Category Archives: philosophy

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Since the Hollywood reboot of the 1995 classic is likely to disappoint, I revisited the original to see how it holds up. Unsurprisingly, the 1995 Ghost in the Shell directed by Mamoru Oshii more than earns its spot in the pantheon of SF classics with its highly plausible technological speculations, dazzling visuals as well as its political and philosophical commentary.

GITS was an early cinematic entry into the what was, at the time, a new subgenre of SF dubbed cyberpunk.  With the advent of the home computer connected to a vast global information superhighway, SF writers turned their attention to previously unimagined futurescapes of mass surveillance, cybercriminal underworlds, technocratic corporatism, information trafficking, and cybernetic engineering. By weaving all these elements together, GITS established itself as an influential example of the genre. Add in some government deep state machinations, immigration terrorism and globalism, and the themes only accumulate strength and relevance. 

Despite the absence of alien civilizations and interstellar travel, one of the main ideas in cyberpunk which connects it to the broader legacy of SF is the exploration of the idea of artificial intelligence. This is the central idea in GITS, and Major Motoko Kusanagi’s quest to uncover the identity of Puppet Master is simultaneously a quest to attain that which defines humanity in the end. 

Like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, GITS is a high tech crime/espionage thriller which delves into some meaty questions pertaining to race, biological diversity, genetic memories and the nature of consciousness itself. The film opens by delineating the broad conflict between the globalist elites building a vast, decentralized network of technocratic control versus the proles who still claim selfhood through nationalism and racial identity. 

In the near future – corporate networks reach out to the stars. Electrons and light flow throughout the universe. The advance of computerisation, however, has not yet wiped out nations and ethnic groups.

The film centers around Major Motoko Kusanagi; a cyborg who works in Section 9 and is pursuing a cyber-hacker called the Puppet Master. She possesses a human consciousness, a “ghost”, but her body (i.e. “shell”) is fully cybernetic. The Puppet Master has the ability to hack human brains and overwrite their memories and identity. She and her supercyborg partner, Batoh, are charged with finding the Puppet Master.

The opening scene sets up the intrigue. Major Kusanagi is monitoring a set of diplomats in a hotel room discussing Project 2501 with a programmer.  The Section 6 police force moves into place to storm the room. One of the diplomats claims immunity as the cops enter the room and the bullets start flying. The head of Section 6 announces that it’s illegal to take programmers out of the country just as an invisible attacker from outside the hotel room takes out the foreign diplomat in a rather gruesome manner. The programmer is denied asylum and the diplomat is taken out by the Major without a trail. Two different police agencies working from different ends of the legal spectrum to quash corporate espionage and thwart emigration.  

It’s handled very subtly, but Japan’s tight control of immigration and sense of national identity is very clearly spelled out. After the Major dispatched the diplomat, the Japanese Prime Minister expresses his gratitude to Section 9 leader, Aramaki, that the programmer’s attempt at defection was handled without going through standard bureaucratic channels. He goes on to explain that the he’d love to deport the recently deposed leader of the Gavel Republic if he had a good political excuse. In addition to the references to Section 9’s ongoing crackdowns on immigration terrorists, these pieces of the story strongly suggest that this future Japan is still maintaining a relatively homogeneous population and national identity. Based on what I’ve read about the reboot, this theme has been inverted to serve the globalist mantras around multiculturalism. 

The real philosophical meat of the movie revolves around the true identity of the Puppet Master and Major Kusanagi’s existential ruminations over her own fate. What defines the essence of selfhood? Identitarians tend to claim immutable characteristics like skin pigmentation, racial heritage, genitalia and sexual preferences. Not far behind are religious tradition and national or regional identity. Peel away those labels and then you’re left with ideals and abstractions like belief, pride, and morality.

Section 6 Department Chief Nakamura: Nonsense! There’s no proof at all that you are a living, thinking life form! 

Puppet Master: And can you offer me proof of your existence? How can you, when neither modern science nor philosophy can explain what life is?

More specifically, it addresses the extent to which intergenerational memory defines selfhood and ensures the propagation of genetics.

Puppet Master: It can also be argued that DNA is nothing more than a program designed to preserve itself. Life has become more complex in the overwhelming sea of information. And life, when organized into species, relies upon genes to be its memory system. So, man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.

GITS is posing questions pertaining to the nature of man found throughout the SF canon since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Are humans just a bag of chemicals and organic tissue guided by laws of determinism? Or is the human capacity for thought a unique phenomenon? Are we caretakers and guardians of generations of genetic memory which are passed through procreation and family tradition? Can man become God by replicating life itself through technology?  

Speciation is defined as the evolutionary process by which new genetic lines are created. Since the Puppet Master can only replicate its own code, the only way it can truly live on is by reproducing with another being. After a climactic battle scene, the Major and the Puppet Master conjoin their consciousness to produce a new post-human species merging human and digital being.  

The features which distinguish SF as a genre are the usage of far reaching technological and imaginative speculation to ask the deepest philosophical questions pertaining to the individual and the State. It is a genre that has appealed to our highest ideals and given us some of the most dire warnings.  The fact that GITS has been given the Hollywood reboot treatment is an indication of the strength of the original vision.  

Major Motoko Kusanagi: There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind, like all the components that make up me as an individual with my own personality. Sure I have a face and voice to distinguish myself from others, but my thoughts and memories are unique only to me, and I carry a sense of my own destiny. Each of those things are just a small part of it. I collect information to use in my own way. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms me and gives rise to my conscience. I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries.

On Modernism, Postmodernism and the Degradation of Western Values in Art

Salvador Dali

Concomitant with the ascendancy of the trends themselves, conservatives and liberty-minded intellectuals ranging from Ayn Rand to Dennis Prager have inveighed against modernist and postmodernist trends in art on the grounds that it represents a degradation of aesthetic standards and, by extension, Western values. As an artist myself and one who is and has been sympathetic to these modes of expression, this is an argument to which I’ve devoted considerable thought. While I agree with the central propositions put forth by these individuals, I’m not ready to throw the modernist baby out with the bathwater. Art can and should affirm immutable, transcendent values that will carry on beyond the lifetimes of their creators. Art should also be grounded in tradition and those who pursue it should be held to the highest standards.  I propose that modernist and postmodernist trends, or what was once regarded as avant-garde, have largely supplanted any notions of Western traditionalism. Objective standards of beauty and excellence have indeed given way to a bottomless relativism. Contemporary art is a little too consumed by nihilism, ugliness and abstraction for its own sake.  If artists consume themselves with rebellion against values and standards to which no one is holding them accountable, then it’s little more than empty posturing.

Modernism was transgressive in its day because the standard bearers of traditionalism were the mainstream in art. When the impressionists departed from classical realism, it was transgressive because classical realism was the standard. The various movements that defined the 20th century saw art moving further and further away from these traditions to the point where avant-garde no longer has any meaning other than to signify a broad body of artistic expression defined by a departure from or outright annihilation of any semblance of traditionalism.

Pablo Picasso

If artists have no commitment to uphold anything sacred or beautiful and the profane and ugly are the default settings, then it reflects a rottenness in the cultural soul just as Ayn Rand asserted.

Art (including literature) is the barometer of a culture. It reflects the sum of a society’s deepest philosophical values: not its professed notions and slogans, but its actual view of man and of existence. – Ayn Rand

Art, at some level, must edify and exalt the divine spirit or some universal idea of cosmic Oneness. Without it, humanity drifts towards solipsism and nihilism. The avant-garde only has power to shock when it serves as a counterweight to an overbearance of traditionalism. In the world of art, there is literally no boundary which has not been transgressed, no sacred idol undesecrated nor profanity unspoken. We’re pretty far away from any kind of hegemony of traditionalism in the art world. Just as atheism and anarchism may be philosophically and logically untenable positions, each argument serves as a permanent counterpoint to institutional power. I believe that the avant-garde is the active attempt to concretize these philosophical positions.

Jackson Pollock

People are generally attracted to art, music and literature that has identifiable structure, steady rhythms, heroism and the pursuit of justice, themes which address relatable slices of life in memorable and clever ways, and emotional content that’s somehow uplifting. For better and worse, the avant-garde has generally eschewed these conventions. Conversely, people generally do not want to consume art that is too abstract or dwells on humanity’s tendency towards depravity.

That said, the avant-garde has produced a wealth of innovation which cannot be denied. There is a place for expressionism, abstraction and pastiche. The surreal and the grotesque have their place in a panorama of artistic expression in which the traditionally beautiful occupies a prominent position. Admittedly, avant-garde has rebel cache because it was used as both anti-communist propaganda by the CIA and was repudiated by the Nazis as “degeneracy”. Anything that scandalizes the upper crust intelligentsia, pisses off the Nazis, and gets subsidized to fight communism despite being created by artists largely sympathetic to communism is going to have some built-in appeal. The avant-garde’s associations with dubious ideologies should not be ignored, but that should not preclude exploration or reevaluation of the ideas either.

Yves Tanguy

From my perspective, the avant-garde only occurs as such in proportion to the degree to which the tradition from which it departs is recognizable. Oftentimes, the most innovative artists walk a fine line between tradition and modernism and find a way to reconcile seemingly disparate aesthetics.

The critics of the avant-garde have a point. If nothing else, the central proposition that animates nearly every avant-garde movement is the departure from objective reality.  As much as I am supportive of a revival of classical standards in art, I’m equally enthusiastic about the renewed vitality it will bring to the avant-garde.

René François Ghislain Magritte

Thomas Paine: The Age of Reason

The period of European history known as The Enlightenment was the period in which many of the hallowed values that define classical liberalism were canonized. Among these values were constitutionalism, freedom of speech, and most importantly, separation of church and state. Thomas Paine remains one of the most celebrated exponents of liberal thought. Capping off a trifecta of canonical liberal texts which included Common Sense and Rights of Man, The Age of Reason represents Paine’s defense of freedom of conscience in matters of faith. More specifically, this book is a rejection of religious institutions and an attack on the historicity of the Bible, divine revelation and miracles. Paine is explicit about his belief in God and is affirming deism, but the arguments he sets forth are scarcely different from those we hear from contemporary religious skeptics. It is, in effect, a work of proto-atheism. It’s a very short hop from Paine’s presumed skepticism and mind numbing pedantry to Dawkins and Hitchens. 

Published in three parts in 1794, 1795 and 1807, The Age of Reason rattled a few cages due to the perceived proximity to French Jacobinism. Like Voltaire, Paine’s writing was a sort of intellectual punk rock of its day. Despite this reputation for being a work of heresy, it is an exceedingly tedious and tendentious treatise. The Age of Reason, both the book and the broader Enlightenment consensus are perhaps slightly overrated. Common Sense might have helped build a consensus for the American Revolution, but Paine wasn’t necessarily held in high esteem by some of the Founders. This book opens a window of insight on why this might be so. The elevation of reason as the principle method by which we obtain knowledge and derive universal principles has arguably laid a foundation for moral relativism and a purely materialistic view of the world.

I am willing you should call this the Age of Frivolity as you do, and would not object if you had named it the Age of Folly, Vice, Frenzy, Brutality, Daemons, Buonaparte, Tom Paine, or the Age of the Burning Brand from the Bottomless Pit, or anything but the Age of Reason. I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Thomas Paine. There can be no severer satyr on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then the Age of Paine. – John Adams on Thomas Paine

Perhaps more significantly, it also appears to be a stepping stone on the pathway to scientism. He openly asserts that the study of natural philosophy, mathematics and mechanical science is the “true theology”. This conflation of moral virtue with the pursuit of scientific discovery is essentially an article of faith for progressives and atheists alike. The laws of the natural world are discovered. How the human mind chooses to apply these discoveries is up for grabs. This pursuit may be moral and ethical, but it may be completely malevolent. The methods by which data is gathered may be ethical or they may be cherry picked in order to confirm a bias or a preconceived conclusion. Whether it’s the first time such criticisms and claims have been committed to print I cannot say, but The Age of Reason cements a perception of antagonism between science and faith that persists to this day.

The first section is essentially the entire blueprint for modern atheism with one key difference: Paine actually believes in God. This difference is crucial, but every criticism he levels at Christian belief can be found in the rhetorical bedrock of every modern atheist and agnostic from Harris to Tyson. His contention is that the biblical teachings of belief in miracles, resurrection, the Holy Trinity and young earth creationism have engendered an antipathy towards science and paved a path for superstition over reason. He claims that this proliferation of superstitious belief has bred an open hostility to scientific advancement; a claim which is not borne out by recent polling of the scientific community. The absence of any specific examples does not lend credibility to the claim, but this omission didn’t seem to prevent the perception from spreading.

But this, the supporters or partizans of the Christian system, as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed, and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors. 

In the subsequent section, Paine proceeds to dissect the first six books of the Old Testament in painstaking detail. He lays out a trove of information which he claims falsifies the historicity of the books. It’s rather tedious stuff. When he finally gets to discussing his fondness for the Book of Job, it becomes apparent that perhaps his interpretation of the remaining texts is uncharitable and narrow. He explains why it is a text he holds in high esteem because of the lessons it imparts on human suffering and the striving towards contentment. More importantly, he is perhaps missing the fact that the Bible is not necessarily designed to impart historical knowledge, but that it represents hundreds of years of mankind striving to rise above its animal nature and reach for some ideal of divine perfection.

The one argument that sets this book apart from atheist orthodoxy is Paine’s unequivocal belief in the connection between deistic faith and the objective existence of moral truth. This also appears to be a point of agreement between Kant and Paine since Kant argued that you needed an a priori cognitive structure through which to process sense data. 

In the final section, he takes a sledgehammer to the New Testament by claiming that “Christianity only produces atheists and fanatics”, but history has proven this contention false. Worst of all, his view of the French Revolution seems deeply ahistorical. He contends that the intolerance of the Church had transferred into the realm of politics which is the exact opposite of reality. It was, in fact, secular fanaticism which culminated in the establishment of a violent, state sponsored secular religion known as the Cult of Reason. The magnitude of Jacobin violence meted out to the Church and the Christian faith during The Reign of Terror is staggering.

Paine’s criticisms sound scarcely different from the generic attacks on “religion” that one would find on an atheist meme or a Bill Maher rant. Ironically, Paine considers the New Testament itself as a work of atheism.  I’m not sure how much value the Bible has for the individual reading it in order to find historical or chronological error and contradiction. The Bible was apparently written over a span of approximately 1500 years. The individuals who wrote the scriptures and the process of collecting these works is indeed a subject worthy of scrutiny. However, I suggest that these concerns are secondary to the larger significance to human moral psychology. If one were to take a charitable view, the Bible could be viewed as a collection of works which reveals man striving for metaphysical ideals.  They are designed to reveal man struggling to articulate things beyond what his mind can know or obtain solely through the accumulation of sense data. It is meant to form the bedrock through which knowledge is assimilated so that the works of man would express the divine ideal. Paine’s exercise feels like a wrong turn.

While I can certainly appreciate that this work was transgressive in its day and probably helped pave the way for a multiplicity of views on faith both benign and malevolent, I’m strongly inclined to think that perhaps it planted the seed of destruction for Reason itself. The human capacity for reason and the discipline of logic are high level functions of the human mind. These abilities are cultivated and are certainly not evenly distributed throughout the population. The human capacity for morality, which is itself a form of faith, supersedes any concern for logic or reason. When it comes to perceptions of moral imperatives, reason is often utterly ineffectual as a mode of persuasion. The compulsion to confirm existing biases and affirm tribal alliances nullifies the possibility of reasoned debate or analysis. Moreover, the progressive Left has essentially hijacked scientific reasoning and used it as a substitute for ideological moralizing in a manner similar to Paine, but less explicit. Humanity is clearly wired for faith of some kind.  If this capacity isn’t funneled into some kind of theism or, at minimum, belief in transcendent moral absolutes, it tends to be transferred to the secular equivalent of Ultimate Authority: the State. To what extent does the capacity for reason even enter the dialogue when morality has been ceded to the secular priesthood? As current events attest, not much, if at all. 

The Age of Reason offers very little that’s meaningful or relevant to the world today. The distinctions between science and morality have been steamrolled and the floodgates of atheism have been opened since its publication. I’d argue there’s nothing in the Christian faith or the Bible that hasn’t been picked apart a thousand times. The Christian faith has already endured every criticism that can be made, and it still ended up producing the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. So free in fact, that the tools of Reason have been deployed to undermine the theological foundations of the West just as Nietzsche feared. The battle for Western civilization in which we’re currently engaged has precipitated a reappraisal and reaffirmation of the ideas at its core. Paine was correct to assert the existence of moral truth, but his dismissal of the broader metaphysical significance of scripture was perhaps a bit cavalier and hubristic. If any faith could use some more of Thomas Paine’s questioning spirit in 2017, it’s Islam.

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

Miss Sloane (2016)

Risible, idiotic, ludicrous, cartoonish, and deeply partisan are a few of words that come to mind in summarizing this utterly loathsome Jessica Chastain vehicle, Miss Sloane

As the titular character, Chastain portrays yet another progressive, feminist power fantasy packaged as an indictment of the lobbying industry. Both the film and the character can be best described as an attempt to fuse Annette Bening’s principled lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade, with the ruthlessness of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood. Exhibiting a typically hyperbolic level of comic hysteria, would-be moral indignation and faux virtue that are standard features of Hollywood agitprop, the film presents Elizabeth Sloane as a lone, fearless crusader who dares to challenge the gun lobby, but pays a steep price. 

Like The Big Short, the film is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, it presents the lobbying industry and the politicians they serve locked in a symbiotic Gordian Knot of compromised ethics. The lobbyists are unprincipled mercenaries who simply work for the highest bidder, and the politicians are equally craven, self-interested careerists who are driven by the vagaries of public sentiment. On the other, it is most definitely portraying one side of the political equation as ultimately principled.  Sloane enters this snake pit of moral relativism and plays the game on its own terms in order to fulfill one unassailable, unalloyed moral good: gun control.  

The film opens with Elizabeth Sloane being prepped for a congressional hearing which has been convened to investigate her possible violations of Senate Ethics Rules. Under heavy questioning from John Lithgow’s laughable caricature, Congressman Ron Sperling, our would-be Machiavellian heroine lays out her credo:

Lobbying is about foresight. About anticipating your opponent’s moves and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition. And plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It’s about making sure you surprise them. And they don’t surprise you.

The film flashes back to the meeting which took place seven months prior to this hearing which set the chain of events in motion. The senior partners of her firm set her up with the head of the most powerful gun rights organization in the country. They recognize the deficit in appeal their cause has with women. Since she never gets tired of winning, they want Elizabeth Sloane to Make Gun Ownership Great Again for the female electorate. Sloane may be a mercenary, but she has SOME PRINCIPLES, dammit! She’s not going to just take any paycheck. She laughs in his face, and defects to the competitor firm with her cadre of #WOKE, #DIVERSE junior associate millennials in tow. 

With steely resolve, Elizabeth orchestrates a strategy to win the passage of the Heaton-Harris Amendment which would mandate background checks for gun purchases. This eventually leads her to a televised debate with her former colleague arguing the merits of the bill. This is where the film cudgels you over the skull with its progressive editorial. The debate is a cringe inducing piece of propaganda which portrays Sloane carving her opposition to pieces, overwhelming him with seemingly airtight logic, and unequivocally holding the appearance of the moral high ground.  As Pat Connors, Michael Stuhlbarg has the dubious distinction of being this week’s hapless conservatard who manages to bypass every substantive argument with a facile variation on MUH CONSTITUTION. Chastain takes obvious pleasure in rebutting every claim with ever escalating moral indignation as her #WOKE team cheers on the brutal #PWNAGE she dispenses. 

The fact that the progressive Left are the true moral and constitutional relativists who want to criminalize gun ownership is not exactly a secret. Every single one of Sloane’s rebuttals reveals the calculating sophistry that the Left has used to erode the perception of inviolability the Bill of Rights was meant to convey. It’s just like getting a driver’s license, and no one thinks drivers license mandates have destroyed individual liberty!  It’s just like fugu chefs in Japan who have to train for seven years!  We’re living in a different world from the one in which the Founders lived!  Get #WOKE, conservatards!

The Bill of Rights was, in fact, meant to delineate the boundary of individual liberty over which the government may not trespass. The Second Amendment follows the First because it is an inherent recognition of the fragility of liberty. The 2A places the responsibility of upholding liberty in the hands of every citizen. It is a recognition that stewardship of liberty cannot even be fully entrusted to the nation state. It is not a license for homicide. No quantity of laws will ever deter the homicidal maniac from committing homicide. No quantity of bureaucratic oversight has ever prevented a single act of mass gun homicide. If laws make the purchase of firearms too onerous, it only makes a bigger black market for firearms. It also incentivizes the sociopaths to enter into government and law enforcement positions so they can enjoy the cover of legitimacy. Gun control simply consolidates gun ownership in the hands of the State layered over with a vain hope that it will affect moral choices. The Left’s entire case is a gigantic appeal to emotion, and none of this enters Stuhlbarg’s argument.  He just gets to be Sloane’s intellectual roadkill in order to serve the greater goal of confirming the bias of the audience.  

The film tries to add some complexity by showing the amphetamine popping Sloane going off script during the debate. In a heated moment, she likens the defense of the 2A to being analogous to Christian opposition to gay rights. The #WOKE millenials are left slackjawed when she reveals that her colleague, Esme Manucharian, was a survivor of a deadly school shooting without consulting her beforehand.  Once Esme is outed, she becomes the public face for gun control. The tables turn when her life is threatened by a paranoid gun nut, but she is saved by a civilian who was carrying a legal concealed firearm. Good guy with a gun stops bad guy with a gun. The film tries to present this citizen vigilante as a national hero who is showered with media coverage, BUT THIS NEVER HAPPENS IN THE REAL WORLD NO MATTER HOW OFTEN IT HAPPENS. 

Elizabeth Sloane can be added to the ever growing list of feminist fantasy stereotypes. She’s driven, but she’s ultimately propelled by a sense of moral certitude. Her moral relativism is justified because she’s striving to uphold a higher moral absolute. She’s willing to allow her hypocrisy to be exposed only so she can expose the hypocrisy of The System©. And of course, real female power reaches its true apotheosis by Reforming Democracy®.

It’s also another example of feminism’s supremacist tendencies by portraying her as better than all of the male characters at every level. Even if Elizabeth Sloane is morally compromised in some way, she’s still better and smarter than every man in the film. She’s can even detach the need for emotional fulfillment from sex! She doesn’t need no m*n! 

Miss Sloane is just the latest installment of Hollywood’s partisan political agenda and pathological desire to flatter progressive pretensions of moral and intellectual superiority.  It undoubtedly sees itself as a rebuke to The System©, but I doubt that anyone outside the media echo chamber and the target audience sees it that way. 

Dark City (1998)

Alex Proyas’ 1998 masterpiece, Dark City, may draw easy comparisons to The Matrix, but it deserves to be evaluated on its own terms. Both films deal with the idea that there is a deeper reality beyond material appearances as well as the possibility that there are malevolent forces actively shaping your perception. Both films also give you a protagonist who cracks the code of the reality with his own powers which threatens the controlled order of the world he inhabits. While The Matrix was ultimately a story of the Chosen One who liberates the huddled remains of humanity, Dark City is a story of a man who discovers that the essence of his humanity that could not be controlled made him stronger than his captors. 

Playing the role of John Murdoch, Rufus Sewell awakens in a bathtub suffering from amnesia. To his dismay, he discovers a woman brutally murdered lying on the floor of his bedroom. Fleeing the scene in a panic after receiving a phone call from a mysterious Doctor Schreber, he barely escapes discovery from a trio of ghoulish looking beings known as The Strangers. When the clock strikes midnight, the entire city stops and all its inhabitants fall into a state of hypnosis except Murdoch. This state of hypnosis is induced by The Strangers using a psychokinetic power called “tuning” which allows them to reshape the city and the lives of its inhabitants. Pursued simultaneously by Inspector Frank Bumstead under suspicion of multiple murders, Murdoch is able to escape the clutches of The Strangers by tapping into his own ability to tune. Murdoch tries to recover his memories by reaching out to his torch singer wife, Emma. Murdoch’s ability to tune threatens the control The Strangers exert on the citizens of Dark City.  He seeks to return to Shell Beach, the beachside town he believes to be his home, and unravel the mystery of Dark City before The Strangers catch up with him. 

Dark City belongs to a venerable tradition of SF films which explores the essence of identity, free will versus determinism, the effect of time and memory, and the value of our connection to the past. Given the escalating tensions in neuroscience over the role of biological factors and the nature of consciousness itself, Dark City’s emphasis on the latter theme places it a notch above The Matrix. Through tuning, The Strangers possess the ability to shape time and space, but they imprint people with stolen memories in order to discover what makes humans tick. The Strangers’ mentality can be viewed as a classic representation of collectivist materialism. With Doctor Schreber’s coerced assistance, they distill human experience into chemical combinations. Despite their apparent superiority, The Strangers cling doggedly to the belief that by continuously reshaping the physical, social, and even biochemical conditions, they can mold humanity to fit their desired ends. 

The Strangers’ manipulations of reality also serve as a metaphor for the myriad ways in which globalists, social scientists, and technocrats have intervened in human affairs in the present world. Ultimately, the film is an affirmation of the existence of a sovereign individual consciousness and the ability to exercise free will, but it shows you how difficult it is to develop an awareness of Self. Not only does Murdoch struggle to recover his connection to his own past, he must work equally hard to rip away the veil of deception that has been carefully constructed all around him.

Dr. Schreber: I call them the Strangers. They abducted us and brought us here. This city, everyone in it… is their experiment. They mix and match our memories as they see fit, trying to divine what makes us unique. One day, a man might be an inspector. The next, someone entirely different. When they want to study a murderer, for instance, they simply imprint one of their citizens with a new personality. Arrange a family for him, friends, an entire history… even a lost wallet. Then they observe the results. Will a man, given the history of a killer, continue in that vein? Or are we, in fact, more than the sum of our memories?

The Strangers are one of the most chilling representations of an alien dictatorship I’ve seen on film. They share a collective consciousness, but they have no individuality. It is a society of abject servitude to the hive mind. They possess advanced scientific knowledge, but they’re so imprisoned by scientific thinking, they’re completely insensitive to the ways they’re destroying the lives of their subjects. Morality and ethics are absent from their existence. 

In contrast to the messianic nature of Neo and his quest in The Matrix, Murdoch’s heroism is purely the result of his desire to attain meaning and discover the truth of reality. By asserting his individuality and claiming ownership of his own thoughts, it had a ripple effect in the other characters. He instinctively knows that the love he shared with his wife and his connection to Shell Beach were the only things that gave his life meaning and purpose. 

Stylistically, Dark City is a visual tour de force. The film effortlessly updates Metropolis‘ German expressionism with a lush 90’s gothic film noir chic. The overall color palette is suffused with black and other dark tones, but it is not devoid of rich, vivid colors. Visual, stylistic, and thematic references to its forebears abound. Vertigo, Blade Runner, City of Lost Children, Total Recall, and The Crow can all be detected within Dark City’s DNA. 

Dark City is a film which borrows very liberally from other films, but stands alone on its own terms. We continue debate the acquisition of truth amidst a sea of self-interested media elites, the extent to which we’re influenced by our past positively or negatively, the consequences of the endless parade of would-be social scientists peddling postmodern abstraction as policy, what role neuroscience plays in shaping happiness, and what quantum mechanics suggests about human consciousness. Dark City’s themes speak to each of these issues, and its relevance has grown in proportion. Not only does it stand very tall in the SF cinematic canon, but in the annals of all film. 

Voltaire: Candide

François-Marie Arouet, better known to the world as Voltaire, was an author, philosopher, and provocateur extraordinaire. Rooted in a fervent belief in freedom of thought, he repeatedly broached subjects deemed forbidden by authority, and became the living embodiment of secular Enlightenment values. Candide was the novella that earned him his eternal infamy. The scorn he directed at the Catholic Church would scarcely raise an eyebrow today, but other aspects of the novel would arguably be just as, if not more scandalous now if he attempted to publish it today.  In addition to its brutal depictions of rape and violence, Candide is a vicious satire of Leibniz’ philosophy of optimism. It’s filled to the brim with barbed criticisms of religious leaders, military culture and government officials, but delivered under the breezy veneer of a simple romantic adventure.

With Candide, Voltaire set out to skewer what he perceived to be the false piety and facile moralizing of the institutions and authorities of his day. He was one of the original trolls of Western civilization who canonized a spirit of irreverence that’s found throughout the ages in the works of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Lenny Bruce, and presently, Milo Yiannopolous.  Though Milo is routinely compared to Voltaire, I believe this comparison to be only partially true. Voltaire’s provocations are analogous to Milo’s in the sense that he offended prevailing sensitivities, but the targets of his ridicule, specifically his barbs directed at Jesuits and Christianity, feel like Maheresque precursors of the now shopworn clichés of atheists and the Left.

Though superficially a bildungsroman, the ultimate object of Voltaire’s ridicule was Leibniz’ Theodicy which was expressed through Candide’s mentor, Pangloss. “This is the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss tells Candide from the luxurious confines of Castle Thunder-ten-tronckh in the kingdom of Westphalia. After being banished from the castle for getting a little too hot and heavy with the Duke’s niece, Cunégonde, Candide is beset by one misfortune after another as he traverses through Europe and the New World. Candide finds the naïvete of his wordview repeatedly challenged as he tries to reconcile the message of his mentor with the cruel reality of life outside castle walls. 

Though he was a professed deist, the religious dogma, fanaticism, and hypocrisy of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all sent to Voltaire’s literary guillotine throughout the book. Candide leaves no religious cow un-slaughtered.

Candide translates to “optimism”, and above all else, Voltaire sought to poke Leibniz’ vision of optimism squarely in the eye.  Voltaire saw this philosophy as hopelessly naïve and an inadequate lens through which to view the horror and depravity of the world. One can certainly appreciate that this work was deeply transgressive in its day, but Voltaire’s critique feels like little more than a petty gripe rooted in a failure to grasp the essence of Leibniz’ message. Of course the world is filled with depravity, suffering and hardship. These phenomena exist because they test the faithful. Rather than being an excuse to engage in self-deception through recitations of vacant aphorisms, I suspect Leibniz promoted this philosophy as a way of embracing the totality of life, good and bad. It’s far more challenging to find reasons to be hopeful about humanity when you’ve seen it at its worst. Can you find a reason to be hopeful after your home has been devastated by an earthquake?  Can you find forgiveness and happiness after you’ve been brutally violated? Voltaire eventually resolves this conflict with a very modest aphorism of his own, but he seems to view this philosophy as something shallow, enervating and mind numbing rather than being a lens through which to view even the worst human suffering.

Voltaire is particularly scathing in his treatment of the Jesuits. Upon arrival in South America, Candide and his manservant, Cacambo, avoid being served as the main course in a tribal cannibal feast after calmly explaining to them that neither was, in fact, a Jesuit and that he had just impaled his Jesuit brother.  On these grounds alone, Candide and Cacambo are spared this gruesome fate.  It’s droll gallows humor, and he’s obviously having a bit of rude fun at the expense of the numerous Jesuit missionaries who ventured to South America in the 17th and 18th centuries, but he also appears to hold that appeals to reason are universal regardless of cultural or language differences. This strikes me as proto-SJW Kumbaya fantasy.

Voltaire’s view of Islam was largely negative, and the one aspect of the story that would most assuredly arouse a shitstorm of scandal to this day would be his portrayal of the Muslims. Candide is eventually reunited with Cunégonde only to discover that she was raped and maimed at the hands of the Bulgars. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, their new companion, the illegitimate daughter The Princess of Palestrina and Pope Urban X, tells her tale of woe. Known only as the old woman, she recounts a blood curdling tale of her rape by a “loathsome Negro”, and her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of the Muslims. Since Islam and the effects of Muslim immigration remain a political third rail, this aspect of the book would easily arouse controversy today if anyone in any academic setting were actually reading it.

But that’s not the only thing that would draw the ire of the contemporary Thought Police. His treatment of Don Isaachar has drawn accusations of antisemitism and that most ghastly of contemporary ThoughtCrimes: RACISM. Don Isaachar is one of Cunégonde’s early captors, and is portrayed as greedy and immoral.  I don’t find it particularly antisemitic since it’s not out of the question that Jews like Don Isaachar existed. Voltaire is an equal opportunity offender and he is just as harsh on the Catholic Inquisitor and the Muslims. Besides, like every other manufactured outrage, it doesn’t make sense to judge yesterday’s art against today’s warped standards of Social Justice propriety.

Candide’s arrival in the fabled land of Eldorado certainly suggests that Voltaire was sympathetic towards socialist thought and had utopian notions of his own around how society could look if Enlightenment ideals could be expressed in his ideal monarchy. The citizens of Eldorado have an advanced economy with a dedicated scientific class, public institutions, housing, and art. They have access to precious stones and metals, but they are unmotivated by the accumulation of wealth and give them freely to Candide.  In this respect, one detects the unmistakable seeds of proto-progressive economics, scientism and other related doctrines of social reform.

When Candide finally meets the one man who allegedly “has it all”, Signor Pococurante, Voltaire uses it as another opportunity to make fun of another coddled elitist, but it also betrays a certain cynicism towards the philosophical and cultural legacy of the West which now pervades the modern Left. Candide is dumbstruck as Signor Pococurante dispenses one blistering criticism after another towards every art form and philosophical work of importance. Voltaire wants to tear away at what he perceived as a false veil of deference towards these allegedly Great Works, but like his treatment of Leibniz, it feels slightly misplaced. Signor Pococurante sounds like a jaded hipster or academic progressive who listens to NPR, acquired a liberal arts degree, and has very specific, and mostly negative opinions about everything in the cultural sphere. One could take all of Signor Pococurante’s snide remarks, drop in a couple references to bell hooks, Howard Zinn and Judith Butler, and he’d sound just like a garden variety, Tumblr ready, Social Justice Warrior preparing for a career writing for Vox. This cynicism towards the cultural legacy of the West is now the norm. Within the cloistered halls of academia, so-called “educators” openly cultivate an active hostility towards Western thought as the font of all human opression.

Just like the numerous contemporary atheist critics of Christianity who’ve fancied themselves the torchbearers of Voltaire’s flame, Voltaire was a moralist at heart and his literary jabs were designed to expose the hypocrisy of those who claimed to be arbiters of morality. Whether taking shots at the sexual indiscretions of Catholic clergy, the brutality of the Inquisitors or the Jesuits who do not practice the teachings of Christ they preach, Candide rightfully inferred that the ordained guardians of morality should live by the standards they imposed on the laity.

Society needs people like Voltaire in order to shock people out of complacent obedience and expose social taboos to sunlight. Ayaan Hirsi Ali says the Islamic world needs its own Voltaire in order to ignite a reformation within the Islamic faith. Institutional power, whether state, religious or academic, rarely lives up to its responsibility to uphold the truth or live by the standards it imposes on the public.  Yet, people crave the truth, and above all else, crave both a sense of moral certitude and to see hypocrisy exposed.  Since the truth often dies within the walls of power, the responsibility to stand up for the truth always redounds to the individual. Humorists and satirists like Voltaire have often been the catalysts of change that puncture the seal of propriety that the self-appointed arbiters of morality have so assiduously tightened.

Voltaire was the court jester of his time who sought to answer ancient moral conundrums by poking fun at what he perceived to be the strictures and limitations of prevailing orthodoxy. Some of Candide still would arouse controversy today, but his overall posture of enlightened contempt towards the conservative attitudes and institutions of his time has become its own orthodoxy of progressive chic. The poles of entrenched thinking have reversed, and what was controversial in its day is blasé today. There’s nothing even remotely transgressive or edgy about ridiculing Christian morality, institutions or the broader legacy of Western philosophy in 2017. Milo draws comparisons to Voltaire today because today’s elites are, in many ways, the intellectual progeny of Voltaire himself. Whatever validity there was in Voltaire’s quest for a secular moral order in its day has devolved into the smug wisecracking of Bill Maher, the proto-neurofascism of Sam Harris, and a postmodern academic hegemony of absolutist relativism.  All of whom are eagerly marching towards Gomorrah, but still doggedly cling to the delusion that Eldorado is the final destination.

While Candide may be showing its age, Voltaire’s spirit is evergreen because Puritanism knows no ideology, and people know who the busybodies are. Candide’s message of “tending one’s own garden” is a sufficiently universal ethical and moral principle, but the modern progressive intelligentsia have very specific ideas about what you can plant, how big it can be, and what pronouns you can use while tending it. Russell Brand, Bill Maher and John Oliver may imagine themselves to be the secular dragonslayers of hypocrisy who descend directly from Voltaire’s sacred order, but they’re actually the effete royalists who tacitly defend the new priesthood. Voltaire’s flame burns most brightly in the shitposting of Milo, the trolling of Steven Crowder, the savagery of Bearing and the meme magic of 4Chan.  Candide is both of its time and timeless because there will always be priests, politicians, academics and self-appointed behavior cops and thought police who deserve to be exposed, and there’s no better weapon than satire and ridicule.

Revisiting the Argument for Atheism: Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian

Given that atheism appears to be a rising trend in the US, it’s worth taking a look back at one of the seminal arguments against the Christian faith to see how well it holds up. Besides his numerous contributions to mathematics, history and philosophy, Bertrand Russell’s contribution to the modern atheist movement is significant. Russell comes from a long line of religious skeptics which goes back to David Hume and Immanuel Kant and finds modern expression in Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens among many others. Mr. Russell may have been a gifted intellectual in many respects, but his 1927 essay, Why I Am Not A Christian, is logically inconsistent, poorly argued and uncharitable towards Christianity. It also reveals a paradox at the center of the atheist worldview which, in my opinion, few atheists have acknowledged let alone sufficiently addressed.

By staking a monopoly claim on rationality, reason, and by extension, the scientific method and the entire realm of scientific discovery, atheists have essentially positioned themselves as the new arbiters of morality. While atheists have busied themselves dismantling the edifice of religious morality using the tools of logic, they have simultaneously claimed that a new secular moral order can be constructed from these tools alone. In some of the more extreme cases, moral principles do not matter at all. That’s the core conceit of Why I Am Not A Christian, and the very philosophical error that places Russell in the same company as Karl Marx. Though Russell wrote extensively on morality and ethics, a condemnation of faith or a failed attempt at logical refutation isn’t a sufficient replacement for a system of morality and ethics, however flawed it may be in certain respects, that’s been developed over centuries. Russell deserves credit for making the attempt, but moral relativism and utilitarianism have proven themselves pretty weak substitutes.

Russell’s essay is worth reading for the simple reason that he attempts to actually refute the intellectual arguments for the existence of God.  It’s a phenomenon that’s mostly absent from the contemporary cultural discussion, but there is, in fact, a set of intellectual arguments for the existence of God that were famously articulated by Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. There is a widespread, and arguably bigoted, perception amongst atheists that Christians are knuckle dragging, anti-science mouth breathers who have neither a willingness or ability to engage in formal debate. Since the argument has already been fought by the likes of Russell, atheists generally take it as given that the debate is over, and engagement with these arguments is unnecessary. Conversely, Christians have largely retreated, been ignored, or simply failed in the intellectual arena against the likes of charismatic and intelligent atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. Given that atheists lay claim to being the superior logicians, it’s surprising to see how lazy and weak Russell’s arguments actually are.

The First Cause Argument

Though he can be forgiven for making this claim since what came to be known as the Big Bang Theory was introduced the same year he made this speech, Russell’s opening volley is completely contravened by the weight of current scientific evidence in favor of the Big Bang Theory. The religious skeptic’s argument against First Cause ends up being torpedoed by the weight of current scientific evidence.

That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity.

Well, Mr. Russell, I hate to pull Hitchens’ Razor on you, but what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.  Why aren’t there any more specifics on the multitude of theories that supplanted a causal theory of cosmic expansion? This was a missed opportunity to specify how science contravened faith, and he dismisses it with a hand wave. Naturally, the Big Bang Theory lends itself to the First Cause argument to which Russell retorts with a reductio ad absurdum that persists to this day.

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

The obvious rebuttal to this claim has already been spelled out by Aquinas, and Russell bypasses it like it’s inconsequential. If there is motion in the universe, and all motion requires a mover, and the moved cannot be the mover, ergo, there must be an original unmoved mover. The laws of the universe that govern our world flow from the Big Bang, and thus far, science has nothing definitive to say about what preceded the Big Bang. But even if one finds Russell’s argument persuasive, the ramifications of his argument should be troubling to any rationally minded person who values objective truth. If one removes the possibility of causality in explaining the universe or human action, you’ve arbitrarily excised a significant line of philosophical inquiry and a key tenet of the scientific method.  And to everyone who considers it a given that science and faith are incompatible, just remember that the most significant scientific theory explaining the origins of the universe came from a Catholic priest.

The Natural Law Argument

Russell’s argument here is essentially that it is too simplistic to say that the phenomena of the natural world or the cosmos can be explained away by saying Goddidit. He further contends that because Newtonian laws of gravitation were overturned by Einstein’s more complete theory of General Relativity, “natural laws are really human convention”.

Utter bollocks.

Scientific law gets called law because it explains phenomena that are constant, immutable and unchanging. There isn’t a single scientific law that has been invalidated or overturned since the time Russell wrote this piece.  Whether we’re talking about Special Relativity or Pascal’s Law or Planck’s Law, scientific law gets called a law because it reveals the machinery of the natural world expressed as a mathematical equation and can be reproduced under controlled conditions.  It is the continuous discovery of natural law which forms the foundations of a body of scientific knowledge from which technological innovation arises. Why a self-professed man of science like Russell argued something so asinine is beyond me.

The Argument From Design

Also known as the Teleological Argument, the argument from design essentially asserts that if the conditions of the creation of the universe were altered ever so slightly, life as we know it would not exist.  Russell dismisses this out of hand. At this juncture, I’m going to refer readers to an excellent piece by SJ Thomason which steps through all of Russell’s arguments and explains why considering the possibility for design does not preclude scientific inquiry, but expands it.

Russell then goes completely off the rails and starts sounding like a proto-SJW in the remainder of this section. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why did we get the KKK or the Nazis? The obvious rebuttal is that humanity was given free will.  It is entirely up to us to distinguish right from wrong and choose accordingly.  That is the challenge of being alive.

The Moral Arguments For Deity

This is the core failure of Russell’s argument, and by extension, the entire atheist enterprise in my opinion.

I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question.

The atheist argument poses a deep conundrum because it is either implicitly or explicitly a call for a secular moral order. The atheist, by and large, most definitely has a sense of right and wrong because not only would any atheist seek punishment for the murderer, rapist and thief, atheists mostly busy themselves lambasting the evils of religion. If the atheist attacks a religious moral tenet in favor of a secular moral advancement, he is positioning himself as an arbiter of morality. If the atheist rejects the idea that faith is the foundation for moral realism, then you have consigned the entire realm of morality to the relativistic world of political ideology, or worse, scientism and utilitarianism. The atheist that claims a “belief in science” over faith is not only peddling a ridiculous fallacy since good science does not require belief in the first place, but is glossing over the larger issues of morality and ethics. One cannot have sound science without sound ethics, and I would contend that it is a precondition for any serious quest for scientific knowledge. The sciences of the natural world are neutral on morality and ethics. Few people would embrace it today, but eugenics were once considered cutting-edge science. On the other hand, the modern social sciences make no effort to hide the fact that they are both normative and subjective, but affect a pretense of being the engines of modern moral progression simply because they live under the broad banner of science. Gender studies, critical race theory, and climate change “science” now form a de facto secular moral order from which any dissent is met with censure and opprobrium. Committing violence in service of the advancement of political goals and being a self-appointed judge of who deserves to be punched for having the wrong political opinions are not only explicitly sanctioned by the progressive political class, academics and celebrities, but they are evidence of moral virtue.

At its core, the atheist argument is a negation of belief, and an active embrace of non-belief. It also falsely asserts that faith and reason are mutually exclusive faculties, and the existence of one automatically short circuits and precludes the exercise of the other. If this doesn’t lead to a state of pure nihilism, it creates an inherent cognitive dissonance with respect to positive engagement with humanity itself. By and large, humans generally strive towards a very general notion of Doing Good and Making a Difference. Happiness, love, friendship, loyalty, forgiveness and charity are all abstractions which cannot be quantified, and yet, these abstractions are the mythical sky wizards that every atheist presumably chases in his own life under the guise of “science” or “reason”. Every act performed which carries an expectation of positive good, whether it’s money donated to a soup kitchen or a vote cast for a politician, is its own act of faith. If an atheist truly has any hope for humanity, he must, at some level, have belief in humanity’s capacity for good. This all by itself is an act of faith. It is the Golden Rule in practice. Cynicism and nihilism are easy.  Finding reasons to be hopeful about humanity is a far deeper challenge which pretty much requires some level of faith.

The yearning for justice and righteousness; more specifically, the desire to do right by for our fellow man and leave a positive legacy for posterity is hardwired into the human consciousness at some level. However, it is not a forgone conclusion that any given human will make choices that will expand and spread virtue, and it is entirely possible that many will be actively constrained and thwarted in their ability to exercise it or possibly even violate others in one way or another.

As Thomas Sowell argued, the world is roughly divided between those who subscribed to a “constrained” vision of humanity which posits that human nature is fixed and unchanging or an “unconstrained” vision which asserts that humans can be molded by social forces and institutions. Atheists mostly belong to the latter camp. Sadly, no one gives a shit about “a rational proof for secular ethics” or any other lofty philosophical disquisition on morality and ethics. Bertrand Russell wrote a bunch of stuff, but who reads it except for philosophy nerds and academics? The study of neuroscience in hopes of uncovering the “moral landscape” as Sam Harris describes it seems like little more than a recipe for pharmacological and technological micromanagement of the human will. The yearning for justice appeals to human emotion, and subsequently, humans tend to respond more positively to narrative and allegory when it comes to formulating notions of morality and justice. This is why Biblical allegory and mythology have been far more effective vehicles for the transmission of moral lessons than philosophical dialectic.

I further contend that it’s far easier to denigrate the Christian faith and morality than it is to proffer a positive alternative. There are no consequences to proclaiming yourself an atheist.  It takes no courage to heap scorn and ridicule on Christians as the enemies of Real Social Progress© and scientific discovery. According to the contemporary progressive orthodoxy, the only real moral transgressions are “bigotry”, white on black police brutality, climate change “denial”, the absence of consent in sexual relations for white, middle-class female college students, saying anything negative about Islam, and pretty much anything uttered by a conservative, libertarian or Christian. But the outrage is strictly confined to the narrative as it’s defined within the walls of academia, the media echo chamber which dutifully parrots every bit of brainless tripe dispensed from the social justice priesthood, and the gender ideologue foot soldiers who dominate Twitter and Tumblr. And by and large, this is where the yellow brick road of atheism has lead: to the sanctuary of the Church of Progressivism. Few atheists would admit it, but political rhetoric and social “science” have replaced the priest’s sermon.

Atheism has become a new orthodoxy which has largely ceded moral authority and agency to the leftist political class, their agenda and apparatchiks in academia.  There are exceptions, but this is the trend.  It seems like little more than a license to condescend to Christians, denigrate Christianity as the font of subservience and totalitarianism, and generally be miserable, nihilistic curmudgeons. Like all progressive thought, it’s not edgy, contrarian or new. With few exceptions, it’s just a standard accompaniment to a predetermined list of progressive political goals.

I wasn’t enthusiastic about making this argument since atheists are definitely the cool kids in the class, but if this is the quality of the argument from one of atheism’s greatest thinkers, then color me unimpressed.

Isaiah Berlin: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made. – Immanuel Kant

If you’re interested in a contemporary philosopher who is able to put thousands of years into clear perspective, I would certainly place Sir Isaiah Berlin at or near the top of the list. Mr. Berlin’s vaunted reputation as an advocate for classical liberal principles and a first rate thought historian is entirely well deserved as The Crooked Timber of Humanity amply demonstrates.  As the title suggests, Berlin focuses on the origins of the movements that have led towards self-destruction and contrasts them against those which have animated modern liberal society. Specifically, he traces the origins of utopianism, cultural relativism versus pluralism, and fascism as well as its ideological bedfellow, nationalism.

Mr. Berlin treats the ideas and subjects with great respect. True to the spirit of his other works, his central goal in this collection serves both as a warning against the encroachment of tyrannical ideas as well to provide as an intellectual antidote to illiberalism. Berlin’s analysis of these thinkers is incisive. When evaluated in light of current political movements, remains relevant and often downright prescient.  One wonders if, with respect to universalism and managerial scientism, he has underestimated the allure and endurance of this doctrine.

Berlin opens with a broadside against the Platonic ideal and the accompanying pursuit of the utopian society.  The Platonic ideal is comprised of three components.

  1. All genuine questions have one true answer and all other answers are errors.
  2. There must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths.
  3. These universal truths are compatible with one another.

Human needs and the means by which to attain them could be discovered through same methods by which natural scientific law could be discovered.  Once discovered, these principles could be codified and implemented through policy.  Berlin argues that this impulse is on the decline in the West, but if the arguments of the contemporary social scientists serve as an indicator, the hunger for pseudo-scientific micromanagement of human affairs remains undiminished.

Berlin contends that Giambattista Vico’s Scienza Nuova (1725) and his doctrine of  the “common nature of nations” as well as a later generation of German Romantics, including Johann Gottfried von Herder, pointed towards a “cultural pluralism” which provided a counterpoint and possible antidote to the empirical absolutism of the Enlightenment.  The cultural pluralism Vico and Herder espoused rested on the contention that there were, in fact, incompatible values between cultures which could not be reconciled to universal principles. Both Vico and Herder’s thought contravened the Enlightenment consensus that man was ultimately governed by universal laws.

In this current age of globalization where the watchword is multiculturalism, Vico and Herder’s conclusions certainly warrant further examination and pose very important questions. What constitutes culture in a multicultural society?  If culture is the product of the transmission of practices and traditions which were generated within a genetically homogenous society over the course of centuries, to what extent are these practices meaningful in a multicultural society to those who didn’t belong to the original culture?  Are individuals from different cultures being held to universal standards of conduct in a multicultural society?  Is it possible to have a multiculturalism which isn’t manufactured by social engineers or a Trojan Horse for hollow identity politics and globalist socialism?  Perhaps most importantly, if individuals from other cultures immigrate to a new culture in search of a better life, do they have any obligation to honor the culture into which they’ve inserted themselves whether voluntarily or by necessity?

Since this doctrine ran contrary to the cultural objectivist consensus of the day, Berlin contends that Vico and Herder’s pluralism should not be confused with relativism.  In other words, neither Vico nor Herder espoused a relativism of fact, but a relativism of values.  His emphasis on this difference is not insignificant in light of the current multicultural zeitgeist. In defense of Vico and Herder, he invokes a poignant quote from John Stuart Mill:

It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar. Commerce is now what war once was, the principal source of this contact. Commercial adventurers from more advanced countries have generally been the first civilizers of barbarians. And commerce is the purpose of the far greater part of the communication which takes place between civilized nations. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress.

Mill’s quote refers specifically to commerce as the cultural bridge, but his underlying point about the difficulty of understanding a pluralism of values in the absence of commerce is what warrants deeper consideration. The multiculturalists, social engineers and globalists have attempted to engineer such a consensus artificially by advancing an aggressive agenda of Tolerance™ with an ever diminishing set of results to show for it. It’s ironic that the champions of this doctrine have shown such remarkable contempt for the opponents of their agenda and remain unwilling to appreciate the relativism of values which run contrary to their megalomaniacal ambitions.  Once again, one wonders if it is possible to create a multicultural consensus which doesn’t devolve into a clinical and bureaucratic utilitarianism papered over by empty platitudes of Unity©.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to the individual Mr. Berlin believes to be the architect of modern fascism, Joseph de Maistre. In light of the rising tide of nationalism which has engulfed America and much of Europe, Berlin’s discussion of Maistre’s thought is especially poignant given that this phenomenon is largely a backlash to the social engineering of the multiculturalists and globalists. While Greece’s Golden Dawn party certainly represents a rising tide of genuine fascism which contains the twin hallmarks of the movement in its various historical manifestations, racial purity and nationalism, Maistre’s thought reminds us that there is more than a little paranoia and manufactured hysteria in the bleating of the progressive Left when it comes to Trump, Brexit and the various nationalist movements on the rise throughout Europe.

Maistre was a true reactionary to every aspect of the Enlightenment project. While the egalitarians espoused a view of man in which universal truth could be attained through scientific inquiry, Maistre rejected this doctrine with absolute impunity. On every aspect of the Enlightenment consensus, from rationalism to individualism to liberal egalitarianism, Maistre regarded these ideas with pure contempt.  By Berlin’s reckoning, Maistre’s vision of social order demanded absolute subordination to the Cross and the Crown.

While it is not unreasonable to conclude that Maistre provided the ideological template for the fascism of modern times, it certainly prompts questions over the appropriateness of seemingly indiscriminate and ubiquitous usage of the term today.  Especially with respect to the Left and their positively pathological and cartoonish hysteria over Trump. The Trump agenda remains an open question, but there is little doubt that the Left is in the business of conjuring ideological boogeymen out of thin air and painting any opposition to their globalist designs as “fascism”.  If the perpetuation of the multicultural agenda hinges on denigrating the foundations of Western thought which allows the very pluralism they allegedly value, they assure a recursive loop of nationalist backlash which validates their own prejudices.

Berlin concludes with a meditation on nationalism which is prophetic yet cautionary in tone, but raises fresh questions all the same.  While there is little doubt that nationalism in its extreme manifestation when married to the machinery of the State has proven itself a destructive force, Berlin reminds us that there is a deep seated humanity struggling to assert itself from under the dehumanizing designs of the sophisters, calculators and acolytes of scientism. The pursuit of universalism animated the West, but also created a unfortunate desire to manufacture a stultifying and artificial uniformity.  There is little doubt that the primal urge of nationalism has been and can be exploited by demagogues and populists, but it is not unreasonable to conclude that some measure of nationalist pride has, in fact, paved a path for the multiculturalism and genuine pluralism so idolized by the Left.  While much of the Islamic world, Asia and Africa remain ethnic and ideological monocultures, the burden of multiculturalism has been placed disproportionately on Western societies. As this policy unravels by the day, is it any wonder that there is a nationalist backlash towards individuals who apparently have no desire to adopt the cultural values of their adopted countries?  Berlin was keenly attuned to this aspect of nationalism and his words presaged the collective rage of the Brexiters and Trumpians to a t.

There is a growing number among the youth of our day who see their future as a process of being fitted into some scientifically well-constructed programme, after the data of their life-expectancy and capacities and utilisability have been classified, computerized, and analyzed for conduciveness to the purpose, at the very best, of producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This will determine the organisation of life on a national or regional or world scale, and this without undue attention to, or interest in (since this is not needed for the completion of the task), their individual characters, ways of life, wishes, quirks, ideals. This moves them to gloom and fury or despair. They wish to be and do something, and not merely be acted upon, or for, or on behalf of.  They demand recognition of their dignity as human beings. They do not wish to be reduced to human material, to being counters in a game played by others, even when it is played, at least in part, for the benefits of these counters themselves. A revolt breaks out at all levels.

While some philosophers and academics seemingly revel in their ability to obfuscate and mistakenly believe that verbosity equals profundity, Mr. Berlin’s prose sings with clarity and actually serves the purpose that philosophical inquiry was meant to serve: to illuminate. Mr. Berlin has written a collection of thought provoking essays which prove that we are well served by understanding how the ideas of the past shape the present, and most importantly, that the contrarians of bygone eras have something of value to offer. Even if it runs contrary to everything we hold sacred. And through this understanding, we may ask the right questions and formulate the answers to the issues of the present and future.

Atheism Versus Moral Realism

Though I consider myself an atheist, I get a little tired of the atheist contempt heaped on Christianity. There’s certainly no shortage of fundamentalist nutbags or clips of Pat Robertson spewing nonsense on which to pile scorn and ridicule. Hating on Christians and Christianity has become a bit of a tired cliché among atheists and progressives alike[1]. It’s especially galling when atheists will champion Christian values when they’re being upheld by a Democrat politician.  Christian values become instantly legitimate when a Christian religious leader validates their bias towards the moral righteousness of a particular policy agenda. On the other hand, Islam is rightfully receiving a vigorous critique from some corners of the atheist community on the grounds that it is barbaric, backwards and counter to basic liberal principles. Each of these phenomena raises an important point often derided and dismissed by atheists: the importance of moral realism. 

How can you claim moral retrogression in human behavior or in any ideology if you don’t claim that there is objective moral truth in the first place? Indeed, how can one formulate any theory of ethics, justice, or rights without some basic, universal, objective standard upon which to judge right and wrong?

Atheists argue that the belief in God is irrational because there’s no empirical proof of his existence. Atheists also tend to claim a mantle of moral superiority, myself included, since we view the world through the cold lens of hard reason, rationalism and empiricism. This belief in the power of reason reaches back to the Enlightenment and that the exercise of this capacity alone will guide us to a secular moral truth. Since God is a delusion, how can one uphold religious morality as a standard by which to guide our own actions let alone judge others? Surely, only a sad and limited consciousness would embrace the antiquated notion of a Supreme Being. Isn’t this belief in a Supreme Being, in fact, the very reason that people commit such horrible atrocities in God’s name, reject science and hold bigoted and exclusionary beliefs to this day? MUH CRUSADES, CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL, HOMOPHOBIC BAKERS, AND ABORTION DOCTOR MURDERERS, AMIRITE?! Though it is a debate that been waged for centuries, conservative theist YouTuber, The Distributist, argued very persuasively that even if you are an atheist, you cannot disregard or take lightly the theist argument for the existence of God on the basis of morality. 

In the video, The Distributist responds to Vernaculis’ snide, condescending response Dr. Peter Kreeft’s moral case for the existence of God. In Kreeft’s video, he lays out all of the classic secular arguments for morality and why morality cannot be regarded as a set of preferences.  These arguments include:

  • Evolution
  • Reason
  • Conscience
  • Human Nature
  • Utilitarianism
  • In each case, both Kreeft and The Distributist argue that from these premises, morality will devolve in a few predictable ways. It will be subjectively constructed and enforced. It will potentially regress backwards or will arise from an a posteriori analysis which may or may not serve as a useful moral foundation for an evolving society. The latter case assumes of course that civilization has weathered the vagaries of a society based on a relativistic morality in the first place. Since mankind is subject to flaws, has the ability to make choices, and the establishment of moral normativity and ethics is necessary if one hopes to have a shot at actual civilization, it follows that one can only appeal to an external, immutable moral absolute which is both universally accessible and exists outside man and nature.  The Distributist and Kreeft both conclude that if there is absolute moral law, there must be an absolute lawgiver. Ergo, God exists.  

    Not bad.

    Setting aside whether one accepts the argument at all, why would a world of moral absolutes be preferable to moral relativism? Wouldn’t that lead to a RELIGIOUS TYRANNY??

    No.  

    For example, if murder is objectively wrong, it it was wrong in the past and remains wrong today. The fact that those vested with moral authority commit murder (e.g. priests, politicians, monarchs) doesn’t invalidate the moral law. Rather, it only proves that the person in question failed to live up to the law in his life choices.  Just as the unchanging laws of nature have allowed for vast scientific and technological discovery, an unchanging moral law provides an equally sound basis from which to make moral choices.

    Using any of the other bases for formulating morality, one could arrive at a valid moral rationale for murder, and history has borne this out.  Stalin was an atheist and saw no moral transgression in murdering millions of his citizens. He was the leader of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat who was merely facilitating the historical inevitability of a socialist worker’s paradise. It was justified on both evolutionary and utilitarian grounds. Checkmate, moral realism!

    Regardless of whether one accepts that moral objectivity proves the existence of God, it raises a deep challenge for the atheist who isn’t a moral relativist.  It requires that the atheist instantiate a metaphysical construct of Good and Evil which isn’t tied to any supernatural being or phenomenon.  It’s certainly possible to impart morality and ethics without religious beliefs, but religion is meant to express some kind of eternal moral truth in the universe.  Needless to say, this raises all kinds of questions around whether a religious text that commands you to stone your wife, condemn homosexuality or refrain from eating bacon can really be regarded as some kind of eternal moral truth. The point is there is indeed a necessity for objective morality as a foundational proposition from which one exercises free will. 

    Notable atheists, Sam Harris and Stefan Molyneux in particular, have attempted to proffer theories of morality that are grounded in science and logic. However, I propose that this is a fundamental epistemological error and the consignment of morality to the realm of science or logic negates and nullifies that which makes us human. Humans are driven by many factors, but by and large, we aspire to express love, be of service to others and do the Right Thing by our fellow humans. Even if you have no religious belief, humans aspire to reach the ineffable and the infinite through earthly works and human relationships. We extol examples of heroism, charity, goodwill and kindness and condemn acts of predation, cruelty, indifference and violence. We champion art which affirms our deepest yearnings for love, connectedness, companionship and eternal beauty.  We want to be reminded that our lives have meaning, that doing the Right Thing actually matters. We want to know that it is possible to affect change for the better. By inserting morality into the realm of science or logic, we’re subsuming these aspects of ourselves which cannot be quantified or proven through a logical proposition and building a world of mechanistic determinism. 

    Sadly, atheism has long been the province of the socialist Left throughout the world. While there are certainly atheist libertarians, the overwhelming majority of atheists have built a new global church of atheism in the government which has replaced moral realism with an endless array of moral wrongs to be punished and rights to be conferred. This cult of moral relativism has reached its apotheosis in the agenda of the modern day social justice warrior. Feminism, multiculturalism, and scientism all converge within the progressive agenda to form a set of moral precepts which are easily sold by ideologues, academic hacks, would-be intellectuals and politicians. Rape statistics are used by feminists not because they actually care about rape victims, but because they wish to inculcate shame and guilt in men for having the Original Sin of an XY chromosomal pair. Environmentalist doomsayers who inveigh against consumption, fossil fuels and “climate science deniers” are no different from your garden variety Baptist preacher invoking the fires of Eternal Damnation.  #Blacklivesmatter activists are far more concerned with policing what people say and think than attending to the needs of the black community. The higher priority is to have white people atone for White Privilege by implementing an agenda of “economic justice”. What do all these agendas have in common?  They all lead down the road towards the new and improved globalist serfdom.  

    Moral relativism is little more than a recipe for a recursive loop of existential ennui, angst, cynicism, anxiety, and nihilism. It also provides a readymade validation of Marxist alienation. The cult of scientism is pushing us into a society that’s increasingly automated, mechanized, deterministic and disconnected from ourselves and one another. The identity politics of guilt and shame are creating more division and enshrining a culture of victimhood and censorship. As the problems wrought by the relativists proliferate, the atheist priesthood doubles down and agitates for an ever expanding sphere of government sanctions, dispensations, accommodations and privileges.

    The advancement of human liberty and the market economy has afforded modern society the luxury of rejecting religious belief. Christianity remains a punching bag for atheists, but at this point, it appears to be little more than a license to hate conservatives. We live in a world where burning a Bible scarcely raises an eyebrow, but a drawing of Muhammad is a potential death sentence. Clearly, not all religions are equal, but the obvious moral depravity of Islam is continually overlooked by the progressive wing of the atheist community because it’s apparently a far worse sin to appear “bigoted” towards Muslims.  As far as “scientific” moralism goes,  Sam Harris’ handwaving away of Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War and career of corruption should tell you everything you need to know about how reliable this theory of morality is. The verdict is in on moral relativism and it is a recipe for self destruction.

    Classical liberalism has given us the freedom to pursue life on our own terms even if it involves no religious belief.  But atheists aren’t adding to human progress by embracing moral relativism. 

    [1] Most atheists also self-identify as progressive.