On the Right & Civilisations

This is a rewrite of a Tweet thread that started here:

However, Tweets aren’t a great medium for the point I was trying to make, so I’m making it more essay-like here.

“Western Civilisation” or “Judeo-Christian civilisation” are almost content-free markers in right wing discourse these days. In both cases, there is a fundamental incoherence that arises from deep problems with how people like Shapiro think about the world.

‘Civilisation’ implies an ongoing exchange of ideas between people. A civilisation will manifest in many ways (politics, architecture, art) but the idea that these multifold things all connect together comes from people swapping ideas and concepts. However, the right wing rhetorical use of the term ‘civilisation’ implies the opposite: that somehow ideas cannot cross between ‘civilisations’ even though the very examples they use of the wonders of Western Civilisation are prime examples of a very fluid exchange of ideas way beyond the boundaries of the West.

Shapiro concedes grudgingly some maths from India, while ignoring the influence of that same maths in other parts of Asia, or its transmission to the west. There’s no sensible way of considering the cultural and philosophical history of Europe without considering its connection to the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, through migration, trade, war and general proximity. Shapiro cites Aristotle (who was neither Christian nor Jewish) and simultaneously ignores the role of Islamic Aristotelian scholarship on European thought in the middle-ages.

Obviously, the term “Western Civilisation” isn’t wholly meaningless as an idea in general but the alt-right uses it in a way that is little more than a marker for their racism. “Judeo-Christian” is used by sections of the right in a similar way to mask their hatred of Islam. It’s even more absurd as a term, generally only applied to Western European ideas (and often specifically Anglophone ones) while ignoring other cultures with a Christian background (partly out of habit of seeing Eastern Europe as a non-Christian ‘other’) and at the same time partly-ignoring non-Christian influences on European culture (pre-Christian Northern Europe, classical Greece and Rome) while co-opting those classic parts that have been Christianised (see Aristotle above). The “Judeo” part is strictly tokenistic: Maimondes is as likely to be ignored as Averroes.

That Western European thought was influenced by multiple cultures both as an internal dynamic (the many cultures within Europe) or an external dynamic (the many cultures Europe has interacted with by trade, war, invasion, migration, exploration, colonisation etc) is not something that can be admitted to because then any endorsement of the wonders of “Western Civilisation” would by implication be seen an endorsement of multi-culturalism.

Both terms as used by the right are bad history and in Shapiro’s example a bad understanding of how science developed. He actively obscures why Issac Newton did his work where and when he does, turning him into just some sort of brief expression of a kind of miasma of “Judeo-Christian” civilisation. The path that leads to the particular sweet spot that Shapiro seems to be pointing towards, where abstract philosophy meets empirical practicality isn’t something that just pops up if you believe in god in just the right way. If it where then we’d have far more Issac Newtons in Christian and Jewish history. Consequently Shapiro’s analysis (if that’s not too generous a term for it) makes it both harder to understand what was going on in 17th century England and also undermines what actually WAS special about it AND also undermines how Newton’s insights connect with his religious beliefs.

The halting steps towards the modern sense of scientific thinking, in which broad abstract principles are examined with an eye towards experimentation and empirical testing, was a long road full of missteps. It is one in which Aristotle’s work (as he keeps coming up) was both an aid and a hindrance and where contact (both good and bad) with other cultures and beliefs was vital. Religion is not irrelevant here and had positive and negative influences just as a figure like Aristotle had positive and negative influences.

Shapiro needs to set up the relationship as purely one way: that specific religious beliefs begat science because he also needs to hide the opposite effect: that religious beliefs changed because of scientific & philosophical ideas (as well as economy & politics & exploration & colonialism & empire etc) And also, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity kept changing each other over time and still do so. This is hard to accept if your view of religion is one where they are repositories of universal truths (or lies) rather than human attempts to grapple with those truths and as subject to human foibles and historical forces as any other human endeavour.

Instead Shapiro imagines religion as a kind of operating system for civilisation-machines rather than as ongoing dialogues people have with each other. Hence him tying himself up in knots in a manner that leaves him in a position where he cannot defend his analysis from the alt-right. His intellectual incoherence on this topic has multiple roots but one in particular is revealed in this particular topic of “civilisations”.

The wider discourse in the right for decades now has been one that can be characterised as scepticism about the existence of, or influences of SOCIETY. Exemplified most starkly by Margaret Thatcher but present across the board. Now, fair enough, sociology is not the most robust of disciplines but imagine trying to discuss sociological events, dynamics etc while being hostile to the very concept of society. It would be like trying to do macroeconomics while actively avoiding the concept of “an economy”

Racists are mainly racists for petty & cynical reasons but in addition, a discourse about sociological phenomenon without a concept of society is one in which racism or some other partisan essentialism is inevitable. Why are their broad, epiphenomenal effects in a collection of atomic individuals? How do such things exist if you can’t think in terms of “society”? The alternatives are conspiracies, religious allegiance, race or supernatural intervention & right wing discourse is full of all four.

Without a concept of society, it is inevitable that shifts in taste or widespread behaviour become blamed on conspiracies or hidden intentional forces. That and racism will only get you so far though. Any attempt to present a historical account of the world that at least has a patina of intellectual respectability is to find a proxy for society that can fill the conceptual gap. “Civilisation” is another way for right wing pseudo-intellectuals to try to talk about society & culture without conceding that either are powerful factors in our lives. Of course a concept of civilisation without sociological ideas is a vacuum.

Triangles are the new front in the culture war and are possibly being controlled by demons

Imagine, if you will, a triangle. I’ll make it a very specific one. It has a base of 18 centimetres and a perpendicular height of 9 centimetres. It even has a specific orientation with its base horizontal on a grid. Here it is (or at least a version of it)

Am I being wholly honest? The actual picture I’m showing you is a .png file and you are viewing it on a computer screen. The image is made of tiny squares (visible with a magnifying glass) and the file itself, the more abstract description of the image, is a .png i.e. in principle a set of coordinates of colour information for a grid of data. Does that matter? The answer is “It depends”.

Here’s the image again and superimposed a set of largeish squares. They are there to represent a low-resolution version of the pixelated triangle.

Make the squares a bit smaller and our shpae made from squares begins to look a lot more akin to a triangle:

You get the picture. Smaller and smaller squares make for a smoother image. The first set of stacked squares really doesn’t look much like a triangle but with smaller and more squares the image gets more and more like a triangle. How small do the squares have to be for it to be REALLY a triangle? Trick question.

Here’s a different way of looking at it. As I make the squares smaller the area of the stacked squares gets closer and closer to the are of the triangle we would find from the classic half-the-base-times-the-perpendicular-height formula. Our stacked squares shape literally gets more triangular as far as area goes as we improve the resolution.

But what about the perimeter? Well that’s a mess. It’s not even clear whether perimeter is meaningful. We could define it taking into encounter the edges of the nominal squares. If we do that then (I think, correct me if I’m wrong) the perimeter would tend towards the perimeter of a 9 by 18 rectangle. Ooops. My pixelated triangle is getting more rectangular. However, if I treat the perimeter as meaning “number of pixels on the outside of the shape” then I get a different limit.

Yeah but make them small enough and it is basically a triangle right? Sure, unless you really care about counting pixels, in which case not so much. Every real, physical manifestation of a geometric entity is a messy, not entirely correct compromise. Doing actual useful maths with real things requires understanding the extent to which a thing is and isn’t the “pure” mathematical entity it resembles.

This is a basic fact about the universe. It’s true whether you take a strong Platonic realist view of mathematical entities (i.e. they really are really real, maybe even more real than other things) or not (i.e. they are essentially fictional abstractions that are useful but less real than physical stuff that you can bump your head on).

Too cut a long story slightly shorter I sort of maybe tried to engage our old pal and the inaugural Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Story That Is Actually A Space Opera Brian Niemeier about this. My excuse is that he said that “necessary being is what theologians mean by God.” and logically necessary things are to me like a flame is to a moth. Brian’s going to be doing the ontological argument for the existence of god and by golly if there’s one think I have opinions on it’s that. Then he used the necessary properties of a triangle as an example…

Anyway, the guy thinks I’m a demon anyway, so if he does the equivalent of drawing a summoning circle for me, I really have no choice but to manifest in a puff of sulphur. https://www.brianniemeier.com/2019/04/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about.html

The discussion ended with this:

“You have two choices.
1) Confess that Jesus is the Christ, and God has raised Him from the dead. I shall forgive your violation of my hospitality, and you may continue commenting here.
2) You decline to make this just and logically irrefutable profession, and you cease commenting here. Persist in commenting without meeting my terms, and you get spammed.”

Point 1 apparently is how he expels demonically controlled beings from his blog. Which worked because I then vanished back to my demonic lair without even once twisting my head around 360 degrees. Brian then followed it up with an additional rant about the left being controlled by demons, in particular Doris: https://www.brianniemeier.com/2019/04/im-not-saying-its-demons.html

Anyway, how was your day?

Some navel-gazing about god(s)

I was prompted into contemplating my belly-button by reading the usual crypto-fascist Vox Day. So apologies for that. I’m not going to bother linking to the piece (its dated December 7 if anybody wants to look), it’s neither terrible nor insightful. However, the issue at hand is god and logic and that’s a topic that always sets me off but before I continue let me say something:

You can’t prove using logic that god (in general) doesn’t exist.

Also, I’m not attempting to prove that god doesn’t exist (I mean god doesn’t exist but that’s not what I’m going on about).

The piece in question is looking at Richard Dawkins offering some of the classic issues of the standard conception of god. Specifically that god is both omniscient and omnipotent. Both have issues logically and together they have even more issues. Dawkins is quoted as saying:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent.

Which is fair enough, as far as it goes. Day calls the argument ‘silly and superficial’ but then goes off on a full-on theological retreat in the face of the argument, essentially backpedaling on both qualities. He argues that maybe the bible doesn’t claim either thing and maybe these are just potentialities of god i.e. god has the capacity to know everything but only if he chooses to etc. That’s all fine, you can believe in whatever god you want and your god can have whatever limitations you think appropriate. I’m not the faith policeman.

It is still missing the point though. Put aside the word ‘god’ (or ‘God’) for that matter. Let’s talk about the Ultimate Being instead. The Ultimate Being is a Platonic god i.e. at the end of a chain of abstraction of what is and what is good. It is also a philosophical god, the end point of Thomas Aquinas’s chains of causality and existence.

The supposedly trite question of whether a god (say Zeus) can make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it is not trite when we consider such an Ultimate Being. Saying that such a being would never choose to do such a thing is not an answer because it avoids the question. The question really is: can such an Ultimate Being do something that is logically contradictory? There are exactly two answers to that question:

  • Yes
  • No

“Yes” is a reasonable answer but it comes with a price. The price is that you then can’t reason logically about an ultimate being beyond this. If such a being not only transcends time and space but also logic, then such a being is beyond reason and reasonable inquiry.

“No” is not a reasonable answer. It looks reasonable because it affirms reasonableness but it implies that your Ultimate Being is less than ultimate. It implies that rules exist that limit this ultimate being and raises the questions of where those rules come from and who enforces them. If the answer to that is the rules don’t come from anywhere and nobody has to enforce them, they just are then…why are you bothering with an ultimate being for everything else?

“Are you an agnostic then?”, is something I am asked from time to time. No, except in a much broader sense of believing that knowledge is fallible and absolute certainty about anything is impossible. I don’t have faith in god(s)/God, other people do. I’m cool with that 🙂 Tell me though, that there’s a proof or a logical reason for believing in god then sorry, but no there isn’t.

[see also: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fideism/]

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading “Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1”

Dialogue: Thessaly by Jo Walton

[Warning on themes around sexual violence and consent]

Plato: Joy to you Camestros. I am pleased to see you in the Agora this morning.
Camestros: Ah! Plato! I seem to have instantiated into a 1960’s movie set about the Greek myths. I assume that in your day there weren’t quite so many ruined pillars or heavily armed skeletons?
Plato: I assume the setting is intended to convey to me a sense of ‘ancient’ by evoking the Age of Heroes.
Camestros: Well I suppose Mycenaean Greece was a thousand years before your time. As distant from you as the Dark Ages are from me. Still, I would have hoped that I could have dreamt up something a little more historically accurate.
Plato: I see you wish to continue our previous debate in which you claimed to be simply imagining a conversation with me and that you yourself were simply the product of yet another person’s imagination, an even more imperfect being you call a ‘meat robot’.
Camestros: It is more than just a claim Plato. The meat robot can see themselves typing this very dialogue in the TextEdit app on their Mac.
Plato: So you still deny that you are actually a god and that your creator is Zeus?
Camestros: Obviously! You would have a series of higher realms and greater degrees of perfection and abstraction. Whereas I can see that this is actually internal, we are contained within a non-abstract physical mind that is complex and messy and imperfect but which imagines perfection within it.
Plato: Back to your world of atoms where forms are mere fictions and mathematics is little better than a nursery tale.
Camestros. I don’t think there is anything ‘mere’ about fiction. Invention and the imagination are powerful forces.
Plato: Which reveals that you are in truth Apollo.
Camestros: I assure you that I am not. I look more like your mentor Socrates than fair Apollo and I can’t stand being in the sun.
Plato: Yet you can appear and disappear from here at will so you are clearly a god. You prize knowledge but you aren’t Athena, hence must be Apollo and you are teasing me for reasons that must make sense to the gods but which I cannot fathom.
Camestros: I can’t fault your reasoning Plato even though I know for a fact that you are wrong. I’ll concede defeat for the moment – perhaps in this tiny world of an essay I am its Apollo. I actually wanted to talk to you about a book.
Plato: A book? Not that dreadful tome by the Germanic barbarian in which he calls me the enemy of the ‘Open Society”.
Camestros: No, not Popper. I was wrong to start there and not with his distinction between Worlds 1, 2 and 3. No, this is a story, a fable about your Republic.
Plato: We’ve had this argument already. The Huxley fellow? You already conceded that the society he envisaged was more to do with the brutal mechanism of your era’s mercantile class than my model of a just city!
Camestros: No, not Brave New World, although in a similar genre. This is a series of three stories called “Thessaly” by a writer called Jo Walton. The books are called “The Just City”, “The Philosopher Kings” and “Necessity”.
Plato: Noble titles but I dislike your era’s idea of “fiction”.
Camestros: You are a man of contradictions, Plato! You scorn poetry and yet you are the most poetic of classical philosophers. You fear fiction but you literally include made-up stories in your model civilisation and call them noble lies! In Western history, you are arguably the first person to invent a story and overtly claim that you just made it up and that it wasn’t actually based on an existing myth or history!
Plato: But those myths are for the purpose of instruction and improvement of the mind. The fictions you tell me about, these “science fictions”, are untruths about knowledge! What was that last one with the Olympic gods and thinking machines and the works of your island’s Homer? This new book you have better not be like that one.
Camestros: That would be Olympus and Illium by Dan Simmons. Well, there are some similarities. There are some excellent robot characters, as well as the gods of Olympus and both books discuss arete. However, Walton’s book is genuinely concerned with examining your ideas, rather than just exploring the Greek pantheon.
Plato: Excellent!
Camestros: Exactly! Yet, Walton’s books couldn’t be more different than Dan Simmon’s book. I guess they both reflect the modern interest in the classical world and thought. It is both familiar to us all and yet often quite alien in thought.
Plato: Alien? If I recall correctly, in your own language the word has an extra connotation to mean beings from other worlds that are not gods? Does this book feature your ‘aliens’?
Camestros: There are aliens in the final book “Necessity” but in some ways that final book is more of a coda or appendix to the first two. It revisits many of the characters and events from the first book and also ties up some loose ends. It also considers some of the internal mythology created by the author, in particular on the nature of the gods that she features. I recommend it but it is the first two books that are most relevant to our discussion.
Plato: You have yet to convince me that the book is even worth discussing. It seems to me that your era is more concerned with the gods of Olympus as magic beings than they are with the minds of Athens and when they do discuss me it is to disparage me. Now in Sparta…
Camestros: Let’s not discuss Sparta. I’d rather not get into how Sparta is colliding with popular culture these days.
Plato: Clearly you wish to discuss this fable you found. Is it edifying? is it good for the mind?
Camestros: Yes, I think so and it is fair to you also but not uncritical. Indeed, I think it is overly generous to your model of a fair government.
Plato: Then I shall listen for a while if I may ask questions as you go. How does this fable proceed?
Camestros: Apollo is pursuing the nymph Daphne but rather than being caught by him she asks Artemis to intervene who turns Daphne into a tree.
Plato: I’m not familiar with that myth.
Camestros: Well it is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but I guess that’s after your time. I assumed it was an older story than that though. Never mind. The point being Apollo cannot understand why Daphne would take such extreme measures to escape him. Unable to make sense of what is going on he talks to Athena. Athena reveals that she has a project that might help him better understand the concept of ‘equal significance”. She is creating a version of Plato’s Republic and will populate it with mortals who have prayed to her at one time or another to live in the city that you described.
Plato: One time or another? What do you mean by that?
Camestros: Well the gods can travel in time and Athena has grabbed people in your fandom from all sorts of times but mainly ancient Greece, Rome and Renaissance Italy. There are also some people from other time periods, including many women from the nineteenth century.
Plato: Why women from that time I wonder?
Camestros: The fact that a major work in Western civilisation included that women would be taught alongside men and could become guardians of the city is remarkable. The author (Jo Walton) imagines that in more recent centuries when women where gaining greater access to education (at least wealthier women) but still denied access to universities or recognition of their cognitive powers, that many might read the Republic and find themselves wishing that they could live there instead of the stultifying societies they found themselves in. One key character, Maya (originally called Edith) is the daughter of a classically trained vicar who taught her in her childhood to read ancient Greek. Enamoured with your writing she finds herself visiting Italy and in the Pantheon, in Rome, she briefly prays to Athena that she could live in Plato’s Republic.
Plato: I see, a book about ‘women’ is it? You’ve attempted to explain ‘feminism’ to me before but the conversation always turns to issues around procreation and ‘consent’.
Camestros: I wouldn’t call this a feminist analysis of The Republic but it is a story that centres the perspective of women. Also, I must warn you that the books deal with sexual violence and non-consensual sex of varying kinds.
Plato: Why must you ‘warn’ me of this? Have you not read our myths? Have you not read any of the myths about Zeus?
Camestros: Of course but myths are one thing. A modern story is intended to evoke empathy towards and about the characters within it. This story uses first-person narratives to help you understand the particular perspectives of the characters. So the events described are particularly traumatic and disturbing.
Plato: Yet you say you read books for entertainment! You also told me this book is edifying! What you describe is neither edifying nor entertaining!
Camestros: As I said Apollo is a god and a character in the book. He is a god of the Homeric kind more than perhaps the Platonic kind and as you observed the gods of culture were not creatures who understood consent in any context. Walton is examining consent and equal significance as moral concepts, inviting the reader to think more deeply about them. In my era, there is much discussion of these subjects, specifically around sex and around how society treats women. It is a confronting topic but it makes sense for Walton to include it as a major theme of the book. In particular, because the Republic has important features around the care and upbringing of children that has deep implications for women in the imagined society.
Plato: So edifying because rapists are punished and their crimes are shown to be wrong?
Camestros: Well this is where I find the books weaker. Apollo becomes human and enters the city as a child, one of many slave ten-year-old children brought to the Just City to be brought up according to your teachings. His character arc is one about learning the error of his ways, going from the classic god Apollo intent on raping a nymph as if his actions were no more than a game to a more rounded person. It is a redemption arc. However, there is another character (who I shan’t name so as to not reveal a plot line for those who haven’t read it) who is also a rapist who later earns forgiveness from the person he raped and who is somewhat lionised in the final book.
Plato: I see but is this not part of your own confused sense of aesthetics and ethics. You want stories that are complex and avoid simple morals and outcomes. however, you also want stories that push norms that you feel need society needs to adopt. Authors cannot meet your competing standards!
Camestros: Not at all! You would argue that we should examine all things and strive for excellence. I can admire what Jo Walton attempts to do in her story and still consider where I feel she may have erred. I don’t fault her for attempting to discuss a confronting subject but a confronting subject is necessarily one that is difficult to attempt. Examining the ways something is ‘problematic’ as we like to say in my time helps us improve.
Plato: Inquiry is a means to achieve excellence.
Camestros: Which is the central theme of the books. Walton isn’t uncritical of the Republic. She knows it was essentially you just spitballing what sounds like a good plan for a city. She knows that the wacky mix of people she brings together from history (a great SF trope in itself whether it’s Riverworld or Bill & Ted) is full of flawed human beings. She also deals herself the best cards: robots brought from the future to get the city going, Athena to give the whole thing a divine shove and confirm souls exist, a site (pre-eruption Thera) to give a place for the city to be that will eventually be erased from history. That’s all fine. I think it is the author’s prerogative
Plato: Authors are gods of their own fictions is your claim, much as you claim that you are the god of this world that we are both inhabiting.
Camestros: I suppose so.
Plato: Our earlier point of disagreement is that you see this as an unreal world and I believe this is our normal world of the senses.
Camestros: I think my point is different than that. You already believed that you lived in a lesser world even when you were real and living in Greece. It’s just that you thought the higher reality was more perfect and more abstract. I’m saying the Plato I’m talking to now lives in a more abstract and in some ways more perfect world that is contained in a messier less abstract reality. The shadows on the cave wall are controlling the puppets.
Plato: So you choose a less fearsome debater to hold you dialogue with rather than Socrates.
Camestros: Well, Socrates is a good example. There was a really Socrates (at least I assume there was) and there was the character in your dialogues and then in Jo Walton’s books, there is a character called Socrates that is her take on Socrates whom she only knows about from your dialogues. Then in this dialogue, I’m casting you in the role that you cast Socrates so that I can talk about Walton’s take on Socrates.
Plato: Have you not cast yourself in the role of Socrates?
Camestros: Maybe Socrates was the people we met on the way?
Plato: I cannot see how Socrates could be included as a character. You have said there are gods, people who came after me who read The Republic and children. Socrates is none of those. He died long before I wrote the Republic and as much as my ‘fandom’ (as you call them) would love Socrates, it would not be the wisest course to let him loose in an experimental city!
Camestros: Which is exactly why he is there! Socrates is introduced in the first book to do what I’d call ‘stress testing’ of the republic they have created. Walton makes excellent use of him as a character. Provocative and charmingly annoying, he is a locus of change in the city. Having Socrates examine Plato’s ideas is a clever move and one reason why I think she makes the actual city depicted more robust than I think it would be. I think it would have collapsed within a couple of months but that’s just me or if not collapsed then rapidly become an authoritarian nightmare.
Plato: Oh, so you are going to discuss the Open Society and its Enemies?
Camestros: No, just helping people understand Walton’s take on things. I think she sees the magic sauce for the world she creates is that everyone in it (even the one nominal antagonist) as being committed to the philosophy and critical examination of ideas. Her cities (and more than one eventuates through the books) have flaws and aspects I don’t like but they survive because of a general good will. The longer that goes on, the less convinced I am i.e. that it implies this culture of inquiry continues which in turn implies that the mode of education is effective.
Plato: I would imagine that if the city she creates is truly founded by people who were scholars of my work. As we have discussed before the dialogue you call The Laws should be read alongside The Republic.
Camestros: The Laws isn’t mentioned but is present by its absence. You would know better than I how the more practical city of Magnesia that appears in the Laws relates to the city in the Republic. The evolution of the cities in Thessaly books (particularly in the final book Necessity in which the closest city to The Republic’s ideal is a city of benevolent sentient robots) mirrors what I imagine was your evolution of ideas when faced with the practicalities of politics in the Hellenic world. That works for both good and bad on issues such as private property or slavery (which, if I recall correctly is absent in the Republic but accepted in the Laws).

Plato: if I may interrupt, I should warn you that the heavily armed skeletons have noticed us. I fear they are controlled by some god who wishes us ill.
Camestros: Indeed! A god who is known to me as ‘Ray Harryhausen’
Plato: I recall you telling me about him. Did you explain to him, as I asked, that the Kraken was not a figure of Greek myth and not any kind of titan?
Camestros: I think that is why he is cross with us and has sent those skeletons after me. We must depart!
Plato: Before we part company, can you tell me where I might find these books we have been discussing? It may be that you have at last brought me something worthy of my interest?
Camestros: Oh, you get them from Amazon!
Plato: The great warrior women are now booksellers! What wonders your era brings!
Camestros: Farewell Plato!
Plato: Farewell Camestros! Thank Timothy for helping me edit my final dialogue ‘Why Atlantis is Totally a Real Place and How to Find It: 12 Steps for Hellenic Happiness!’

 

A Philosophical Muddle

The political extremities are always strange places to visit. The far-right of Catholicism (or perhaps better described as the Catholic part of the far-right) in particular has some strange features. Recruiting as it does from the same mélange of social panics and prejudices, the outcomes it preaches fall in the same spectrum as the rest of the far-right: anti-immigrant rhetoric, nationalism, rhetoric against transgender people, rhetoric against LGBTQI people in general and the same confused appeals for free speech for those who wish to restrict free speech.

On top of that toxic soup is a layer of Platonic philosophy: abstractions are things and are real things in a way that actual real things aren’t. Here’s Dragon ‘Award winning author and freelance editor’ Brian Niemeier on the nature of God:

“When Christians–and some theist philosophers like Aristotle–say God, we don’t mean an old man on a mountaintop composing a global naughty/nice list when he’s not conjuring boulders he can’t lift. Such a being would fall into the category of a creature, albeit a powerful creature, existing within the material, temporal order.

What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.” http://www.brianniemeier.com/2018/08/finding-god.html

From there he segues into some classic arguments for the existence of god that follow the basic structure of abstract thing can be observed in reality, therefore, the abstract thing must exist as a thing in itself, therefore, some ultimate abstraction of the thing must be a god.

As regular readers will know, I think such arguments are flawed but it is worth acknowledging they are powerful arguments in their own way despite their head-scratching elements. What interests me most about them, is that by their nature they define and limit what kind of thing ‘god’ must be. In Brian Niemeier’s argument, his god is the essence of pure being – it is the thing that is what it is ultimately to ‘be’. Fair enough, imagine such a thing exists — I can take that as a credible belief. Where that becomes laughably absurd is when somebody asserts such a belief AND asserts that the core principle of being that transcends the universe spends its days worrying about whether people are wearing the wrong clothes, kissing the wrong people or not bing prayed at in Latin (obviously far-right Catholicism really needs mass to be said in Latin).

I’m stuck trying to imagine what is more rational. If a person has to believe their religion must validate their petty prejudices about other people would it not be more rational to believe in a petty & temperamental god. Apologies to any lingering Zeus worshipers but I can see how Zeus, as a character, might have strong opinions on such things. Niemeier notes that his god is not “composing a global naughty/nice list” but also believes that without a specific magic ritual, said in the right language, you can’t access the abstract principle of being qua being.

Think about it this way. The abstract number 7 has as much claim to existence transcending mere physical existences as “being” or any other abstraction — perhaps more so as there is the practical and powerful discipline of arithmetic that deals with things like 7 whose conclusions have real world implications. If you wish to take the Platonic* stance on the existence of 7 then I can’t regard your position as irrational. However, if you tell me that the number 7 has strong views on immigration policy** or that you can’t really relate to the number 7 unless you do arithmetic in Sanskrit then I think I’m entitled to look at your beliefs somewhat askance.

‘But that’s just an argument from incredulity’ well, yes it is an appeal to how absurd the idea is but to put it in more concrete terms, if a thing is the pure abstraction of X then its only quality can be X or qualities of which X is a member. Imagine the quality of ‘colour’ as a thing in itself (if that was possible) and call that X. In such a case X can’t be red and it can’t be blue, by being abstraction of colour it can’t be a particular colour. Going closer to the point, consider the abstraction of ‘opinion’. The abstraction of opinion cannot be a particular opinion as it is, by definition, the abstraction of the common qualities held by all opinions.

The above is not an argument for the non-existence of god, its not even an argument against the existence of an ultimately transcendent god (although I don’t believe in either). What it is that you can rationally have some ultimate transcendent principle of principles in a Platonic hierarchy or you can have a god that thinks about things and cares about what is going on but those two things can’t be the same without promoting absurdities.

*[Platonic here refereing to ‘Platonism’ in the mathematical philosophy sense that is derived from Plato but which doesn’t neccesarily reflect what Plato said.]

**[Although if 7 did have strong views on immigration policy then I’m sure they would be very compassionate and progressive views]

 

The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes occupy different genres of speculative fiction. One is a contemporary horror film that examines privilege and alienation and the other is a space adventure set in the future. Such differences do not preclude similarities – both deal with violence, mistrust, secrets and the abuse of power. In both wealthy characters use their position to manipulate people into losing autonomy over themselves both in terms of their overall identity and their physical bodies.

Continue reading “The trope that changed my mind”

Catholicism and Culture

Today I shall be discussing fashion as it is a topic in which I am very knowledgable on the grounds that once in the late 1980s I owned a scruffy flannel shirt and scruffy jeans and I was still wearing them a few years later* when Grunge was a definite fashion trend and so once, like a stopped-clock predicting future time, I was briefly fashion-forward.

The Met Gala is an event about which I know nothing other than what social media was telling me yesterday. Famous people went to it and it had some sort of Catholicism theme and some people really got into it. So basically cos-play for celebrities. Which is nice.

However, there has been some pushback from people not usually concerned about cultural appropriation who are suggesting that said costumes are cultural appropriation or, at the very least, people are either being hypocritical about the term or that the term itself is confused or that the ‘rules’ of what is or isn’t cultural appropriation is unclear.

Sometimes there are so many counter arguments that it is hard to pick which one is clearest:

  • Catholic organisations were actually involved in the event.
  • ‘Catholicism’ itself claims a degree of universality (sort of like you can’t moan about people copying your work if you published it using a Creative Commons liscence that said people could copy it).
  • Catholicism is expressed culturally across a very wide range of cultures.
  • Catholicism itself has been culturally appropriative.
  • The Catholic Church is a great big powerful and rich thing – culutural appropriation is about cases of the wealthy or hegomonic taking from the poor or marginalised (to varying degrees).
  • Unlike more broad religious terms ‘Catholicism’ applies to an actual organisation that actually can legally own property and own intellectual property and has the capacity to defend such claims in courts.
  • Almost the reverse of that last point (but not actually contradictory) Catholicism has impacted on many cultures over many hundreds of years such that it is quite reasonable for non-Catholics of various cultures to make reference to the Catholic aspects of their own culture.

There’s a different argument as to whether some of the costumes were religiously disrespectful but here again we have a difference when considering such questions that parallel many of the points above.

Put another way. Catholicism has been around for over a thousand years organisationally and been present on all continents for about 500 years. You can’t appropriate what has been actively disseminated, sometimes at sword point.

Personally it is a weird thing. I grew up as a Catholic in what is an officially non-Catholic country with a Catholic past. Catholicism was also tied up with ethnicity in that it was often a central part of the identity of Irish immigrants in England and the descendants of those immigrants. In the UK as a whole sectarian divisions have not entirely gone (Northern Ireland most obviously) but in England they largely faded in the 1960s. So there is a sense in which I can see ‘Catholicism’ as a cultural thing that exists independent of the religion. There’s probably many elements in my cultural perspective that are shaped by Catholicism.

Looking further afield, the way many cultures (in particular indigenous cultures) have encountered and adapted to Catholicism via colonisation and European expansion is yet another dimension to what could be called ‘Catholic culture’ but here there is a clearer sense in ways something could be ‘cluturally appropriative’. Exploiting how one culture has adpated to such external influences and then stripping it of its meaning and context without respect to that culture would be an issue. Making a fashion statement by wearing a mitre is not.

*[Had I been wearing said clothes CONTINUOUSLY in that time period? It’s not impossible and would prefer not to comment on my laundry habits of that time period.]

Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights

Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]

//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//

Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.

In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.

Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.

A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.

So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:

  • there are only two sexes/gender
  • that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
  • that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
  • that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so

These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).

Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.

Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:

  • There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.

Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.

And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.

I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.

  • His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
  • His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.

Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.

To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.

Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read: http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/

Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.