Not ideology. Teleology.

October 3, 2016

This post was inspired by Nietzsche’s Revenge  by Umair Haque.

Here is a condensed summary of Haque’s points:

There are three things that characterize America.. . .
First, brutalism. An unmitigated disregard for human life . . .
[S]econd . . . cruelty is seen as virtuous.
Third, power as the end of human life.

I’m not a Nietzsche apologist, but I doubt he would agree that America has adopted his philosophy wholesale. Nor would he find our society much to his liking. But whether you love him or hate him, Nietzsche is responsible for popularizing a moral philosophy that was antithetical in every way possible to conventional European (Christian) morality. I can attest that he is to this day a bogeyman in evangelical circles. So it is a sad irony that one of Nietzsche’s favorite targets–Christianity–has gradually transformed its essential moral teachings to the point where they can be considered consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Christianity has been complicit in all sorts of other evils through history (slavery in the south comes to mind) but the normalization within the church of Nietzsche’s morality is remarkable. It is seen in the conspicuous waste of resources on buildings, wages and entertainment that consume the vast majority of money contributed to tax exempt churches. It is exemplified in the elevation of the powerful (wealthy) to positions of influence and importance for which they are utterly unworthy in moral terms (Franklin Graham being bought by Donald Trump is an excellent recent example). And worst of all it is in the thoroughly secularized (and paper thin) theology that is taught in American churches (especially protestant, but Catholics have their own version too).
In this bastardized theology, success and power are signs of blessing. Conveniently, this comports with the total commodification of human beings that we see reaching fruition. What is a life worth? In America, whether in a church pew or at a bank, a life is worth what it can consume. And we wonder why we can’t deal with climate change or any other problem beyond the extent of our expected lifetime (that is if you can afford to consume quality healthcare).

But using Nietzsche to make this point seems a little cheap. I think Haque’s assessment misses the underlying disease that causes brutality and cruelty. (The will to power just is a fact of human existence I’m afraid–morality may be culture’s attempt to cope with this).

The key to understanding the decline of human civilization (and surely that must be what it is?) is found in Heidegger’s distinction between the being of rocks, hammers and Dasein. A rock is present. A rock tied to a stick may be a hammer. A Dasein is neither but can be treated as if it were either. A surgeon treats a human body the way a geologist might treat a rock. Both are collections of smaller bits that can be studied, taken apart and modified. Henry Ford treated his workers fairly well. They were paid a decent wage for their time. But as an industrialist, his real interest was in the value of human beings as tools. People were more like hammers than rocks, but were otherwise interchangeable. This is not an unacceptable or immoral way of thinking about a production line in a factory. To treat others as Dasein means to be acutely aware that every one of them is an individual that takes a position on its own being. That means that each human being cares greatly about their relation to the world and how things may turn out. That’s what it means to be a Dasein.

Let me summarize my view on this. Haque identifies some symptoms of our current state of affairs here in America. I generally agree with him with the caveat that of course this is not a universal description of all our relations in this society. Haque doesn’t so much identify Nietzsche as the cause of this situation but rather points out that the ethical implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy appear to have become dominant in our culture. (That jackass who runs Wells Fargo used to run Wells Fargo surely believes that he is an Übermensch even if he doesn’t know the word or Nietzsche).

That’s all well and good and makes for a good read. Haque’s not really a formal thinker but he writes some good stuff. But reading the article reminded of how often I have considered the way in which our culture has internalized the idea that individual human beings are not really human (Dasein). They are consumers. Even our intimate relations become infected by this insidious category error. It is true that there is no ethical necessity that can be derived from discriminating between rocks, hammers and Dasein. It’s quite possible that one could be fully aware of that other human beings take a position on their own being and be inspired all the more to treat them savagely. (This is called sadism, by the way). But treating other human beings as hammers (consumers) as ones default position decreases the likelihood of responding to other human beings in an empathetic way.

The brutality that Haque is getting at is an expected outcome of this kind of thinking. What type of person is most likely to experience success in America today? The sociopath, who by definition, is a  person lacking empathy (among other nasty behavioral traits). I think it is safe to infer that this lack of empathy is dependent upon a belief that other human beings are not human in the same sense that the sociopath is human (if they are deemed human at all). In other words, a sociopath’s behavior is dependent upon a false belief about other human beings.

So much more can be said on this topic, and I am sure I will loop back to it again and again. It’s the only idea I have that helps me make any sense of what I see happening across our society at present. From where I’m sitting I see the future as one in which there will be only two classes of people: A pseudo-meritocratic ruling class (the “doers” or “makers”) and consumers (the “takers” and the “losers”). This is not ideology but teleology. The telos is power and conveniently we have a perfect method of measuring that.

Welcome Home

It’s the first thing they say to you when you arrive. Yeah, it sounds kind of creepy and I knew in advance that this would be the greeting, but in context and after a rather arduous four days getting there, I received it as a warm and comforting greeting. The hug helped.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you have never been to Burning Man.

It was dirty. It was dusty. Every day the sun would be blotted out by the talc like dust from the wind coming up in the afternoon. Dust in your nose, your mouth, your hair, your food–everywhere. Nice RV’s and campers give a little relief to those who have them, but nothing can stop it completely. My beloved and I slept in a very nice tent, but after two days and our best efforts to keep it clean, the interior was covered in dust as well.

20160830_burningman2016_croppedIn spite of the dirt and the difficulty of just getting there, I found the experience to be singularly astonishing.

It was in many ways very much as I expected. The camps, the port-a-potties, the naked guys on bicycles, the art cars, the art itself–all of these things were unsurprising. But a superficial survey of the day to day experience cannot account for the barely discernible and inscrutable essence that accumulates over time. It is the sensitivity to this that determines whether you’re a “Burner” or a guest. Burning Man has a taste: it’s the umami of social experiments.




Where we get our beliefs

As I pondered what I would say about the topic of mysticism, which I suggested in a comment I would be writing about, it occurred to me that mysticism is but one source of beliefs among many. So I started to try to catalog them. I even tried to come up with diagram to show how they might be related.

This is off the cuff, and I considered looking up a William James quote to kick things off, but I didn’t bother. My catalog will be ordered based on the pervasiveness of the source in descending order. The various sources start out as concentric circles. Once we get a little deeper though, the circles start to overlap and conflict. I’m not making any epistemic claims in this. None of the categories that I came up with have any intrinsic priority of validity.

Here goes:

  1. The Background. This is the most fundamental source of beliefs and is in many ways non-linguistic. It includes a large portion of the cultural beliefs that are part of the “water we swim in”. In Heidegger terms it is that which is closest to us, but also furthest away since it is virtually undetectable. It is the source of the vast majority of our useful practices, but also of prejudices, useless practices (“Bless You” after a sneeze) and many other non-rational or at least non-scientific beliefs. These beliefs are very difficult to identify since they do not submit easily to a propositional calculus. It could even be argued that the term “belief” in this context is inappropriate simply because of their non-linguistic, automatic features. But under certain conditions, these beliefs can be discovered and articulated. So in some sense they exist as beliefs.
  2. Authority. This category is represented mostly during pre-adolescent childhood. It is different from the background since it includes the transmission of beliefs from parents, teachers, relatives and other adults in positions of authority. This is how children come to believe in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Basic moral beliefs are also molded and shaped by authority. Tribal customs are another important example of this source. These beliefs can be rendered into propositional statements with definite truth values such as “Santa Claus is a real man who lives at the North Pole” or “No one will like me if I don’t brush my teeth.” Simple intuitional statements of value that seem to be innate in young children are also shaped and modified by authority. For example, most children from a very early age have a sense of “fairness”. The egoistic version of this “value” is shaped by authority to gradually include a concept of fairness that typically includes the feelings of other people.
  3. Reason. Overlapping and sometimes conflicting with authority is reason. For most people this human faculty becomes the source of many of our strongest held beliefs and is the category least likely to be subject to reinterpretation over one’s lifetime. Most reasoned beliefs are not controversial and tend to be universal. They may be inferred independently or introduced in the course of general education, but require that the subject conclude that the belief is valid based on valid premises. Reasoned beliefs expand and grow outward over the course of ones life and can become very complicated. Human beings are capable of having reasoned beliefs that are contradictory. For example a person may hold a reasoned belief that evolution is probably true because the theory makes the most sense, but at the same time believe that a supernatural force guided the selection based on the observation that animals are well designed.
  4. Expert Authority. In the absence of first-hand knowledge of the evidence to support a particular proposition, individuals will defer to other experts who presumably have come to a reasonable conclusion based on evidence in their field. Claims made by science are the obvious example, but a wish-fulfilling bias can lead many to hold false beliefs based on expert authority as well. Belief in the efficacy of a particular diet pill is a good example. Many mistaken beliefs originate from this category. Conspiracy theories, political beliefs, and even some supernatural beliefs (for example belief in ghosts) arise from a misguided reliance on expert authority.
  5. Revelation. Western religions are based on the principle that there are revealed truths that have been recorded and witnessed by individuals in history. The strength of ones susceptibility to beliefs of this type is greatly influenced by the strength in combination of all the prior sources of belief. Eastern religions tend to be disseminated based on a combination of ritualized practices, myths (accepted metaphorically and historically in many cases) and cultural practices. Beliefs from revelation vary greatly in strength and influence depending on the contextual level of authority, cultural value to the believer and other variables. They can be easily stated as propositions: “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” or “The promised Messiah will come.”
  6. Mysticism. Beliefs based on mysticism may be similar to those that come from revelation, but they are different in one key respect. The transmission of such beliefs is distinctly individual. A belief based on mysticism is one that is unique to the individual and is based on an experience of some kind. They have been variously described as visions, messages and insights into “deeper” or less accessible forms of knowledge. The belief that it is possible for someone to access this type of “secret” knowledge is itself NOT a mystically based belief, but rather originates from either Expert Authority or Revelation.
  7. Non-Religious Metaphysics. Last but not least, we come to philosophy. Ontological claims based in philosophical reasoning are different than any other type of belief on this list. It may be objected that these beliefs ought to fall under Reason, particularly since that is the only tool the philosopher has at her disposal. Nevertheless, because the object of study itself is beyond the scope of ordinary scientific style investigation, I would argue that this is a special case and is distinct from the other categories. It is also true that much of the work of philosophers will not result in any beliefs at all, but only more questions and skepticism. Reasoned objections and disciplined arguments can be a pastime in and of themselves and not result in specific beliefs. And given the disposition of philosophers–at least run-of-the-mill ones–very few are willing to assert positive truth values to philosophical propositions, at least metaphysical ones.

So there’s my list. Probably not exhaustive, but I think it covers a lot of the areas. I’m not sure what use it is, but it was enjoyable thinking about it.

I’m going to die. What else is there to be afraid of?


Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition. (Blaise Pascal. Penseés #434)

Ah yes, the  Human Condition. I come from religious folk and have watched both of my grandparents die. My mother had a close call a couple of years ago, and experienced visions of Jesus while lingering close to death. And as we have all heard by now, death in our time is a sanitized, hospitalized affair. Not the daily intrusion that it was for most of the history of humanity. But the fact that we don’t have a hands on experience of death every day doesn’t diminish our awareness that the most momentous event of our life is yet to come.

We all would like a peaceful death; preferably one that comes to us in our sleep. Sleep being our natural metaphor for death, it makes sense that drifting off while already half-way there would be most desirable. Death is rationalized in multitudinous ways, not least of which is our species’ propensity for metaphysical fantasies: heaven, nirvana, rebirth and so on. I do not wish to insult my religious friends, but even these theories fail to provide much comfort if one contemplates their actual implications. Whichever “destination” we are bound for, it ought to be clear that the being that will be after death will not be the being we are now in any intelligible sense. What am I without body? You really have to go a long, long way with Descartes to make any sense of such a proposition.

A majority of the human population believes in some kind of life after death. Can billions of people be wrong? Of course they can, and almost certainly are. I am not of the view that it is irrational to subscribe to such beliefs. Beliefs are choices based on evidence. The evidence may be spurious or suspect, but when weighted against the consequences of an incorrect choice it is not surprising that many will take the “safe” route and accept the beliefs that posterity and culture have bequeathed them. With the death problem now safely partitioned, one can get on with the business of living. That approach seems perfectly rational to me. What has one lost? (This is the essence of Pascal’s famous wager; much maligned as a cynical ploy and routinely taken out of context).

For those of us who find the evidence lacking–and there have always been atheists among us–death must be understood differently. We are tempted to be flippant about it. “I didn’t exist before I was born, and it didn’t bother me. Why should it bother me to die?” they say. But it can’t be dismissed so easily.

Real contemplation of what death actually is to a self, to me or to you is a mind-bending exercise. How does one conceive or imagine the cessation of the self while one yet exists? This is where things break down. A being can’t conceive of its non-being. Whatever death is as an “event” it will not be one that any of us actually experience, for death is the absence of experience, sensation and being itself.

Yes, some of us say, as I have said many times, it’s not death we’re afraid of, it’s dying. I don’t find that very satisfying though. Of course I fear pain. (We can all be grateful to live in an age that has palliative care). Death is something more than dying. After all, when one is dying there is always the hope of a cure or a miracle.

Which brings me back to ontology. For those who equate brains and minds there is no existential question to address. The hunk of meat that is you decays and the epiphenomenal ephemera of a self evaporates. If that is so, what was lost? That’s a worthwhile question for philosophy in my view.

The Mind and Heidegger

While everyone has moved on from skepticism and epistemology, interest in the philosophy of mind & language have taken up the slack. I finally abandoned skepticism myself a while back and agree that the traditional problems of “other minds” and so on are not really problems worthy of much effort anymore.

How to get ones mind around problems of the mind is a bit like trying to look at your own face. Nevertheless the problem keeps plenty of professional philosophers busy. I’ve dipped my toe, well maybe my whole foot into the debate and as usual am of two minds on the subject.

First I agree that dualism is utterly unworkable. We cannot deny the clear-cut evidence of the dependency of mental events on the brain. In fact I would go further and say, contra those who still believe that a “brain in a vat” is a useful thought experiment, that the mind is not only dependent on the brain, but on the entire central nervous system. It would be rather difficult, and certainly unethical, to try and do an experiment to prove this thesis, but my hunch is that the whole network of neurological activity that makes up the body is interconnected and a brain on its own would not be able to support mental events.But that’s just a side issue.

So we all can agree that mental events are dependent in some way on the body/brain for their existence, that is if they exist at all. Eliminative materialists have been making that case for some time though I am baffled by that position. Dennett has been a quite successful advocate of that position, but I don’t think the majority of his readers really understand what they are subscribing to. Searle’s arguments against that group I think are successful (see Biological Naturalism). But then Searle is accused of being a property dualist and I suspect he’s not taken very seriously anymore by the current generation of philosophers. Case in point: I listened to a lecture by David Chalmers who has had some luck selling his books too and I found it to be pretty much unintelligible. Endless discussions of Putnam’s “Twin Earth” problem remind of the scholastics counting angels on pinheads.

Whoever wins the day in all this will have only a Pyrrhic victory I’m afraid. What will have been accomplished–and it’s certainly not without value–is a coherent system of understanding that matches as closely as possible to the experimental data. It will be something like a mathematical model that takes into account the neurological data and the mental “contents” that the neurons produce. It will be taught in medical schools. It will allow us to develop better drugs that will alter the brain in better and better ways. What it will never do, in my opinion is accurately describe what the mind is.

Heidegger is hard, which is why it has taken me so long to be able to get what he’s saying. Having said that, I will preface anything I say about his philosophy with the disclaimer that I am still not sure I have it right. But there are advantages to being a non-professional, so I will dive in.

One of Heidegger’s projects is to eliminate the subject/object version of reality that western philosophy inherited from certain Greeks but especially from Descartes. The definition of Dasein itself is a clue. Being In doesn’t sound like a description of a subject object relation. In Being and Time Heidegger does not directly address the problem of the mind per se, but he has two short chapters that address skepticism about the external world and it’s not difficult to infer from what he says what his take on the mind is.

When Dasein directs itself towards something and grasps it, it does not somehow first get out of an inner sphere in which it has been proximally encapsulated, but its primary kind of Being is such that it is always ‘outside’ alongside entities which it encounters and which belong to a world already discovered. Nor is any inner sphere abandoned when Dasein dwells alongside the entity to be known, and determines its character; but even in this ‘Being-outside’ alongside the object, Dasein is still ‘inside’, if we understand this in the correct sense; that is to say, it is itself ‘inside’ as a Being-in-the-world which knows. (Being and Time. Macquarrie/Robinson transl. p 89)

Whether one agrees with this account or not, I think Heidegger’s project of making an account of reality as a strictly ontological exercise is the right approach. Whatever scientific/philosophical account of the Mind eventually wins the day, it will scarcely scratch the account Heidegger has laid out. The phenomenon itself of being a thinking-thing and how we peculiar thinking things encounter the world is the correct approach to coming to an understanding of what the mind is. Consider the fact that even if science makes great strides in determining the essential characteristics of mental events and their interactions with the brain and body it will have zero explanatory power over the definition of the human being itself (as a being-in-the-world as Heidegger says). The mental, in Heidegger terms, is an active component of Dasein’s activity in the world, and has no separate existence itself, nor would Dasein exist without it being wholly intertwined in the world.

The subject/object relation so necessary to traditional analyses of the Mind is absent in Heidegger’s account. If it seems unsatisfying I suspect that has more to do with the cultural baggage of dualism than with Heidegger himself.