Friday, January 6, 2017

Introduction to “Thoughts of a Recovered Philosopher” for Liberals


This is an introduction for those who already understand that what humans are doing to the environment is a problem. That big corporations with big money unleashing big propaganda is a problem. That poverty is not just an inconvenience but a genuine and serious problem. That rationality and objective truth-seeking is a good thing and that Darwin’s theory of evolution is generally correct. That there are problems with traditional institutions and religions, specifically with organized religions, which have a tendency to decay. This is for those who understand, in short, that things are changing and some kind of adaptation is necessary.

Technically, my philosophy falls somewhat to the right on the political spectrum. Some of my views, in fact, are radically conservative. But I don't really believe in the "political spectrum." And here's why. You might think that on all of the issues I just mentioned--the environment, big corporations, Darwin's theory, and our need for change--I am going to argue that they are not all that important, that you should just compromise on them and be less liberal about them. But quite the opposite is true. Your typical liberal, in fact, should be far, far more radical about the environment, fighting poverty, and promoting reason and change. As I see it, the biggest problem with modern liberalism is that it is not liberal enough.

The same, incidentally, is true about modern conservatism on my view--it is not conservative enough.

Modern political thinking has become far, far too milquetoast.  It lacks vitality, vim, verve, vigor. It is too careful. We never take up arms anymore to defend our freedoms. Instead we whine on Facebook. As impossible as an anarchist utopia would be, better a bloody overthrow of the government and a return to primitive feudalism then all this aggrandized, infantilizing media drama. Yeah, Trump is Hitler. Sure he is. Next thing you'll tell me Obama is Moses and Mickey Mouse is the most profound idea since Buddhism.


Take the environment for example. You tell me global warming is THE issue of today. Millions will die, economies will collapse, and so on. Fine. Then why in the name of everything holy are you driving a car to work every day? "Oh, well you know I have to work and feed my--" Millions will die! Ride a bike!

Until you eliminate fossil fuels from your life it is hypocritical to utter the slightest complaint about global warming. Who are you complaining to? God? Are you asking the government to make your car illegal? Because short of that I don't see what the government can do about it. This is why I'm sick of the global warming "debate."

And what I really don't understand is why we stop with global warming. There's some disagreement over whether global warming is caused by fossil fuels or is all that serious, but it doesn't really matter because there's a dozen other unsustainable aspects of our civilization that will almost certainly cause its collapse:

-It would take five planet earths to supply the resources for everyone in the world to live with an American standard of living. This means that our extravagant lifestyle is literally blocking the rest of the world from development. In other words we are hypocrites, holding ourselves up as the most "equal" people on earth while in actuality constituting a sharply distinct and exploitative aristocratic class over everyone else. In essence, the scheme to lift everyone up to the Western standard of living is a pyramid scheme. All pyramid schemes (a.k.a. empires) collapse.

-We are in the midst of a huge extinction event, losing species faster than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

-The world's energy consumption is doubling roughly every 35 years, and this is primarily due to economic growth in China, India, and the West. Exponential growth cannot last forever--it always reaches a limit. In the news they talk about economic growth as a good thing. When we reach this limit we will be forced to face some harder realities.

-90% of our transportation is powered by petroleum, and 75% of our products contain petroleum products, mostly plastics. We have less than a century of oil and natural gas, even if our energy consumption stopped growing. But it is growing so we really only have a few decades at best. Coal may last a century at current growth rates, but mining it is not a pretty process and it burns dirty.

-Food production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Without them, it's been estimated that our agriculture could support only about one or two billion people.

-Renewable energy sources have limits too. It takes certain rare metals to make solar panels. And if wind power provided all our energy and our energy consumption keeps doubling, its wind-dampening effects would start to have climactic effects on par with global warming. (See K. Marvel, et al., “Geophysical Limits to Wind Power.”)

-There are over a dozen important minerals that won't be profitably minable after a few more decades. (See A.M. Diederen, “Metal Minerals Scarcity and the Elements of Hope,” NIDV, The Hague).

-We are destroying topsoil, forests, and fresh water resources faster than they can be replenished.

-Technological innovation is slowing (See Joseph Tainter, “Complexity and the Productivity of Innovation.”)

You may be thinking, okay, but maybe we are introducing enough new regulations and technologies to mitigate these trends. It may seem bad now but perhaps it's getting better. I'm sorry, but this is wishful thinking. It is essential to keep this fact firmly in mind: every trend I just described is only getting worse because overall consumption of every resource I mentioned is increasing exponentially. It doesn't matter how many new mines or oil fields are discovered, this only feeds the growth. And you just can't beat exponential growth. Not even with government regulation.

"Ah, but, you know, people have been freaking out about this stuff for decades and it really hasn't turned out to be a big deal." Maybe you've never heard the parable of the lily pond, or if you have you may need a refresher. Please Google it.

"All right, so then you're saying it's all hopeless?" Not at all. Resource limitations are a natural part of life. Here's the real kicker. Here's what most people these days have a difficult time understanding.

What's weird is not that resources are becoming scarce. What's weird is that we live in one of those extremely rare time periods when things aren't scarce. For millions of years, our main resources were things like wild deer and wild fruits and nuts. These things were generally hard to find and most people failed to survive and reproduce. If the population of humans grew, these things became even harder to find. If food resources grew, we'd consume them and they would return to normal.

Then we discovered farming. Now we just needed good land. The population exploded and before we knew it good land was scarce and we were back to equilibrium. Farming became hard again and not everyone made it. Natural selection quickly re-entered the picture.

Recently we discovered fossil fuels and now we have cars and tractors and trucks and fertilizer. It's made things easier for a time. All I'm saying is soon we will return to the hard way of things, where there aren't enough resources for everyone. European civilization persisted for 2000 years in such a state of equilibrium. It's a tough life but it's not fatal to society or learning.

My point is the last century or two has spoiled us.

And here we see, following ecological thinking out to its ultimate limit, why modern environmentalism is not nearly radical enough. Not even close. What we need to be doing is figuring out local sustainability, as we did in the "good" old days. I mean the "less-stupidly-easy" old days. Learn to farm sustainably. Or just raise a garden and a few chickens. Learn woodworking. Learn to build sheds and barns and homes. Be prepared. Take the basic idea of global warming, follow it out to its ultimate conclusion, and this is what you can begin to see.


Let's move on to wealth inequality. As a liberal you probably see it as a problem. And you should. But already, while discussing the environment, we've seen how popular thinking on this is way, way too milquetoast. We've got a pyramid scheme on a global scale. We're using resources so greedily we are making it literally impossible for other nations to catch up. We've got a form of hypocrisy as silly here as the whole global warming thing. You really want to help Africa? Stop driving your car and burning so much of the oil they need. Stop heating your home through the winter and using up all the natural gas they need. Stop buying cheap plastic goods made by the 12-year-old wage slaves we hired over there.

Hypocrisy, hypocrisy, and more hypocrisy. The inequalities we see in America are virtually zero compared with the inequalities between nations. Don't tell me about the "hungry" in America. The only hungry we have are those who are too lazy to apply for welfare or even just stand on the street and stick out their hand. Take a little trip to Mexico and see what I mean.

Yeah, those 1% oppressing us all, sure. If you and I are making more than $34,000 a year we are the 1%.

We won't be on top forever. Learn traditional knowledge and skills. Get out of the city and learn agriculture. I know it's not the cool thing to do now, but in the future it will be so cool.


And now we come to my favorite topic of all, evolution. Many liberals enjoy the fact that religious types are in denial of the strong scientific support behind Darwin's theory. They also enjoy the fact that evolution tells us just how brutal things used to be before humans started to adapt using science instead of natural selection.

Actually, we should find neither of these facts enjoyable. There are plenty of people who believe in a personal God (myself included) that find nothing objectionable about evolution. We need to stop assuming that God and evolution are somehow incompatible. The more atheists use evolution as a weapon to challenge theism, the harder it becomes for theists to accept evolution as a fact of life, much less as a grand and beautiful part of God's design.

But this whole topic is basically moot, because you are a liberal and so you probably already accept evolution as fact. What is more interesting to me is the common view that evolution is something modern humans have "overcome."

The book I'm publishing this year, Progress Debunked, is essentially one long argument for why evolution applies just as strictly to human DNA and ideas as it does to all other organisms. And here we have an interesting place where radical "liberalism" may become radical conservatism. Because, historically speaking, those who believe that the principle of Survival of the Fittest can be applied to humans have been far-right reactionaries. This automatically makes it very un-PC, along with the idea that competition is a natural part of life, some are born with a higher IQ, and so on.

But these controversies are neither here nor there. The main reason I find it interesting and important to apply evolution to humans is that we can see, at a more fundamental level, why the whole idea of a modern world that has overcome natural selection is bunk. If you understand evolution deeply enough, you will see that it is essential to life itself. And you will see that liberal values like compassion and cooperation were actually shaped by natural selection (what some call "group selection"), which can in fact operate on entire ecosystems--even on the entire biosphere.

I'm saying that both liberals and conservatives have taken a far-too-shallow view of the significance of evolution. From the point of view of cultural evolution, the oldest religions and philosophies are the most profound, because they have survived and flourished through the natural selection of the harshest and most diverse ages and societies. I have heard Christianity called a "fossil species." As a matter of fact it is still one of the fastest growing belief systems. Atheism and secularism (which are in fact older ideas than Christianity) are shrinking because they tend to foster lower birthrates.

In the end, evolution and religion converge in what they are saying. This is true of all great ideas. To see this you must dive deeply into both. Why did God create evil? Evolution is one way to answer this question. What value system has the greatest evolutionary fitness? God is one way to describe the answer to this.

We could go much deeper, but this is only supposed to serve as an introduction to the sort of philosophical questions I think we most desperately need to face.


Liberals tend to have a problem with organized religion. And I would tend to agree that there is a problem here. This is a place where what I have to say to you is the same whether you are a conservative or a liberal or something else. As I wrote in my Introduction for Non-Liberals:

It isn’t just that people are forgetting religion and missing the point of it. It’s also that our religious institutions themselves are in a state of decay and corruption. Many people would rather not hear this. And in fact they have no reason to listen to me—-a humble philosopher, however recovered from his wayward ruminations-—on why their religion has a problem. In fact I am likely to be wrong in my diagnosis, being neither a profound theologian nor expert on the founding or leadership of spiritual institutions. I’d prefer to let someone infinitely wiser than me make the point:

“Do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”

None of this is to say we should go out and burn our Bibles. Quite to the contrary, we need to read them more diligently than ever, to make sure we lose nothing from this fittest of all books. We must pay at least this much respect to our ancestors, that we thoroughly understand what they believed before judging it. G.K. Chesterton called tradition the democracy of dead. I would take this two steps further. Tradition is not only the most powerful form of democracy, but the most powerful form of authority, period. It is the voice of natural selection, of God, thundering down to us from the depths of history. Those who ignore it, do so at their own peril.

For further thoughts on this, see my essay, Through Nihilism.


I hope this was a useful primer. Everything I've said here I've also said elsewhere, scattered about. You should be ready, at this point, to dip into my blog anywhere and more or less understand where I'm coming from.

I've criticized the hypocrisy of a number of modern notions here, and you may be wondering how I apply these ideas to my own life.

Now I don't claim to be perfect or live entirely free of contradiction. But I do humbly attempt to practice what I preach in four basic ways. (1) I study both ancient and modern classics diligently, and try to pay respect to the Great Conversation in what I write. (2) I strive to write philosophy, as Nietzsche asks, with blood. I don't split hairs but I do put logic above rhetoric. What I say comes from the heart and is meant to touch hearts and improve the way we live. (3) I devote even more time to my wife and children than I do to my writing, and I do everything I can to teach my children well. (4) I do garden as sustainably as I can. Though I don't know much farming I try to learn more every year and make progress toward establishing a homestead.

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