Real skeptics hate Sam Harris

In this article on RationalWiki, the junk science racist book The Bell Curve by Charles Murray is broken apart for what it really is (see the caption for the image of the book- “Eugenics for the masses!”). This firmly demonstrates that the real Skeptic community is not on the side of Sam Harris, who apparently isn’t as deeply ingrained into that ideology as I once thought. How does Sam Harris fit into this? Well he gave a pandering interview to Charles Murray on his podcast “Waking Up.” I’m trying to get through it, but I’m cringing through every second of this non-sourced, non-fact checked drivel.

First of all, to be substantive, Sam Harris claims (as does Charles Murray) that 50-80% of intelligence is inherited. These arguments are partly based on studies done of monzygotic (identical) twins. However, as Jay Joseph indicates in his meta-analysis of twin studies, the advocates of nature over nurture in terms of intelligence have ignored some systemic biases in their data. I will add one more source of bias to the ones Joseph lists, namely WEIRD bias, or having samples that are exclusively from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic countries. Therefore, even if you control for sociodemographic factors within a certain country, unless you are doing a multi-country analysis from several different regions of the world, you cannot really generalize these psychological studies, even if they have good methodologies otherwise, to the entirety of humanity.

Leaving twin studies aside, the most conservative estimates of the “percentage of intelligence” determined by genetics are 40%. Unfortunately, if you simply trust Wikipedia on this, you will get the same 50-80% figure parroted by Harris. So let’s chock this one up to: the jury is still out. And if this was the only reason why The Bell Curve and Sam Harris’ interview of Murray was troublesome or problematic, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post. Oh no. Of course, Murray racializes the debate.

Now in anthropology, we take the topic of race and intelligence seriously, given the fact that our discipline has had a sordid past tainted by eugenicists, evolutionists, and people that tried to claim that some populations were inherently superior to others. Although the discipline arose largely as a reformist science, several individuals tried to take anthropologist down that eugenicist road in the 20th century. Nevertheless, anthropologist Jonathan Marks does a systematic critique of the Bell Curve in this article. His essential argument boils down to this: “The most direct antecedent of the Bell Curve is a loose confederacy of ideas collectively known as social Darwinism, popular in America in the latter portion of the 19th century.” Not only that: there is a direct line of intellectual connection between Charles Murray and early social Darwinists, through a shady funding organization known as the Pioneer Fund, founded by Harry Laughlin, a bona fide eugenicist who received his degree from Heidelberg University in 1937. You heard me right, a Nazi university. So, not only does Murray cite eugenicists, he cites Nazi sympathizers! It gets worse, because the Pioneer Fund provided money for the Bell Curve to be sent by mail to every name on the mailing list of the American Anthropological Assocation, the American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association: every sociologist, anthropologist, and psychologist in the country! Of course most probably threw it away as hogwash propaganda, but still!

So let’s get this out of the way now: everyone claiming that simply calling Murray a racist is a lazy intellectual argument are missing the definition of racist. The definition of racism is, from the Oxford English dictionary:

“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”

Murray is by definition a racist for claiming that some “populations” (that’s BS code) are intellectually superior to others.

So at this point some would claim “well then I guess being racist isn’t a bad thing by that definition”. Well, fortunately Murray fits into the other category of racist as well:

“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” 

Murray is obviously antagonistic towards minorities based on his stated policy prescriptions of curbing immigration and eliminating welfare. (Let’s not even touch the fact that he’s a Koch brothers-funded American Enterprise Institute connected conservative with an obvious agenda- that’s too ad hominem for some people). But I wouldn’t say its ad hominem to point out that Charles Murray is funded and aided by an organization founded by a literal Nazi. So please, let’s call a spade a spade:

Charles Murray, you’re a racist. Sam Harris, you’re at best a racist by proxy, at worst a cynical converted white nationalist working to bring about the next Third Reich. You are now two steps away from being associated with the Nazi Party. The choice is yours, Sam Harris: dissociate yourself with Charles Murray, disown him entirely, or lose whatever shred of credibility you have left. The choice is yours.

 

 

 

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There is no white genocide in South Africa

This article by CNN focuses on the group known as the Suidlanders, a South African far-right militia group that propagandizes about a coming “white genocide” of white South Africans. As the article demonstrates, the leader of the Suidlanders, Simon Roche, has connections with white supremacists groups and rallies in the US. That should be enough evidence for most people to not take the claims of the Suidlanders seriously, but Fox News and President Trump have been faithfully touting the Suidlander line. The narrative of white victimhood in South Africa has been successfully planted in the US, with global consequences for the spread of right-wing fearmongering and paranoia about minorities. Right-wing groups in South Africa claim that there is an epidemic of politically motivated killings of white farmers, while the statistically few farmers that were killed were killed because of crime alone.

The reason behind the claims of coming white genocide in South Africa is the ongoing changes in land policy in South Africa. The conflation of statistically low criminal murders of white farmers and the government expropriation of land in South Africa amounts to an alt-right conspiracy by the white minority. This conspiracy theory is being globally broadcast by white South Africans to maintain a hold on power after the fall of apartheid.

White South Africans make up just 9% of the total population of South Africa while owning 75% of commercial land. Therefore, the government has embarked on a program of expropriation and redistribution of land. This arguably socialist land policy only seeks to redress the previous ills of the apartheid system, in which land was forcibly expropriated from the masses and given to the ruling racial minority. This has always been the policy since the beginning of ANC rule, but the land reform has only increased in speed and scale. Furthermore, changes have been proposed to seek expropriation without compensation. Why is compensation no longer being pursued? The answer is as much bureaucratic as it is a matter of principle: compensating farmers for the land makes the process of land redistribution take an immense amount of time and costs the government money. Fiscal conservatives should be on board with this. However, they would rather see the economic sub-class of the vast black majority in South Africa to remain virtually colonized subjects.

However, the ideology that the Suidlanders maintain is that South Africa will “become like Zimbabwe”. This excellent article explores how mass shooter Dylan Roof was obsessed with the “white genocide” in Zimbabwe and the fall of white Rhodesia, one of the most oppressive colonial regimes in Africa. So what exactly happened in geographically proximate Zimbabwe? After the fall of Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe’s social democratic ZANU-PF party came to power on a platform of land reform. According to Wikipedia:

“Although many whites had left Zimbabwe after independence, mainly for neighbouring South Africa, those who remained continued to wield disproportionate control of some sectors of the economy, especially agriculture. In the late-1990s whites accounted for less than 1% of the population but owned 70% of arable land. Mugabe raised this issue of land ownership by white farmers. In a calculated move, he began forcible land redistribution, which brought the government into headlong conflict with the International Monetary Fund. Amid a severe drought in the region, the police and military were instructed not to stop the invasion of white-owned farms by the so-called ‘war veterans’ and youth militia. This has led to a mass migration of White Zimbabweans out of Zimbabwe. At present almost no arable land is in the possession of white farmers.” 

It is evident from the quote that the hard numbers of Zimbabwean land distribution were even starker than is the case in South Africa. Forcible expropriation or taking of land by the government did occur, but conflicts arose as a result of white farmers fighting back. There was an exodus of white people from Zimbabwe, and this is what the white farmers in South Africa really fear: not being killed, but being landless, which is ironically just what happened to black South Africans during apartheid. Furthermore, the ANC has gone out of its way to distance itself from the authoritarian tactics of Zimbabwe:

“Last week, David Mabuza, the country’s deputy president, looked to allay fears when he addressed the Land Summit in the northern Limpopo province. He said that no farms would be invaded or grabbed and that farmers did not have to fear for their well-being.

‘As the leadership of the ANC and government, we are clear that the implementation of land reform measures must not result in social fractures and racial polarisation,’ Mabuza said.”

The ANC is only fulfilling its mandate to end the effects of apartheid, which still linger on. Officially, legal apartheid ended, but economic apartheid, which is perhaps the most damaging legacy of the racial caste system, remained. The fact that historical apartheid is rarely mentioned in US conservative media when addressing this issue speaks to general lack of historical consciousness of the American people and the ease to which the right-wing media is able to perform propaganda tricks to its misinformed audience. It is also a worrying development in a time when the usual conservative propaganda only flirts with “demographic collapse” and fearmongering about minorities rather than embracing downright conspiracy theories. Fox News has seized on Venezuela as an example of why socialism doesn’t work. The Left should seize on Fox News’ and conservative media’s conspiracy theorizing about South Africa as a breakdown in intellectual discourse, the point where Alex Jones becomes indistinguishable from Fox News. In the Trump era, nothing seems to shock anymore. But the idea that the American people can forget the 1980s, the fall of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela and what he stood for I am not willing to accept. The narrative of white victimhood is now routinely trumpeted on conservative media, and is the slow cooking recipe for fascism. However, because of the changing demographic nature of the US, I am hopeful that some of the reactionary views of the white demographic in the US are the last gasps of a dying racist backlash.

There is now a global intersection of right-wing groups in the English speaking world. The Brexiters and UKIPites are talking with Trumpites. The Suidlanders are talking with UKIPers. To counter this growing anti-immigrant, far-right populism that is growing in Europe and elsewhere, we need a real Left alternative, one that offers real solutions to ordinary peoples problems, one that is staunchly anti-corruption, pro-democracy, and doesn’t sell out. This Left alternative is doing the proper thing in South Africa by attempting to address the everyday problems of black South Africans by fixing the systemic problem of the economic legacy of apartheid. This is something that should be celebrated, not decried- if you aren’t a racist.

Is the policy that South Africa is currently pursuing the right one? In terms of expropriating without compensation, I believe a possible compromise should occur in certain circumstances in terms of small commercial farms. However, paying the full value of the land is usually not possible because of price inflation, and meanwhile the  people of South Africa remain economically deprived. According to Al Jazeera, “more than 60 percent of South Africans now live in urban areas, and the struggle over land is no longer a question of resolving historical dispossession but a matter of inclusion in the country’s economy.” 11% of these urban households are “informal settlements”- in other words slums. There are real concerns about this land reform policy will be implemented, such as how beneficiaries of this new policy will be selected. But a simple look at the economic figures- 30% black unemployment in South Africa compared to 6.7% for whites, for example- makes clear the necessity for land reform. Unfortunately, a simple look at the economic figures is deliberately not in the game plan for Fox News and other alt-right media. So remember, if you ever encounter the “white genocide in South Africa” talking points, remember apartheid, and remember the slums of Johannesburg.

Finally, watch this video by Tucker Carlson to understand the scary effectiveness of right-wing on this subject. Notice how the bulk of their claims are built off of lack of statistics, lack of any context about apartheid and its real material consequences, and out of context video footage of a certain radical politician in South Africa who evidently uses anti-white rhetoric. The fact that Tucker Carlson, a person I believe genuinely believes what he believes, can’t contextualize those feelings and rhetoric in the context of the brutal history of apartheid is stunning. What is most worrying of all the synchronicity of the conservative media and the US state department and President. Fox News is now effectively the mouthpiece of the President and faithfully repeats their line.

 

 

There is no spoon: The Matrix and Buddhist philosophy

In this video by The Film Theorists Youtube channel, a compelling plot theory is proposed for the movie The Matrix and the entire Matrix franchise created by the Wachowski Brothers. In this theory, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) and the movie’s heroes of Zion, the last refuge in the real world of free humans not enslaved by machines, are actually still trapped inside the Matrix. This explains Neo’s powers outside the Matrix that are seen in the later movies in the series.

However, I believe this interpretation misses many important elements. For instance, the Matrix itself isn’t real either. It’s just a movie.

Did I blow your mind yet?

Here’s what I mean: these kind of plot-specific theories about the Matrix miss the symbolic character of the movie. I believe the Matrix should be interpreted not just as a science fiction movie with philosophical elements thrown in, but as a philosophical statement in and of itself. Why is Neo able to use his powers outside of the Matrix? Because its a movie! It’s all an illusion, and we as viewers are meant to see that Neo is just as imaginary as anything on screen. However, we participate in that illusion, even to the point of trying to make theories about the film in order to make it a consistent, logical reality. Sound familiar?

This isn’t just a metacommentary on film as a genre, some kind of ultimate fourth wall reference. In fact, the Matrix is simply a large commentary on the actual nature of reality itself, not the reality of the movie. In short, the point we should draw from characters like Morpheus doubting the reality of Zion is that “there is no spoon” also refers to “real” world.

The Matrix also evidently borrows from Buddhist metaphysical and philosophical concepts. This is not just idle speculation; it is evident from the directors’ comments and movie plot (not to mention the fact that Keanu Reeves is a Buddhist and starred as the Buddha in the movie Little Buddha). The bald orphan in robes who delivers the famous “there is no spoon” line is an obvious homage to Buddhist monks and the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness. More on emptiness later, but the proof is also in the words of the Wachowskis themselves. Take this quote from a 2003 interview to the directors when they were asked if Buddhism influenced making of the Matrix:

“Yes. There’s something uniquely interesting about Buddhism and mathematics, particularly about quantum physics, and where they meet. That has fascinated us for a long time.”

The intersection of Buddhism and physics has fascinated many scholars, including the Dalai Lama himself, who wrote about it in his book The Universe in a Single Atom. What is usually discussed in this context is the uncanny resemblance of several interpretations of quantum mechanics and the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness. Emptiness, or the lack of inherent existence, is a fundamental Buddhist concept that essentially posits that reality itself is an illusion, in that because all things are temporary and subject to time, nothing really exists independently and thus nothing has any fundamental substance. This seems to be born out by our modern understandings of physics at the most elementary level. Not only are particles like atoms already made up of 99.9% empty space in which a few elementary particles are whizzing about, but these elementary particles themselves are non-substantive because their nature as particles or waves is dependent on a variety of factors (in some interpretations, even whether they are observed or not, although the technical meaning of the term observation is still subject to intense debate among physicists). This physical phenomenon is known as wave-particle duality. Wave-particle duality is also supplemented by the famous Schrodinger equation, made famous by the Schrodinger’s cat analogy in which an elaborate quantumly-determined death trap is set up so that a cat in a box can be dead and alive at the same time. This fundamental indeterminacy of the quantum world (referred to as the probability functions of quantum particles), among many other features and theories of the quantum world, is why Buddhist teachers and physicists have been able to have many prolific discussions. It has also led some physicists to propose that “fundamental particles” do not actually exist: they are merely human interpretations of the strange and indeterminate world of the smallest scales of reality.

However, the Matrix does not only reference the quantum world. In its “levels of reality” schema, the Matrix sets up a situation in which worlds or dimensions are inside of other worlds, layers upon layers of illusion. This bears a striking resemblance to the Buddhist doctrine of interpenetration, which is explored most distinctly in the Buddhist scripture called the Gandavyuha Sutra, a part of the larger Avatamsaka Sutra. Interpenetration is most clearly represented by the metaphor of Indra’s Web, the god Indra’s infinite web of jewels in which jewel reflects all the other jewels. This infinite net of reflections creates the eternal illusion of reality itself. To put his metaphor in the language of the Matrix, there is no escape from the Matrix because we are eternally caught in Indra’s Net. Indeed, the Matrix is Indra’s Web. Who created the Matrix (Reality itself)? There is no answer because all is illusory: this is the answer we are given over and over by the sutras, the Zen patriarchs, the Tibetan tantras, and all Buddhist masters and yogis of the ages. Another way of expressing this ineffable truth is “nirvana is beyond concepts”. 

Something else that must be explored is the idea, foundational to Mahayana, of non-duality. Non-duality is most eloquently articulated in texts such as the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. In these texts, such ambiguous and mind-breaking teachings (for a Buddhist) are explicated, such as:

“There is no Nirvana, there is no Buddha, there is no Dharma [teachings]”

“Nirvana is Samsara [impure cyclic existence, our world]”

These paradoxical teachings seem to imply that the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, including the promise of freedom, are also fundamentally illusory. Therefore, is Enlightenment, the goal and promise of Buddhism, a lie? No: rather, enlightenment is realizing that nothing like Enlightenment exists as such. This must not only be temporarily realized, but integrated into the fabric of one’s mind, and all subtle traces extinguished.

How does this parallel with the Matrix? In the theory offered by the Film Theorists channel, the people of Zion (a Biblical reference to the promised land) are unaware that they are also in a dream, a fantasy created by the Matrix. In the movie, we are led to believe that this is a nefarious plot, an elaborate version of the Cartesian “brain in a vat” problem (how do I know if I’m not just a brain in a vat somewhere?). While the Matrix absolutely draws on Western philosophy as well as Eastern philosophy, the inconsistencies and paradoxes of the later movies are best explained not as a plot-hole or an in-canon larger technological conspiracy, but as a purposeful philosophical statement by the Wachowskis. Thus, the people of Zion are still metaphorically attached to the illusion that they exist, and so are we. 

And so, the most abiding question of film theorists and Matrix fans, “what is the Matrix?” can be definitively answered in philosophical context:

The Matrix is you. It is everything. It is Us, trapped by our own illusions and misinterpretations of reality. We are the ones who should take the “red pill”, while realizing that in reality, “there is no red pill”. In the words of the Heart Sutra:

” Form is empty. Emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is also not other than emptiness…in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no visual form, no sound, no odor, no taste, no object of touch, and no phenomenon. There is no eye element and so on up to and including no mind element and no mental consciousness element. There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to and including no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Similarly, there is no suffering, origination, cessation, and path; there is no exalted wisdom, no attainment, and also no non-attainment.”

There is no You, no Me, and there is no Matrix either.

What should we take from this? I believe there are many answers. One, I believe that we should take what the makers of movies who have something to say about us, about our world, more seriously, even if what is offered on the screen is an illusion. On the one hand, the general viewer must be faulted for not taking the movie seriously enough, or seen in another view, for taking it too seriously (as a coherent story with a narrative that must make sense). The way we watch movies is thus reflective of society as a whole and the way we perceive reality: it can therefore be changed and is not necessarily inherent. The Matrix should therefore also be seen as a cultural commentary, and there are many layers (particularly with respect to the effects of technology on society) that should be explored in more detail, perhaps by other commentators. However, I believe that the proverbial heart of the Matrix lies with its timeless message about reality: that things are not as they appear.

Or are they? It all depends on your point of view.

Check out my other article on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Buddhist philosophy

 

 

 

Erik Satie’s Nocturnes

 

It is said that Satie reached the heights of his compositional abilities late in life, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. While most people are only aware of the Gymnopedies and a few other compositions by Satie, the Nocturnes are by far my different. At only 13 minutes combined length, they represent a huge leap forward in tonal composition style, breaking away from Satie’s earlier light and meditational atmosphere and embrace the melancholic and heartbreakingly sad. It’s incredible to me how sad these pieces are, like recalling a memory of a bygone era. One is immediately transported into the quiet night streets of early 20th century France, snow falling on a hill…the mental image it conjures up may differ depending on the person, but one thing is for sure, the chord structure and harmony is definitely innovative. The blog post I have linked to below says this on the subject:

“It was not without good reason that the label ‘outsider’ stuck to Satie. As of his earliest compositions he was in search of alternatives to the tonal harmony that was still the unquestioned convention when he began his training at the Paris Conservatoire (1879–87). This search runs like a red thread through all of his works, and was certainly absolutely independent of the stylistic orientation of individual works, reaching indeed, as we know, from echoes of the medieval and exotic to the then popular cabaret music.”

This last comment is particularly intriguing to me. Without going too in-depth into the harmonic style and complexity of the Nocturnes (which I am definitely not able to do with justice), I find the connection between medieval harmony and Erik Satie to be accurate just from my musically trained ear. The style in the Nocturnes, for example, has a certain gravity about it that invokes a kind of sacred atmosphere. To be more musically specific, in almost all of Satie’s pieces, the left and right hand are given almost complete independence: either the left hand is playing chords and the melody floats on top, or often there are two independent melody lines played by the left and right hands. This latter technique occurs in the Nocturnes and evokes a medieval-style chorus with interweaving melodies. I am reminded of a particular piece (not available on Youtube) that also happens to be written by a Frenchman, called Veni Creator Spiritus by Perotin- one of the earliest known composers we have a name for! Perhaps the great Satie was influenced by the chanting that could still be heard in Notre Dame Cathedral where Satie was choir master. Who knows?

 

 

http://www.henle.de/blog/en/2014/09/29/composing-made-easy-on-erik-satie%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98nocturnes%E2%80%99/

The frightening, unacceptable nature of the infinite

https://www.universetoday.com/83167/universe-could-be-250-times-bigger-than-what-is-observable/

The article linked to above covers the most plausible science of what lies beyond the observable universe. The theory is that if the theory of the inflationary universe is correct (and all evidence points to the fact that it is correct) than the universe is at least 250 times larger than what is currently observable. To begin with, the size of the observable universe is around 90 billion light years wide. That means it would take light, which moves almost exactly 300,000 km/s (kilometers, not meters) 90 billion years to traverse the diameter of the universe. To quote the article:

“Since special relativity states that nothing can move faster than a photon, many people misinterpret this to mean that the observable Universe must be 13.75 billion light years across. In fact, it is much larger. Not only has space been expanding since the big bang, but the rate of expansion has been steadily increasing due to the influence of dark energy. Since special relativity doesn’t factor in the expansion of space itself, cosmologists estimate that the oldest photons have travelled a distance of 45 billion light years since the big bang. That means that our observable Universe is on the order of 90 billion light years wide.”

Therefore, the universe is expands even faster than the speed of light, and because of that certain parts of the universe are forever beyond our light cone. Because of this, they are even beyond the realm of causal interaction- everything beyond the 90 billion light year diameter of the universe cannot interact with the observable universe except perhaps through gravity.

Let’s expand further: if the theory of the inflationary universe correct, then the universe is at least 250x larger than what is currently observable (somewhere on the order of 100 sextillion light years across). But why, then, can the universe not be infinitely large?

It seems we are faced with a contradiction. It seems impossible to empirically prove that the universe goes on forever because of physical constraints and the sheer logical fact that it would not be possible to observe an infinite distance in the first place because conceivably, one could always say “perhaps the end is still beyond that”. If it can be a priori proven from mathematical principles seems dubious at best- the debate rages on between those who say the universe is flat or curved. However, most current data favors a flat and therefore spatially infinite universe.

This idea of measuring the spatial curvature of the universe however does not take into account the fact that at some point beyond the observable horizon of the universe the curvature suddenly increases or is so close to 0 but not being 0 that it is impossible to tell. Thus the problem of infinitesimals meets the infinite.

However, the article expresses a kind of reticence to pronounce that the universe is probably infinite. It is simply “too hard to accept”- they would rather go with the title “universe could be 250 times bigger than what we can see.” For some reason, it is more shocking to say that the universe is 250 times rather than infinitely larger than expected. Somehow, infinity gets reduced to 0. How is this possible? Because infinity, as an endless repetition, is essentially boring. I’ve written about this before, but strictly speaking, humans cannot truly comprehend the infinite, and so they collapse into concepts that are seemingly opposite to it, such as nothingness. Something that is infinitely larger than something is now beyond human comparison, and therefore cannot be gawked at. What is funny is that this is even done by cosmologists.

Take this Quora answer by a mathematics professor, repeating the standard line that the number of electrons in the universe is 10^80 and therefore it is countable and finite:

https://www.quora.com/Is-the-universe-countable

If all the evidence points to an infinite universe, even though it is essentially not possible to prove otherwise, it will never be proclaimed as a fact. Why? There is still more to explore! Infinity violates the boundaries of science- it introduces the metaphysical into the mathematical. If the universe is infinite, what type of infinity is it? Countably infinite? Uncountably infinite?

These are questions that will probably never be answered, but my money is on uncountably infinite. Why? Because the “boundary” of what consider the universe isn’t actually a boundary at all. I’ve pointed out the narrow-mindedness of physicists before when it comes to theories of the universe and the most abstruse theories out there (string theory, holographic theory). There are only boundaries it seems when it comes to the human imagination (of some humans). Even I don’t believe these are insurmountable barriers to human knowledge. I do not believe, as Leonard Susskind claims, it is simply impossible to understand things like quantum physics directly or intuitively. The human brain is a finite organ in space and time, but it has the astounding ability to conceptually grasp things even beyond what is considered “normal life”.

The fundamental Buddhist insight- that what we see is not how reality truly is- is absolutely fundamentally correct. Everything we know about reality points to this, because there are simply things we cannot see- atoms, worlds far beyond our own. The structure of things, their nature, is not possible to grasp with the five senses alone- Plato and the great thinkers of the past knew that very well just from their experience- they knew there was something more to what we see. However, the Platonic vision of reality is also fundamentally limited. Concepts like nirvana or even “the universe” are also only ultimately constructs. Reality as it is is beyond at least average conceptual understanding. Where the real conceptual leap must occur is into the realm of what Buddhist philosophy calls “non-conceptual thought”, which to the rationalist mind is simply an error. Such a thing is not possible. However, if we were to gain some sort of insight into the nature of things like “uncountably infinite” we would in fact have to go beyond our normal concepts for things which operate in terms of metaphors which only apply to the here and now.

To conclude, when thinking of the idea of the uncountable, the mind encounters accepting a limit. It tries to convert the idea of uncountable to something more mundane, like “countable if given an infinite amount of time”. But this is not a correct definition of uncountable. Therefore, if we were to truly accept something of the order of “the universe is uncountably infinite” we would have to accept things like “a theory of everything is not possible”. And yet, science continues to grasp for this theory. And the question is obviously- why? Because the search for truth seems to be something inherent to humanity. Perhaps this particular strain of searching is historically contingent, but modern physics and science now desperately wants this TOE.

My theory is that the TOE stands ultimately for the purpose of science itself, its floating signifier, a signifier which is beyond the bounds of all the other signifiers. The TOE, if thought to be obtained, would not be in fact the TOE. Instead, there would be an illusory nesting egg effect- “TOEs” inside of TOEs. Ultimately, paradoxes will always plague science, as long as it continues to exist.

 

Difference and Repetition: John Coltrane, modal music, and the value of musical preservation

Skip in the video to 1:15, and a 40s-style big band instrumental instantly transforms into a recognizable melody you may know from “Impressions” by John Coltrane. What is most fascinating is that the lineage of this tune first passed from Miles Davis’ copying of the chord progression of the middle section of the song, and only later did Davis’ former saxophonist partially copy the melody of “Pavanne” and speed it up. In this way, one of the most recognizable standards in jazz is not only a poetic mimesis or “hard bop” version of a modal piece, but the entire basis for the modal genre is based on a simple unassuming big band tune. In this way, one realizes that, to use Deleuzian language, from an existing strata, there are deterritorializations that moves “forwards and backwards at once” as Coltrane famously said.

This is just more evidence that the cliche that “all good music is stolen” may in actuality have a huge amount of truth. There is no such thing as pure innovation, and things that ultimately seem like “gifts” from a divine or deep source, but a product simply of culture.

But what gives “Impressions” that special something, could that be the spark of something else? Maybe we will never know.

I seem to have a strange attraction to music that is lushly chordal, and sometimes the simpler and more melancholy the better. To me, the real pioneers of modal music were the ancient makers of polyphonic chant, Leonin and Perotin, in the late 1100’s!

 

 

Perhaps the most profound and numinous of all things in the world of music is the simple chord that resonates and echoes into an empty chamber. What jazz did was find the soul in the groove, in the rhythm, but perhaps modal jazz was not an innovation, but rather a reterritorialization or appropriation of the Western canon, or the harmonic tradition itself. And yes, this song by Perotin is in Dorian, just like Impressions. There is something about the Dorian mode itself, beyond what any frail human can do with it. What Coltrane did with impressions was a combination of speed, groove, and ambiance. But the essentials of beauty in music come from harmony, the realm of the sacred, while the realm of rhythm has always (in the Western tradition) been the realm of the secular. Renaissance music was essentially a combination of the bard’s dance and sacred themes, and the most ancient precursors to the jazz quartet was the roving band of minstrels (coupled with the Gospel choir, a fusion of the African dance and, again, the harmonic Western tradition).

Perhaps Miles Davis and Coltrane went back to the hymnals for inspiration? It is clear that Coltrane found new spiritual territory on A Love Supreme, with its repetitive meditative themes. But here Coltrane found an entirely new territory- the Orient, the East, which has its own sacred trance-like tradition. In jazz, inspired creativity of several disparate cultures became one. Music that touches the ineffable or sacred, despite its “all too human” origins, if it reaches excellence in the individual bodies of humans who must perform it, all of the sudden “transcends” its station. The voices of choir members suddenly are “transubstantiated”. The transcendental dimension, far from being a Platonic dimension that can be accessed by Reason, or a divine realm accessed by faith or divine providence, is simply immanently transformed into something beautiful, through the process of differentiating and being faithful to what can only be called tradition.

What is truly incredible is the remarkable human process of cultural capture and dissemination, of transmission itself. The music of the world, now that we are becoming globalized, is now being cataloged, preserved, and a new generation of musicologists born. It is our shared human heritage. Far from something that only makes culture into a museum, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists, along with regular members of society, take this shared wealth and keep it for future generations to enjoy. If it is divorced from its original context, we cannot continue to daydream and wax nostalgically about a dying past: we must do the slow and steady work of salvaging, of bringing up diamonds from the rough. So when Sonny Rollins said, when the latest John Coltrane “Lost Album” was unearthed, “its like finding a new room in the Great Pyramids”, he is not far from the truth. Rollins understands that Coltrane is part of America’s musical heritage, part of us. Without our history, our all too human, but our fascinating, noble, and beautiful history, we are nothing, we sacrifice the future.

 

Tales from Iceland: the savageness of nature

Finally the blog will live up to its name!

In my travels I frequently end up talking to tour guides and paying very close attention to what they say. I had an excellent guide through the Golden Circle (a circle of three important stops outside Reykjavik- Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall) whom I had an excellent conversation with. The guy’s name is Elvar (sic) on the Grayline Iceland Golden Circle classic tour. Great guy- Elvar if you are out there, you’re a good bloke! He had an extensive knowledge of Icelandic folklore and we had a great conversation about Icelandic culture, history, and folklore. Elvar expertly woves tales of the Ejill saga with the history of the drowning pool at Thingvellir, the law rock of the Alþingi, the war of the bishops, and of course- elves! Tourists to Iceland get no shortage of stories of elves.

If you go to Iceland, you have to do the Golden Circle tour, its incredible. We got to pet Icelandic horses and everything- and it wasn’t that expensive at all! Iceland is a travel gem- just don’t eat very much in Reykjavik! The prices are as gargantuan as the snow capped peaks. Go to the Bonus grocery stores if you are on a budget.

But back to the real reason I’m writing about Iceland: it’s culture. My guide very adeptly identified that religion for Icelanders is a complicated matter because they became Christian very late- around 1000 AD, and even still they retained much of their folk belief. For instance, the bishops had regular discussions about what to do in case of encountered a giant or troll!

That’s Iceland for you, still a relatively remote region of the world, despite its connection to the larger Scandinavian area. The rural areas of Iceland are very cut off- there are many small towns of less than 1000 people. There are still a few houses I saw tucked away all by themselves on the mountainside amidst vast tundra plains of rock and moss.

In this way, Iceland reminded me very much incidentally of Bhutan, another mountainous country in which they have many stories of nature spirits who inhabit the waters and rocks. If there’s anything I learned, its that Icelandic folk belief is almost “indigenous”, and certainly animist. Their connection to the earth is strong, as well as the sea, a mountainous island that is unique among the world’s landscapes and unique in its culture.

Iceland retains much of its ruggedness well into the 21st century. They’ve experienced a lot of deforestation, but most of it occurred during the first years of colonization a millennium ago. Power lines cross the otherwise empty landscape, but otherwise it is still mostly unspoiled. In this way, Iceland is not very much different from some areas of the Himalayas I encountered- the powerlines mark both with the sign of modernity, but retain much of its natural brilliancy. Let’s hope the conservation of Iceland’s natural splendor is taken as seriously by its people as its 100% renewable geothermal and hydroelectric energy. And lets hope tourism to Iceland does not explode out of proportion with what it the land is willing to bear.

The raw power of nature in Iceland is something that is still unstoppable. The volcanic activity is substantial: the largest single eruption in modern times occurred here in the 1700s, purportedly shooting lava plumes 1 km in height into the sky! Incredible. Nature here is still something feared and respected, and not just considered pretty or even worshiped as “mother earth”. No- Mother Earth truly is a bitch here! She was the mother of Þórr after all! In Iceland, waterfalls still rage, volcanoes roar, and you truly do feel the power and glory of unspoiled nature. 

See those glaciers on top of the mountain up there in the picture? They may not be there for long. Icelanders- if you truly are as connected with nature as you say you are, you must protect these natural treasures for everyone to come, especially the rightful owners of this land- yourselves! If anything, do it for selfish reasons! Nature can be savage, but now humanity can even fell the mighty glaciers that once covered this great land. 

What does it mean to deterritorialize?

“For essential reasons: the unity of all that allows itself to be attempted today through the most diverse concepts of science and of writing, is, in principle, more or less covertly yet always, determined by an historicometaphysical epoch of which we merely glimpse the closure. I do not say the end. The idea of science and the idea of writing—therefore also of the science of writing—is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned.”  –Derrida, Of Grammatology

It was Deleuze and Derrida who almost simultaneously recognized that writing or code inheres in the fabric of more than modern civilization- the code of a computer, genetic code, military secret code, the code of the law, etc. etc. Is this only because linguistic signs and metaphors permeate discourse itself- language not being able to escape language- or is this ontologically actually the case? One would probably go with the former at first in non-anthropomorphic cases, but what if information itself somehow is ontologically primary in reality? Quantum information theory says as much.

By referring to genetic material as code, what do we mean? We mean there is a sequence, a series of particular entities that in one combination produce one biological or chemical product, and in another produce another. The key aspects here of code are combinations, sequences, and corresponding production. Is the key aspect of this the sequence itself, the combination? No, it is reproduction, or corresponding production. Code reproduces itself. A code is stable, as a key or cipher it remains constant so that variable productions can occur. If we continue to use DNA as a model, we should recognize here the differences between transcription, translation, and replication. Code here reproduces itself but also produces new entities by means of mirror replication or half replication. Correspondingly, a signifier refers to other signifiers in the chain of meaning, referring to the original code in a semi-autonomous but never completely redundant way. Redundancy itself eliminates or reduces the possibility for errors, for mutations in intended meaning.

As a professional copy editor, I am told by my company to eliminate redundancy, but I have found that a certain amount of redundancy fills a paper out. There is a distinct difference between “to verb” and “in order to verb”, despite it being categorized as an “inflated phrase”. Of course there can be too much redundancy- this kind of redundancy would probably be eliminated quickly by helpful “editing proteins” in DNA. But the problem is that we are always operating on several codes at once- one’s professional code, one’s ethical code, one’s personal code, one’s biological code (sometimes my code tells me to sleep instead of writing long blog posts in the middle of the night). While we are slaves to our code, our pro-gram (credit to Derrida), we are also in some sense the programmers. Perhaps what it means to be human is that we are given a certain program, namely ourselves, and it is our task to hack it as much as humanly possible without “shorting the circuit”. Perhaps this is what Foucault drove at with the “limit experience”. Perhaps this is what Deleuze truly meant by deterritorialization, with all the warnings that come attached. Deleuze always formulated deterritorialization as a decoding explicitly. One only gets out of a territory by means of a decoding of a certain flow of X.

Oh boy, have we entered into the terrain of cliches? One hears the right-wing all the time say we need to “deprogram” ourselves from liberal hogwash. Cue the Matrix metaphors about taking the red pill! Here’s the problem with a cliche- it did mean something at one point. Yes, getting out of your territory is getting out of your comfort zone. So what? Its still good advice. But think about why its your comfort zone. Perhaps you have comfort zones you haven’t discovered yet- that’s a nice thought. For instance, I have recently found a passion for chess that I never thought I would have. I at one point never thought I would be into French postmodernism, but here I am.

And so, we come full circle to the quote at the beginning of the essay. What is Derrida saying is occurring? A deterritorialization of the whole field of language. Or, more precisely, the beginning of the end of a certain era having something to do with language. What he was referring to is also called the “Death of Speech”.

Is this Death of Speech a bad thing? Death can also be a rebirth, but here we should avoid the temptation to avoid historical and dialectical cliches. No- time really is linear. A death of speech cannot be reversed. But what is Derrida even referring to? A fundamental change in the nature of human communication. This fundamental change corresponds with changes in how we perceive communication itself, and thus, in social being itself.

Welcome to the Digital Age- stay tuned for more developments!

There’s no celebration of Posthumanism here, only a diagnosis of our present predicament. A historicometaphysical epoch is determinant, after all. Try as you might, one thing is for certain- there is no escaping the present.

Is there anything new I can offer to essentially the hodgepodge of already formulated ideas? Only the drawing of relationship, only creating the map at the edges of which we find the signifier for something more, a new direction. We have our web of concepts: code, Death of Speech, deterritorialization, and the modern importance of the digital or cybernetic. This has all been explored ad nauseam by Deleuze in Societies of Control, by Derrida, but lets dive head in, shall we?

There are two aspects to consider more closely- the prediction of the development of the current historicometaphysical epoch and outlining any concepts that we appear to have missed. Deleuze has indicated that deterritorialization by way of formation of new subjectivities through creative experimentation can counteract the effect of digital societies of control. In other words, in an era filled with new cybernetic mechanisms bent on shaping one’s self to be more penetrable to capitalist exploitation and marketing, through stimuli and response control in a Pavlovian sense, Desire itself is the target of an individual’s subjectivity.

Therefore, my recommendations for future areas of “research” or personal subjectivation: if the problem for forming a truly individual subjectivity is outside stimuli that creates and forms Desire, there are two possible avenues: the “ascetic” route of personal denial and the “tantric” route of shaping and playing with one’s desires.

If we truly want to reshape the world, we don’t only need to “look in the mirror”. We need to reevaluate our (shared) individual and collective desires.

So we have come to a useful conceptual distinction: individual and collective Desire. Nothing that hasn’t been said before, but a useful one. But perhaps more originally, I have offered a distinction between an “ascetic” and “tantric” route to subjectivation, and suggested a dichotomy. I am always intrigued by the concept of “unplugging” in the modern world: going a month without TV, etc. It would be difficult for me, I admit. I think this is exactly what our world needs right now. But I also believe that there must be a libidinal substitute for any kind of ascetic denial. TV is great! So if you plan on getting rid of TV for a month- make sure you are going somewhere nice and won’t be bothered it, or are planning on reading some good books. In a society that encourages binge watching, I purposefully try to watch an episode of my favorite shows per day.

Or, you could “go to the end”- the tantric route- use Desire to eliminate desire. Binge watch until you can go without TV for a year. Watch everything you want to watch, and then get sick of it. This route is NOT for the faint of heart!

And if you are interested in collective liberation, and think me talking about binge watching won’t effect anything, that I’m “feeding into the neoliberal paradigm”, think twice: I’m one step ahead of you! In an era of atomized individuals, we have to work on ourselves first. In other words: we have to deatomize. How? Before coming together in a big chemical reaction that will shake the foundations of the earth, we have to be chemically prepared. I’m saying- if you want a revolution, a political one, it needs to start by recognizing that our current industrial way of life is in the long term completely unsustainable. And no, Zizek, it won’t all be fixed by green energy and luxury space communism.

This kind of experimentation with alternative lifestyles, particularly associated with the green movement, is quickly co-opted by the capitalist hegemony. As Zizek points out, the true alternative is a liberatory framework for society, but this isn’t only in terms of changing the nature of production. Taking down consumer society starts with taking down the DESIRE FOR CONSUMER SOCIETY.

Unfortunately, we have to recognize that despite the enormous conveniences of modern capitalist society for the First World, it has never been that way for the Third World. And we can’t avoid what’s coming.

Yes, we do have to deprogram ourselves, and fast. The ocean is rising

Why does Jordan Peterson exist- SJWs or crowdfunding?

Social Justice Warriors. SJWs. Is the term valid? As a progressive, I have an instinctive gut reaction against the “anti-SJW industry” or people like Jordan Peterson who make their living making “podcasts” or other internet drivel ranting. I swear to Buddha, I’ll drop dead before I accept cash for my opinion over the internet.

But do social justice warriors exist? Is it a caricature? I think something is developing that is far more disturbing- the SJW industry. What the liberal left and right fail to comprehend is that everything can be commodified. There is an SJW industry, a network of “passionate social justice activists” who put their opinions online for money in the name of justice, and then there are anti-feminists who…end up doing the exact same thing.

My hypothesis is that what fuels the creation of people like Jordan Peterson is not just “the internet” or “social media”. The fact that Peterson is crowdfunded by Patreon is a significant development. What does it mean?

I believe it means that the model of news/infotainment that was perfected by the cable news industry, now that it has moved online, has transformed into an infotainment “a la carte” menu, where people pick their opinion and fund it directly. In turn, people are increasingly driven to make their opinion or felt subjectivity into their career; they are programmed to commodify themselves ceaselessly. Peterson is the example of a success-story. The endless self-commodification of our culture (one could argue I’m also a victim, I’m “advertising myself” in some fashion right now) has managed to permeate discourse to the degree where speech itself, in a Deleuzian fashion, has become rotten. Meaningful speech has ceased to exist. There is always just an underlying profit motive.

If that’s not depressing enough, if discourse itself hasn’t just become one big farce, if we aren’t just talking past each other in a giant Tower of Babel (credit to Landzek at Constructive Undoing blog), then consider this:

We can now commodify things that have never been commodified before: feelings, thoughts, experiences, emotions. All virtual, all simulated, everything empty, shallow, and meaningless.

On a sidenote: crowdfunding is a byproduct of consumer capitalism, specifically of what Marx called the production of new needs, or even more specifically, the need to “fulfill your dream”. Want to become a successful rapper? Cook? Need to pay off your credit card debt? Indiegogo baby!

When you were a kid and you wouldn’t eat your peas, your mom told you there were starving kids in Africa. Millennial moms will just say “oh my poor precious baby, you don’t have to eat anything, you are my little precious angel!”

Do I believe that millennials are all completely narcissistic and entitled? No. But I do think you feed into conservative propaganda when you refuse to take your inherent First World economic privilege into account. Unless you are homeless or terminal, don’t come crying to me, we all have problems.

What created Jordan Peterson?

  1. Identity politics and a refusal to look at class as a primary determinant of life
  2. The modern “gender studies” focus on “transformative identity” which reinforces narcissistic individualism in today’s activist culture
  3. A dynamic of increasing self-promotion in modern cybercapitalism

Perhaps Zizek is right that we need to become more alienated from each other first to fix these problems.