how to use incentives to steer them in desired directions was heavily bankrolled by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The above-mentioned Carnegie Corporation has been heavily involved in steering public education down specific avenues, especially toward a vocationalist model that de-emphasized liberal arts learning that encourages students to think as persons. The marketplace, of course, rewards the former, not the latter.

There were, of course, youth who saw through the charade, at least in part (they spoke obliquely of, e.g., “capitalism” but rarely could they identify the major players). They rose very slowly during the 1950s and even more during the 1960s, especially in opposing a war the Deep Establishment wanted badly (Vietnam). They weren’t well focused, and they allowed themselves to be distracted by the sexual revolution, the “hippie” culture, drugs, and so on.

They were nevertheless strong enough to stop the war effort as if by sheer force of will, making it economically unfeasible for the powers-that-be to continue fighting it. These people were therefore very dangerous, and their influence was spreading from academia. Something had to be done, and it was.

To make a long story short: the Powell Memo was circulated in the early 1970s throughout big business and government; colleges and universities were defunded; what had been a healthy academic job market collapsed. All this occurred during the disastrous 1970s. Education at all levels has been in a downward spiral ever since. The pseudo-Marxism of identity politics has been allowed free reign in otherwise corporatized institutions following the neoliberal “business model.” Thinking disciplines such as philosophy, comparative literature, and history, are therefore in free fall. Aspiring faculty have been relegated to “adjunct” status (part-time teaching, frequently on multiple campuses, for starvation wages, and no promise of advancement).

This will ensure the long-term demise of these disciplines.

This, then, is the Deep Establishment: central banking and financial centers able to use money and its flow to control national economies and, through them, the world’s economy as a whole; governments who pass laws and whose policing and military divisions enforce them with weapons against unwilling populations when they cannot administer them peacefully on willing populations; major media of all kinds that control the flow of information which, today, would include technology and social media corporations (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, etc.); and the core institutions of academia able to perpetuate positions in, e.g., the sciences, social sciences, or in history.

The Deep Establishment tries to avoid using direct, physical force. Its divisions and minions clearly prefer subterfuge and incentives of various sorts, simply because these are more effective. Their court economists realized eons ago that most people respond to incentives and follow paths of least resistance through life. Most people never step out of their comfort zones. All that needs to be done is make these paths easy and reinforcing: personally rewarding to follow, at least somewhat, even as they lead their followers deeper into servitude. Open coercion is therefore rarely a first resort.

What sense would it make to coerce people into buying unhealthy food laden with preservatives, etc., when food corporations can pepper them with mildly addictive flavor enhancers to keep the masses consuming “voluntarily”?

There are a multitude of additional questions we could ask about the Deep Establishment? Where did it come from? Why did it arise? Did it arise through “conspiracies,” that is, or is there something systemic in an advancing capitalist civilization that empowers different elites from those landed aristocrats and feudal lords that dominated the preceding order, and from there, gives rise to a Deep Establishment?

Who are its upper echelons denizens? Are we able to name names? (We have named a few, for those paying attention.)

What do they want? What are they willing to do, i.e., what policies are they willing to implement to obtain what they want?

In some cases, the answers to these are easy. Those in the notorious One Percent (which, in our time, has become the 0.0001%) have more money than they could conceivably spend in a hundred lifetimes. It makes no sense to say money is their primary motivation, therefore.

What they want is power. Domination. Control. Over economies, over populations.

Even if they are unfamiliar with Plato’s phrase philosopher-kings, they believe themselves most fit to rule. They have, in their minds, with Karl Marx, dethroned God and destroyed capitalism (though not in the sense Marx meant, and we are not allowed to say so).

What they can’t control, they will attempt to destroy. Witness the U.S. middle class, which rose to financial independence in the 1960s and gave rise to the cohort describe above, that publicly derailed a war effort.

Unless we are supposed to believe that the concatenation of trade deals, laws, regulations aimed at small business, etc., combined with the debauching of the currency and the financialization of the economy that began in those disastrous 1970s, are all just unlucky accidents by congenital incompetents.

I submit that the Deep Establishmentarians have known all along exactly what they were doing.

But is there direct evidence for any of this? Or is this Lost Generation Philosopher just spewing “fake news” on his own unvetted site.

The full scope of how the Deep Establishment arose, and what its denizens are willing to do to gain and maintain power, obviously goes light years beyond what a blog post of this length can accomplish. But there’s plenty of material available on the subject. Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World In Our Time (1966) is the classic text, but admittedly it is a bit hefty. But if one can still locate a copy, W. Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Capitalist (1970) provides a short summary of that work’s key sections and observations. Other short works deal with specific divisions of the Deep Establishment. William Norman Griggs’s America’s Engineered Decline (2004) describes just that, with detailed references, charts, graphs, the whole nine yards — again, if you can find one as these sorts of books have a way of not staying in print. There is, of course, that old standby, G. Edward Griffin’s The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve (1994).

Occasionally the Deep Establishmentarians themselves have spoken openly of what they believe and what kind of world they want. Again, Quigley was someone close to them and their instruments, as he says himself, and the fact that the first edition of his book appears to have been suppressed (allowed to go out of print despite thousands of back orders) surely helps corroborate this notion, however indirectly. Two other revealing examples are Zbigniew Brzezinsky’s Between Two Ages: America’s Role in the Technetronic Era (1970) which uses the term globalism openly for what its author considered the next highest stage of civilization, and David Rockefeller Sr.’s Memoirs (2002) in which he openly concedes to have conspired with others around the world to produce a more integrated global system (pp. 404-05).

Among the things to look for are works that have been systematically suppressed: “privished” is the term I have seen used. Published, but then given the silent treatment, on top of being printed in such small quantities that copies are unavailable unless you have hundreds or even thousands of dollars to spend. The best recent example of such a book is Udo Ulfkotte’s Journalists for Hire: How the CIA Buys the News (2016). At the moment of this writing Amazon has one copy available. Cost: $900.00.

As the Internet rose in the late 1990s, it became a gold mine of information, allowing alternatives to Deep Establishment official narratives to surface and be read by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. By the 2000s this was millions of people! The free flow of information from uncensored news sites was becoming a bigger threat than anything that happened in the 1960s. Arguably, the Deep Establishment goofed, letting the Internet get away from them, simply assuming that the superior resources of major corporate media would ensure its retention of dominance. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 changed all that, along with evidence of a rising populism that extended beyond mere politics with challenges to expertism generally.

Thus we saw the beginnings of a counterattack with the references to fake news, Russian propaganda, etc. Google and Facebook began to change their algorithms. We also saw worried defenses of the status quo, often with extensive history or efforts to place it within the bounds of our supposed “post-fact” or “post-truth” moment (e.g., this and this).

What we know is that traffic to alternative news and commentary sites dropped dramatically in 2017, and has continued to drop in 2018. (If my email was any indication, my own readership on sites like plummeted.)

Over the past two years, disseminating the truth has grown more difficult. What has grown more difficult is being noticed, given especially Google’s algorithms, notorious for ratcheting down “conspiracy theories” and other ilk of that sort.

Franklin Foer has recently documented the rise of the technology leviathans — Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. — and how their upper echelons have transformed the Internet into just one more instrument of control, by controlling information. See his World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech (2017).

Some Liberty-minded folks believe cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are the answer, by relying on platforms (blockchain technology) for free transactions outside the Deep Establishment’s banking and financial systems. I am frankly skeptical, not of the possibilities of such transactions taking place, but of their anonymity and hence their long-term sustainability, not to mention their volatility (for those using them to speculate). The origins of blockchain technology are shrouded in mystery; the technology itself is designed to record every transaction on its ledgers, suggesting that claims of anonymity are deceptive. Moreover, organizations such as the IMF themselves are now pushing the blockchain. I suspect a Trojan Horse. But again the matter requires a longer discussion than I can supply here.

Brandon Smith, however, has some useful thoughts on IMF plans for crypto and how it ties in with Deep Establishment goals.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Always remember that what sounds too good to be true in this world, usually is.

This blog affirms the reality of truth, which is what it is, whatever “theory” of truth one prefers. This includes the truth about the Deep Establishment, how we know it exists, and why Deep Establishment is a better term to use than Deep State.

The more the truth is suppressed, the more it will find ways to manifest itself indirectly, because actions taken and policies based on false premises always have a way of leading to bad consequences.

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