Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saving up Extra Credit against the Apocalypse, Are We?



Think you are part of a revolution? You don’t even know what a revolution is.

None of us do. How can we? What could be more alien to us and our way of life, than for a guillotine to appear in the town square (or the modern equivalent? the Walmart parking lot?) and for heads of people you know to start rolling?

That such a day of judgment could occur here and now is unimaginable to us, we who lack the stomach for even the mildest days of judgment. We are too addicted to things like, I don’t know, extra credit. Anything to postpone judgment, to put it off, even to banish it entirely. If you are a teacher you may have heard of grade inflation. Fifty years ago a C was the average grade, didn’t matter if you were in Kindergarten or graduate school. Today it’s somewhere around an A or B.

We all know that the ideal classroom would never grade on a curve. It would never give extra credit. You would get exactly the grade you earned. There would be no boost for “effort” or for “giving it your best shot.” Why? Because there is nothing like this in real life.

This is one thing a military education has over almost any other sort of education in this country. It is as strict as life and death because you are being trained for war, and war is life and death. What the rest of us are forgetting is that all existence is life and death. When judgment day arrives, when the next revolution occurs, there will be no more extra credit. All will be judged by their merits. Natural selection will be everything, and the mercy of professors nothing.

These are all thoughts that should come rushing to your mind with the word apocalypse, because this is precisely what it means.

***

We imagine that we live in a time that is exceptional. That we have achieved a kind of progress that has never been achieved before. That the kingdom of joy is conquering the domain of suffering, that life and death will soon be in our own, very merciful, hands. That the reign of natural selection is nearly over.

The only thing that is true about this picture is the notion that we live in an exceptional time, because we do. But it is not exceptional because it is progressing, nor that natural selection has been in any way reduced. Because in truth, as I argue in my book, our civilization has not progressed a single step, either in terms of suffering or in terms of natural selection. To take any such single step is impossible because, as I elaborate on here, with every reduction in suffering comes a proportional reduction in joy, and thus in consciousness, in reality itself.

No, our time is exceptional in this fundamental respect, and in fact everything that is special about us reduces to this one thing: that we have put off the day of judgment farther than anyone of any previous age could have imagined.

(Except the Hebrews. You should read the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament.)

I find it comical that as oil production peaked and financial panic spread in 2008 and 2009, the possibility that our civilization might collapse, the idea that our society is, after all, mortal, was suddenly worth considering. Books and websites about collapse proliferated, and we wondered how we could have been so foolish as not to prepare for the decline of fossil fuels decades in advance. And then, in 2010 and 2011, as fracking and oil shales brought American oil production back up to where it had been, and still rising, we forgot all about it again.

Rest assured, despite our current growth, most of our energy still comes from nonrenewable sources. Fossil fuels are still being used faster than nature can replenish them. At current rates of growth, and based on even the most optimistic projections, we don’t have more than a century until economies will be forced to start shrinking. And pessimistic projections are much worse, giving us mere decades.

But the question about whether we have a few years or a few centuries, or even, assuming we can get fusion to work, forever, is really all nothing more than a debate over something that has absolutely no intrinsic value: extra credit. Because all that plentiful energy is good for is postponing judgment day.

Let me take that back. It’s also good for philosophy. When times are hard and you have to struggle to survive, there isn’t much time to philosophize. We’re actually being given an opportunity here, and if we are to show our worthiness of the gift, we had better take it. What use is our towering civilization if it gives future generations nothing of true value? Vast ruins are just monuments to mortality. Great conquerors and wars are just offerings to vanity. Even the most sophisticated science and technology is, in the end, so much overpriced wizardry. But it is great works of philosophy and art that will make a civilization a teacher of future ages, as Greece has been for us.

I often doubt that we have anything to teach. We are so wrapped up in material concerns and empty entertainment, we are so insulated from real suffering, we can be so happy and contented even without wisdom, that I wonder how we might manage to gain it, and to be sure that it is not illusory.

Can we moderns even know what wisdom is? I know this much: wisdom is of and for the ages. And one thing that we have more of than even the Greeks, is a memory of ages, is history. And this can benefit us in two ways.

First, this memory itself has undergone natural selection. It is a repository not just of random facts and stories, but of highly selected facts and stories, what you might call sagas and myths. Whatever has survived the brutal process of copying and re-copying, translation and re-translation, has not survived due to extra credit (unless it was by luck, as when very old manuscripts are preserved untouched and unread for centuries) but because they have some deeply symbolic meaning for us, because they in some utterly real (evolutionary/theological) sense deserve to be classics.

Second, this memory allows us to step back and see our own time from a broader perspective. We already do this all the time. Or we try to. Our passion for costume dramas and martial epics is due to a well-placed instinctual urge to see, not the past from our point of view, but ourselves from a more primal point of view. What is false in the modern way of doing this is that we almost always come out of these fantasies saying, “Oh how great and good we moderns really are, that we have overcome such barbarism.” This is how we blind ourselves.

The Victorians did it better. Sure: they saw themselves, and correctly, as standing on the heights of civilization. But even better: they saw themselves, and correctly, as declining. Do not let their love of progressive science fool you. They loved more their prophetic philosophy, exemplified in the thought of their Sage Philosophers, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, and John Ruskin, who saw the mortality of their civilization as not only inevitable but worth philosophizing about. But we now slander such historical thoughtfulness, throwing it in the same category as vulgar reactionism, to the point where it is dangerous for a professor to come out even as “conservative.”

We are no more special than the Victorians. Everything that we are, we owe to oil. Our peak civilization is peak oil. That’s what all of this hubbub is about.

Whenever I was on a long drive as a kid I would gaze out the window at all the freeways and powerlines and factories, all of this new stuff being built on top of old nature, and I would wonder: “What is going on? How did all this start happening? Where is all this going?” Now, oil alone can’t really answer this question. There have been other fossil fuels and natural resources involved. Human culture had to reach a certain level of complexity and diversity. This isn’t the first time civilization has risen to dizzying heights and it won’t be the last. 

The first step toward philosophizing about anything, is to philosophize about the mortality of one’s own civilization. Thinking about peak oil is a fine way to do this. (Or you can contemplate human genetic decay, as I do in my book. Or even global warming, provided you mythologize it as unavoidable. Yes, the future can be mythologized as well.)

To philosophize about something so mundane and materialistic as peak oil is not weird. The Old Testament prophets philosophized about future wars that would destroy Israel, and their prophecies were not far off. Of course nothing they said really depended on whether it was a war that finally scattered their nation. The point was merely that their society had fallen deeply into erroneous ways and would therefore prove mortal one way or another.

Here’s what I’m getting at. The idea of a judgment day is part of the essence of religion, and therefore it is part of the essence of civilization. But I need to unpack this to make it clear what I mean.

Human are unique because they not only behave according to instinct passed down by genes, but according to rules passed down by culture. We call these rules morals or ethics. They serve us in manifold ways. Or rather, we serve them. Because every decision we make is a decision based on a system of virtue or value, and there must be some highest value, something sacred and fixed, if unutterably complex, to give all these justifications a foundation. And though this is a metaphysical point I’m making, it’s also a very practical one, as any shaman or mystic or anyone who has skirted the edges of nihilism or other forms of madness is well aware. It is values and the ability to obey them that will make or break a mind.

Over the course of human evolution, civilization has radically transformed this game. Not because it’s a stabilizing influence, but because it’s a destabilizing influence. A hunter-gatherer’s life is pretty much the same day-to-day. You might see famine but then you pick up and move, or hunt something different, or die. But settled life creates huge surpluses of food (or other forms of energy, wink) and can lead to population booms … and of course busts. To deal with this complexity you get a new form of value system, a religion. And one of the most vital (I mean life-and-death) functions of a religion is to preach this one very simple principle: Judgment day is real, so stop worrying about extra credit. Both the Koran and the Old Testament get this right.

You may have heard of the experiment (and it doesn’t matter whether it’s real) where they gave these rats a button that was hooked up to some wires on their heads, so that merely pressing the button directly stimulated the pleasure centers of their brain. They would press it and press it until they starved and died.

Values are not merely subjective tastes but a matter of life and death. A rat with the brains and guts to say, “Wait guys, whatever you do, do not press that button,” is a rat who will live. Is a rat who’s a prophet.

And that would have to be one hell of a philosophical rat. Because those rats are in deep.

***

The pleasure buttons we moderns are faced with are manifold. Eating food is a natural biological function, a way to get energy. Yet humans who pursue food too single-mindedly have no energy. Sex is also a natural biological function, a way to produce family. Yet humans who pursue sex too single-mindedly destroy family. Some drink themselves to death or become addicted to drugs. Video games, social media, mass media, and countless cheap pleasures have all ruined many lives.

There’s another experiment, which I’m pretty sure was real, where they’d put this marshmallow in front of a child and say, “Don’t touch this marshmallow, and soon you can have two marshmallows.” Some had the willpower to do this, others did not. They found that being able to control themselves and wait was a strong predictor both of IQ and of future success in life.

We are being faced with the ultimate version of the marshmallow test.

One can either face years possibly generations of self-imposed hardship, disciplining children, resisting cheap entertainment, learning and teaching practical skills, practicing virtue, reading edifying books, and in every other way preparing for judgment day. And when that day arrives, survive.

Or one can party, squander everything. And when that day arrives, die.

Fusion power will not save anyone from judgment day. Anyone who gives in to cultural and genetic deterioration, will obviously deteriorate. Fusion may keep the party going but that only means giving the forces of corruption that much more time and free play.

This is part of the secret of the evolutionary power of the Bible. I’ve known many people, including myself, who transformed their lives simply by reading it. It’s the record of those who survived through periods of decadence. And they resisted corruption because they saw it for what it was. And they survived.

***

Back before I had recovered as a philosopher, back when I still believed I could be part of a cultural “revolution,” back when I thought that revolution meant shaking up or even destroying tradition as the dead husk of the past, looking at the history of this struggle I faced a disturbing puzzle. As one of my friends put it, “The Counterculture has risen again and again. As far back as antiquity you had the Gnostics. Two and a half centuries years ago, you had the Enlightenment, then Romanticism, then the Bohemians, and over the last century the Hobos, the Beatniks, and the Hippies. The Counterculture never really wins. It keeps dying and then reappearing as something completely different.”

The Enlightenment is an interesting example. Few people realize that atheism peaked in the West around the time of the American and French Revolutions. Many founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, where atheist or agnostic. But this only lasted for a generation or two, and during the 19th century religiousness reached new peaks.  

From my current perspective, the reason that countercultures fade is obvious. Counterculture destroys the very values needed to survive and pass down traditions. It is a form of corruption. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.” It preaches a liberation from inhibition, which is the opposite of what most of us need. Is it really any wonder at all that good Christians outbred the Hippies?

Now, in the early 21st century, we are obviously in the midst of a new countercultural swell, driven largely by the Internet and an unusually liberal mass media. A completely different kind of sexual liberation is taking place. But there is no need for alarm. There is every reason to treat these new rebels with kindness. Because natural selection will ensure that they meet the same fate as every other counterculture since the dawn of time. Just watch as the next generation rises. It is those who value family that will, as always, produce it.

I hate to be the bearer of harsh news, but this is the reality.  This is how we will be graded. There is no extra credit.

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