On The Truly Hidden

When mystics go on (and on, and on) about the Oneness of things, or about how everything is a unity, Hugo tends to go switch-off. It seems as much a meaningless babble as the invocations of Red Indian spirit guides by Victorian con-women wearing turbans and lots of bling.

One fine day, however, the Arabic expression Ahadiyyat al-‘ayn, or “Uniqueness of Essence”, suddenly seemed to make sense. This was because most of our knowledge is gained from comparing things and noting their similarities. Essence or Being as such, if we dare use such a simple noun for “the totality of what exists”, by definition cannot be compared with things that are like it. As Popper said of History, something there is only one of cannot support inductive generalisations. Is it really too much of a stretch to say the same of the Everything-That-Is? If we may be said to know Being, therefore, it cannot be the same sort of knowledge as when we know individual things within Being. Perhaps Hegel or Heidegger said it better, I do not know, but that was at any rate how Hugo saw it that one fine day.

Schopenhauer said something in the same general area when he cautioned that all the original forces of Nature are a qualitas occulta. As Hume had already realised, we cannot observe causation, only the repetitiousness of something happening after another thing and in close proximity. From which Kant decided that causation was a product of our own minds. All this talk of “forces” is therefore as much bullshit as that spouted by the table-tapper; we know that stuff happens, but the “forces” are as fictitious as her Big Chief who has nothing better to do all eternity than tell the paying public that their dear departeds send their regards.

In the same way, we cannot easily expound why some things are so, even when they seem intuitively obvious.This is because, says Schopenhauer, the principle of sufficient reason, in its four forms (cause, logical consequence, existence and motivation) is absolutely inexplicable. For it is the principle of explanation itself. If we call on a person to explain something, we ought to have a concept of what “explanation” actually means, and not demand that he tell us while explaining the first thing.

And yet, “Everyone knows without further help what the world is, for he himself is the subject of knowing of which the world is representation.” What philosophy does, says Schopenhauer, is merely to reproduce our concrete knowledge of the world in the abstract. Well, then, so the Everything-That-Is is after all knowable, we know it in the direct and undeniable manner that a fox knows what the hen is. But when the mystics make a meal of this knowledge, claiming to have something exclusive, they never say that theirs is the fox’s knowledge of the hens, nor yet its rephrasing in terms of philosophical abstracts. Rather, they seem to be claiming it as a third thing entirely, about which they can naturally tell us nothing more without a paid subscription.

Posted on December 28, 2017 at 15:34 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE LONGEST CON, From Rationalism to New Age

Sorry, Ma, You’re Not Moral

Immanuel Kant taught that an action is only a “moral” action if it goes counter to our inclinations. I have always assumed that by this he meant, not that it is a downright bad action, but merely that it does not fall into the category of moral actions, those that are performed because they are right. Funnily enough, in Matthew 5:47 Jesus of Nazareth is recorded in much the same vein: “And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?” If it comes easily, they both seem to be saying, then no brownie points!

Now, mothers tend to lay claim to lots of brownie points as reward for their parenting. But at the same time they also speak about their mother-love as instinctual. Well, they can’t have it both ways: if maternal love really is instinct and nothing but instinct, then they cannot claim ethical merit for possessing and following it. “Do not even the publicans so?”

Given that a mother should be perfectly capable of recognising that she is just following her nature, which is an ethically-neutral thing to do, what is going on with the cult of the brownie points? The answer lies, as usual, in the human drive for undeserved self-esteem. She wants a double whammy, to be praised on two mutually exclusive grounds at the same time: once for doing what is right, in the strenuous Kantian sense, and again for harbouring maternal love, which makes her a good person.

But wait a moment; there are also such things as bad, neglectful mothers. Our loving mother therefore deserves a certain number of brownie points for not being one. The question provoked in my mind, then – and of course I have no knowledge of what it is like to be a mother – is whether she has overcome inner obstacles to be a good mother. Was she just following her nature, or rising above it? It would follow from the Kantian approach that the most moral woman would be the one who would like to abuse her child but doesn’t. If that is too peculiar for us, then we ought to be Aristotelians instead.

Posted on December 14, 2017 at 16:21 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · One Comment
In: PARENTAL STATUS TECHNOLOGY, My Son, The Doctor

Which Once You Took For Exercise Of Virtue

What Eliot describes in Little Gidding as “the rending pain of re-enactment” becomes linearly worse with age. Firstly because, as the short-term memory goes, the long-term memory notoriously improves, and secondly because for each new day, “the shame of motives late revealed and the awareness of things ill done” acquires new material to feed on. To believe that you will one day become old and wise enough not to commit acts, the shame of which will subsequently keep you awake at night, is simply an illusion.

Velle non discitur; your basic character does not change, and if you are a dork who does not know how to model social interactions at twenty, or a selfish jerk who does not care how he hurts others, you will in all probability be exactly the same at seventy, or even worse. In the words of the concise Jewish expression, “Wherever you go, your tuchas goes with you.” If the number of times you embarrass yourself or betray others in your seventy-first year is in fact smaller than the number of times you embarrass yourself or betray others in your twenty-first year, this will be solely because you have fewer social interactions to make a mess of, many of your former victims being either already alienated or dead as mackerel.

There are only two remedies for this gift reserved for old age: firstly, to believe that seniority is virtuous by definition and that everything you now do is therefore right and proper, a self-conceit that can leak backwards in time until you come to believe that you were a moral paragon in your youth as well; aging does not give people a better character, merely the conceited delusion of having a better character. This delusion is embraced by perhaps the majority of middle-aged people. The second remedy is death. Unfortunately these remedies tend to occur in that order; whereas it would be so much better if we all died before combining all our other vices with senile self-satisfaction.

Sour old braggarts insist that they are superior in wisdom to young people. Well, they are simply wrong. If human beings are very, very complex algorithms, then the typical old person is a highly simplified and limited algorithm; its behaviour now consists of little else than the same dozen lines of dialogue, or rather monologue, mostly intended to insult, irritate or at least bore the surroundings. I am astonished to find novels containing intelligent, scientifically literate and tolerant parents and other old people, because I never met any myself. I know I would have remembered meeting someone over 50 who was not devoted to ignorance, superstition and bigotry.

The reason why algorithm-based artificial intelligence has never worked is because people were trying to build a computer that acted like a young, healthy, rational human being. They ought instead have built a machine that passed the Turing Test by emulating the average querulous pensioner on the bus, weary, whiny and hung-up on trivia. You could probably use a computer from the Eighties, programmed in Basic.

Posted on October 18, 2017 at 21:27 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: PARENTAL STATUS TECHNOLOGY, O Tempora! O Mores!

The Smoke And The Small Screen

The other day I was looking down on the city from the lower slopes of our ruling mountain, in exquisite weather. After a night’s rain the air was about the clearest I had ever seen it. There was no sign of any pollution. This reminded me of the old nickname for London, “The Smoke”, and how people used to use that name as a compliment. For lack of belching smokestacks could mean only the absence of economic activity. Would a time-traveller from the 1800s, therefore, think that we were languishing in a great depression, or whatever they called it then?

I remembered also the way futuristic illustrations used to take dense vehicular traffic, such as the Tōkyō freeways featured at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, as a metonym for life itself, cf. my essay, “Gosh, Wow, Aircars!” That being so, with the roads below me very far from jam-packed, I wondered whether some other time-traveller, this time from the 1950s, would pronounce this city “dead”.

If we are right to consider the lack of smokestacks and the lack of cars six abreast to be good things, rather than symptoms of poverty and backwardness, the third question I posed to myself on the hillside that day was what new mistake we might be making to follow those made in the eighteenth century and the Fifties. What might we be confusing with Life itself? The candidate that came immediately to mind was the smartphone. I hoped that, just as we now prefer clean air to reeking chimneys, humanity might one day learn to prefer the real world around it to the flickering screen.

The Sheep-Flaying Age

I do not know whether university students are still being taught the high-minded fictions of Politics 101, in which institutions are created to serve the common good, and whether the reason why reality cannot be spoken is because it is just too depressing.

For the truth about the human race is fully known to all psychopaths, while the rest of us still believe in the tooth fairy. We are a predatory species, and we predate on ourselves as well as on everything else. Most of us are food, end of story.

The “nation” is therefore a PR fiction covering a predation territory. Rulers are those who have staked a claim to a range and are prepared to fight others for the exclusive right to consume its resources, namely us. From this it follows that “globalisation” is actually predation gone global, with a functional rather than geographical definition of territory.

Most politics and most public employment is a sub-type of this predation, in that the lions cut the jackals in on a share of the booty in return for support against other lions. The output of the system, the behaviour of the so-called government or nation, is the resultant vector of the individual interests of these sub-predators. Wars and suchlike are partly about access to resources and partly the sum of individual diplomats’ career interests.

The most ludicrous part of the whole tooth-fairy story is the suggestion that rule by the top predators is a contingent outcome and that something else is possible. No, our choices are limited to: relatively benevolent plutocracy, in-between plutocracy and malignant plutocracy. An older age put this in terms of shearing the sheep contra flaying them. We are now entering a second age of sheep-skinning within a hundred years.

Revitalising The Economy

It is not particularly fresh news that religious institutions are first and foremost business institutions, engaged in the movement of money from some pockets into other pockets. We understand how all kinds of religious building function as tangible fixed assets for the purpose of generating a revenue stream, while for their part the customers, whether magnate or commoner, make pious donations as admission price or high-yield investment. To this end, the fixed assets known as churches, monasteries and shrines are bought and sold just like mills, bridges or customs posts, or else or divided into shares that are bought and sold likewise. Not exactly into thousandths of the capital, but the principle is the same.

We also understand how the question of how to run the collectively-owned businesses that we call medieval monasteries spawned a vast management literature, and how successful models were exported and copied, while models thought to be dysfunctional were forcibly reorganised or suppressed. Creative destruction, as Schumpeter would call it. Above all, those individuals thought to embody managerial prowess were headhunted from one location to the next. Such monks would have perfectly understood the modern invocation of “benchmarking”. It has also been suggested that a particular organisation within the Christian church, the Cistercians, were the pioneers of what would later be called factory production, standardisation and the multinational.

So far, so good. But that is all the more reason to take the final step. For, until the great age of the chartered town and its self-governing burgesses, the theologians and devotional writers were practically alone in thinking about how best to organise profitable corporate entities. We might therefore do well to enquire what would happen if, every time a twelfth- or eleventh-century writer talked about “the Church of God”, the “kingdom of heaven” and so forth, we were to replace this expression with our modern cant, “the Economy”.

If, we may often suspect, that modern hypostasis or abstraction, “the Economy” is really the name given by a particular class of people to their own extorted riches, well, the same may be true of the kind of people who spoke in proprietorial terms of “the Church of God”. If the substitution works, that does not prove that the twelfth-century writers consciously had producing and consuming, buying and selling in the forefront of their minds when talking about the Church. But it might nevertheless indicate that we have been missing something important.

The Norman Anonymous, to take just one example, would then be writing that, “The king ought, therefore, not to be excluded from the governance of the economy, that is, the Christian people, because the kingdom would then be separated from the economy and destroyed.” For the relationship between the secular and the ecclesiastic power was a perennial issue, and is perhaps not so very different from what we nowadays call “the role of the state in the economy”. We may have been in error in taking the rhetoric for a greater reality than it actually is, and vainly assuming that when they spoke of the body of Christ and so on, they were talking about something “spiritual”. If, in those days, most of the economy was in the hands of the collective owner caste that wore the cowl as their business dress, then what they might really have been talking about is the right to run the enterprise as they saw fit, free of interference by those claiming to represent the people in some different sense. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
We might even find that the programme we call Gregorian, calling for the absolute autonomy of the clerics, might – if translated in the spirit of “follow the money” – sound like something not entirely unlike Ayn Rand.

Posted on April 20, 2017 at 16:37 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Spiritual Business

Tit For Tat And “The Good War”

It is often said that the shock of 911 was that the USA was for the first time vulnerable on its own soil to enemy action. This overlooks the little detail of the Soviet ability to exterminate every life-form on the continent, perhaps because this was both too abstract and too horrific to think about. Perhaps Moscow should long ago have launched a missile at Washington packed with party favours, just to make the point.

The conclusion drawn from this first actual demonstration of American heartland vulnerability has been, of course, that this Must Never Happen Again. So much attention has been paid to the prevention measures, to whether they will work and at what price in terms of civil liberties and global hatred, that nobody has stopped to point out the moral peculiarity of a demand for invulnerability.

For it is part of the human condition that no individuals, groups or nations are, have ever been, or ever will be, invulnerable to attack. As Hobbes famously wrote, “For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.” The implied lesson here, that the strong and aggressive is likely to provoke a coalition of the weak and fearful to defend against him, is equally applicable to the life of nations. Let us imagine the consequences of an individual’s waking up one day and discovering that he was a superman who could in no way be harmed or restrained; the rest of us would not greatly enjoy the prospect of whim or conscience being all that stood between us and destruction or enslavement. Why should it be any different for a country? The invulnerable man or nation would not be a part of the moral order in which the rest of us live, in which our actions have consequences, and unpleasant actions have unpleasant consequences. For the invulnerable man or nation is unlikely ever to comprehend that the best way not to get attacked involves both a degree of strength, but also not giving intolerable offence.

Now, there is a name for the condition in which an entity fails to understand that it cannot do unto others without others doing back unto it – infantilism. The small child hits the other children, and when he is hit back runs screaming to Mommy; he does not yet understand that the bad thing that has happened to him is not only the same sort of bad thing that he had been handing out, but also its direct and inevitable consequence. If Mommy is sensible she will explain the link, and by dint of repetition of both the explanation and the experience he will eventually “get it”; but if Mommy is a moron and instead goes storming off to the day-care manager, he won’t. Then we get another narcissistic psychopath.

It may well be natural for human beings to contemplate only the wrongs done to them and never the wrongs they have done to others, even when the latter came first; but it is by no means desirable. Individuals must be brought to understand the connection between what they do and what happens to them; we call this a good upbringing. Nations must also be brought to understand the connection between what they do and what happens to them; we call this a good war.

It is said that Tit-for-Tat retaliation teaches small children both reciprocity and empathy; the mirroring of the action enables the perpetrator to understand what it feels like to be the victim, and even if he never makes that leap, he will learn about reactions and consequences. Children have a natural sense of justice and will therefore come to understand the limits of acceptable aggression – unless deluded adults intervene in the process to prevent the children themselves teaching one another the requisite lessons. Of course, this learning will initially be resisted, via the anti-Kantian reasoning typical of Libertarians and small children (but I repeat myself), namely, “But it doesn’t apply to me”; the well-adjusted members of society are the ones who have had this notion hammered out of them in the playground.

Might this socialisation process also apply to whole nations? The Germans once had a taste for military glory, imperial adventures and genocide, but through Tit-for-Tat were thoroughly cured. The Japanese likewise. Or does American moral infantilism go much deeper than German and Japanese militarism? After all, for almost all of its history the island nation minded its own business and wanted nothing more than to be left alone, so that the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was ultimately an answer to Commodore Perry. The Germans were long known as a nation of philosophers, musicians and clock-makers, and their period of insanity from Bismarck to Hitler lasted less than a century. It is now more than a hundred years since the Americans inaugurated their overseas empire by slaughtering three million Filipinos who wanted freedom; before that was the Indian genocide and chattel slavery, all the way back to the colonial period. The Americans, therefore, have never really had a period of inoffensiveness, because no one ever helped to socialise them.

Given that about half of the American population failed to “get” Vietnam, it is perhaps not surprising that the main explanation of 911 was “They hate our freedom”. (Waaaah!!! They hit me for no reason!!! They’re just mean!) If the Tit-for-Tat needs to be more or less proportional to work properly, then the moral infantilism of the USA would need to be educated by a retaliation that is in keeping with its own deeds. And in that context, the attacks of 911 were pinpricks. The overthrows of elected governments, the vicious military dictatorships, the drowning in blood of popular movements for national or social liberation, the unleashing of death squads on trade unionists, democrats, liberals, human-rights activists and ecologists, the torture centres, the proxy wars, the aerial bombing, the destruction of social infrastructure, the dispossession of peoples, the economic exploitation and environmental degradation, the napalm, the defoliants and the depleted uranium – in a hypothetical spirit of Tit-for-Tat, all this could be visited on the Americans themselves. A propaganda machine of equal effectiveness with the Americans’ own could then portray this to the rest of the world not only as right, proper and necessary, but also as conducive to Motherhood and Tortillas. Radicals have calculated the body-count of American policy since 1945 as around 50 million. Should the Tit-For-Tat slogan therefore be, “Tell me when we reach 50 million”?

Posted on March 9, 2017 at 19:39 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, Some Modest Proposals

The Lying Times

Once upon a time I talked to a bookshop assistant who had told me that she had learned on a university history course that the whole business of “The Burning Times” was a complete myth. I was astounded by the fact that she appeared to accept this information. For I would have bet folding money that any female student “young enough to know everything” would have greeted this attempt at debunking with a torrent of abuse of the professor centred on the concept of “patriarchy” and possibly even changed courses on the spot to get away from the evil. After all, any attempt to deny “The Burning Times” must be equated with a desire to start them up again and take part oneself. Well, so I was wrong, at least in this one case. Whether the professor was female or a boo-hiss I did not ask, and have no insight into any background factors that predisposed this particular student to accept the falsity of everything she had been told since she could walk.

For I knew that she had indeed grown up in an atmosphere that made questioning of “The Burning Times” an occasion of incredulity, abuse and ostracism. Males knowledgeable in real history have told me that this was a subject they could not raise with their wives on pain of divorce. It would be as futile as convincing the average African that there was no God (which is, by the way, something I have tried), and for the same reasons: early indoctrination, social censure and the self-interest of powerful forces.

Where I live, it used to be six million witches burned. Over what time-scale, in which period, in which countries and on what charges, no one was ever able to say. They “just knew” that particular factoid, the same way the African just knows that giving money to the preacher will lead to health, wealth and happiness, even when it doesn’t. It had to be six million, apparently, because this figure is the same as for Jews killed by the Nazis, thereby allowing any doubters to be tarred with the brush of Holocaust Denial. In some countries the latter is a criminal offence, and it will only be a matter of time before criminalisation of the other form of Victimhood Denial in the USA. If you said that six million Jews were indeed killed in the camps but six million witches were never burned in early-modern Europe, you would not be listened to, the tram of the other party was already speeding down the no-platform-for-evil track. The Holocaust parallel was so potent and convenient that I was never sure why the figure for the dead witches was one day increased to nine million. Probably it was tracking the Consumer Price Index.

Of course, increasing the fiction to nine million did carry with it a certain risk of implosion through self-evident absurdity, in that such a megadeath would be clearly visible in the demographics. Indeed, the true believers could be told that we would have gone extinct. That is not actually true either, but since these people tend to be mathematical illiterates anyway, it might have given them pause. And they also have no clue about the duration of the witch paranoia: nine million in two centuries would be one thing, but nine million women killed in a short time would put China’s gender imbalance in the shade.

One person, who knew that it had to be true because she “had read it in a book”, did actually see the point about there being not enough women left to breed from, but switched the location and claimed that every woman in a particular valley in her region had been killed. Really, you’d think someone would have noticed!

Neither was it any use to place the witch trials in post-Reformation Europe where they belonged. Assigning them to the Middle Ages fitted too well with the history learned from Dungeons and Dragons by people who thought that the period had to be awful because it was spelled “Mid-Evil”.

An even bigger no-no was trying to tell people that men were executed as witches too. And the gods help anyone who talked about motives for denunciations, about inheritance, village feuds or poisoning – or even about a paranoid moral panic over the new poisons at that time arriving from the New World. The fact that under Roman law, the property of the accused fell to his accuser was similarly an alien language. In Germany, I was once told by a historian, the typical “witch” was the burgomeister, and the typical accuser was the man who wanted to be burgomeister instead. No, not interested.

All the young women were brought up with the absolute, unquestioned and not-to-be questioned conviction that all these witches were women, had all been burned by men, with all other women opposed. There would be no women-on-women unpleasantness, because women “are” by nature altruistic and cooperative and nothing is ever their fault. The students were similarly convinced that the witches had been burned because they were women, purely for being women. Particularly if they knew herbalism or enjoyed sex. It was simply assumed that the tracts about diabolism circulated by certain demented monks were not merely efficacious by themselves, but were the only cause of what was going on. The only reason they would admit for the whole two-century phenomenon was that “men” desperately hated women.

Which may give us a clue about what was going on in the minds of whole generations of women. First of all, there is a perverse satisfaction in believing that you are hated, especially if the fact that no one seems to be doing anything much about it makes it cost-free. This fits right into both the natural adolescent’s conviction that nobody understands her and the spoiled child’s conviction that the world is out to get her – read, out to deny her some of her wishes. For such juveniles, the attempted genocide of their entire gender causes a wonderful frisson and provides much narcissistic supply. For being even indirectly associated with genocide means that you must be important. Even though no one is trying to burn you personally at the stake, you may vicariously enjoy the righteousness always imputed to the victim in sub-Christian culture.

Secondly, this victimhood is not merely a matter of sentimental solidarity with women in a far-off time of whom you actually know nothing. This currency is fungible. Whenever a member of the enemy sex opposes you, inconveniences you, contradicts you, fails to believe you or neglects to give you the unconditional support and praise that a spoiled youngster requires, he may be firmly identified with the burners of witches. The question thus becomes what incentive there would be for abandoning the knee-jerk denunciation in favour of interest in facts and truth. Until I spoke to that bookshop assistant I would have said that the thing was impossible, because too much benefit was riding on the myth. I never did find out what kind of magical de-glamourising spell the professor used, or how the student carried on living without being able to blame all the men around her for nine million witch-burnings if they did not toe the line.

Thou Shalt Not Gun Down Beautiful Girls

Some airport-bookstall novel, I no longer remember which, features the following sentence: “She was beautiful, very beautiful, and I would do anything to keep her safe.” Can we imagine the adjective being replaced by “kind” or “intelligent”? We cannot. May we expect to read in another pot-boiler the variation: “She was well-read, very well-read, and I would do anything to keep her safe.” We may not. Beauty is a neural hack that compels us to respond with self-sacrificial devotion.

This principle may be seen per contraria in the cinematic genres of action, horror and torture porn. That is, whereas in real life we hold that beautiful girls are not to be harmed, whatever may be done to the rest, in our fantasy lives we are interested in nothing other than the endangerment of the beautiful. (I say “we” from outside; personally I avoid all three genres.) Bond girls have to be beautiful, not only so that we may take pleasure in imaginative identification with 007 when he beds them, but because they are so often in danger and need rescuing. No one would care about the bad guy threatening ugly women, any more than they would care about ugly women in the haunted house, or ugly women being chased by malignant hillbillies, or ugly women being tied up and dismembered by psychopaths.

The rewards for beauty can also be posthumous. Neda Agha-Soltan became the poster child for the failed Iranian revolution, not because she was the only victim, or the first, or the last, but because she was a beautiful young woman. Tariq Ali pointed out that on the very same day an American drone attack killed 15 equally innocent Pakistani villagers, but that this event never made it into our news at all. This he relates primarily to the Americans’ inability to understand their place in the world, but we might also imagine that if the Basij had killed only men, or ugly women, in Teheran that day, whereas one of the Pakistani villagers had been a beautiful young woman, and her death had been filmed and posted on the Net, she might today be as well-known as Neda.

Posted on January 15, 2017 at 10:49 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · One Comment
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, The Life Beautiful

Who Is Invited?

Idries Shah, I think it is, tells the story of a Sufi master invited to the Sultan’s banquet. Dressed as a beggar, he is refused entry by the servants. So he changes into his finest clothes and is then invited to sit in the place of honour. In the middle of the feast, he starts rubbing the food into his clothes. And when the Sultan demands an explanation, he says, “You do such honour to my clothing, it seems only appropriate that it take part in the feast.”

Posted on December 1, 2016 at 18:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fine Feathers