Tag Archives: philosophy

Egotism and conspiracy theory

I’m reading one of the ur-texts in esoteric neo-Nazi mysticism for Dracula vs. Cthulhu, The Dawn of the Magicians. It’s pure conspiratology, and contains the same fundamental sin as The Devil’s Chessboard: Conspiratology is fascinated by “what if.” Into a broken or incomplete narrative, rather than acknowledging it is broken or incomplete, and perhaps unable to be solved due to the distance of time, place, and circumstance, conspiratologists create a narrative by asking “what if this were the case” and then deciding that their newly invented fiction is a fact.

Conspiracy is a fiction that conspiracy theorists have decided is fact – and, indeed, at several points in the 160 or so pages of The Dawn of the Magicians I have read, the authors use quotations from novels as “proof” of their thesis. They liberally quote Arthur Machen and Bulwer Lytton, saying that novelists are essentially prophets and that both men belonged to the Order of the Golden Dawn and were thus enlightened alchemists. It’s boggling, but it is part of argument built by The Dawn of the Magicians.

In this sense, it appears to me that conspiratology resembles religion. Almost all religions and religious people assert a fallacy known as “the God of the gaps.” Supernaturalist religion occurs in those parts of the universe about which humans cannot see, or do not have an adequate theory to explain. Which is why God will cure cancer now and then (a disease that sometimes goes into remission for no apparent reason, often attributed to a miracle) but adamantly refuses to regrow the limbs of amputees. Cancer going into remission is a poorly understood process that happens on the cellular level – the God of the gaps acts invisibly. On the other hand, regrowing amputated limbs is big enough to be seen, thus does not happen.

Conspiratology is “pseudohistory of the gaps.” Take for instance the assassination of President John Kennedy. The Warren Commission was deeply flawed, yes. But to leap from “the Warren Commission was flawed because we know that the CIA and FBI engaged in a coverup” to “the CIA killed JFK” puts a fictional narrative into the gaps of history. Even though there is a strong but an unprovable narrative, that the CIA and FBI wanted to deflect heat for their incompetence in keeping track of Lee Harvey Oswald (as they would later deflect the heat away from their incompetence about 9/11), conspiracy sees a gap and fills it with whatever they desire. Thus, while it is almost 100% sure that the CIA and FBI played a hard round of “cover your ass” with the Warren Commission because there’s no record, conspiratologists can leap to the conclusion that the CIA killed Kennedy.

Moving on, the authors of The Dawn of the Magicians say that we should study the 100,000 works of alchemists to discover what they discovered. The Dawn of the Magicians never goes into what a massive undertaking it would be – since the works are coded, cyphered, incomplete – and how difficult it would then be to decide which parts are useful and which parts aren’t. It’s almost certainly easier for us to rediscover whatever medieval alchemists found (assuming there’s anything left to find, given the advanced state of chemistry, metallurgy, and materials science). But they love their narrative that there MIGHT be something truly, utterly amazing hidden away in these texts, and they wildly speculate about what it might be, such as unguents that can regrow the tissues of burn victims in such a way as to leave no scars. Because, y’know, they read that some medieval doctors had such things. (They didn’t, duh.) The gap – that we haven’t sufficiently studied old alchemical journals and books – can be filled by whatever fantasy a person desires!

The idea that creative narratives are actually, for-real true is a seductive lure. Most people want to believe that the universe makes a personal sense – that we, individually, understand the driving forces behind history or the universe. Of course, we tend to imagine that the meaning of the universe or the meaning of history supports our point of view. That is the heights of egocentrism! That the universe is ordered to give tacit approval to me? That God thinks that the life I live is the best kind of life, or that my ideals are divinely granted and inspired? Heavens. Equally absurd is the idea that history ought to do the same – given weight to my fancies and prop up my worldview. That the murder of JFK becomes a prop for my fantasies is intellectually shameful and morally vacant!

Yet, that’s the core message of conspiratology – that whatever narrative that you CHOSE to believe lurks in the dark corners and past the horizons of history. There is no need to get proof! Belief, alone, is enough because history is murky. Therefore all ideas have equal merit! Which is egocentric nonsense, and contrary to any epistemology that seeks truth rather than glorifies the self at the expense of the truth.

Wine tasting as the construction of “quality”

One of the things vexes me as a writer is how quality gets constructed. How do humans decide what they like and dislike? The simple answer is “we like what’s good.” Slightly less simple, but only slightly, is “we like what we like.” But the longer I think about the subject, the more I think that perhaps the most significant factor in determining quality is a person’s internal narrative. I also believe that how we decide what we like and dislike is intensely important because unless we understand the origin of our internal narrative – and how outside forces shape it – we diminish our intellectual freedom and harm our communities.

Which brings us to io9‘s article, pithily entitled, “Wine Tasting is Bullshit. Here’s Why.” It is useful for my purposes because it is a survey of other articles that discuss the problem with wine tasting. In none of the articles does the idea of “narrative” come up, but I firmly believe that’s the underlying issue.

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The ass-kissing sycophancy of Ron Chernow’s Titan makes it altogether unreadable

About seventy pages in I stopped reading the biography of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Titan by Ron Chernow. The reason is simple: it is unadulteratedly sycophantic and the otherwise shoddy research and analysis.

The precise moment I quit was when Rockefeller proposed. Chernow said, “One imagines the two of them smilingly shyly with relief.”

No, Ron, one doesn’t. Because you’re writing history, not fiction, and there are a lot of explanations why it might have taken Rockefeller so long to propose – ranging from profound social awkwardness to homosexuality, for instance. Maybe the reason why Rocky took SEVEN YEARS to propose is that he. . . wasn’t interested in women. Which, admittedly, might make him smile in relief, but not for the reason you mention, but because his beard agreed to it. And if we’re just imagining things, why not imagine that he was gay? BECAUSE IT ISN’T HISTORY WITHOUT RESEARCH. You don’t just get to “imagine” things!

Of course, this is the same guy who did not discuss the possibility that the reason Rockefeller avoided the Civil War, which started when he was a young man, was cowardice. But, later on, when Rockefeller doesn’t give into a bully, Chernow is quick to attribute Rockefeller with bravery. Like it’s some great feat to tell someone yelling at you in your place of business to fuck off!

He also quotes several times even in the first seventy pages, the “philosopher” Max Weber. Weber’s contributions to philosophy are racist and sexist – and as one of the founders of sociology, his racism and sexism would cast a long, fascist shadow.

In particular, Chernow is obsessed with Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I have no fucking idea why Chernow would quote this book during the early years of Rockefeller’s life, given that it was published in 1905 and not 1955, except that Chernow is a terrible historian. Chernow also gives no indication whatsoever that Weber ever influenced Rockefeller, or even that Rockefeller was aware of the German philosopher.

From the start, Weber’s work was also highly controversial, even in theological circles. Immediate critiques flowed in from Catholic and atheist Germans who were less than impressed by Weber’s “reasoning.” And, of course, there were a lot of German philosophers in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Why not discuss Schopenauer, Hegel, Marx, or Nietzsche? Of all the German philosophers to pull, why Weber?

Because Weber provides an intellectual-sounding rationalization which casts Rockefeller’s greed in a positive light. Rockefeller was successful because of his Baptist theology which created virtue, and (Chernow repeats this) teaches that wealth is gained to be a steward of God’s creation. Bringing up those other Germans would reinforce the possibility that Rockefeller was aware of his greed and how ethically atrocious it was, and how charity is a poor substitute for political action.

Lastly, while Weber is still highly regarded in sociology, his works are intensely racist. The Protestant Work Ethic is an ideal example of this. Weber took the previous century of human existence, and his feelings about it, as “proof” that Protestants work harder than other people, and it is from their hard work that wealth is created. It ignores, of course, the effects of colonialization perpetrated by Protestant nations, including Germany, but especially England. It also ignored poorer Protestant nations, particularly Scandinavian countries, in the 19th century – that wealth was created along the lines of conquest and colonization rather than religious background.

Of course, it also ignores that the origins of capitalism arose not in Britain, but in Renaissance Italy and that for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, it had been Catholic nations that were economical, politically, and culturally dominant. And, of course, it ignores that the reason industrialization happened more in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe were the easily accessed coal in England, Scotland, and Germany, as well as the captured markets created by European colonization.

I could go on in this vein for a while, of course, but suffice it to say that Weber twisted history in racist ways to prove his “point.” And as I have said before, and I’m sure I’ll say again, if you have to go on a campaign of wholesale lying to prove your point, you don’t have one.

In the context of Titan, then, one would ask what any of this has to do with Rockefeller? The answer is simple: nothing, other than a reason for Chernow to get down on his knees and shove his tongue up Rockefeller’s anus. By repeatedly returning to Weber, Chernow can create a facile intellectual argument that Rockefeller wasn’t just a grasping, greedy sonofabitch, but motivated by ethics. Which is why Weber comes up half a dozen times in the first seventy pages – every time Rockefeller does something sketchy, Chernow drags out Weber’s corpse to say we shouldn’t be too hard on the old boy. I found this sycophancy disgusting and intellectually dishonest.

If one looks at Weber’s other religious works, this bias becomes more evident. In his book on Protestants and capitalism, Weber focuses on the 16th century forward. In Weber’s The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, he primarily looks at ancient Chinese history. Which conveniently ignores having to face the troubling aspects of European colonialism in China, such as the British engaging in a policy of addicting China to opium, which was highly relevant at the time Weber was writing. (The Boxer Rebellion was in 1899, whose origins were the Opium Wars.)

It is highly interesting today, a century later, because no one in their right fucking mind would say that the Chinese suck at capitalism or that they don’t work like rented mules. Weber rationalized the present economic domination by Protestant nations in a simple, ahistorical, and inherently deceptive way. Confucianism and Taoism did not stand in the way of economic development! Most most of human history, China has been a powerhouse of trade, industry, and technological progress, as well as good government. But rather than look at why China, in 1920, was “the weak man of Asia,” after literally thousands of years of cultural, military, and economic dominance of the greater portion of humanity, Weber studied things that happened literally thousands of years ago and drew the Hegelian conclusion that China was “frozen” in development. It is teeth-grindingly racist, and Chernow embraced him to “demonstrate” the benevolence of Rockefeller – which is depraved, and demonstrates how poor Chernow’s research was and that his analysis was worse.

And time and again, Chernow characterizes Rockefeller in a positive light, offering only flattering portrayals. So Rockefeller avoiding the Civil War was not cowardice, even though Chernow stresses that Rockefeller was an abolitionist, but guided by his desire to serve God by making money, so he could be a steward of wealth to help people. Just ask Max Weber.

When Rockefeller went behind his partners’ backs to set up funding and then dissolved the company without consulting them, this is not characterized by Chernow as a slimy, borderline illegal business practice, but a sign of his vision and adamantine will that viewed things on a longer timeline than us ordinary mortals. (This kind of language about Rockefeller’s “vision” being above us normal folks is everywhere in Titan, even though in my previous review I covered how Rockefeller stumbled into the oil business through coincidence, not vision.)

When Rockefeller overexposed himself by buying the business from his partners, it is again described as will and vision – not happenstance. In retrospect, we know that oil becomes the biggest business in the world, but at the time there was no reason to think that. The oil vanished in Western Pennsylvania very quickly, and there had been no other discoveries. But in Chernow’s farcical world, this happenstance is “vision.” If the oil had vanished in Pennsylvania just a year or two sooner than it did, Rockefeller’s financial overexposure when buying out his partner’s refinery would have spelled doom. But there is simply no acknowledgment that Rockefeller got lucky, that Rockefeller had no fact-based reason to overextend himself buying the refinery, or fact-based reason to think that the oil would last.

At any rate, the book is terrible. When Chernow wanted us to imagine what might have happened when Rockefeller proposed, though, it veered from simply bad analysis and writing to outright fiction.

But there’s always another book about a rich asshole being written, and hopefully, my research into the Johnson & Johnson dynasty will go better.

Why I’m Writing a Parody of Atlas Shrugged

I’m reading about Ayn Rand because I intend to write a parody of Atlas Shrugged, which takes the form of a novel that occurs immediately after the end of Rand’s novel (albeit changed enough to remove the threat of copyright infringement, and strengthen a fair use defense in case something weird happens). The purpose of the parody is to create a rejoinder to the political, philosophical, and economic principles that Ayn Rand lays out in the novel.

It is simply uncontroversial that Ayn Rand’s followers, particularly those at the Ayn Rand Institute, use the novel Atlas Shrugged to spread Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism A to Z, Atlas Shrugged is quote dozens if not hundreds of times to illustrate the philosophy of Objectivism. The Ayn Rand Institute has given hundreds of thousands of copies of Atlas Shrugged to schools with the express purpose of introducing new generations of readers to Objectivism. John Galt’s long speech in Atlas Shrugged is considered to be the first complete expression of Objectivist principles. It is also my personal experience that followers of Ayn Rand quote Atlas Shrugged the same way Christians quote the Bible – at nearly every turn for nearly any occasion.

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Criticism of John Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged – I come not to praise Johnny the G, but bury him

statue-1515390_1920-1200x900I’ve just got done with John Galt’s long speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s part philosophy lecture and part insult-comic rant. It is bad at both. (Later on, in my general critique of Atlas Shrugged, I’ll cover the most serious of her flaws in regards to art, politics and economics. It would take a book-length critique to get them all, but there are several that are especially glaring, even to me.)

There are three primary philosophical sins in John Galt’s 36,000 word speech: the first is badly constructed syllogisms, the second is reliance on arguments from authority, the third is straw man arguments. I’m going to give an example of each, but just one, because the speech sixty-plus pages long and it would take forever to cover everything.

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John Galt: Cult Leader

statue-1515390_1920-1200x900John Galt looks a lot like a cult leader.

After having read the first couple of chapters of part three of Atlas Shrugged, something started to look mighty familiar from my research for Simon Peter: John Galt has nearly every characteristic of a doomsday millenarian cult leader.

First, John Galt approaches people – or has them approached – when they’re psychologically vulnerable. He targets people who are in the midst of exceptional crises, in this case, generally the failure of their business or some other great professional failure.

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Why people like Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s philosophy

Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand

I believe I have figured out the appeal of Atlas Shrugged.

#1. Herbert Spencer’s defense of capitalism is flawed. Before there was Ayn Rand, the philosopher of the market was Herbert Spencer, who used a social Darwinism message to defend the unchecked accumulation of wealth. The argument ran: “Evolutionarily speaking, if you’ve got it and you can keep it, you deserve it, no matter the source.”

The immense flaw with this plan is that if, say, the Russian Revolution came along and reminded merchants that they were a bunch of wussy powderpuffs wholly dependent people capable and willing to kick ass to defend them from brutal thugs who would kick their middle classes asses in a hot minute, then the very philosophy they espoused was turned against them: unable to hold onto things, they did NOT deserve them, and now the communists do.

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The trick of philosophical novels is that they’re not philosophy

One of the interesting things about Objectivism is that its primary method of transmission is novels – particularly Atlas Shrugged, but to a lesser but still serious extent The Fountainhead.

I don’t like philosophical novels. I don’t mind books with philosophy in them, as a sort of undercurrent, but when the characters start preaching platitudes, my eyes glaze over. So, one of my favorite novels is Dune by Frank Herbert, but by the time we get over to God-Emperor of Dune, I’m just bored. Leto’s long, dull as speeches rehashing a primitive Nietzschean fantasy are uninteresting. So, unsurprisingly, I’m also not fond of Atlas Shrugged and its even longer, even more overtly philosophical speeches. But, philosophically, they’re a trick and nothing more.

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General review of my disappointment in Goddess of the Market by Jennifer Burns

goddessI just finished reading Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns.

As I started to read it, I said I was concerned about its attempt to “balance”. Balance usually means the author won’t say what is obvious and true in order to placate someone, somewhere. After reading Goddess of the Market, I feel confirmed in this.

In particular, Burns doesn’t really talk about the American “right”. She sometimes touches on how awful they are, but only with the briefest of touches and the lightest of hands. So, she mentions “Birchers” without discussing the John Birch Society at all – specifically it’s brand of racism and sexism, co-founded by Fred C. Koch, the father of arch-conservative and profoundly racist, sexist assholes Charles and David Koch (names that should be familiar to anyone following current Republican politics). Likewise, the nativist, intensely racist America First organization is mentioned only as a libertarian organization.

Indeed, Burns barely touches on Rand’s intersection with conservative Republican thought.  Burns, instead, focuses her attention on Rand’s association with libertarians.  This has the effect of creating a straw man, since the libertarians aren’t in any positions of power and the Republicans definitely are.  Even if you don’t have any ideological opposition to the Republicans, hiding Rand’s effect on Republican economic conservatives (such as Alan Greenspan or Timothy Geithner) is just a filthy lie.

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Ayn Rand is mystical with her Platonic use of “reason”

Reading Goddess of the Market, it is calling back to my mind a previous reading of The Virtue of Selfishness: I find Objectivism very mystical.

Reason, to the Objectivist, is an ideal of Platonic dimensions. Objectivists are likely to regard this as an insult, given how they view Plato as the founder of “collectivism”.

A major problem that Objectivists is that reason is exceptionally difficult to define. In practice, when people talk about reason, they mean, “That which I prefer.”  The preferred Objectivist slant is to render that A = A – reason is what reason is.  While that might have flown in Aristotle’s time, nowadays?  That’s just a plain old tautology that disguises the fact you don’t know what you’re saying.

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