Three Books on the World Order and its Undoing

There are three books reviewed here along with links (in their titles) to the books on Amazon. All three of the reviews are also (and first) posted on Amazon. My reader might wonder why I chose to assemble these three together. The first two are pretty obvious. They are both about the present “world order”, the relation between nations and other entities with global impact. The third book is not about the world order but rather about its systematic undermining. When intelligent and fair-minded people look at what is happening in the world one cannot help but want to improve things, to smooth out conflict, keep commodity prices stable and supplies reliable, insure that people have enough to eat and clean water to drink, and so on.

Nations and other actors, in effort to improve the situation for themselves and sometimes for others, instead, make things worse. But why would anyone want, deliberately, to make things worse? No sane person would, and yet with the election of Donald Trump thanks in large part to the efforts of Steve Bannon that is precisely what is now happening. The government of the United States appears to be deliberately destabilizing the global system. Why this should be is a good question, one I hope here to answer.

To say the world situation today is precarious would surely not meet with much disagreement no matter which end of the political or social spectrum you happen to inhabit. Indeed one could argue that the world situation has been precarious for one reason or another throughout human history. But we are privileged to be living in a particularly dangerous time, and at root, population and energy access (the latter tied directly to the wealth disparity problem) are the main demographic and economic drivers of the problem. The world population continues to rise at a dangerous pace dividing the resource pie into ever smaller pieces. Yet rising populations, today all in Africa, South, and Central America are only part of the problem. In every continent other than the two just named, populations are aging and declining. Most of these are the more advanced industrial and post industrial societies on earth. Ironically, the social saftey nets for a growing cohort of elderly people in these places all depend implicitly on an also growing cohort of working age people to support them. One cannot of course have it both ways. Both cohorts cannot, together, grow indefinitely.

Dr. Kissinger’s book focuses mostly on nations. His aim is to rationalize foreign policy by, among other things, making us realize that not all nations are “like us” in wanting the same things for their peoples. He wants especially to hammer home this truth over the American tendency to idealize every international relation. Dr. Haass also recognize this fundamental difference in national interests and how their own governments view them, but he broadens his view of the pertinent actors to include non-governmental organizations both secular and religious, a role for cities, and regional resource issues: water scarcity, mineral and energy availability, climate change, and the wealth gap. Both authors address non-state-actor terrorism corroding international relations the present and future impact of technology, and changing world demographics.

Both men are, however, broadly on the same page. The trend over the last 40 years toward an integrated global economy is not enough by itself to smooth over the frictions of international relations, but it gives everyone a stake in the process of keeping the whole afloat. We cannot go backwards. First because we cannot return the world to the way it was as concerns populations, the distribution of industrial activity, and so on anyway. Too much has changed. Second, even a nuanced attempt to turn back the clock will result in huge economic dislocations everywhere and a general increase in everyone’s costs. In 1970 the “Chinese supply chain” feeding into American products hardly existed. Even if one could bring these sorts of jobs back into the United States, the people who hold the jobs in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (now hundreds of millions more of them than 50 years past) are not going to just go away.

What makes “The Devil’s Bargain” of interest here is that in the character of Steve Bannon is an agent bound and set to doing just this, dismantling the existing international economic system and not in any nuanced way either. Bannon wants to “burn it all down”. “Devil’s Bargain” is not a foreign policy or international affairs book like the first two. In today’s world there are people who understand that such policies will hurt millions and yet deliberately set out to do it. It illustrates how much damage can be done (it is only beginning) in a short time and how such damage degrades the prospects of many while enriching a few. A few chemicals properly mixed and put in the right place can bring down a bridge, building, or airplane. It turns out that a few people in powerful political positions, reinforcing one another’s desire to destroy those they hate, whether for petty revenge or self aggrandizement, can quickly unravel that which has (mostly) held our peace and economy together now for three generations.

What ties “Devil’s Bargain” in with the other two books is its illustration of the systematic undoing of what the first two authors take to be the only approach to maintaining peace and raising standards of living on a crowded planet. It is almost as if Bannon, reading Haass, decided to systematically do the opposite of his recommendations. Of course Bannon’s distaste for a global order in which the United States is not the sole power able to do what it wishes was settled long before Haass wrote his book. Trump was not Bannon’s first attempt to put in place a figurehead who would cater to his bigotry. He began with the “Tea Party” and Sarah Palin. But Trump proved to be the key to the political organization of the extreme right and Bannon knew an opportunity when he saw one. The book ends with Bannon’s firing less than a hundred days into the Trump administration. But Bannon chose well. Trump shares his various bigotries and did, after all, win the election. Trump is most surely continuing along a course that Bannon, if he did not set it in detail, still very much approves.

The philosophical angle here is postmodernism. “Devil’s Bargain” illustrates that lies can over power truth when a large political cohort believes that “the truth” is whatever they say it is. There is nothing historically new here. Hitler did very much the same thing as Bannon (Goebbels being “Hitler’s Bannon”) to win his election in 1932. Postmodernism may have been named in the latter part of the 20th century, but its roots go back as far as Pilate. But truth does matter. A global system built on lies cannot stand for long. We are witnessing now its accellerated destabilization. Most of us will not survive it.

A World in Disarray by Richard Haass 2017

Richard Haass did not reach the heights of power of a Henry Kissinger (World Order) but his work over several administrations at the State Department and other institutions, presently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, give him as much exposure to the process of policy making and the demands of the international environment, if not the gravitas to have his ideas seriously considered, as the Secretary of State. Dr. Haass here writes from much experience. His view of the world situation is well nuanced, enough so that he knows there are problems in many places and on many levels. Some have no realistic hope of resolution any time soon.

In broad outline this book is like that of Dr. Kissinger’s. Dr. Haass begins with a broad review of how we got where we are beginning as so many of these books do with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid 17th Century. But Haass quickly breaks things down into small chunks encompassing not only the world’s regions and nations in those regions but multiple factors cutting across those divisions. Culture, history, geography, technology, economics, identity politics, human migrations, income disparity, demographics, education, trade, and more are all examined singularly and with regard to their interacting impacts. Haass appears to understand both the central importance of the United States (the world’s largest single economic and military power), and the limits of even an “engaged America” on the trajectory of world affairs.

Dr. Kissinger made broad recommendations and so does Dr. Haass. In fact the two men are very much in line with one another broadly speaking. But Dr. Haass also makes numerous specific recommendations some going some way towards resolving issues, others merely managing the presently unresolveable. His recommendations are all thoughtfully helpful. Some are broad, some very narrow, all difficult to achieve in the present world. Haass’ politics appears to be a little more conservative than mine. On the subject of income disparity for example he says that [absurd] concentrations of wealth are not in themselves bad, the problem rather is that there are too many people with too little. It’s hard to argue with the last part, but for some reason he does not connect up the impossibility of spreading the wealth as long as so few individuals and corporations hoard (and he admits hide) most of it.

On the whole he and I agree, cooperation is, barring gross violations of human dignity, better than competition and conflict. His recommendations are mostly common sense. If any half of his recommendations were to be implemented I’m sure the world would be a better place. The chance that even some half of them will come to any fruition however is almost zero. Even before the election of Donald Trump. This book was published in January 2017 just prior to Trump’s inauguration. Even then, the global situation was deteriorating (had been for some years) with competition more and more coming to replace cooperation. My Kindle edition (not sure of the other formats) has, in addition an afterword written some ten months into Trump’s presidency. As Haass ticks off Trump’s policy implementations the reader cannot help but note that not only are things getting worse but now at an accelerated rate, and not only globally, but also inside the United States. Trump is undoing even that which, however imperfectly, was helpful prior to his election. With almost 9 billion people on the Earth, “globalism is not a choice, but a fact”. We will not survive without major conflict for much longer under the present global effort to dismantle it.

The book is a good and comprehensive take on what should be done, what must be done, and what America could do to stave off disaster. Not only are we not going in the right direction, we are very much deliberately going in the wrong one.

World Order by Henry Kissinger 2014

Surely there are few people in the world more qualified to write a book about geopolitics, present or historical, than Henry Kissinger. For a time of some 20 years he was directly involved in the decisions of American presidents on this very subject. Taking a broader view, Dr. Kissinger is involved in his subject (as I understand it even speaking to D. Trump since his election) even today and going back some 50 or more years!

Without being too long, the book surveys the history of historical political orders in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe both Eastern and Western. He pays particular attention to the European “Peace of Westphalia” following the 30-years war in 1648. There is a theme here. Though there have been many European wars (and revolutions) since the 17th century they all occurred in a Westphalian context. Sometimes the context is respected, and sometimes violated, but even in the latter case, the peace process following the wars has either returned to a Wesphalian context and been, at least for a substantial time, successful in preserving the peace, or it ignored and violated that context leading rapidly to another war. The Marshall Plan following WWII an example of a return to Westphalian principles also the preservation of the French State after the depredations of Napoleon. By contrast, in contravention of those principles, French and English retribution against Germany following WWI resulted rather rapidly in WWII.

Kissinger’s focus on Westphalia sets up the problems he sees with Europe’s and America’s relation to the rest of the world. From the Western vantage point we look out on a world of nation-states and think to ourselves that as different as Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa might be, they all, in the end, want to preserve their statehood in relation to other states. One of Kissinger’s observations is that this is not at all the case. China for example sees itself as the premier culture on Earth and lives within the present Westphalian system of nations for reasons of practical accommodation. The Middle East, and by extension the whole of the Islamic World, sees itself as the only legitimate and righteous inheritor of the entire world order!

In Islam the Westphalian matrix is the most jumbled with nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran accommodating it for practical reasons, while others, particularly non-state actors, try actively to undermine it leaving thousands dead in their wake. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is yet another story. The nations there are the result of recently (20th century) abandoned colonialism and though nominally nations, are riddled with leadership interested in little more than their own personal aggrandizement. Failed or failing states cannot participate coherently in such world order as presently exists let alone contribute to something better.

Kissinger’s first main point is that it is a mistake to continue treating with these nations AS IF they implicitly accepted the Westphalian context of nation states all “getting along”. This doesn’t mean we can stop working with these nations, but we have to be smarter about it and stop assuming they want merely to be like the Western world. Kissinger’s other main point is that technology, the global issues it has already wrought (climate change for example), and the issues that have yet to fully manifest (mostly related to computers and biology), are stressing the existing system to a degree unparalleled in history. One is left with the impression that it is already too late. The existing “world order” has already become too inflexible, its momentum too great, to apply, and ENFORCE, global solutions to global issues. Kissinger doesn’t say disaster is inevitable, but I do not see how any other conclusion is possible.

In roughly the middle of the book Kissinger spends some time on the global effect of U.S. foreign policy from Theodore Roosevelt to Barrack Obama. He makes a number of observations here about the difference between the historical U.S. approach to foreign policy versus European statecraft, and notes of course that the foreign policy pendulum in the United States has shifted from episodic engagement to continuous engagement following the second world war. The force of U.S. engagement is derived from both economic and military power and importantly our willingness to use the latter now and then, though as it turns out mostly with inconclusive results.

I notice he elides his own personal involvement in what might be termed “nations behaving badly” back in the 1970s and 1980s, but aside from this lacuna his point, his final point in the whole book, is that whatever else it does, the United States cannot now withdraw from the world order, even such as it is, without destabilizing everything! This book was written in 2014 the middle of Obama’s second term. I wonder what he thinks now?

Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green 2017

This is a book about how and why Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Primarily it all comes down to three people: Trump himself, his instincts regarding his base, Bob Mercer (and his daughter) and his money, and Steve Bannon, the central figure whose decades long ambition to see the United States rid itself of anything smacking of a global brotherhood of nations (not to mention a world at peace) manifest itself in all of his projects effectively harnessed to elect Donald Trump.

This is a book about Steve Bannon. There is a bit of biographical history, but nothing fully explains his turn to virulent nationalism made in his younger years. Events, like the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that precipitated the turn yes, but many people were exposed to that and did not become xenophobes. Green gives us Bannon’s fascination with fringe 19th century philosophers coupled with wide reading of history. Bannon became the quintessential postmodernist man. No truth was worth preserving if it stood against a political victory for his views however intolerant and hurtful they might be.

Bannon had been acting on the far right political fringe long before he met Trump. In the early stages of the 2016 election cycle he wasn’t particularly a Trump fan. But he came to see Trump as the closest thing to a manifestation of his (Bannon) vision of an intolerant, isolated America, and as Bannon saw his opportunity he took it and carried it through. Evil people are not, after all, automatically dumb.

By the time the campaign really got going in early 2016, Bannon had four institutions under his control and/or guidance, all directed toward defeating Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. To be sure, Hillary was not the best Democrat to go against Trump. This had much to do with various corruption scandals (some legitimate, many made up by her haters since the 1990s) in which she and her husband were constantly embroiled. None of this would have mattered as much against any opponent other than Trump because the others would have distanced themselves from Bannon’s lies (every national politician has some corruption in their background somewhere) while Trump embraced and amplified them. No one other than Bannon realized how much a significant cohort of long-time Democrats disliked Hillary in particular.

Bannon had a four pillar strategy, all funded by Mercer money. First, Breitbart News, the pro-Trump propaganda machine. Second, the Government Accountability Institute, presided over by Peter Schweizer author of the devastating “Clinton Cash”. The GAI was Bannon’s anti-Clinton machine and to Bannon’s advantage there was real dirt to be found. Third was a film company Glittering Steel, a minor player in the drama, and the fourth Cambridge Analytica whose knowledge of tens of millions of racists and xenophobes, Trump’s base, fed exploitable data to the other three pillars. These four organizations together brought Hillary down, her own campaign utterly failing to realize how much anti-Clinton invective existed among democratic voters, with Comey’s revelation in the closing days of the campaign putting the final nail in her coffin.

Like Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s “Fear”, “Devil’s Bargain” is a superb piece of investigative journalism. But it is more. It is a dissection of a political campaign achieving its ends mostly by ignoring truth and firing up tens of millions of Americans whose focus in life is to hate anyone who isn’t them. It details a strategy that has to be the envy of every autocrat on the planet.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

What are Qualia and Why are they Interesting?

In this short paper my purpose is to understand how the word ‘qualia’, plural of ‘quale’, is used and to what exactly it refers. In addition I address the question of the phenomenon’s importance.

Qualia are associated intimately with brain states, and never occur in their absence. It is a fair bet there is some corollary brain state (sets of brain states) associated with every quale and the collection of them. It is also the case that, while normally associated with sensory apparatus, it is possible to invoke qualia, even a specific quale like “a flash of red light”, by “poking the brain” direct. What is mysterious about this is that poking the brain (or stimulating a living organism’s more conventional sensory pathways) does something that poking anything other than brains never does. It invokes, a “subjective experience” qualitatively different from the physical qualities either of the brain or of the source of sensory stimulation.

The sound of a middle-C note from a piano is a quale as is the different sound (thanks to harmonic frequencies) of the same note played on a violin. Each is a particular quale. What seems interesting is producing that note from either instrument, the motion of air molecules set up by the vibrating strings, and everything that happens between the instrument and the middle ear is mechanical. Mechanical energy converts to electrochemical energy in the auditory nerve and spreads in that form through the entire brain. From instrument to brain everything is uncontroversially physical and well understood. But what emerges, what is invoked by all of that physical process, a content of subjective experience, is not uncontroversially physical. It has qualities that none of the physical forerunners have. What is it exactly, and how is this possible in a physical universe of causal closure where physical causes have only physical effects? Those questions make qualia interesting.

In a sense, and this is only metaphor, it is as though a threshold is crossed. On one side a certain combination of purely physical (mechanical [hearing], chemical [taste/smell], electrostatic [touch], or photonic [vision]) energy (yes even the physical poking of a brain) is translated or transformed into a subjective experience whose qualities or properties share nothing in common (other than correlation) with the physical properties of their source. The mystery has nothing to do with the transformation’s necessary dependency on a functioning brain. Rather it is that this sort of transformation happens at all; that physics becomes subjective.

Sound, light, feel, smell, taste are all mind-dependent descriptions of phenomena, that in the mind-independent world are nothing but energy of one kind or another. If I say “I see light” we have always to remember that in mind-independent terms, there isn’t any “light”, only “electromagnetic radiation”. The latter is real and exists in the universe whether there are organisms with apparatus sensitive to it or not. Electromagnetic radiation only “becomes light” to a subject. Information bearing patterns in brain states are translated (mapped), via pathways beginning with sensory apparatus, into an “interior experience”. “The light” is that mapping!

The subjective gestalt is composed of qualia similar to the way particles of the Standard Model comprise the mind-independent world. The particles collect in special ways to form atoms while the atoms (sometimes in special states) aggregate to produce everything else. Some of the phenomena of the mind-independent world impinge on certain “biological sensors” associated with brains. Not all mind-independent phenomena impinge to trigger biological sensors. Neutrinos do not, nor photons outside a limited range of wavelengths.

The subjective arena is broader than qualia alone. Intentions, beliefs, emotions, memories, ideas, and so on are not qualia. Qualia comprise only the sensory modalities of the gestalt (and sometimes the effect of brain pokes). Unlike atoms, there are genuine mereological sums of qualia that is itself a singular quale.

The qualia arising most directly from our physical senses, “atomic qualia” like a particular red experience, sum mereologically to a unified gestalt experience, the sensory ingredients of the subjective arena of which we are conscious at any given moment. Nor at any moment is the arena an equal mix of all sensory impingements of which we are aware. If I am driving I am aware of the feel of the wheel in my hands, the pressure of the gas pedal on my foot, the sounds around me and the aroma of the hot pizza on the seat next to me. But I am, for good reason, focused on the visual scene in front of me. My gestalt includes all the sensory modalities of which I am aware, but as I focus my attention on what I see, qualia arising from sight dominate my arena in that moment.

The relation between separate sensory impingements is constantly changing but the effect, subjectively moment to moment, remains always singular. All this singular arena, taken synchronically, is also properly called a quale. By contrast, the mind independent world is particularized. Yes there are aggregates there, but they too are particular instances of their types. Planets and chairs are aggregates of atoms, but they remain, mind-independently, particular planets and chairs. That they are particular totals is recognized in the subjective interior thanks to the distinguishable qualia they invoke (via brain states) and their summation to the interior gestalt. The mind-independent world is essentially particular, while the subjective arena, under normal circumstances, is intrinsically unified.

None of this usage hangs on any particular theory of or philosophy of mind though it does implicitly reject eliminative materialism. It requires only that the word qualia refers to something, not nothing. That something, that to which we give the label ‘qualia’, is both the individual and totalized sensory modalities of our moment by moment experience. If, apart from qualia and besides intentions, thoughts, and so on, there is a “subconscious mind” and perhaps even an “unconscious mind”, there are no subconscious, let alone unconscious, qualia. A sensory experience isn’t a quale unless one is aware of it!

Qualia are nothing like examples of “emergent phenomena” one meets in the science and philosophy literature, for example the relation between statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. Statistical mechanics is about the motion (and density) of atoms; uncontroversially physical. Thermodynamics, temperature and pressure language, frames “another way” to talk about the same phenomenon. Mathematically, one can demonstrably map one into the other.

Qualia certainly rest on the “motion of atoms” (a synecdoche for simplicity’s sake), not only those that stimulate the sense apparatus, but throughout the brain. There is surely a causal relation here. Yet it is not obvious that “qualia language” is merely another way to talk about brain states. Not only has no one connected them mathematically, no one has suggested what the equivalence conditions might look like. David Chalmers, for example, speaks of “bridge laws”, but in several books on the subject has not suggested just how such laws would be subject to equivalency demonstration on either side of “the gap”.

The brain is a species of portal (a metaphor) made of the same stuff as all the mind-independent world. Some of the phenomena of the mind independent world are able to impinge on the portal in such a way as to invoke, a subjective viewpoint, qualitatively different from the electromagnetic, mass-possessing, stuff underwriting it; something, the subjective experience, that isn’t composed of atoms at all! Consider that my experience of red exhibits no third-party measureable quantity despite being the product, a mapping, of electromagnetic energy!

Of course the brain state correlate grounding the quale exhibits energy, even producing heat. But there is no physically measureable quantity on the subjective side of the portal! Brains translate, map, or convert energy of the mind-independent world into subjective experience which, as such, exhibits no energy utilization over and above that energy accounted for in the activity of brains; activity of atoms that hasn’t the slightest resemblance to its mirror on the other side of the curtain.

So why, as philosophers, should we pay any attention to qualia, brain states being obviously necessary and possibly (less obviously) sufficient for their appearance? Supposing we eventually learn exactly which brain states evoke every specific quale of the subjective gestalt, wouldn’t that constitute “knowing enough”? The problem is two-fold. First qualia do not have any of the measurable properties of brain states. At the same time, they do have properties of their own sort. If I ask a philosopher or physicist “to what does the word ‘qualia’ refer?” few would say “nothing”. But if not nothing, then what? My subjective experience of a color, or of my moment by moment phenomenal arena is not “made of atoms” even if it is a specific material organization, living brains made of atoms, whose activity is responsible for them.

Second, doesn’t this phenomenon smack of mystery “begging for explanation”? Why is the quantum mechanical “measurement problem” interesting? Why do we try so hard to understand what is going on? Something is going on about or in the “quantum world” that becomes counter intuitive when it emerges into the macroscopic. We’d like to explain how this transition works and why it comes out in the particular way it does. But we cannot and the most pedestrian of the fundamental reasons for this is that our instruments cannot get there! We cannot probe the quantum world directly. Why is the proton/electron mass ratio interesting? Why does it beg for explanation? Because it is unique and uniform. Every proton throughout the universe weighs the same as every other proton and mutatis mutandis for the electrons. It is that singular uniformity that makes the phenomenon interesting.

Why are these phenomenon any more interesting than qualia? First there is only one material organization in the universe, brains, that mediate between the impinging mind-independent matter-energy universe and a subjective experience of qualia? Second, like the quantum world, our instruments cannot get there! Even if we knew in every instance what brain states evoke what qualia we would be no closer to answering the question: how does physics become subjective?

Chalmers has pointed out many times that this brain state business might go on, like any other complex matter-energy interaction, without evoking a subjective mirror of itself. Biologists surmise that having a consciousness, and therefore a control (presupposing free-will by the way) over behavior beyond what is possible for non-conscious (automatic and deterministic) neural activity has survival advantage. Ironically, biologists have answered a why question. Physics produces the subjective because it has survival advantage! Surely this is so. But it gets no closer to answering the question how physics evokes a subjective? What makes it possible for physics to have that effect?

Every other matter-energy transformation in the universe, every other emergent phenomenon both begin and end with matter-energy. This includes what goes on in brains! And yet at the same time, and only in brains, there comes to be a “subjective viewpoint”, a phenomenon that begins with matter-energy, but does not end with it. Is that not enough to make it interesting?

Political Implications of First Principles Theism

My interest here in this blog is mostly ontology, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and religion. I’ve paid little attention to how my own views of these philosophical sub-disciplines, particularly the last, impact (or should impact) the social, economic, and political worlds in which we live. In particular what are the social and political consequences in the present-day of the theology sketched here?

We live in topsy-turvy times in which political and social thinking has gravitated to extremes. In particular, among the many seemingly contradictory political and social (not to mention economic) ideas seriously taken by some is the idea that God would support, or can be invoked to justify bigotry and socio-political intolerance. I am careful to say God above because religion as a socio-political institution, physical churches, congregations, and so forth have (though not universally) often advocated political and social ideas that are obviously in opposition to “the will of God”.

There is nothing historically novel in this. The history of religious institutions worldwide is steeped in violence sanctioned by the institution itself. To be sure, in all of this history and within all religious institutions there were other voices, people who stood against institutional intolerance intellectually and in theory, though often having little effect on the social and political course of the institution. But that was then.

Violence remains today. In the Western world this strikes us as obvious about institutional Islam. The Quran is ambiguous as concerns treatment of “apostate Moslems” and non-Moslems. There is no such ambivalence in Christianity portraying as a Father of the individual and all individuals equally. This portrayal is unique in Christianity. Hindu God’s have only occasional and accidental relations to individuals. Buddhism rejects the reality of the individual itself and in its origins was the only one of the world’s presently “great religions” that was strictly speaking Godless. Islam and Judaism, occasionally speaking to the individual, are oriented towards a “God of the tribe”. Christianity (broadly speaking) is the only one of the three monotheisms to teach, without equivocation, that God is the Father of the person.

If God is the Father of the person, he must be the Father of all persons equally. The relationship of Fatherhood is direct and with literally every person on Earth (I think also with people living on planets throughout the universe). If God is infinite and unified his relationship to every personal being in the universe must be the same. The implications of Christian theology lead invariably to this conclusion and even more so the implications of the theology sketched in my Prolegomena linked above. God cannot care about the various political orders that characterize our world (“My Kingdom is not of this world”) though some are more consistent with personal sovereignty (especially as concerns religion itself) than others. Importantly we do not always know, though we always think we know, which are the better ones other than by viewing the life of their citizens over generations of time.

A “true Christian” has to believe that every individual is a “child of God” and should treat them as a sibling. That means Christians should not only be free of hate, but also support an international order promoting life as a brotherhood worldwide. This does not mean we can do away with the present, often hate-inducing political order. Not until everyone (or almost everyone) in the world accepts the truth of universal brotherhood. Today, even those who do accept this truth must sometimes defend, violently, their way of live against threats from those who do not.

The “true Christian” is not like the “true Scotsman”. A Scotsman is one who is born in Scotland. Being born somewhere has no necessary bearing on any other aspect of individual character. This is not the case with a “true Christian”. Being a “true Christian” has nothing to do with national, cultural, or social identity; with where you are born. A person is not born a “true Christian”. A person becomes a “true Christian” by freely accepting and acknowledging, and not merely theoretically, their individual relationship to God the Father through Christ. One cannot be a “true Christian” without accepting, by an act of one’s own will, the actual and not merely theoretical relationship to God, of all persons on Earth. It is not enough merely to be a participant in the institution of the Christian church!

Equality as a person before God does not translate into equality in any other respect. The American declaration of independence’s assertion, that “all people are created equal” is misleading. “Nature and nurture” both ensure that people are not equal in any way other than their relationship to God. But if we are all equal, even in only that one way, we must therefore be related to one another as siblings in a universal family. It is logically inconsistent to assert that you believe in a universal God, and not accept that every person on Earth is a brother or sister. In particular, in the Christian interpretation of this relationship, what is asked of the believer by God, is that they love their siblings! Every person is a person no matter what their race, nationality, sexuality, economic status, and so on. It should therefore be logically impossible to be a xenophobic, homophobic, racist, or nationalist Christian!

Yet if all of this is so, how is it that today, in America, religion is used as a political and social tool in support of a xenophobic, racist, nationalist, and otherwise intolerant right-wing agenda? How do millions of people who declare their belief in a universal God come to support political agendas that are plainly intolerant of individuals for reasons having nothing to do with their personal relationship to God? How do millions of individuals who claim to believe in a “Christian God” come to hate classes of individuals who are obviously persons and so related to God in exactly the way they are?

There are many reasons in the end all resting on the psychology of individuals. Socially, and at its extreme, this psychology can be manipulated to result in a literal depersonalization (open or hidden) of individuals in the despised group; literally coming to believe they are not people. But my focus here is on the role (having an influential bearing on the psychology) of the distinction between religion as that orientation towards one’s individual relationship to God (and by extension all other individuals) and religion conceived as an institution, a church, or as an individual relation to such an institution; being a member of a church. Notice that being born into a Catholic family doesn’t count here. There are many such individuals who are atheists or have elected a religious path other can Catholicism. What counts is what an individual, at sometime in their life (perhaps many times) chooses.

This is not to say the “institutional Church” and the “will of God” cannot be aligned. In “Origins of the Political Order”, Francis Fukuyama credits the Catholic Church with the founding of “rule of law” in Europe. A transcendental God grounded the idea that kings, popes, and peasants, all “equal in the eyes of God”, should be subject to the same rules. That God’s law covered all was accepted in theory beginning in Roman times. God’s law, not its interpretation but the fact of it, aligns the institution of the Church, and the “will of God” as understood by a modern theology. Fukuyama notes that only cultures having a “transcendental religion” (Christian, Hindu, Moslem) ever developed the rule of law idea. China for example, where neither Confucianism nor Buddhism is transcendental, never developed the idea that political elites should be subject to the same rules as everyone else.

The Protestant Reformation changed the view of whom may legitimately interpret Christian (Biblical) teachings, but not the basic insight that all individuals are equally loved by God. Fukuyama again credits the Reformation with the relatively rapid development of democratic accountability in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. Why? Because the requirement that each individual become his or her own interpreter of the Bible drove the Church to make the entire population literate, peasants included! But Protestantism did reintroduce another idea in conflict with this universality and that became the seed of the present contradictory relation between some Christian institutions and God’s universality. Virtually all the present American “religious right” are Protestant of one sort or another.

Certain Protestant denominations began to connect material (economic and social) success to “being favored by God”. This belief also influenced the Hebrews of Jesus’ time despite the Old Testament’s “Book of Job” explicitly rejecting any such idea. The Hebrews ignored the lesson of Job as do modern Protestants, but the problem goes deeper than the merely economic. The conflation of spirit and economic success leads to the idea that some individuals are favored by God over others and this begins the slippery slope from economics to social intolerance. If God favors certain individuals, he must withdraw favor from others and from this a small step to justified bigotry!

Human emotions and attitudes about the humanity of others (their worthiness as brothers) range from the inclusive to the outright exclusion of everyone not a member of one’s favored group. Of course institutional religion is not the only source of bigorty. There are atheists on both the political left and right. But if, given any leanings to bigotry, one joins in the activities of a physical church whose members are also intolerant, then religion, creedal dogma as taught to, and accepted by, that congregation, can justify bigotry on grounds of Biblical interpretation. Is every such teaching in direct conflict with the universality of God’s love as taught by Jesus? Yes it is, but some Christians (and Protestants are not alone here) become convinced that “universal love” applies only between the members of the “in group”! This is a false teaching but we find it everywhere reinforcing existing prejudice.

What about religious-institutional support of international conflict? How many times do we hear religion invoked in service of “the nation” and in opposition to other nations? Much money flowed from Irish Catholics in the United States to the IRA, overtly supporting Irish terrorism in the 1970s. In the present-day the world is divided into nations some of whom emerged over centuries, while colonial powers, the older nations, cast others together. The problem with the present order is that each nation represents itself to the world as a sovereign entity having rights to global resources. But the world’s resources are limited and if through disproportionate economic or military power one or a few nations act to pull resources towards themselves leaving other nations, their people, with too little.

Part of the problem over all is the number of people trying to live on the world, but this is not a problem any subgroup of nations can solve. More than half the world’s nations are demographically aging. The rest have more youth than can be productively employed at least under present political and socio-economic conditions. In today’s global environment, it is fundamentally bigotry that prevents rational, voluntary redistribution and retraining of excess population from one part of the world to another.

To the bigotry directed at people down the block or in the next town is added the bigotry of nationalism. Nationalism is the idea that not only do the people of my nation deserve a proper share of the world’s resources (morally defensible depending on the share), but it is also a nation’s right to set those standards for itself and to take, or preserve their self-determined share by force of arms if necessary. In today’s world this is nowhere better illustrated than in the South China Sea. A dozen nations should be sharing resources claimed more or less exclusively by China. Modern wars between nations are always about resources in one-way or another even if resources are not always a war’s immediate trigger.

In modern times, nationalism is the disease that leads whole peoples to war. Like bigotry, nationalism need not connect up to religion. But as with bigotry, [some] religious institutions support nationalism on grounds the people of some nations are favored by God while others are, if not condemned, then less worthy. The logical contradiction between nationalism and the demands of religious universalism is identical with that between universalism and bigotry based on ethnicity, sexuality, and so on.

So we find ourselves a culture in which [some] religious institutions come to be in opposition to religion as such. They teach false doctrine, the “white race” or “straight people”, or “Americans”, are the “children of God”. The broader Church should publicly distance itself from intolerant or nationalist congregations unless it too bears false teaching. Too often it does not. Certainly not in Islam, but also within some Protestant communities in the United States and around the world. Those false teachings have come to be widely enough accepted that condemnation by the remaining universalist members of the community would result in serious economic and social dislocation for the wider Church. Here the social and economic realities of a material institution come to conflict directly with its spiritual mission.

I speak here largely of the cultural milieu in the United States. In his recent (September 2018) “Like a Thief in Broad Daylight” Slavoj Zizek notes that in Europe this overt conflict between Christian Universalism and intolerance manifests less in Christian intolerance than in a retreat from Christianity back to paganism! On one level this makes sense. There is no logical contradiction between bigotry (or nationalism) and paganism, but paganism doesn’t help craft solutions to what are very much planet-wide problems. It lacks, among other things, any global value compass.

This then is the negative side of our present. There are religious institutions that falsely link God’s love to a particular subset of individuals whether a race, nation, or other distinction in social identity. What then is the positive side? What politics, what political order should religious institutions support? What political order would be consistent with the universality of God’s love for every individual?

Begin with the sociological end point of such a world. What must God want? Some part of this can be easily drawn from a first principles theology. Every individual on the planet would love and treat like a brother every other individual with whom they interact directly or indirectly. They would do this of their own free will because they know that God loves each of them and that loving one another is what God wants us, freely, to do. When you love someone, you want to do good to them. Loving God is no different, but there isn’t any good we can do to God directly. He is infinite and complete. He needs nothing from us. What he requests, seemingly, what would be “good to him”, is that we freely choose to love his other children, our brothers.

Love here is not some abstract notion, but manifests in well motivated executive administration, economic fairness, and so on. The problem is not Capitalism as the left continues to insist. The problem with Capitalism is the capitalist who is not yet motivated to act fairly and preserve a level field for all. True, today, no one or even a few capitalists can act against the tide without suffering competitive disadvantage, but this will not be the case in the future when capitalists view their mission first as service to the global community and only secondarily in profit terms.

Obviously such a spiritually advanced world would have no bigotry, no crime, and no war. It would not merely suppress their exhibition, there would be none to be exhibited! For this to happen, even to approximate it (for example a war-free world in which not literally every person loved every other, a world in which there might, for example, be some criminal behavior), the peoples of the world would have to view themselves as “people of Earth” as well as members of other subpolities.

The division of executive powers in the United States serves as a good analog. The people of Iowa think of themselves as Iowan, but also as Americans. The Federal government controls the armed forces, and regulates trade between the States. Iowa, despite having a “national guard”, does not scheme to take land from Nebraska. At the same time, the existence of the Federal administration does not obviate State governments any more than State governments obviate county and city governments. All these levels of government are needed for the administration of a large polity like the U.S.

A world without bigotry demands the free-willed transformation of individuals, billions of them. But there are not billions of national governments with armed forces of their own, only a couple of hundred. To achieve a war-free world, even long before individual bigotry, crime, economic unfairness, and other socio-political problems disappear, it is necessary only that armed forces of all nations be given over to the control of some supra-sovereignty that encompasses the planet. In short a world government. Such a supra-sovereignty would not only control all the world’s armed forces, but also, like the U.S. Federal government regulate relations between nations. There would still be need for national and subnational polities, States or provinces, local governments, and so on.

Nations claim a sovereignty that is a fiction. They can be attacked physically, digitally, and economically. Their currencies can be debased not only by bad decisions nationally, but by decisions taken in other nations! By insisting on the national right to sovereignty war between nations is periodically certain. International relations between national States with armies are inherently unstable because no entity exists that can allot resources between them.

If a world government existed, there would be no one left to fight, no “national currency” to devalue. The world-government would be genuinely sovereign. This being the case, why would any need for “armed forces” remain? The reason has to do with the process of getting from where we are now to a fully sovereign world government. There will come a time in which most of the world does vest control of trade relations and armed force in a supra-sovereignty, but there remain nations with their own armed forces who might refuse to join.

This is no different from the early times of evolving national organizations from smaller polities who used force of arms to resist (ultimately unsuccessfully) emerging national polities. Older and less inclusive social organizations, bands to tribes, tribes to limited states, limited states (even cities) to larger states, have always resisted and still resist the evolution of wider polities.

Once the entire world is genuinely on-board, once it becomes unthinkable that a nation, small group of nations, or collections of individuals, would raise their own armies and seek to break away from or resist belonging to the world government, then need for any international armed force fades. Eventually even police forces also fade as individuals of the population advance further towards the social endpoint.

The question posed above was: how is it that today, in America, we have a situation in which employs religion as a political and social tool in support of a xenophobic and otherwise intolerant right-wing agenda? I have not concerned myself with bigots and nationalists who are not also religionists. As with paganism, there is no logical inconsistency between atheism and nationalism even if the latter remains a bad idea and always, eventually, leads to war unless nationalistic leanings are curbed before war grows imminent.

Nor is it necessary for religious institutions to address politics directly. A “religious institution” may abjure politics altogether. Of course the institution’s participating individuals are immerged in the politics of their locale as well as the nation-state. Churches (congregations or taken more broadly) have in theory only a spiritual mission, to help the individual believer to understand and freely choose to do God’s will, which at the cost of repetition can only be to love one another.

Because individuals are political, politics always affects the relationships between individuals in any congregation, and their ministers are no less immune to this effect. If a side must be taken, that side most aligned with God’s equal love for all, the side that most treats everybody involved like a brother in a loving family is the only choice consistent with God’s universality. Any church that, having taken a side, takes the side of intolerance and isolation, of nationalistic “us vs them”, that does not say to its members “go and love them also”, is from the viewpoint of the “spiritual mission”, in contravention of the will of God!

But if Churches can, in theory, ignore politics, if they can ignore nationalism, they cannot ignore individual intolerance. If the institution’s mission is to teach love they cannot support, even covertly, intolerance between any class of individuals. Our present situation regarding institutional religion is ultimately the result of the failure of those institutions to stick to the mission of teaching that God’s love is universal.

So what are we to do about this? From the viewpoint of alignment with Deity, it is never wrong to continue the mission as best can be managed in circumstances. Become an institution or take part in an institution that respects the relationship between man and God and so man and man. Is that going to solve our problem here? Is that going to convince religious institutions now on the wrong road to change their path?

History does not bode well for any such optimistic outlook. Intolerant people who yet think of themselves as religious will gravitate to congregations of like-minded individuals. Values reinforcement is an outgrowth of congregating (religious or not), and not limited to reinforcement of positive values. Any student of history will cite many examples down through the recorded centuries lastly ending in the stance the Hebrew Sanhedrin took on Jesus. With everything else Jesus is the quintessential demonstration to the universe that once history has set a course, once enough men are willfully and in concert arrayed against love, no amount of the Father’s love will prevent the socio-political disaster at that point made certain. Forty years intervened between the death of Jesus on the cross and the Roman destruction of the second temple. Jewish nationalism, already plain in Jesus time and a factor in his persecution, made the event of the final destruction forty years later certain despite the voices of universalism in the expanding Christian message [see note below about Paul].

There are now, in this world, more than enough of the intolerant and hateful, religious or otherwise, to have set the historical course for the next few decades, perhaps a century or more. It might yet be another thousand years, or five thousand, before enough people wake up to the reality of the need to take the compass given by values seriously. But if the message is not carried through that interval, there will be nothing to awaken to. I do not know if the progressively polarizing world will result in another global war, but some global catastrophe, ecological or economic, probably both, is going to sweep over the human race in the next hundred, or maybe only twenty, years.

Will the human race extinguish itself? No, unless possibly the disaster becomes global thermonuclear war. Will the promised land of love manifest after this next global catastrophe? Not likely. There will be yet something else, and then another disaster, and so on, until such time as a true global government evolves. Only then will conditions make the further evolution of universal brotherhood possible. Only one thing can be said with certainty. God’s will, the evolution of universal love on this and every other world, must eventually, in some distant future, come to pass.


Note: If anybody, Paul set the stage for the Western conflict between institution and universal relationship by aligning his version of Jesus’ message with the existent Roman “Cult of Mithras”, the largest institutionalized “Roman Church” of that time. That institution became the Catholic Church and for the sake of secular power, the message altered from the brotherhood of all human beings to the brotherhood of Catholics.

Guest Post: A Scourge of Bad Theology: Overcoming the Atonement Doctrine

By Byron Belitsos

The domains once known as Christendom have long been steeped in civil violence and warfare, and even occasional acts of genocide. The scourge of war also pervades our earliest scripture. One is shocked, for example, to learn that Jahweh calls for ruthless warfare against Israel’s neighbors, epitomized by Joshua’s campaign of virtual genocide against the previous occupants of the Promised Land. Many other stories of armed conflict are found in the Deuteronomistic History. The Hebrews were frequent aggressors, but they just as often were overrun by neighboring empires. The hapless Jews fought internecine battles as well. In Exodus, Moses orders the execution of 3,000 followers because of their idol worship (Ex 32:28). And, during the harsh period described at 1 Kings 15, for example, Judah and Israel engage in an ongoing vicious civil war, with competing religious ideologies at stake.

Pre-modern Christian institutions followed a similar pattern in the name of the Christian God, sometimes called the Prince of Peace. Christian leadership fomented the crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch-burnings. During the Reformation, Catholic fought Protestant in decades of devastating warfare. In modern times, two great world wars were waged by nominal Christian nations against one another. In the U.S., almost all Christian denominations supported the War in Vietnam until Martin Luther King denounced it, and only a few church groups aggressively opposed several dozen other military interventions and the more recent wars in the Middle East.

In many of these cases, points out scholar Robert J. Daly, the combatants exceeded the boundaries of “just war” theory, while still feeling themselves to be acting consistent with Christian belief.[1] Daly suggests, and I agree, that bad theology and mistaken beliefs about God lie behind such violence—at least in part.

If indeed there is such a correlation, one source of this mistaken theology seems fairly obvious. The theological error that offers the most ideological support for structures of violence down through the millennia is Paul’s atonement doctrine, which was in turn a logical extension of the sacrificial and purification rites of the ancient Hebrews.

Here, for example, is a characteristic statement of this teaching [bold emphasis mine]: “[We] are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Rom 3:23–25) Throughout his epistles, Paul points to blood atonement as a core meaning of the cross, offering along the way a wide array of creative metaphors and rhetorical devices to support the idea.



[1] Robert J. Daly, “Images of God and the Imitation of God: Problems with Atonement,” Theological Studies, Vol. 68, Iss. 1, (Mar 2007): 36-51. This compelling article by Daly inspired much of my argument in this essay.

 

The Pauline idea of blood redemption pervades the Gospels as well, where we read for example that Jesus “gave his life . . . as a ransom for many.” This stark idea can be found at Mark 10:45, who we now know in part based his Gospel after the writings of Paul. Matthew quotes this very same line at Mt 20:28, most likely copying Mark. We find blood atonement ideas in John as well, though much less so in the Gospel of Luke

The general atonement concept, especially as abstracted from Paul’s writings and elaborated by his successors, amounts to the idea that God deliberately intended Jesus’s violent death. In its most extreme form, Jesus’s sacrificial death (and his victory over death by resurrection) was seen as being planned by God from the beginning of time, or at least from the time of Adam’s default. Later theologians extended this idea into a crystallized dogma, especially in the West.

In his masterful book on the atonement idea in Judaism and early Christianity, Stephen Finlan calls the doctrine “crazy-making theology.”[1] For, if your God demands violence—if at God’s level certain acts of brutality are sometimes necessary—we humans can feel justified in engaging in violence at our level.

“No wonder there seems to be a widespread tendency to take violence for granted in human affairs,” laments Daly.[2] After all, we are to imitate the ways of our God, but must we mimic a God who demands the bloody sacrifice of his only son?

Defining the Doctrine of Atonement Classic atonement theory can be understood as God’s “honor code.” God is in charge of all power transactions with his creatures, governing their behavior as a matter of divine honor. Each time collective human sin or some other offense damages or offends God’s sense of honor, a payment to restore God’s favor must be made through a sacrifice or some form of purification. Otherwise, sinful humanity will be subjected to a divine verdict against it, and must undergo a serious punishment. For example, in Genesis, God had to make humanity as a whole pay for its corruption through a great flood (Gen 6–9).

Later in the Hebrew history, sacrifices and purification rites became essential features of cultic practice, and they often entailed extreme violence. In Deuteronomy 3:13-16, God commands that if a town worships idols, “you shall put the inhabitants of that town to the sword, utterly destroying it and everything in it—even putting its livestock to the sword. All of its spoil you shall gather into its public square; then burn the town and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, the destruction of the town is a sacrifice, a burnt offering that honors God and induces him to restore his favor. The payment of the sacrifice also functions like a propitiatory gift to God.



[1] Stephen Finlan, Sacrifice and Atonement: Psychological Motives and Biblical Patterns (Fortress Press, 2016), p. 120.

[2] Daly, page 45.

Other examples of this kind are common in the Old Testament. At Samuel 21, God sends a famine on the land, then tells David that it has occurred because “there is bloodguilt on Saul.” God ends the famine after seven of Saul’s sons are “impaled . . . before the Lord.” Only then does God lift the blight.

According to Finlan, “Costliness was necessary to the sacrificial gift being effective.”[1] Paul grew up amidst the sacrificial cult of Jerusalem as a Pharisee, and he instinctively understood this equation. Paul must have reasoned that, if humankind as a whole was to be saved, a very expensive transaction was needed as a payoff to expiate its sins once and for all. Otherwise, why was an uneducated Galilean—a powerless man who had been crucified like a common criminal—appear to him as a risen savior? Why else would this marginal person have to die such a cruel death, only to be resurrected?

The most effective payment Paul could imagine would be for God to offer up, as a sacrifice, his only Son. Jesus, as God incarnate, was a large enough offering that he alone could propitiate God’s violated honor. In other words, Jesus’s death was deemed a sacrifice that was sufficient to permit God to reconcile sinful humanity to himself, and thereby create a new covenant with all humanity. Jesus’s suffering was needed to save us, for God’s love alone cannot save us.

Doing Away with Bad Theology

Today many of us believe that the doctrine of the atonement through the shedding of Jesus’s blood is entirely erroneous, truly an embarrassment. How can it be consistent with Jesus’s idea of God as a true and loving Father? In effect, this doctrine teaches that God’s infinite love is secondary to a requirement for a sacrifice to appease him for man’s offenses.

No wonder these crude ideas get downplayed once a mature Trinitarian theology evolved in the fourth century. “Such inner-trinitarian tension fails to appropriate the insight that, in sending the Son, the Father is actually sending himself,” says Daly.[2] In other words, the idea of atonement is not only barbaric, but is also a monstrous logical contradiction.
It is most unfortunate that this primitive notion—that Jesus’s death is a divinely ordained ransom—gets mixed up with Paul’s other insights, many of which were brilliant. Among these is what might be called Paul’s “cosmic iconoclasm,” in the words of biblical scholar Brigette Kahl. The revelation of the risen Christ on the Damascus road, she says, exploded Paul’s universe. He will never again see the old world he once inhabited, and is blind for three days. Paul eventually realizes that God had “changed sides,” shattering the prevailing images of a divine order that, in Paul’s immediate experience, included


[1] Finlan, p. 26

[2] Daly, p 50. He goes on to say: “It might be seen as a battle between the idea of Incarnation and the idea of atonement/sacrifice. . . . What would happen if we were to remove the idea of atonement? The vibrant  Christianity of the East that, although founded on the same biblical and patristic origins as that of the West, based its theology of salvation . . . much more on theologies of theosis/divinization rather than on Western-type atonement theories.”

Hebrew accommodation to Roman rule and its pagan state religion. All around Paul were images (statues, coins, and temples) that depicted Caesar in the role of the universal Father, or pater patrie. Conquered peoples like the Jews must pay tribute to this deity, submit to unjust Roman law, and even permit Roman surveillance of their most sacred rites. As Paul sees it, the God of the risen Christ carries out a great reversal. Those who were once the enemies of this false idol of empire, the oppressed subjects of imperial rule—both Jew and Gentile—now have a much greater God who favors them instead of the rulers. The great revelation to Paul portrays to him a God of justice and mercy for all, the true universal Father. This is the original God of Abraham. This was that God who before the Law was promulgated by Moses, only requiring a simple faith. This revolutionary insight leads Paul to declare that Jew and Gentile alike are now liberated from both the Hebrew Law and the Roman oppressor through the love of God through Christ. Jesus died to rehabilitate those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, who have immediate access to the Kingdom and are justified in God’s eyes by simple faith.[1]
I would only add that this picture of Christ’s work on Earth is the kind of inspiration we need today, once we leave behind the bad theology of Paul’s mistaken atonement concept.


[1] Brigette Kahl, “Reading Galatians and Empire at the Great Altar of Pergamon,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, 2005.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.