Erratic Thoughts on Daedalus I

Philosophizing is antisocial, perhaps the most perfectly antisocial activity possible, easily beating out murder. Even I will readily admit, however, that man is a social animal. Small wonder, then, that philosophy is most popular among those constitutionally incapable of engaging in it.

Those who philosophize risk alienation, solipsism, exile, poisoning, poverty, passion, horror, ennui, and, perhaps most distressing, knowledge. In fact, philosophers risk more than these. I tend to doubt the credentials of those who show no symptoms of distress, such as those courtly artificers of nonchalance: professional philosophers. (Indeed, the philosopher is not a professional. Professionals are craftsmen — and guildsmen, too.)

Abruptly: what are the consequences for human life if we assume that free will does not exist? Ask this question of the philosophically inclined, and, these days, likely replies are:

  1. There are no meaningful consequences. (Compatibilism)
  2. Human life is meaningless, but that’s easy to forget, so forget about it. (Soft Nihilism)
  3. Human life is utterly devoid of meaning; indeed the most fundamental human experience (consciousness) is an illusion: there is no “human” life. (Hard Nihilism)
  4. Human life is meaningless only if we…. Hey! Isn’t science neat? (Prestidigitational Compatibilism)

Now suppose that free will, in the strong — and only meaningful — sense of ultimate origination does exist. What kind of thinkers are apt to believe the opposite?

Ascendant now among the liberal middlebrow intelligentsia is an unseemly and anti-philosophical worship of science, which has evolved to include odd little cults growing up around certain prominent scientists. Cultist “brights” and self-proclaimed “reality-based” hangers on exhibit a particularly revolting mutation of collectivism. They seem to be trying to construct a scientistic counterculture, apparently in order to serve “progressive” cultural goals by aggressively confronting the dominant cultural alliances. What makes the evolutionary biology fanboys’ machinations so unpleasant is that they’re making the world safer for scientism. Even if they manage to weaken the cultural alliances now leveraged by mystics (itself a good thing), they’ll do it by exchanging one opiate for another.

Philosophers — countercultures of one — fix their sights on something that by its very nature is invisible to most: that-which-is rather than that-which-is-said. Science is, or has become, a public enterprise. Whatever cannot be seen by everyone must not be seen by anyone, insists the scientist. This of course means that the world of science is delimited by and subservient to culture, which circumscribes the common realm of the real. The public character of scientific practice, in other words, necessitates that the object of scientific inquiry is a derivative and domesticated nature, rather than the raw phusis, the Nature, which is the purview of philosophers. This intrinsic shortsightedness of science is obscured by the fact that domesticated nature and unadulterated phusis are largely coextensive. The telltale signs of artifice show through principally at the boundaries of nature-with-a-small-“n”. On the quotidian main, even philosophers live within cultured nature. The breadth of cultured reality pushes Nature to the margins of life, until anyone calling attention to the unseen world beyond culture becomes like a prophet for an unpopular god, stinking to the scientistic nose of locusts and honey.

To the blunted sense of dupe of scientism, philosophers (as I pick them out) are indistinguishable from mystics, because the philosopher and the mystic both claim access to privileged knowledge, to a reality beyond the common one. In reality (though not in the world we live in) philosophers reach the highest peaks of thought, and gain the broadest view. The limits of philosophy are the limits of the intelligible world. And so, if philosophy is brought to heel by science, there will be no perspective available superior to the culturally given. Man will live in a bubble. Philosophy, deprived of the high country, its native soil, will wither and die, to the restrained applause of disintrested, objective, professionally detached self-delusional myopic wankers.

Or philosophy would wither and die, were it possible for it to be brought to heel. Just as the quintessentially scientific mind is constitutionally incapable of directly apprehending Nature, the philosophic mind is constitutionally incapable of giving a damn what the herd’s new idol is whispering. But if this were the end of the story I would be considerably less concerned than I am. There’s something profoundly hateful about the scientistic Weltanschauung. Reeking forth with the blithe and breathless pronouncements of the “reality-based communityTM,” I smell disinfectant and rubbing alcohol, latex and blood, cold sweat and ozone, and stacked bodies burning.

To answer my earlier question: the kind of thinker apt to believe that free will is so insignificant that he’d never notice if his own went missing — is the kind of person incapable of philosophy, yet proud of his intellect and convinced of the efficacy of rational inquiry. If he and his ilk command the heights of culture for too long, I don’t think I would like it very well.

God-awful Compatibilist Jackassery

Julian Sanchez seems to have become a propagandist for naturalism. I have much to say on compatibilism (the most irksome of the naturalists’ talking points) and the phenomenon, almost unbelievable to me, that there are such creatures as compatibilists. None of it is complimentary. Let me go on record now: compatibilism is not a respectable philosophical position.

Reading Julian’s review tonight got me wondering. Compatibilism is so obviously false, so plainly ludicrous, that perhaps it is best understood as an article of faith. Are Dennett and the other leading compatibilists selling a new Platonic noble lie? Are Sanchez and Wilkinson, et al., dupes, unwitting inductees into a priesthood called to prevent the advent of nihilism, which the compatibilist vanguard expect to be the popular reaction to the deadly truth that we are automatons?

Probably not. But I am again bewildered. What gives?

Final Arbiter: Idol Prattle

Among some Objectivists I have noted a fetishistic obsession with finality in arbitration, and I have been well-disposed to them for that, for this unlikely obsession reveals something quite … miraculous. Sublimated Christianity, it appears, was inadvertently taken up into the Objectivist corpus as Ayn Rand breathed life into it in the mid-1950s.

Well, I’m putting the point perhaps too forcefully, as I’m on my third beer tonight, and I’ve been reading Hume today, which has put me in a pugnacious mood. I didn’t intend to post tonight at all, but continue my reading on the current thinking on free will, which is impossible to understand without dancing with the fat, bekilted nightmare of Hume. Before I could get started on my late reading, however, a friend called my attention to the website for the Oregon Firearms Federation, where he had been doing research regarding concealed weapons permits in the State of Oregon.

Get this, he said:

I’ve noticed signs at the Portland Airport that say “No Firearms.” There is no exception for license holders noted. Is this legal?

Marv in Milwaukiee.

Good question Marv. The Port of Portland issued an ordinance in 1996 saying “no guns, no exceptions.” This was ordinance 377-R (Of couse, this does not apply if you are legally traveling with a firearm and it’s in your checked baggage.) This obviously was not a reaction to 9/11, sinced it was written well before that. The problem is, Oregon law very clearly PROHIBITS the Port of Portland from enacting any such ordinance. When we contacted the Chief of Police of the Port of Portland, Chief Phil Klahn, and asked him (very politely) about this contradiction, he had their lawyer, Barbara Jacobsen call us back. She left a voice message telling us that she had given our name to the Department of Homeland Security. (Insert joke about them here.) After numerous attempts to get an answer, we finally recieved a long letter from Jacobsen explaining why she believed the Port had the right to create such an ordinance. We then forwarded THAT letter to House Representative Wayne Scott. He took it to “Legislative Counsel.” These are the lawyers for the legislature. They actually write the laws the legislators request. Their response was pretty straightforward. In their opinion, the Port of Portland may NOT enact any such ordinance. Here’s a direct quote from their opinion: “You have asked whether the Port of Porland has the authority to enact regulations prohibiting a person from carrying a firearm in the terminal at the Portland International Airport. The short answer is no.” We then fowarded their opinion to both Chief Klahn and Barbara Jacobsen. The Chief had advised us to advise you (our supporters) not to carry in the terminal. After reading the opinion of Legislative Counsel, he replied once again that his officers could cite license holders and then they could “have their day in court.” Attorney Jacobsen has not responded at all. Your tax dollars at work. So, as it stands, the law says you may carry in the terminal. The Port of Portland says you can be arrested if you are obeying the law. Legislative Counsel says the Port of Portland may not enforce this ordinance, and the Port of Porland Police say they don’t care Hope this clears everything up.

We thought this was damn funny. We anarchists get to laugh at things that should make minimal-statists uneasy.

For those unfamiliar with the whole Objectivism vs. Market Anarchy political philosophical battle royal, you’re probably reading the wrong post, but in a nutshell, here’s what’s funny and what it has to do with Final Arbiters: According to Objectivism (or at least according to some who call themselves Objectivists and to my own recollection of the Objectivist doctrine on this point), one of the problems with anarchy is that, in an anarchic order, there would be no final arbiter for resolving disputes. Contrast the United States’ present dispute resolution system: you get arrested for a crime which you didn’t commit. You’re convicted. You go to jail. Your lawyers start the appeals process. Legal incantations are uttered before various magistrates, demonstrating some technical irregularity in your trial. The state thinks you should be in jail anyhow, and decides to fight it out with your lawyers in the appeals process. Finally, the appeals process terminates, and you’re either set free or not. If the technical irregularity is sexy enough, your case might make it to the Supreme Court (cue angelic singing) before the thing is over with. But, one way or another, the system makes sure it’s over with. Justice may or may not be done, but The Law and Process have done their due.

Phew! This isn’t an easy joke to explain. Well, there is a view in political philosophy that law is prior to rights, i.e. that legal systems don’t merely enforce rights, they create and define them. For adherents of such political philosophies, Law and Process, which are ultimately arbitrary, create the context in which “rights” have meaning. There is no extra- or super-legal standard by which Justice can be recognized. For folks like this, having a final arbiter in matters of law is merely a pragmatic necessity, insurance against the gumming-up of the system. The final arbiter isn’t meant to function as the Ultimate Guardian of the Rights of Men.

Objectivists don’t agree with this. By their lights, a government’s sole legitimate purpose is the protection of individual rights, such as life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Governments that protect individual rights, to the extent they do so, are Just.

Ayn Rand wrote:

A private individual may do anything except that which is legally forbidden; a government official may do nothing except that which is legally permitted. This is the means of subordinating “might” to “right.” This is the American concept of “a government of laws and not of men.”

You see, Objectivists take law to be a means to an end — Justice — and law serves this end in part by circumscribing exactly what government officials are permitted to do while they work at protecting our rights. Objectivists cannot endorse the Kafkaesque kind of misgovernment exemplified by the officials of the Port of Portland. These humorless 21st-century Keystone Kops obviously don’t care what the law says.

“Lucky they’re not the final arbiters, huh?”

Not so fast, my imaginary Objectivist interlocutor! The essential problem here is that we’re dealing, wherever the Port of Portland is concerned, with a government of men, not of laws. The laws say one thing, the men assigned to enforce them do another. Funny.

And it gets funnier. Let’s take a look and see if we can find, as we follow the ascending lines of authority and listen to the music of the jurisdictional spheres, where government of men ends and government of law begins. Aw, hell, lets just jump right up to the Supreme Court. Let’s see now … Ginsburg, Souter, Thomas, Breyer, Scalia, Stevens, Rehnquist, O’Connor, Kennedy … wait a minute! These are people! Soylent Government is People! It’s Peeeeople!

The tyrants of the Port of Portland don’t show us what’s wrong with government so much as they show us the essential nature of government. Vets don’t hem and haw about what to do with a rabid dog. When something is as good as dead and still deadly dangerous, you just put the beast down. This isn’t rocket science.

Yet even though there is no such animal as a government of laws and not of men, even though such a chimera is impossible in principle, Objectivists cling to it. And this is where the best part of the joke and the Christianity come in, together.

Objectivism requires, for its politics to work, a Final Authority. Nothing on this earth can fit the bill. In all of history the only semblance of one I can find is the God of Judaism and Christianity: the Perfectly Just Judge Whose Authority Is Absolute and Beyond Whom There Can Be No Appeal. Objectivists aren’t supposed to be interested in impossible ideals, which is one reason they reject Christianity, explicitly. Implicitly, however, there appears to be another story. All constitutions are implemented, interpreted, and enforced by men. Good men have better things to do than govern; their time is too valuable. I can’t imagine many trading their time away to public service. And many would be needed, sadly, to keep a constitution, even one written by Ayn Rand herself, from becoming a mere pretext for usurpation and tyranny. Power attracts the absolutely corruptible. And the power of government will always attract the worst men, not the best. But I’m rambling and repeating points that Plato should have hammered into everyone’s head hundreds or thousands of years ago. It’s way too late, and I have too much more to say on this. Suffice it to say that it appears that, since nothing in reality can give rise to the concept of Just government, as human nature precludes the possibility, the Objectivist belief in it must rest, not on the evidence of the senses, but on faith — which is hilarious.

The Taciturn and the Garden Party

I had two thoughts on my mind just now. First one, then the other. Both of them seemed like good blog topics, and as I sat down to write on the second, I realized they’re connected, and interestingly so.

First, I was thinking about philosophy and how it affects me, and why I avoid it or hold it at arms’ length too much of the time. Then, I was thinking about how painfully banal most of my conversations are.

Philosophy does this to me: I start thinking about a philosophical problem, and if I don’t immediately grasp or at least intuit the solution, I begin to feel a rising agitation. My mind stirs awake. I swear I can actually feel the heat as my synapses spark, then ignite, then blaze. The mundane fades away. The pace of thought quickens. Hypotheses burst forth, illuminate, become unstable, go supernova, destroy everything that touches them. Vacuum, suffocation, panic. New hypotheses take form, furtively. Suddenly (Hello, Polaris) there’s enough to intuit a perspective on the problem; I get a sense of direction.

All the while I’m scrawling hurried notes. I can’t get the ideas out fast enough. They fall apart before they’re given form in words. Perspective is lost, my hypotheses no longer indicate anything, but shine stupidly at me like the visage of an idiot grinning at his ice cream cone. I start to come down from the high.

Krrack! Charred oaken hunks and flaming splinters fill the air. I jump out of my chair, fumble for a pen and a scrap of paper, can’t write, no backing, pen pokes through the sheet, there’s the wall. I lean up on it and write ten letters before the ink fails. Shaking the pen I hop from foot to foot like Rumpelstiltskin. “Motherf**ker!” I yell, toss the paper, fling the pen end over end into the wall like a tomahawk, wince (that’ll leave a mark). At the keyboard, typing in whatever app is open. Lots of typos, no time to correct. Where is that &%*@ing tape recorder?

The hypotheses shimmer like will-o’-the-wisps as I hammer out a rough paragraph. Not stars at all, deceptive beasts. Not stars, Chinese lanterns: varicolored, beautiful, resting in the branches of trees. Leaves glow pink and orange and blue and spring’s daylight green in the darkness. Ladies dressed in finery wander along garden paths, gentlemen at their arms. I take something from a silver tray and, shoeless, amble onto a lawn of soft, springy grass. Across the lawn several revelers are roasting marshmallows in the smouldering heart of an oak.

After I return, I creep into bed late, trying not to disturb my wife. I sleep for four hours, wake up, and start thinking along the edges of my garden until I find where the hedges reach out into cold, empty space. Once more into the breach.

When I’m in the grip of a philosophical problem, I won’t willingly think of much else. I can’t keep regular hours. I think until I find a garden or I’m exhausted, sometimes longer. Every answer uncovers new questions. I feel enticements approaching the irresistible as I wander virgin territory. One problem can be set aside. Two with difficulty. Ten? I won’t try it.

To philosophize as I’m naturally inclined would require totally free time, zero non-philosophical obligations. I’m skeptical that there’s any other way philosophy can be justly pursued. The less-than-half-assed attenuation that is my current philosophical life can only produce work vastly inferior, often dissipated or frivolous.

That’s not a complaint, but a concern. Who philosophizes if total immersion is the essential mode of philosophy? Certainly not scholars, with their classes, research, administrative obligations, etc. Certainly not anyone in the workaday world. Perhaps only beasts and gods.

This brings me to my unsatisfying conversations. I try not to think about my two favorite problems too much these days (how to demonstrate free will and crush the compatibilist word-jugglery, how to develop and test my solution to the problem of universals) because thinking about them would be like listening to half a movement of Mahler and switching to Third Eye Blind: jarring, unpleasant, and wasteful. But just today I realized that I haven’t been successful in closing off the philosophical wing of my brain. Sneakily, denied access to its favorite ideas, that insistent organ has begun thinking philosophically about the people around me.

Ideas are much more engaging conversationalists than people. People almost never talk about anything interesting at all, and if they begin to be interesting, they often seem inexplicably ashamed, as if they’ve noticed their fly is down, but can’t figure out how to fix it without drawing attention right to the problem area. An exception is in the afterglow of a party or an outing, especially where alcohol or adrenaline have been involved. I find folk are much more inclined to say something interesting during these otherworldly interludes. But you can tell then that they’re out of their element, like introverts liquored into loquaciousness. They’re not behind whatever they’re saying; they don’t mean it. The next day, they’ll have devolved into blocks, stones, worse than senseless things.


Do they sense, however remotely, sometime while backsliding from their infrequent peaks, the Garden beckoning? Do they sense that thinking about things meaningfully, as a philosopher does, can be all-consuming and transformative, and a powerful impediment to a ‘normal’ life? I hold philosophy at arms’ length knowingly, provisionally, so that I can keep traction on the far less interesting problems I’ve got to work on these days. But I can’t ever seem to truly shake its habits, and wouldn’t want to. Is some parallel gambit in incessant play among them, albeit one that’s spectacularly more effective?

I don’t have an answer, or even a bright intuition. … Forget it. I wonder what’s on VH1?

I Shall Be Telling This With A Sigh

I just popped over to Strike the Root and found this old-friendly quotation:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

This is philosophy, callow pretenders, the very thing-in-itself. Compare:

O Voltaire! O humaneness! O nonsense! There is something about “truth,” about the search for truth; and when a human being is too human about it—“il ne cherche le vrai que pour faire le bien” [“He seeks the true only to do the good.”]—I bet he finds nothing. ~ Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 35.

Presumed Incompetent

Contrary to the respectable opinion-in-practice, the way to get the most out of intellectual exchange may well be to presume your interlocutor is a duplicitous imbecile, but that his argument is vastly more subtle and penetrating than at least first impressions suggest.


Billy Beck has written an outstanding post on a topic that I’ve shied away from, simply because its implications are so large, and I hardly feel up to the task of folding them all out and making beautiful origami from them.

Anyhow, Billy points out that values are radically individual in their genesis, and that, consequently, the “common good” so revered by Platonists and their dupes, is a sham.

Physics v. Philosophy

If we are to carve the beast of reality along the joints, there is a dovetail where physics and philosophy meet, but the line will be carved by philosophy alone. The habit of philosophers and hangers-on to philosophy to discuss, armchair Hawking-style, matters cosmological and quantum-mechanical annoys me to no end. Reading a nice, well-written smackdown of such vice, like this one, gives me cause to rejoice!

Intellectual Conscience

In the course of my long term quest to discover what a philosopher ought to be, I realized, to my (it is not exaggeration to say) horror, that there are a great number of men (), apparently a majority, who cannot philosophize. The most interesting and penetrating diagnosis of this condition I have ever encountered—by far—was in the writing of Friedrich Nietzsche. In the passage I am thinking of, Nietzsche claims that the great majority of men “lacks an intellectual conscience” — by which he means that they are not affected by the drive (quintessential to philosophers) to be certain in their understanding of the world. This absence of conscience, which I have encountered directly many times in my day-to-day interaction with people, and have noticed lurking in almost all popular writing on philosophical matters, is parallel in severity to the lack of moral conscience that TV and movie sociopaths traditionally exhibit. The average person has no more capacity for philosophy, it seems, than Hannibal Lecter has empathy with rude people. The condition is positively pandemic.

When I first started considering my fellow man along these dimensions, before I knew the term “intellectual conscience,” or even had a clear idea in my head to which this term would correspond, I was working from the assumption that every man, being a rational animal, has the basic tools to understand reason, and therefore philosophy. But if what we’re talking about is not rationality per se, but an (emotional) commitment to rationality, where does that leave us? Possessing a tool, having the knowledge about its proper use, and having the will to use it are all separate things. In being human, every man possesses rationality, i.e. the capacity to philosophize and understand philosophical issues. Training in logic, or even simple life experience, can impart knowledge on how to better employ our natural gifts of rationality. However, no amount of training or experience can, directly, lead to the desire to use reason, to prefer it over other (ineffective) modes of comprehending the world.

It is a commonly held belief these days that debate, especially on fundamental matters, is futile. The merit of this belief is itself debatable, but one thing is certain: rational persuasion is futile unless those whom one would persuade possess an intellectual conscience. Does this mean, in light of the pandemic poverty of the primary philosophical prerequisite in the polity, that democracy itself is futile? I honestly don’t know.

As long as The People are predominantly uncommitted to rationality, they will always be easy prey for demagogues. As long as this condition obtains, individual liberty cannot be secured. Following some variant of this reasoning, many libertarians have opined that it is necessary to their political goals that a culture of rationality and respect for the individual be brought about in America. Educational reforms, increased home schooling, and battle for control of the Academy have all been suggested as steps toward this goal. Yet, if it is true that the intellectual conscience cannot be taught, isn’t cultural reform of this sort a fools errand at best, and a duplicitous Machiavelian feint at worst? Public schools and the university system churn out graduates now who make very malleable citizens, not firmly attached to any set of principles, let alone those difficult principles consonant with individual liberty. If this system could be retooled to churn out graduates with a good knowledge of history and a solid respect for liberty, which I have little doubt that it could, would the fundamental malleability of their beliefs really have been affected? Not if intellectual conscience cannot be taught. Indeed, if the beliefs of these liberty loving graduates of the future aren’t to be rooted in good intellectual conscience, then any storm, war, say, or depression, could easily uproot them. Not only that, any set of beliefs that doesn’t find its ultimate foundation in good intellectual conscience is, ipso facto, religious rather than rational in nature. The state religion of the present is pragmatic relativism, and the postmodernist professoriat of the universities is its priesthood. Any fundamental political value but liberty can be founded in such a religion, indeed must be founded in such; but I shudder to imagine the chimera of a state religion posited as the foundation of liberty.

Ultimately, I think, liberty can only be secured by a broad base of individuals who possess the intellectual conscience and understand the philosophical arguments for liberty. Consequently, I am intensely interested in the origins of the intellectual conscience. Where does it come from? Why do some people have it and not others? Can one obtain an intellectual conscience or is one predisposed toward or against it from early childhood? So far, absolutely all the evidence I have uncovered has indicated that the intellectual conscience simply is present in a person or it isn’t. It cannot be taught. It may not be possible even for it to be learned. It seems to me, moreover, that those people who have an intellectual conscience and those who don’t differ in kind and not merely in degree. They are homo philosophicus and homo theologicus, pardoning my fake Latin. Ought not lovers of liberty beware of embracing homo theologicus into our fold? And if we are to eschew their company, and their support, how can we be free of them in a democratic order?