Friday, May 30, 2008

Flirting with Anarchy

Why does America have the highest rate of crime in the Western world, despite the highest incarceration rates, and extraordinary wealth? The explanation of poverty does not hold water--there are many poor countries where the poorest have little involvement in crime (this title goes to the middle class). Race and poverty do play a part, but not in the way that we expect. For underlying the argument that race and poverty are the causes of crime is the assumption, and indeed, the justification, of the idea that the downtrodden have the right to take justice into their own hands. It is believed that the disadvantaged have the right, even the responsibility, to 'fight the power.'

This is not simply an outgrowth of the ill-fated revolutionary movements of the sixties. The ideology of those movements followed a common stream of American thought laid down as early the second amendment, the right to bear arms. Those arms were aimed at foreign invaders, but they were also aimed--and more often, as time went on--at the gub'mint. For among the entrenched principles of individual action so esteemed in the American experiment, was the esteem of lone justice, the strong man with a gun and two fists who brought justice to his community, whether he was a lawman or not.

The lone bringer of justice enforced justice as he saw it, not the justice detailed by laws and governments. He did what needed to be done, whether it was legal or not. American settlers in the west moved into a vacuum; the people outraced the government. In Canada, settlers arrived to find the RCMP already in place. The RCMP has had a checkered career since: the brutality of the strikes during the 30's, thuggish behavior and intimidation during the 70's. But the establishment of official lawmen before settlement set a precedent and a mode of conduct. You didn't fight the power, you partook in it, through democratic and economic participation. Whatever followed, those early mounties did us proud, establishing global precedents of detective work and negotiation.

But in America, the love of lone justice has inspired a problem. If justice is left to the individual, if one person can be judge, jury, and executioner, then how do you ensure that that person is qualified? The answer is that you can't, and that means that all manner of imbeciles will arrogate to themselves the right to impose their own manner of justice by force. The result is not just the likes of Timothy McVeigh, but an endless procession of underclass losers who have decided that the world has done them wrong, and they are going to get their own back. It is no accident that so many American criminals are of the lowest tier of intelligence; these are the very people who are prone to assuming that their failures are the fault of the 'system', and taking violent action to address this perceived injustice. The old left's insistence that this is the case only makes this worse; it shifts the burden of responsibility onto external entities, rather than upon poor choices. This is sometimes true, as in the case of people who have invested for their retirement and find their saving wiped out by the rapacious manuverings of stock brokers. But for those who do nothing, save nothing, or waste their money on get-rich-quick schemes, the temptation to blame it all on anyone but themselves is very strong, and they have a readymade ideology that encourages them to do just that.

So the gap between the far right militias and the ghetto gangs is not so far distant. Both are united in the belief that if you want justice, you have to impose it yourself. This belief not only encourages violence, it undermines faith in the democratic process. This is the dark underbelly of libertarianism; the government cannot be trusted to do anything. You have to do it yourself. And yet, this includes violence, and the government monopoly on violence is an integral part of the rule of law, without which you have anarchy. Libertarians would, no doubt, flinch from the very phrase "state monopoly of violence", but that is the price of peace, order, and good government. That is the Canadian promise, but at the moment, it seems to be the American dream. Perhaps it is time for them to look north, and understand how we did it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It's Really A Something

In arguments against the physicality of mind, the subject of qualia often comes up. Qualia are direct experiences unmoderated by interpretation--the experience of seeing the color red, what it is to be a bat, and the like. Qualia are experiences which are ineffable (inexpressable and not communicable), intrinsic (self-contained and not dependent upon other knowledge), private (we cannot compare them), and immediately apprehensible (if you have the experience, you know it, and you know everything there is to know about it.)

Most of the arguments for qualia and against the physicality of the mind employ thought experiments which slip in the assumption that no physical change has been wrought in the body or brain by the experience, effectively assuming the consequent; we assume no physical basis for the experience, and presto, there is no physical basis! The inverted spectrum and zombie thought experiments are examples of this. Others hinge on the idea that qualia are inexpressable--but this says nothing about qualia, and much about the limitations of language. In any case, one would expect that a purely idealized form of expression would be ill suited to describing purely physical phenomena--these arguments actually support the physical basis of mind and experience, rather than weaken it. To be a bat, to see a color, or to have any direct experience is a physical event, involving deep underlying experiences involving sensory organs, muscular/skeletal sensations, and so on. Choreographers are still seeking a notation for dance which can express even the most basic repertoire of movements. Imagine trying to describe not only the movements in detail, but the detailed experience of performing them! And yet, there can be absolutely no doubt that these are physical actions and sensations.

In fact, qualia are the most physical aspect of consciousness. In discussions of the ineffable, mystical insights are usually regarded as the ultimate ineffable experiences. But how do these often come about? Through extreme conditions of the body--fasting, exertion to the point of collapse, drugs, the deliberate self infliction of pain, or repetitive or long held postures or activities. These experiences are commonly induced through direct or indirect manipulation of neurochemical states. Yet the claims of mysticism are that one has overcome the body, when in fact they have manipulated their bodies to achieve these states. Even the most spiritual of experiences is, at its very roots, physical.

Steven Pinker, in a recent article regarding The Stupidity of Dignity notes that Leon Kass, who loaded a council on bioethics with staunch Catholics, regarded any physical act, even eating, as undignified--Kass railed against the indignity of eating ice cream cones in public. Likewise, Kass exalts the imagined spiritual properties of an ovum over the physical good of living people. His sympathy with Catholicism is all too clear; Catholicism too values the mortification of the flesh and the exaltation of spirit. But this is simple vanity; a disgust with the limitations of human physicality in comparison with the exalted qualities of imagined gods and perhaps even with more perfect human specimens, a desire to be perfect, ideal in a Platonic sense, a resplendant being of light who does not fart or fuck or belch. A belief in spirit detached from the physical invites the hatred of life in all but principle, as all but stepping stone to the afterlife. The love of spirit becomes a loathing for humanity.

Finally, there is a claim that qualia are the most meaningful and significant of all experiences. The title of this post suggests the opposite. People that I have met who were veteran drug users are in the habit of making statements like "It's really a something!" "He's really doing something." "He's doing his scene." What do these statements mean? Nothing. They are utterly devoid of content, because they refer to the type of drug experiences in which the person is unable to integrate the experience. The tragedy of the youth drug culture is that, unlike the first pioneers of psychedelics, who were usually well versed in science, philosophy, literature, and mysticism, barely literate teenagers have no frame of reference. All they can say is "Wow!", and in retrospect, one wow is very much like another. These are raw qualia, but until they are drawn into the world of expression and related to other experience and knowledge, they remain physical noise. Qualia must cease to be qualia to acquire meaning. Only then do they properly become aspects of consciousness rather than the signals of the autonomic nervous system. Furthermore, it should be immediately apparent that, having been caused by a chemical, these experiences--which often approach the mystical--have an entirely physical basis.

There is a particular style of philosophical discussion which is properly called "nonsense on stilts"--discussions of things which neither refer to facts about the real world (do not touch the ground) nor involve precisely defined terms (nonsense). I suspect that metaphysics has not gained any ground since the ancient Greeks. It is not that they gave the final answers; they may not have even asked the right questions. The same arguments run back and forth without any resolution in sight, revolving around the definitions and redefinitions of vague words and concepts. These are language games. Some philosophers were so caught up in these games that they decided that all human interaction consisted of nothing more than language games, forgetting that most people actually devote most of their time talking about real things and events in the physical world. They had become so divorced from reality that they decided it did not exist. But any subject which does not bow to carefully gathered fact, or which does not restrict itself to concepts of near mathematical precision, will soon find itself building castles in the sky, to be cast down and raised again by whims of opinion. This is not knowledge, nor any way to achieve knowledge. This is mere sophistry. The stagnant condition of metaphysics and theology suggest that these disciplines are in precisely this rut.

When I first encountered metaphysics as a young undergraduate, it was my favorite topic. I thought I had discovered magic, a means of unraveling the secrets of the universe without ever being forced to learn about the world. Through the simple exploration and combination of vague concepts I could understand, and perhaps even affect, the world. I wonder how much of this still animates enthusiasm for metaphysics, and for non-physical explanations of reality. If consciousness is non-physical yet can still influence reality, then perhaps one can do away with the whole bother of moving and exploring, avoid death, even avoid the physical disciplines of the mystics required to attain peace of mind. It is this aspect of wishful thinking most of all that makes arguments for non-physicality suspect.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Estates

In Medieval France, the realm was divided into three estates: the first was the clergy, the second was the nobility, and the third was the common people, represented by the burghers. Later, Edmund Burke referred to the press as the fourth estate. In modern times, the nobility have more or less become obsolete, while the third estate has come to dominate the government. Another estate has risen to prominence as well; business has its own needs and agendas, particularly in the form of corporations who act as legal entities rather like people under the law. In the modern West, the estates would be better ordered as government (representing the people), business, religion, and media.

Various attempts have been made to name a fifth estate, often as segment of the press that dissents from the majority (fourth estate) view, but this simply emphasizes temporary public arguments. A better candidate would be academia, particularly the sciences, as the humanities might be considered an aspect of the fourth estate. While the fourth estate collects and dispenses data (news), the fifth estate is concerned with collating this data and identifying trends and general principles. This fifth estate would be different from the fourth particularly in the accuracy expected in its judgments, and in the time and effort required to render these judgements as well as their durability.

This leaves us with five estates: government, business, religion, media, and the sciences. One thing that strikes me about these estates is that a mixing of any two is a regarded, quite rightly, as a corrupting influence on both. A government official with a business interest in a particular matter has a conflict of interests, and is expected to recuse himself from any government dealing with that industry. Ministers who amass fortunes or use their churches as political springboards are also disparaged, and the separation of Church and State is now a near universal principle in the West. Media which serves the interests of business, government, or a particular church is considered biased and unreliable--even Fox news claims to be "fair and balanced". And scientific judgments which serve an interest other than science itself are also highly suspect--nor can a scientist be expected to deliver rapid fire results suitable to a media timeline without making serious and irresponsible errors.

It is precisely the mixing of all these estates in the Muslim world which brings it to its sorry state. Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, there is still a nobility, who own most of the businesses, run the government, and control the media, all according to religious principles, while science is barely pursued at all. The rest of the Muslim world is not much better, lacking only the nobility, but still permitting all The result is a riot of corruption without the rule of law--indeed, the closest thing they have to a justice system is a dubiously qualified assortment of clerics issuing idiosyncratic judgments which seem to relate more to their blood sugar levels than to any remote objective standard of justice. The result is brutality, waste, greed, ignorance, poverty, and injustice on an epic scale.

Dinesh D'Souza recently congratulated Christianity for being so much better than Islam, because Christian extremists are nowhere near as vicious as Islamic extremists. He is, of course, comparing present day Christianity to present day Islam. But for a proper comparison to be made, one would have to go back to a time when the estates were allowed to bleed together as they do in the Muslim world, when governments were governed and motivated by the dictates of Christian faiths. One would have to go back nearly five hundred years, to the wars of the Reformation.

With the rise of Protestantism, Europe split and took sides, Protestant vs Catholic. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the pages of European history are awash in blood spilled in the name of Christ. We have the Spanish Inquisition--orignally directed against Jews, it now turned on Protestants--the Witch Burnings, the execution of heretics, Henry VIII's persecution of Catholics, Mary Tudor's persecution of Protestants, Wolsingham's police state under Elizabeth, and innumerable wars, assassinations, and intrigues between all the great powers of Europe. This continued through the Stuarts, leading to the death of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell's bloody tyranny. Charles II calmed this somewhat by being almost completely secular throughout his reign, converting to Catholicism on his deathbed. His brother James was quickly deposed by William of Orange, who gained tolerance for Protestant non-conformists, but also sought tolerance for Catholics. The Act of Tolerance and the Bill of Rights strengthened the boundaries between the estates, and lead eventually to the end of the fighting between Catholics and Protestants, at least in England. In Northern Ireland, the wars of the Reformation have only just ended; the Protestants call themselves Orange (after William) and the Catholics are the Green.

One might argue that the kings and nobles exploited Christianity for their own ends--and you would be right. One might equally argue that the likes of William Wilberforce and Martin Luther King also directed Christianity in novel directions--and again, you would be right. The problem lies in the fact that any religion lends itself to the irrational and superstitious, which can be exploited to any purpose. And indeed, it was exploited for the justification of slavery, which was why Wilberforce and King were forced to couch their arguments in religious language; the language of their strongest opposition. D'Souza loves to cite Wilberforce and King, but never mentions Edgar Ray Killen, responsible for the murders depicted in the movie "Mississipi Burning"--Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen, as he was known, because he spewed his racist venom from the pulpit of a baptist church. And Killen was only one representative of a breed that encompassed hundreds, if not thousands, of preachers who did likewise throughout the period of slavery and up to the present day. Yet Wilberforce and King carried the day because the majority of the population objected to slavery on grounds which had little to do with religion and much to do with simple human empathy, an emotion which, happily, required no religious sentiments to support it.

What D'Souza would like us to forget is that the Christianity we see today is heavily shackled and sedated, tamed through long effort, often at great risk, by generations of great men and women who understood the danger of giving religion too much power. Charlie Manson hasn't killed in almost forty years, but that doesn't mean he's reformed, just restrained. We have lived so long with a religion tamed by secularism that we have forgotten why it had to be tamed in the first place, and why the estates had to be separated.