Sunday, January 30, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part II

Humans are probably the only creatures on earth that live primarily in an unseen world.  For a dog, all that exists are these smells, this dog dish, this food.  A human is more likely to worry about less tangible things, such as the opinions of others, the future, the past, or events in Washington D.C. 

This way of experiencing the world has its advantages, but it is also makes us much more vulnerable to lies, deceit, delusions, and madness.  Over the millennia, humans have evolved a number of psychological safeguards against being deceived by others or oneself.

One of the most important of these is the idea or feeling that something is "too good to be true."  A potential con-man's job is going to be that much harder if he has to avoid excessive or extravagant promises.

Since the rise of industrial civilization, the disappearance of most deadly diseases in the West, and the explosion of wealth and conveniences in our country over the last century, it has become fairly common for people to experience extremely intense feelings of "too-good-to-be-true-ness," especially regarding society at large.  Up until my spiritual conversion in the winter of 2009, I myself experienced this emotion frequently, and it was usually characterized by a sort of nausea at the seeming emptiness of a perfect world.  Today I was trying to think of a name for this emotion, and I decided "utopian horror" would be fitting, since it captures both the content of the vision and the visceral reaction it causes.

Utopian horror was probably the main driving force behind a number of philosophical and political movements during the past 150 years.  Nietzsche's philosophy was characterized by an utter rejection of the idea of progress. In its place he put the "eternal recurrence," and endless and exact repetition of history in all its detail (... though now I think this was probably a sarcastic alternative).  In existential philosophy, particularly Sartre's, "nausea" at the aimless freedom of modern life took center stage, even to the point of feeling that one is "condemned" to be free.  In the case of politics, I think both fascism and neo-conservatism draw heavily on the feeling that life needs to be harder and more adventurous than it is.  Hitler and Mussolini exploited this nostalgia for a simpler, more heroic age, calling their soldiers "warriors" in their speeches, and telling them that their courage would make a stamp on history that would be remembered for centuries to come.  Though more unspoken (and perhaps even unconsciously repressed), American imperialism attracts its followers through a similar kind of adventurism.

When it is not recognized for what it is, I think utopian horror can lead (and has led) to violence, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and societal oppression.  However, if recognized for what it is -- a psychological mechanism for rejecting lies and misinformation -- it can be a powerful force for good as well.  The modern movements of sustainability, environmentalism, and survivalism are all examples of positive results of utopian horror.  By facing the possibility that society is perhaps "too-good-to-be-true" we come to understand its limitations, recognize the corruption and waste that we usually ignore, and work to correct it or adapt to it.  The danger is letting ourselves become cynical about it, and doing the wrong thing because we know it doesn't bring us any closer to utopia anyway.

The role of utopian horror in my life has been very complex.  During college I often suspected that progress was too good to be true.  After my nervous breakdown, I knew it viscerally, but struggled to express the feeling.  For years I argued with people concerning the population explosion, evolution, natural selection, and the destruction of the environment, attempting to convince them directly that utopia was not here and was not even close to being here.  This culminated in the book I wrote during my break from academia, a book that does not mince words or sugarcoat the reality, but attempts to bluntly and directly demolish the utopian illusion we have built for ourselves.

Now I see that this approach was misguided, giving in completely to my gut reaction and forgetting to see the spiritual side of the picture, the side of the picture that I had struggled for years to maintain against the rampant cynicism of academic life.  In a word, I had almost become what I was struggling to fight, even after fleeing academia and attempting to strike my own path.  The reason for this is that I had fallen into thinking that one could "prove one's point" using rational arguments alone.  I thought if I could write a book that would convince my professors -- using their own logic -- that there was something seriously wrong about the paradigm they were teaching, then perhaps I would open the door for a new kind of philosophy.

I knew this was a quixotic quest, but I also knew that no great books were written without taking a risk.  I realized that my professors would not be instantly or entirely convinced, but hoped that they would at least come to respect my determination, and at least give my their support.

By the time I had made this decision, I had been in the department for four years.  So let's back up a bit so I can tell the story of how it got to this point. 

Actually, this post is already long enough.  But this was an important digression, because hopefully it explains what my motivations were in the first dissertation project that I proposed (and that didn't end up working out).

Friday, January 28, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part I

My life plans have recently gone through some tumultuous changes. Though I haven't made an official decision yet, it looks likely that by next fall I'll be pursuing a career as a network administrator. There are many reasons for this change:

1) I will probably make more money and faster than in academia.
2) I will be able to buy a piece of land close to family sooner, to help myself prepare for a possible collapse.
3) Philosophy is a risky career choice because universities everywhere are gutting their humanities departments.
4) It will be at least probably 8 or 9 years before I get tenure and can say and write what I want.
5) Philosophy school and I ... haven't been getting along so well recently.

Today -- within days of making my unofficial and unannounced decision to become a network geek -- I got a letter from the department saying that I am making "unsatisfactory progress" and that I need to "identify a dissertation director" and "have a defensible prospectus by the end of this semester" or my funding will be "in jeopardy." I'm not sure I can meet these demands, or that I really want to.

Obviously, I'm not taking this as hard as I would be if I still had my heart set on becoming a professor.

So what happened? In my earlier posts I told the overarching story, but I strategically left out a number of details concerning my relationship with the department. One needs to be careful what one posts on the internet, especially if it might offend the person paying one's fellowship.

But I've talked it over with Emily, and we've decided that it's time for the truth to come out. I can't promise you'll be shocked, but I do hope it gets you thinking.

When I first arrived in Pittsburgh, if you'll recall, I was just recovering from a nervous breakdown in which I had questioned basically everything I believed in (science and art) and rediscovered some small connection to the divine. I felt that philosophy was a good place for me, because it would give me the freedom to ponder the meaning of life and catch up on 3000 years of Western culture. (You don't get much culture in physics.) I would be studying in a department of "History and Philosophy of Science." It didn't seem to me you could get much broader than that.

I was wrong. Unfortunately, I found that most of the philosophical readings assigned in my seminars were from the last 50 years, and focused narrowly on a number of mainstream, technical "debates." Any philosophy from before about 1950 is generally considered "quaint" and "naive" by modern academic philosophers. This was somewhat disconcerting to me, because the main reasons I had been attracted to philosophy in the first place were the writings of Plato, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. But none of these three philosophers were taken seriously in the department.

For a couple of years I gave them the benefit of the doubt, and did my best to immerse myself in modern American "Analytical" Philosophy. What I found was volumes upon volumes of minute technical debates, in which nothing really was at stake. For example, there is a debate over "realism vs. anti-realism" which is very popular currently. The realists believe that reality is really out there, and science can tell us what it is. The anti-realists argue that science has no choice but to postulate entities that can't really be seen (such as quarks), which means that there is no way to guarantee that scientific theories tell us what is "really there." Personally, I've avoided this particular debate completely, since it seems to me that there is no way to prove, one way or another, what is really provable.

I did a lot of hanging out with my fellow grad students, those first few years, doing my best to avoid becoming a complete bookworm. In our conversations, I gradually discovered that I wasn't the only one who was dissatisfied with Analytic-style philosophy. Over beer at the local pub, we would talk about how philosophy didn't examine real social issues anymore, how most debates were pointless, how it was silly that you couldn't talk about art or morality, how the whole field had been ruined by careerism, and how it was all about publishing papers and not about finding truth.

Bit by bit this rebellious attitude was stamped out of us. Usually about 1/3 of the students in HPS and Philosophy quit (or are kicked out) once they get their masters. Talking to them, I found that most of them were dissatisfied for all the sorts of reasons I just described.

Another 1/3 of the students, I found, were very happy in the department. They enjoyed logic and debating fine points, and they seemed to think that all this was going somewhere, that philosophy really had come along way.

The rest of us -- at least in the beginning -- were what you might call "anarchists." As we saw it, the system had to be taken down from the inside. Philosophy had fallen in love with science and logic, and had forgotten to ask questions that really matter. It had become over-professionalized, and was ripe, we thought, for a revolution. The trick was to stay in the system, get your Ph.D., become a professor, and then finally get the chance to say what needed to be said.

One of the most tragic things I've experienced is to see my friends, one by one, lose this youthful idealism. How this happened was different in each case, but most of the time it was understandable. Even if it were possible to take on and defeat the entire tradition of analytic philosophy, it would take a genius. At some point most would-be revolutionaries just have to admit defeat, and find some minor specialty that interests them. This might mean selling out to the system rather than challenging its fundamental assumptions, but at least you'll finally have some peace.

As for me, I tenaciously held on to the hope that a "revolution" would be someday possible. I'm sure that I wasn't the only one, but it's a difficult feeling to express without sounding arrogant, so I think a lot of us eventually fell silent. As I saw it, if I would have to be a "genius" and battle it out for the rest of my life, so be it. My experiences at Caltech had hardened me. Reading Plato, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche inspired my courage. It could be done, I knew, because it had been done before. Philosophers who disagreed with the paradigm of pure logic had made themselves heard over the centuries. In my view, the thing that was needed most in philosophy was courage, not technical expertise. You didn't need to be a genius, I realized, you just had to be steadfast. You had to show that you were just as good at logic as everyone else, but that you still saw that there was something more.

But things didn't turn out to be so simple. At some point you have to learn to play their game, and soon you're going to find yourself saying things that you don't really believe. And you're faced with a choice: honesty or your career.

For a while I thought it would be easy to avoid this choice. I thought I could use logic against itself, to slowly but surely chip away at the dogmas that were keeping us in chains. To explain why this was naive, I'll need to tell the story in more detail -- this means introducing some technical ideas in Analytic philosophy, so you can understand what was at stake. But it's late, and this blog post is already long enough, so I'll leave this for next time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

An Alternate Perspective on Collapse

The buzz has been growing steadily since 2008 that something is desperately wrong, that the world economy is somehow broken, and that Western civilization is collapsing or heading for a collapse. I've been reading about this extensively over the last 2 years, and what I've found has reshaped my thinking completely, even philosophically. 

Originally, I thought the decline of our civilization would be too intense a topic to start with. But it's looming too large in my mind now to put off any longer.

The usual story you'll hear about how we got where we are today goes something like this. During the 1600 and 1700's, the scientific method was discovered and spread throughout Europe by a number of learned societies. This eventually led to the invention of the steam engine, mass production, the automobile, and modern progress as we know it. This progress will be a continual process as long as scientists continue to make new discoveries, which it seems they do at a faster and faster pace as our knowledge and expertise grow. It is true that our economy is having a rough time as fossil fuels become scarcer, but human ingenuity will pull through as it always has if we work hard and "go green."

Here's the alternative story, currently becoming more mainstream as "peak oil" theorists publish more books and film more documentaries. During the 1700's, a number of engineers in England discovered that coal-powered steam was the most efficient way to pump water out of mines. Soon, factories all over Europe were using steam-engines to mass-produce a variety of goods. By the 20th century, we learned how to use natural gas and oil as well, and this led to a boom in population and civilization. Unfortunately, it turns out that fossil fuels are non-renewable resources, and since we neglected to plan for they day that these resources become scarce, we are now facing the consequences. Oil production is becoming increasingly more expensive since peaking in 2005, and coal and natural gas are soon to follow. Since most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, and nonrenewables aren't growing fast enough to fill the gap, our economy is now shrinking at an accelerating pace. Their conclusion is normally that it is time to stock-up on food and ammunition, and beat ourselves over the head for being so dumb.

I'm far from satisfied with either of these ways of looking at things. Both stories are too materialistic. In the first story, human life gets better and better simply because we keep inventing, producing, and buying new gadgets. In the second story, the quality of human life is at the mercy of plentiful portable energy, without which we automatically become barbarous brutes.

I think most people -- including both utopians and collapsitarians -- realize that spirituality, compassion, truth, and beauty are far more important than either gadgets or oil. But it's easy to get lost in the sheer size of it all: the billions of people now living, the dizzying heights of our technology, and the utter desolation we might be facing. My point is, if it's really so scary (and personally I think it is) why are we not going any deeper than the economics of the thing? Why aren't we on our knees praying?

Life is not simply about survival. I do suggest stocking up on food, getting some land, and building a local community. But people also need meaning. World War II wasn't simply hordes of machines and soldiers shooting each other. It was the story of the rise and fall of Fascism and Social Darwinism, both genuine evils, and how they were defeated by Freedom and Social Harmony. Similarly, the question we need to ask ourselves now is: what evil are we facing? What good or nobility in us is being tested?

I was about to end the post here, but suddenly my dream from last night came back to me. In that dream (coincidentally?) I was asking my dad almost exactly this question. I was worried about something and needed advice. I asked, "How am I going to do what I need to do?" He answered, "Integrity."

A ship has integrity if it can whether a storm without getting a cracked hull. A leader has integrity if he does what is best, rather than what is popular. A soldier has integrity if he can act with courage and compassion when his life is in danger. The enemies of integrity are fear, doubt, and dishonesty.

It is no accident that Christianity spread fastest when Rome was collapsing. At the time it seemed that the world was turning upside-down. Christianity provided a new, stronger foundation. "If you have faith and do not doubt," taught Jesus, "you can say to this mountain, 'Go throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done."

If integrity is the good in us that must be tested, what is the contrary evil we are facing? Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, ch. 29:

Trying to improve the world by force
Will not succeed
The world is sacred
It can't be forced
To force it is to harm it
To control it is to lose it

In the way of things
Some lead while others follow
Some breathe heat while others breathe cold
Some are strong while others are weak
Some accumulate while others collapse

Therefore the sage avoids extremes
Avoids extravagance
Avoids excess

This is what is missing from the two stories above. In addition to technical progress and the unlocking of fossil fuel energy, there was another additional ingredient that created Western civilization, and that is the drive to control, improve, and perfect the world itself.

I'm not entirely sure whether the powers that be -- the bankers, politicians, and CEOs who control our wealth -- truly believe in progress, or are simply cynical misers. I'm sure both types exist out there, perhaps struggling secretly for dominion of the world. In any case, they are all mistaken. The world cannot be controlled, whether to fix it or to rule it. No amount of wealth lasts forever. All wealth is fiat wealth; no amount of gold can buy a loaf of bread from a starving man.

The divide between rich and poor has never been greater in human history. There are businessmen today with more money and power than most countries. The United States is so rich that though it makes up about 5% of the world's population, it consumes over 30% of its resources. It takes more oil than we're shipping to ship it to us from the middle east. Similarly, it usually takes several times more energy to ship our food to us than the amount of energy in the food. Argentina has some of the most fertile farmlands in the world, but since its economy collapsed in 2001, its people are starving because the corporations that own the land make more money shipping it to the United States than by selling it to the locals. In Africa, similar circumstances, as well as free food from the UN, has driven most local farmers out of business. This situation has prevented them from getting a foothold in the food market for decades (see Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo). We use enough water in one shower to keep a man alive in the desert for a month. And so on -- I'm sure you've heard plenty of similar facts.  (The most careful and plentiful data I've found are in The Little Green Handbook, by Ron Nielsen.)

So it's not simply a story of the development of science and fossil fuel energy, but of how we used this power to exploit other societies around the world. This divide between rich and poor only widens every day. It is hard not to think that there will be some justice in our fall.

"The Lord takes his place in court;
  he rises to judge the people.
The Lord enters into judgment
  against the elders and leaders of his people:
'It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
  the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people
  and grinding the faces of the poor?"
                     declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty."

-Isaiah 3:13-15

All civilizations have eventually fallen, toppling the wealthy and leading to simpler times when people lived self-sufficiently. (See Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, and David Hackett Fischer's The Great Wave.) As Isaiah puts it:

"They will build houses and dwell in them;
  they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
  or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
  so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
  the works of their hands.
They will not toil in vain
  or bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
  they and their descendants with them."

-Isaiah 65: 21-23

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Case Against Progress; A Plea for Courage

For more than six generations, we Westerners have lived in boom times. As a result, we're so used to things getting better, that we've come to see Progress as the usual way of things. Transportation gets better: from foot, to horse, to train, to car, to rocketship. Health gets better: from Black Plague, to tuburculosis, to more medicines than diseases. Communication gets better: from snail mail to email to gmail. And so on. Most people still seem to assume that this trend will continue as long as there are people on this planet.

But what I've read over the last five years has convinced me that Progress is wholly and utterly an illusion. The history of human civilization is not at all a story of overall improvement. The following facts have convinced me of this:

1) Before the appearance of technology, the human population was at equilibrium. A given tribe was equally likely to die out as to spread.

2) After the appearance of technology (such as fire and stone tools), the human population remained in this equilibrium for hundreds of thousands of years. Each new invention simply made certain tribes more prosperous, and other tribes less prosperous. The population did grow slowly over time, but limited supplies of food and water kept it in roughly the same balance it had before technology.

3) The only period left that might be called "Progressive" is the last two hundred years (1800-2000 A.D.) -- and only in Western countries. But worldwide disparities between rich and poor have never been greater, the environment is being destroyed, nonrenewable resources are running out, and species are dying at an unprecedented rate. To make matters worse, we depend on cheap labor in poor countries to get most of the "high-tech" goods that make our lives so progressed.

Might progress be possible in the future? As I see it, since it hasn't yet occurred, there is no reason to think it is even possible.

If you've never seen things this way before, you should be somewhat confused. I was when it first hit me. From the time we are wee tykes we are taught that the most important thing we can do with our lives is to make the world a better place. Without progress as a goal, we are left somewhat purposeless.

The first step to overcoming this confusion, I think, is to realize the most societies throughout most of history have gotten along fine without believing in long-term, world-wide progress. History was seen as a cyclical process, and the world consisted of one's village and perhaps a few surrounding cultures. Religions preached personal improvement, inner peace, and a quieting of worldly desires. Painters strove for perfection in their work (rather than wild new ideas as they do today). Science aimed at collecting and teaching knowledge already acquired (rather than ever pushing for strange new facts). There was nothing wrong or "backwards" about this state of affairs -- it still produced geniuses such as Mozart, Michaelangelo, and Isaac Newton. Of course, most people had to grow their own food, an admittedly difficult life, but not so difficult as to tip the balance that had always been there.

If progress is an illusion, it follows that Western society is mortal. Our culture, with its rock 'n roll, hollywood movies, and televangelists, will dwindle away, the same way that Roman gladiators, laurel wreaths, and chariot races did. Even more disheartening, so will the political entities we call the United States and the European Union, as well as all of the countries and states within them. When the boom times are over, the population shrinks, and technology simplifies, most of the knowledge we've gained, books we've written, and movies we've filmed will be lost forever. For an intellectual like myself, the inevitability of such decline is perhaps the hardest thing to come to grips with.

To be blunt: we Westerners are spoiled. We're used to long showers, getting answers from Google, and flying to France for fun. When we think about life on a medieval farm we get squeamish at the germs, all the hard work and calluses, rising at dawn, and dying of the plague. We're nerdy wimps. We're no different from the European nobles back at the dawn of Western democracy. We're lazy, happy, and oblivious. We think that hard work is sitting in front of a computer screen for 40 hours a week.

Life is supposed to be difficult. We are here to face challenges. What makes a challenge a challenge is that it is possible to fail. Life on a medieval farm is not always fair -- sometimes your fellow villagers die from disease or war -- but in the long run it is those groups of people who cooperate best, work hardest, think most deeply, feel a stronger connection to the earth, are most at peace with themselves, are the most heroic, the most loving, and have the deepest relationship with God, who succeed in the end. How do I know this? Because these are the qualities that are admired most universally in all cultures. If these qualities were not conducive to survival, then such cultures would have died out rather than spread.

As I see it, Western society is not currently conducive to the evolution of such traits. Instead we reward cowardice, blind drudgery, individualism, and greed. But this situation will naturally correct itself: as the environment degrades, as fossil fuels and arable land runs out, and as the poor of the world become more oppressed and angry, eventually the system will collapse, and we'll be forced to face the real world once again.

Maybe it sounds harsh, but it's the truth, as far as I can tell. Once it's properly understood, this truth should seem not oppressive, but liberating.