Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 7)

“Believe in me
Once seemed a good line
Now belief in Jesus
Is faith more sublime….

Don’t be afraid
Just treasure his word
Singing his praises
I know that I’ll be heard
He’s gonna take you by the hand
He’s gonna make you feel so good
Open up your eyes!
And then you’ll see all that you should….”

~Roxy Music, “Psalm” from Stranded (LP, 1973)


This will be the final installment of this series. I hope I can tie up the remaining loose ends.

It is difficult for those of us trained as we were to keep in mind: most people, professional intellectuals included, believe their most basic first premises for emotional, not rational reasons.

This applies especially to the foundations of worldviews.

As a general rule this is as true of the “scientifically-minded” as it is of Christians, as much as the former might disbelieve or disdain the fact. As we’ll see very shortly.

Continuing with the dialogue that developed last week in Part 6:

Okay, Mr. Believer, our skeptic might have retorted. Very well, but there’s something you can’t deny, and that’s the accumulated findings of the past 500 years of natural science. You want to credit Christianity for setting out foundations for science, such as nature’s being ordered and intelligible, but you reject science’s conclusions.

Natural science — astronomy, physics, biology, psychology — has destroyed our Christian illusion of “specialness.” The first two removed Earth from the center of the universe. The third removed our origins from the domain of the specially created: we are a species of primate, and got here through a natural process. Psychology came to recognize our “free will” as essentially an illusion. Environment shapes us, for better or for worse. Within this environment are our institutions and our education and our prejudices, including Christian ones, which we can now reshape.

The Russellian hope was that we could make a better world according to our highest ideals of justice and peace. Maybe we’ve fallen and skinned our knees a few times. No one ever said building a new civilization would be easy, or that it wouldn’t take generations of effort.

So where is this supernatural ghost in the sky you assert as your starting point, who you think saves us from ourselves?

At that point our skeptic will brashly conclude with an air of triumph and a grand sweep of his arms:

After all, now we have some idea of the immense size and age of the universe. We know we live on an insignificant planet orbiting an insignificant star. That star is one of millions of stars, in an insignificant spot near the edge of an ordinary spiral galaxy, one of billions of those. We know we’re a tiny speck of dust in a big, vast universe! Maybe we’ll find other intelligent species out there. If we do and if we can someday communicate with them, it will be through mathematics and science, not philosophy and religion.

There’s a lot running around in that.

At first blush, our skeptic misses the point: without the first premise of a Creator, part of whose essence is Logos, who created us in His image, with a rationality able to grasp the creation’s inherent rationality, there is no reason for believing said Creation — the universe — to be fundamentally intelligible to our insignificantly small and finite minds.

Which is why nothing akin to Western science developed in cultures untouched by the Christian worldview. Other cultures developed crafts indicating a grasp that there are patterns or regularities in nature. They developed and lived by worldviews, because that is what human beings do. But they did not develop science in the Western sense, which indeed was, within limits, self-correcting and constantly improving itself.

Nothing in contemporary astrophysics, moreover, rules out the possibility — or likelihood — that “the heavens declare His glory” (Psalms 19:1).

Perhaps all our big and vast universe requires is a big and vast God!

As for whether or not the Earth is special, perhaps our skeptic should read first this book and then this one. He probably will not, but he should.

But let’s set aside all the theological disquisition for the time being. We can do this because there are objections to materialism that have nothing to do with anyone’s theology. Ultimately, the intellectual problems with materialism stem from its inadequacies to scientific facts, and to some of our experiences having to do with language and with understanding.

First, the science. The way our skeptic concluded his statement got me thinking. I’ve long been fascinated not merely with the findings of those who are using high-resolution telescopes to peer ever further into the depths of space in search of extrasolar planets (exoplanets, of which astronomers have now catalogued over 4,000), but with the curious urgency of finding Earthlike planets in so-called Goldilocks zones around other stars.

Such worlds would have atmospheric pressures and temperatures where liquid water could exist — and so be able, at least in principle, to support life as we know it — possible homes of extraterrestrial (ET) civilizations.

Just recently, a number of astronomers were in a tizzy over “Tabby’s star,” KIC 8642852 (nicknamed for astronomer Tabitha Boyajian who had been studying it along with numerous “citizen scientists”).

KIC 8642852 is roughly 1,470 light years away, which means that anything we see going on in its vicinity actually occurred in the late 500s. The star’s brightness was observed to have dimmed irregularly by up to 22%, far more than the very slight dimming that would be caused by an exoplanet moving across its face (the way many have been detected).

Some of the “citizen scientists,” and even a few of Professor Boyajian’s peers, floated the idea that the star’s anomalous drops in brightness could be explained if ETs had constructed a massive mega-structure in space, perhaps orbiting the star, and that its bulk was blocking light from the star.

An intelligent race able to pull off such a feat would have to be centuries ahead of us technologically.

That would imply they had solved the problems threatening to overwhelm our civilization: environmental issues, political and cultural meltdown, the ever-present threat of nuclear war!

Maybe they’d even figured out how to build a global society that didn’t become a controlled society and a technocratic de facto dictatorship in the process!

The discovery of such a civilization would breathe new hope and life into our fading Third Stage modernity!

High-powered equipment has been trained on “Tabby’s star” for some time now.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

No detectable signals of possible intelligent origin, that is.

It is possible to answer that beings at that level of advancement might be using communications and information transmission systems our technology is too primitive to detect.

The situation would be analogous to a group of Native Americans previously untouched by our civilization (assuming there could be such) watching one of our cities from a distance and trying to see, e.g., the kinds of smoke signals they use to communicate across long distances. They would be assuming we use methods similar to theirs. They would know nothing of our actual technology, of course.

Their keenest eyes might see pollution, perhaps indicative of something curious. But they’d see nothing intelligible.

Would they be safe in concluding that whatever those structures were, no one akin to themselves lived there?

It’s an interesting analogy. We can’t conclude anything from it, however.

The best analyses we now have of KIC 8642852 suggest the presence of a large and unusually massive cloud of dust in close proximity to the star, perhaps in an extended orbit. This would explain its aperiodic darkening.

Maybe a planet once existed there and somehow got smashed. Maybe more than one.

The point is, E.T. has yet to call.

And the bottom line: there is no hard evidence that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Yes, evolutionary theory — both at the stellar and at biological levels —strongly suggests that such life should exist. Perhaps on billions of other worlds. There should be races of sentient beings millions of years in advance of us!

Unless, of course, they fail to cross the Great Barrier, posited by expositors of the infamous Fermi Paradox (I’ve discussed it here, in light of the trajectories of the civilizations we know of).

There is no empirical evidence one way or the other. There is no empirical evidence of anyone out there.

This is the bottom line.

A gold mine, perhaps, for imaginative science fiction, but that’s all.

If this changes, rest assured, I will pay attention! As all of us should.

But until then, I repeat: there is no evidence.

Why do I belabor this? Because I often encounter folks — our skeptic above might be an example — who love to cite science when it supports their worldview and sometimes a political-economic ideology, but ignore actual findings (or lack of them) when they do not.

What this represents, I submit, is a strong and fundamentally emotional desire on the part of many scientists, nearly all of whom are de facto materialists, for us not to be utterly alone in this vast universe they posit as godless and uncreated.

If we are entirely alone in a universe godless and uncreated, it would be bizarre. Our planet, teeming as it is with life, would be an inexplicable anomaly!

Does this render materialism dubious? You tell me.

If we can believe contemporary physics, “material reality” is quite different from what we experience. Its fundamental properties are best described by mathematics. This is not new. Galileo said, centuries ago, that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.” Interesting phraseology even today. Unless we are out-and-out Platonists mathematics suggests thought, which, in turn, presupposes: a Thinker.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) would say we are pushing at the limits of language. In a sense, he was right. But limits to language and understanding do not limit reality. In the last analysis, God’s Trinitarian nature as both one God in “three persons” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are mysteries, as is how Christ could have been both one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, how creation was accomplished, when it was accomplished, how human free will operates, and possibly how consciousness itself works.

Mysteries are states of affairs our three-dimensional brains existing in linear time were not designed to be able to grasp.

Positivism / scientism dislikes and distrusts mysteries. Materialists believed they had explained “the mental.” Rorty, who admired Wittgenstein, believed the problems of consciousness were artifacts of our insistence on “mentalist” language.

But some recent philosophers of mind — Colin McGinn (1950 –         ) is an example — have noted that consciousness remains fundamentally mysterious despite over a century of hard, sustained, patient, technical, analytic, multi-disciplinary investigations.

There is nothing in the brain, observes McGinn, to suggest that as a physical entity it is able, somehow, to generate subjective conscious awareness of the rich phenomenal world we inhabit — of what David Chalmers compared to a “movie” completely surrounding us all, playing in three-dimensions, through which we move as the central character for all of our lives, negotiating plot points and panoramas of sights, sounds, aromas, etc., beyond anything James Cameron could have come with in Avatar.

Chalmers began with the idea of trying to make materialism work, but throughout his career has been willing to face, honestly, considerations that throw it into doubt. In the above talk, he is clearly casting about for an alternative.

Colin McGinn concludes that our minds just aren’t structured so as to fathom their own nature. His explanation is evolutionary. Understanding consciousness at a deep level would confer on us no advantage in the struggle for existence.

But if materialism is false, the utter mysteriousness of consciousness makes perfect sense! Consciousness is the proverbial square peg that cannot be forced-fitted into the round hole materialism provides.

Language use and understanding, too, confound materialism. What am I doing when I understand a word, or sentence, or the proposition the sentence might be intended to express?

Suppose I, as an English speaker, am standing on a street corner in Budapest, Hungary, with a companion, and we are listening to two native Hungarian speakers a few feet away. We don’t understand a word they are saying, of course, because we don’t know Hungarian — we can’t discern its patterns. We hear vocal sound, but can’t discern meanings. We have no understanding.

The speakers understand each other perfectly, of course. Isn’t that interesting?

Were we to speak in English, and the Hungarians hear us, our situations would be reversed (assuming no grasp of English by the Hungarian interlocutors).

What is this understanding, this discerning of meanings?

I am aware of the volumes upon volumes of philosophical literature on this, especially since Wittgenstein’s day.

What was that line from Macbeth about tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

No, I am not saying that the legions of academic philosophers who authored that literature are idiots. But surely it is possible that they have allowed themselves, collectively, to be misled. Even the best remaining living philosophers, such as Berkeley’s John Searle (1932 –       ) whose work debunking the idea that understanding is a matter of programming seems to me definitive, continue to be wedded to some form of materialism about mind and consciousness.

For roughly a hundred years now philosophers have wrestled with the idea and been — in my humble opinion — unsuccessful in fitting understanding and meanings (which presuppose consciousness) into the “material world.”

A square peg just won’t fit into a round hole!

The “materiality” of spoken language is nothing more than what I hear when I hear spoken Hungarian: a sequence of sounds coming out of persons’ mouths, nothing more! (The written language is similar: marks on paper or in cyberspace or wherever!)

Likewise with English — a different pattern or sequence of sounds. The only difference is that I can understand those!

But a speaker of Hungarian who does not understand a word of English will hear nothing but sound when I speak!

Understanding a language, spoken or written, is something the mind adds. It is a phenomenon of consciousness, that mental square peg still resisting that material round hole.

Materialism can’t explain conscious self-awareness and understanding period. The “hard problem of consciousness” (David Chalmers’s colorful phrase) will remain not just “hard” but intractable because the problem is not solvable given the round hole most philosophy of mind offers it. It is an indication, when all is said and done, of the fundamental irrationality of continuing trying to explain “how a material organ, the brain, generates conscious awareness,” including understanding language and concept.

I would argue further, that unless we want to lapse into a problematic dualism, this militates in favor of the idea that the world “outside our minds” is inherently “mental” in the sense implied above with our reference to the capacity of mathematics to explain it at its most fundamental level.

But this suggestion of panpsychism (which Chalmers toys with at one point in his talk referenced above) as an appropriate ontology for the world of space and time, consisting of systems each of a type or kind, with each type or kind having its own level of awareness of its proximate environment, is an idea for another time.

The point is: none of this has anything to do with anyone’s theology. We can dispute the idea that consciousness, meanings, understandings, can be fitted into the materialist’s world, without ever mentioning God.

There is much more in our world, and our lives, however, that indirectly points towards such a worldview.

From the successes science has enjoyed it does not follow that this world, the world of space, time, and causality where science and technology operate, exhausts reality.

This should be evident, further, in that science tells us what is, not what should be, or what we ought to do.

Our “material” circumstances and our responses to them (painful or pleasureful) can guide us prudentially, in a means versus ends sense, but they cannot tell us that a given end is a moral one.

Science and its applications can tell us what an abortion is and how to perform one, that it “solves the problem” of an unwanted pregnancy. This cannot tell us whether abortions ought to be performed.

Science can describe, clinically, in whatever vivid detail is desired, a mass murder or genocide. It cannot isolate the specific material component of the event that compels us to describe it as evil.

According to wildly accepted geological findings, mass extinctions have occurred on our planet several times in the past. Were these evil?

To state that cultures evolve morality as survival mechanisms is to imply that moralities could be invented differently, in ways that write murdered “others” out of given moral communities.

This was done in societies guided by one of the variations on the materialist worldview. It had been done before, of course, in societies guided by other worldviews. Only the Christian worldview, of course, asserts that all persons were created in God’s image and have intrinsic value. The early Enlightenment implicitly accepted this with its idea of universal human rights.

Our argument is that materialism gradually undermined this outlook and, by the twentieth century, has left us back where we started. The retribalization of the West (identity politics) confirms this.

But had we an ethics with a foundation other than stipulations hanging in mid-air, we would all react to the aborting of over 63 million unborn babies with the same horror as we do Nazis murdering Jews.

All of this takes us far afield from the fundamental questions a Christian worldview invites humanity to consider. Questions to which a discussion such as this invariably must return.

Who was — is! — Jesus Christ? Was He God made into man, as Scripture says?

What was His mission?

What are you going to do about it? Are you going to face the fundamental questions about the human condition head on, or continue dodging them going down rabbit trails?

If you’re a Christian, you are not out of the woods. Are you living the life Christ commands you to live? If not (and I would argue, none of us truly are), what are you going to do about it?

It is time to begin summing up this series.

Whatever our worldview — Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or materialist — it might be a good idea to talk to one another as best we can, however difficult it might be to converse across these incommensurable divides.

Communications technologies, especially social media, products of the West that have spread worldwide, have brought different worldviews into the same meeting place as never before: cyberspace, which transcends location. There is also the fact that some of us are able to travel anywhere and experience the cultural embodiments of other worldviews firsthand.

We should encourage respectful interfaith dialogue as never before.

Christians, in my humble opinion, should not aim at setting up some kind of theocracy. That type of system has never worked, and never will.

We should build — or rebuild — our communities from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Our dialogue should be conducted respectfully and with an eye to seeing what is similar in the beliefs of others, and not being so eager to focus on what is different. It should set out, that is, to find common ground, starting with the undeniable fact that we are all human, we all have the capacity to suffer or feel joy, and we all could use more companionship — and the sense that someone cares.

And to look to the future rather than dwelling on errors of a past no one can change.

The world needs people both able and willing to communicate, especially with divisive and destructive personalities everywhere. We can then show how the world looks from the Christian standpoint, present what we believe is true in Christianity, why we believe it, and what it does for us (it gives us peace, it gives us hope, and it places our caring on a solid moral footing).

This, we must add, goes along with acting as Jesus Christ would have as act, in accordance with His words during the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It includes setting examples in our personal lives. Not cursing, not lashing out in anger at others, not getting drunk in public (or in private!), not reading or viewing pornography, not cheating on a spouse, not being dishonest with bosses or coworkers or employees or the government, not erecting false idols such as money (the so-called prosperity gospel!) or putting ever-fallible political figures on pedestals.

We need to show others what the Christian worldview looks like when lived, and not just talked about. Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap. The supply is so much greater than the demand.

This will mean taking a public stand on issues that matter, and working to ensure not just, e.g., that there are no abortions but also that unplanned pregnancies are minimized by reducing the conditions for such.

What the Christian worldview says about sexuality might be a place to start. As well as what it says about males and females, husbands and wives, parents and children, families generally. There is responsibility all the way around.

Christians should take an active and personal interest in public health, and health education. This includes mental health. That mental illness stands at an all-time high in materialist civilization must be significant!

If public schools are hostile to Christianity, then Christians need to start more of their own schools. There now exists a library of books arguing this point and advising how to do it.

And Christians should be interested in whether impoverished peoples both at home and abroad have food to eat, whatever the latter’s beliefs. And that they have opportunities to learn the practices that will enable them to feed themselves.

Fortunately, thousands of Christian missionaries all around the world are already doing these things, sometimes placing themselves at risk!

We need to become missionaries in our own secular cities as well.

Will we get everything right? Of course not. No one ever does. What is important is that we will be taking action, not simply sitting in our church pews and home offices.

Words without deeds, after all, are idle chatter.

Having attended to such matters, the most constructive thing we can then do is to step aside and trust God to do His work.

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Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 6)

 “Jesus, help me find my proper place
Jesus, help me find my proper place
Help me in my weakness
Cause I’m falling out of grace.
Jesus. Jesus.”
~The Velvet Underground, “Jesus,” from The Velvet Underground (LP, 1968)

I confess I had a difficult time choosing open song lyrics for these final two segments, if only because openly Christian-friendly themes are relatively rare in progressive rock.

Yet that world contains artists who engaged in intense self-exploration and reached out to a spiritual reality, even if by accident.

The enormously talented Lou Reed (1942 – 2013), who penned the above lyrics, is an example. He’d seen the seamy side of human existence, including from the standpoint of a heroin addiction when he was in his twenties.

The song cited above sounds surprisingly like a prayer for someone who never became a Christian (I am assuming). Reed’s music has always struck me as that of an observer and seeker, commenting on the dark side of human life as if from a vantage point somewhere above.

According to materialists, there is no “vantage point somewhere above,” of course. There is just this world, and whatever neural synapses are firing in your brain and causing those Maslovian peak experiences. And instead of spending eternity with God, Christians end up as worm food no less than non-Christians.

The New Atheists (Dawkins, et al.) have reiterated the “death of God” by predicting the decline of Christianity in the twenty-first century.

At first glance, indeed things do not look good. Whether Christians like it or not, the scientific outlook plus the dopamine drip supplied by endless streams of new high-tech gadgets and other sources of immediate gratification has made the Christian worldview seem irrelevant.

Understanding it, after all, does require an attention span longer than that of a goldfish.

Millennial church attendance is hence dropping, a source of commentary on Christianity losing ground in the U.S. The number of Americans answering polls on religious belief by marking “none” or the equivalent stands at its all-time high.

The Christian worldview is, moreover, incompatible with the political correctness that now grips Western culture from top to bottom, and which is all that millennials have ever seen.

All is not lost, however.

The fruits of secularism are evident, if one knows what to look for. These are impacting on everyone, everywhere.

Europe has been the scene of a reigning secularism for longer than the U.S. Perhaps this has something to do with the declining birthrates of native Europeans, the centralization of the European financial power structure under the EU, the accompanying impoverishment of the common people under “austerity” measures imposed by the central banks, and the gradual overwhelming of European cultures with unassimilable Muslim immigrants.

I can’t say I know this. I’ve not asked native Europeans why they aren’t reproducing themselves. Doubtless there are other contributing factors. But by now it should be clear what secularist materialism does to a civilization over time, as its ideals prove increasingly toothless and its values, uninspiring. Cultures embracing secularist materialism seem to die slowly from the inside out.

At the same time, it might be worth remembering that the Soviets spent 70 years trying to wipe out Christianity. They failed. The Maoists also tried to wipe it out. The present-day Chinese leadership is still hostile to Christianity, but Chinese Christians continue to worship underground, often at great risk. The North Koreans put Christians in what amount to death camps — but Christianity survives there. Radicalized Muslims behead Christians — but Christians continue to be active in the Middle East. There are cases of Muslims observing Christians’ bravery in the face of a cruel and bloody death, sometimes singing hymns during their last minutes, and converting to Christianity!

It may be losing ground in the West, but elsewhere, Christianity is the world’s fastest growing faith!

In light of all this, I think it’s safe to assume that the Christian worldview isn’t going anywhere. Not ultimately. What we should be thinking about is what it says, and what we (i.e., you) ought to do about it.

What does it say?

It stands, as I argued in Four Cardinal Errors (2011), in contrast to the materialist worldview. Here are its main pillars:

1- The God of Christianity exists, as a Being who transcends space and time as we experience them. God created the world of space, time, and causality. The things of God, including rational order and morality, transcend space and time. Logos and Ethos (logicality and morality) are inseparable aspects of God’s eternal nature, as is love (Agape) for the creation and all that it contains, including us.

God’s existence is a starting point or premise or axiom, not a conclusion of our reasoning (the central insight of a school of Christian thought known as presuppositional apologetics).

2- There is therefore this world of space, time, and causality and a transcendent reality “beyond” these, outside our mortal experience.

Reality is not, that is, coextensive with physical or material reality, where the properties of what we experience are conditioned by how our brains and senses are put together.

3- What science does it does reasonably well (when not corrupted by politics or corporate dollars). Science is designed to answer questions and solve problems in this world. It cannot effectively solve metaphysical problems, i.e., those mysteries noted above, any more than can reason alone. Reason, though its starting point is Logos, is human, all too human. It is finite, and so not designed to reach or grasp an infinite and eternal God.

Both Pascal and Kierkegaard grasped this. Later theologians, in awe of the successes of the sciences, let God slip away until He become nothing more than a feeling, a poetic word in our vocabulary, or until He “died.”

Until, that is, He seemed to become irrelevant, and belief in Him became a sign of backwardness.

4- According to Christianity all human beings (unborn babies, too) were/are created in God’s image. Human lives thus have intrinsic value. Nonhuman lives and the objects that surround us have, at best, extrinsic value. Although this is not to say we are free morally to treat them in any way we see fit.

Paraphrasing Aquinas, our reason is an imprint of God’s eternal nature within us. Thus we have the finite capacity to acquire knowledge of the Creation, whether through science or rational insight. Likewise our sense of morality. We have a built-in instinct, however finite and corrupted, for right versus wrong, justice versus injustice.

In this lies the early Enlightenment’s foundation for universal human rights. It is the only such foundation we have discovered, which explains why, once support for the Christian worldview in the intellectual centers began to erode, the ideal of universal human rights (once used to further political-economic rights of, e.g., ethnic minorities) has slipped in favor of the pseudo-intellectual free-for-all of identity politics.

The idea that all human beings were created in God’s image is the foundation for Christian ethics and for the idea that “all lives matter,” if you will.

5- The Christian worldview’s deep diagnosis of the human condition is not ignorance or corrupt institutions but sin: the first humans (whether we read Genesis literally or not) turned away from God. They rejected His authority. They believed they could do better on their own, as moral “free agents.” They were wrong. Sin corrupts everything, including the quest for truth.

Few modern thinkers want any frank discussion of sin. The idea flies in the face of human perfectibility, a legacy of the later Enlightenment. It flies in the face of the dogmas of countless schools of psychology and the self-improvement gurus who tell us that fundamental goodness is locked within each of us and has only to be freed.

Any honest, empirical look at ourselves in the context of history ought to dispel the idea that we can save ourselves. We can “reprogram” ourselves in specific areas, make cosmetic improvements here and there, akin to learning to bathe or ride a bike or use a computer. We can break bad habits, and acquire good ones. We can make ourselves more productive. Societies can improve themselves materially by learning how nature works and acting accordingly (agriculture, engineering, health and medicine, and so on).

It is true, moreover, that most of us tend to act better when our stomachs are full. But an empty stomach alone does not cause bad behavior. Nor does governmental policy or social sanction necessarily lead to good or just or even responsible behavior, or responsive institutions.

My argument is not that the materialist worldview has made us bad, or evil. It is that materialism has failed to change that fundamental sinfulness that prevents us from perfecting ourselves morally. Moreover, because of sin, technology developed in secular civilization has made us far more dangerous to ourselves and to the natural world!

The problem in secular civilization is: how do we have an ethics which sees our lives mattering?

Such a morality is simply not our human “default setting.”

Consider children. Some see them as pictures of innocence. It should be obvious, though, that children can be hideously cruel to classmates who do not “fit in.” Not all, of course. But enough. Where do they learn cruelty? Perhaps in some cases from their peers, but then where did their peers learn it? At home? Parents are not necessarily abusive; in today’s world, they are more likely to be absent.

So did they learn it from television?

There were bullies before there was television.

There is something in some of us that leads us to bully others, to the extent we can get away with it.

Most children who are not cruel, moreover, stand aside when someone is bullied out of fear they might become the bully’s next target.

Some adults remain bullies. While most of us probably mean well (we’ve internalized Christian moral principles even if we are not Christians), there are a few among us whose “principle” really is, “Doing as I please will be the whole of the law, to the extent I can get away with it.”

Which yields some of the societal results we see. We still try to devise rules that operate under the assumption that the desire to do good should be a primary motivator, when it often isn’t. Most of us have little interest in what does not affect us directly, or bring us immediate benefits, or enable us to better position ourselves in some social hierarchy, or win favor with some “in” group. All of us have our lapses, some of which are truly breathtaking!

Secularists believe we are autonomous in some sense, but absent an external moral compass, we often act as destroyers, of others if not ourselves, whether on the grand scale of the recent wars of choice in the Middle East or the small (but from the victim’s standpoint all-too-real!) one of the young teen who is bullied or cyberbullied until she commits suicide.

Unless such things happen to one of our own, we drift with the herd, or with the quiet secularists Peter Watson noticed (see Part 5).

6- The Christian prescription is: Jesus Christ, as God Incarnate. Read the Ten Commandments, Isaiah 53, the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s letters to early Christian Churches, Peter’s instructions to Christians, and so on. Yes, there are sometimes problems interpreting what we perceive God’s will to be. Christians have disagreed over specifics. This is why we have so many Christian denominations.

The Christian worldview cuts through all this by focusing with laser-precision on Jesus Christ. Who was He? Why was he here? What are we going to do about it?

The Christian worldview’s answers are unequivocal: the fundamental problem with the human condition is sin (Romans 3:23). God is perfectly holy and so cannot tolerate sin. Hence the need for human redemption in salvation. Salvation is to be found in Jesus Christ who alone promises salvation from sin’s consequences if we call on Him (Romans 6:23; Romans 10:9-10; Romans 5:8, John 3:16f.; and elsewhere in Scripture).

We cannot save ourselves through “works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Christian worldview recognizes that if we try to start with ourselves morally we get nowhere, and that this observation is fully consistent with what we observe in history and society. This is a good place to begin appreciating the fact.

Skeptics prefer to try to throw us off track from this central message of the Christian worldview, and take us down a variety of rabbit trails of doubt.

The skeptic may say, You Christians think you have a monopoly on morality. Why then, have you fought wars with one another, and exhibited as much greed and cruelty as non-Christians?!

It is true enough, Christians have not always acted justly or with kindness or responsibly. No sensible Christian denies this.

What Christians have gotten wrong could fill a separate essay series: tragic historical battles between Catholics and Protestants; power struggles between different groups of believers, sometimes in the same organizations; personal moral lapses with major ramifications.

One thinks of the revelations of sexual abuses within the Catholic church, but again, these are just the now-visible lapses. Failures within Christian families lead to divorces and embittered and sometimes lost children. Failures to care for their neighbors and fellow citizens as God commands turns people away from Christianity.

Some Christians take it upon themselves to preach in public, haranguing people going about their business without any sense of the need to establish relationships with those people based on trust and good will. Then they wonder why they get a negative reaction.

Many contemporary televangelists preach a false gospel holding that God wants us all to be rich (the so-called “prosperity gospel”) — and please be sure to send the televangelist your generous contribution to his work.

There are times when I think supposedly Christian leaders and followers have done the Christian worldview more harm than atheist materialism ever could!

Those with power have repeatedly abused Christianity. Kings once proclaimed themselves anointed by God; their minions invoked God’s name while committing hideous acts. One thinks of the Spanish Inquisition. There are more recent examples.

When a politician today tries to intimate that “God is on his side” (he’s usually a Republican), frankly, I cringe with embarrassment!

Liberals sometimes speak of a conspiracy they call “dominionism,” which they associate with such politicians. But God gave humanity dominion over the world (Gen. 1:26). This does not mean what either group of politicians thinks it means. Dominion means assuming responsibility, not destructively plundering natural resources, or treating the oceans as dumping grounds for our nonbiodegradable plastic trash.

All this notwithstanding, we can still answer the skeptic: human, all-too-human failings do not prove that the Christian worldview is false, or that materialism is true. The latter, as we have seen, gives us no firm basis whatsoever for condemning these lapses other than expedience, or exercises in cleverness or free-floating, arbitrary postulates such as the libertarian / anarchist NAP.

For whatever failings Christians have exhibited surely pale next to the failures of secular ethical theories, and of secularism more broadly. As we saw in Part 5, secularism seems to lead straight to corporate-state control, the individual person reduced to a nonentity, a statistical cipher with a cubicle job or a sequence of “gigs.”

Appropriate for future worm food.

Turn to Christ! says the Christian.

But was there such a person? The skeptic may say no, no hard proof exists that He ever existed. The Christ figure seems copied from earlier Egyptian and other deities.

I find this strange. This last view seems based entirely on slipshod research about who these deities were and what they were supposed to have done. Christ-deniers, we might call them, cannot explain the direct observations of Jesus Christ following the resurrection by large crowds of people. Thus began what was recorded in the Book of Acts — Acts of the Apostles, that is — designated as such because they had seen the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1:3-9, 21-22; 1 Cor. 9:1; 2 Peter 1:16).

Should we believe these texts? our skeptic asks. Why?

One reason is that Biblical texts have been the most scrutinized of any texts in the world. They are, moreover, the only texts of which we can say we have manuscripts dating to within the lifetimes of their authors. We cannot say that about writings we ascribe to Plato, Aristotle, or other ancient authors, without really thinking about it. Biblical texts have survived close scrutiny. No one has been able to show that they are inauthentic, or contain demonstrable errors.

There were, as everyone knows, multiple gospels. Four made it into our New Testament. As for the others: early Christians were unequivocal: they don’t reflect what happened!

No one denies, moreover, that thousands of Christ’s disciples went willingly to their deaths at the hands of the Romans, so confident was their faith. Some of these deaths were truly grisly and excruciatingly painful! Any skeptic who doesn’t believe this should investigate for himself what crucifixion, a common method of execution in the Roman world, does to the human body and how long it takes.

Christianity won Rome over when Emperor Constantine converted at the start of the fourth century. It was too late for the Empire. The damage done by that era’s brand of secularism was done. Christianity went on to survive its decline and fall, going on to serve as the epistemic as well as the moral foundation of a new civilization: the modern West. Christianity afforded Western science the premises it needed: a universe of order that is intelligible to the human mind, a world in which there are definite rights and wrongs. Because the world was created by a Being of Logos and Ethos.

At this point, our skeptic might take a different tack. What of other faiths? he might ask. You were born in the U.S. and have been surrounded by trappings of Christianity for much of your life. You thus assume them. Suppose you’d been born in Baghdad. Or in Riyadh. Would you not condemning Western materialism as part of your submission to Allah, as a devout Muslim scholar (the word Islam means submission)?

Would you not be a Hindu or possibly a Buddhist, had you been born in, say, India? Or a Confucian, had you been born in Tibet?

There are no easy answers to such questions. I do not know if Christians can have the best answers to them, as those answers (obviously) presuppose Christianity, and to a logical mind will sound circular. The fact that everyone considers his/her religion or faith to be “the right one” is a given; no one would believe in it otherwise. Other religions stand at the center of other worldviews, non-Western ones in most cases. That means (by definition) they are not widely represented in the West.

High or low representation of a belief in a population has no logical implications for truth or falsity, however.

But one thing about the Christian worldview sets it apart from all those others.

All other faiths present human beings as able to save themselves, or some equivalent. None present us with precise criteria for when we have done enough. If you’re a Buddhist, e.g., you adhere to the “four noble truths,” and may enjoy a life of relative self-induced tranquility, but not a life in which you are assured of something infinitely better to follow.

In other faiths, the believer is never sure he or she has won salvation! The Muslim is never certain he’s submitted enough to win Allah’s favor!

Christianity alone asserts that you cannot save yourself. Rather, one becomes a Christian by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. One’s sins are then forgiven. Christians are assured by their worldview that they will spend eternity with God: a state of affairs we are unable to imagine in this life (1 Cor. 2:9).

We’ll end Part 6 on this note. This is the Christian worldview, and what sets it apart.

Have we proven that Christianity is true? To the unbeliever, almost certainly not.

Perhaps it will be more appealing if we see the Christian worldview as offering hope at a chance of an eternity of happiness beyond our present imaginings in the presence of the Creator of the universe … as opposed to one of our having suffered in this life, followed by a death of nothingness as our bodied become worm food.

Or not.

For as we’ll see in the seventh and final installment of this revamped series, our skeptic isn’t done.

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Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have major philosophers said on the subject?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The public health community got away with this for decades!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of free-floating abstractions….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What Is the Point of It All?”

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

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

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

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

At age 97.

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

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Materialism (vers 2.0., Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued in Part 4.

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

Posted in Culture, Philosophy, Political Economy, Where is Civilization Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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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