Conversation and Correspondence

It has been said – I heard the physicist Freeman Dyson relating it – that the human urge to converse is akin to the termite’s instinct to build castles. Perhaps the truth of this becomes most clear in the edge case of the hermit who converses or corresponds with an imaginary interlocutor. Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden for an audience; Nietzsche’s deep loneliness is ultimately a yearning for company. Perhaps this yearning, the more intensely it is experienced, invokes the fear that the desired union gets tainted, leading to a gesture of postponing, the bittersweet thought that ‘true’ friendship is always a thing of the future. Nietzsche had his own disappointments with Richard Wagner or his ménage à trois with Lou Salomé and Paul Rée. His Übermensch is above all else capable of friendship, i.e. noble, witty, deep conversation.

We could learn a great deal from intellectual history, and I relish in Peter Watson’s books about it, but I want a working answer for myself. Can the notion of good Conversation (with good wine of earthly, not aquatic, origin) deliver on the promise to give us enough meaning to live fulfilling lives? And can it do this without the backlash of fanaticism, a cult, say, that enforces certain rules of conversation and punishes those who fail or refuse to follow them? Can our idea of conversation become something sacred without the symbolic scaffolding of explicit rules?

I think this is an okay question. Wittgenstein pointed out we always follow public language rules, consciously or not; Habermas attempted a Theory of communicative action as a new foundation of philosophy herself. If we officially elevate conversation to the status of ‘ultimate’ source of meaning, does that destroy the very vitality we had imagined would quench our thirst?

Conversation is the practice of relentless critical interest in each other’s mind that must in my view defy any definite rules, including of course the rule that there are no rules. Provisionary, pragmatic rules are thus indispensible but they are more like patterns than like laws. As soon as we enshrine them (I choose that term deliberately), conversation can find a way around it. It can always find a way to mock or subvert these rules. In more technical words, conversation will never be Turing decidible.

This elegant openness is wonderful and it would be all too human to assert some sort of élan vital at work underneath our endearing attempts to join each other in conversation. Some sort of metaphysical redeeming Truth that appears but through human minds who are ultimately rewarded with the Platonic Union when the lights go out.

In other words: Let us just talk with each other. And believe one thing if you must: After you leave the scene, you will have gotten away with it.

Conversation and Correspondence was originally published on Meandering home


Clickbait: A thought about Jordan Peterson

Recently, I fell for the hype and listened to some interviews with the Canadian professor of psychology Jordan Peterson. I don’t find him controversial and his appeal to a healthy debate bypassing the left-right dichotomy sounds healthy. In the videos I watched, he often stressed scientific and statistical rigor, and I like that.

Jordan likes to makes controversial claims and seems to enjoy the relatively sudden fame the Internet has bestowed upon him. His view of religion (in his debate with people like Sam Harris) is informed by a radical relativism (which is to say: it will pop up as absolutist claim further on). Peterson follows Carl Gustav Jung when he talks about archetypes of religion and considers every axiomatic belief system, with or without deities and diets, a religion. Presenting religion as something we cannot live without is the first step in an argumentation that defends any and all religion.

Peterson says he is against any type of ideology (pop! there you have it). His reasons are the laudable core of what we call the Enlightenment, but I wish his art of suspicion (as Paul Ricœur said about Marx, Nietzsche and Freud) doesn’t stop there. We must also ask ourselves if we are completely free of ideology (free of sin… the parallel to Christian ethics is obvious) and when we come to the conclusion that we might be the vehicle of our own implicit ideology, we should adjust our anti-ideology motto.

Peterson could try to make his own ideology explicit. This might be less exciting than his vitriol, but it could introduce a more or less scientific way of thinking into the emerging political middle.

Clickbait: A thought about Jordan Peterson was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Ships by Tomaž Šalamun

Tomaž Šalamun (1941-2014) was an adventurous, I think people say ‘avant-garde’ poet from Slovenia. I like what I see (or could we say: read) because it is mysterious and our world feels sometimes like mystery has been painted over. Here’s ‘ships‘ in a translation by Brian Henry:

I’m religious.
As religious as the wind or scissors.
It’s an ant, she’s religious, the flowers are red.
I don’t want to die. I don’t care if I die now.
I’m more religious than the dust in the desert.
The mouth of a child is round. My eyes are
syrup, dripping cold.
Sometimes I think I baked nettles, but
I didn’t. Sometimes I think I’m miserable, but
I’m not.
I’m religious.
I will throw a barrel into the river.
If bees rushed into my face, I’d scratch
at them with my hand and would see
I don’t get upset.
The soul presses like the crowds at the door.
When I die, oxen will graze the grass just like this.
Houses will glimmer just like this.

I don’t normally quote poetry about religion, but when I do it makes sense of that phenomenon. As religious as scissors, an object with an imposed purpose to cut, that might be worshipping the great cutting edge. Ant, flowers, huh?

The line about not wanting to die but not caring is awesome. I get an idea of his religion: he is awestruck by what he sees through is syrupy eyes. Red flowers, children with round eyes. Yes, it’s real. You didn’t bake nettles or any hallucinogens, and you’re not miserable. It’s just that the way you look at things exalts and you can’t reduce it to science. You like everything you see, the more you look, a little bit like Basquiat the painter.

You know the world will not give a f. if you die. The pressing soul ‘like the crowds’, like the (big) other, are they demanding their right to give recognition, their right to think this poetry/this man changes anything, are they pressing to bask in the illusion that something matters? Well, it doesn’t. That’s what good religion is for.

Reading: Ships by Tomaž Šalamun was originally published on Meandering home

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction

Just for fun writing exercise, this time about a religious Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and what he had to say about Christopher Hitchens. His article can be found in crisis magazine. Please be candid with your comments and lay out to me where grammar and rhetoric are still lacking

I would like to exercise and exorcise the vacuity in a pompous text that I found on the Internet, attacking the Dear Leader of my cult, the late Christopher Hitchens. The author of this text is Sean Haylock, a philosopher who ‘found home’ to Christ, writing in the only publication crisis magazine. He opens his piece with an apology for the fact that he had been ‘taken-in’ by the ‘bravura bombast’ of the Hitch. The superfluous alliteration warned me from the very first sentence that the piece would be tough to digest because this author had been too eager to produce resounding phrases, rejoicing as it were in beautifying his grammar rather than submitting it to critical analysis.

He purchased God is Not Great to the visible dismay of the cashier of his local bookstore? What kind of self-hating bookstore is that, where an employee shows dismay when a customer purchases a product that is sold there? When he reportedly ‘devoured it in a fit of scandalized glee’, as if the book was on the Index and he sought the excitement of doing something forbidden, lacking access to pussy – I got the picture.

The PhD-candidate continues with an admittedly well-chosen adjective, debonair, but he overdoes it. Of course Hitchens could ‘pitch you into elated laughter’ with ‘bawdy asides’, but he uses this description to obfuscate the untruth that follows: “if you were on his side, of course”. What nonsense! There have been many believers who laughed out loud and visibly enjoyed the man’s great taste and eloquence in debate. An example might be Tony Blair. Now our author has ‘shifted against him on most matters that he cared about’. There is only one matter here: the existence of a supernatural being. Or are you saying that you shifted against him on matters such as genital mutilation, climate change, honor killings, homosexuality? All ‘matters’ were Christopher quite simply held the right view, and I would defend these views against everybody who things otherwise.

The next paragraph opens with the baffling claim that Hitchens was above all an entertainer, supported not with arguments but with a supposedly witty comparison. Hitchens has a larger than life character and effortless erudition (another irritating alliteration). A man who consistently fought against the delusion of religion and held contrarian views informed by his own rational considerations alone, not by an authority, wants to convince, not to entertain. It is a gross and quite unforgivable insult and, of course, a counterproductive way of neutralizing the force of Hitchens’s arguments.

Next we must ‘acquaint ourselves with the private being that dwelt in the shadow of that vivid façade’ because that private being, ‘in its frailty and nakedness and immutable beauty is wat matters most about each person’. I used to call this the moralistic rape of your audience. Add in a tear-jerking sentence and another blatant and for religions authoritarians very convenient lie, namely that only the person matters. God damn it, what matters is what the man said.

Once the sluices to the ad hominem are opened wide, the mud starts flowing. About the claim that Hitchens would be a narcissist our author writes “there is some truth in that”. How can he know? For all I know the man was eloquent, don’t conflate the two because it might haunt you one day, when you gain an ‘undaunted style’ or even or the ability to think for yourself, the latter faculty conveniently dismissed as ideological idiosyncracies. Next, our author uses the anecdotal evidence that he doesn’t feel trusted as a reader, that there is the ‘distance of lacquered artifice’. He missed the ‘intimate contact of souls’ that he yearns for as a religious person and because he didn’t feel good about the packaging, he disposes of rational argument altogether. But what our zealot dismisses as ‘arrogance parceled out in witticisms’ is the heart-felt indignation over the horrors committed in the name of religion. The next untruth this self-righteous scribbler feels the need to proclaim is again an ad hominem, saying that simply because Hitchens is capable of the art of polemics, he couldn’t do justice to matters of moral consciousness? Our benighted Christian forgets that the allegedly objective moral truths his tribal faith claims to know must be independent of our own morality, in fact Christianity depends for a large part on the idea that crooked men have the ability to see the light and be reborn in Christ. The atheist, of course, is not only crooked but should be confined to hell and eternal damnation. Apparently, it is only by denying truth and humanity in everybody else that Christians can uphold the consistency of their narrative. The all-encompassing inclusion of the loving father-god is predicated on the exclusion, and if (indeed historically whenever) they get away with it, extermination of infidels. But enough. In the same paragraph, our writer dares to doubt Hitchens’s personal integrity, as if eloquent rebuttals are in any way comparable to the indoctrination of faith and the mutilation of genitals. Another vile smear, and he isn’t done yet.

It gets worse. This bloke calls Hitchens a demagogue and a charlatan because he deployed rhetoric with passion and vehemence. This is a non sequitur if there ever was one. He accuses him of using ‘flashy rhetorical gambits’ without any real argument. That gambit goes “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. It is ‘redolent of verificationism’ and would lead to obscurantism, while Hitchens would be not aware of the ‘developments in the twentieth century’ of the philosophy of science. These ‘developments’ are of no importance to the argument at hand, but just serve, again, to obfuscate that our author has just attempted to perform a sleight of hand. Of course the right to assert something without evidence is no greater than to dismiss it. This is precisely what guards us against obscurantism. Besides, Hitchens was well aware of Karl Popper, thank you very much.

Our bigot continues, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse. After saying that Hitchens is worshiped or even idolized, he calls his agonizing struggle with cancer and his death ‘humiliating’. Humiliating to whom? To your heavenly father, whose sordid morals you see so proudly vindicated? How dare you! Yes, he was an iconoclast made icon, and imitated (not emulated) by the young. So what? You didn’t present one single argument in your confused and stilted rant.

Lo and behold, the next paragraph presents the accusation, again phrased in meanspirited suggestiveness, that Hitchens’s ‘inability to offer more than the most perfunctory denunciation of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is significant’. No it isn’t. Since when do deranged philosophies like Ayn Rand’s deserve more than perfunctory denunciation and derision? There is a reason why Hitch didn’t rebut such repugnant sophistry and it is not because of a lack in his thought or ‘wild imbalance in his priorities’. It is because Ayn Rand’s reasoning does not exculpate, motivate and perpetuate suffering the way the ‘reasoning’ of religion does.

It gets more preposterous. He claims, again without even a shred of evidence, that Hitchens wasn’t able to see the ‘penetrating and insightful exploration of the mystery of transubstantiation by [Christian philosopher] Elizabeth Anscombe. It is allegedly beyond Hitchens’s intellectual powers, which is, given Christopher’s resume, an adventurous claim. And frankly, why in the hell would Hitchens, or anyone, occupy themselves with the turning of a loaf of bread into the symbolical (pardon, real) body of Christ? Anscombe’s beautiful and ‘penetrating’ analysis doesn’t make this bronze age buncombe any more true, just like Hitchens’s rhetorical tour de force doesn’t alter the meaning of his arguments.

In yet another bewildering paragraph, the PhD-candidate continues to say that Hitchens’s sense of dignity is perverse because he refuses to pick truth over consoling lies. It’s more of the same smooth pulpit talking, really, and as vacuous as everything we’ve read before. The idea of a god figure as necessary condition for ethical behavior (compassion) is briefly invoked but of course not supported with any arguments because there exist none.

In his closing phrase, this light-weight verbal pugilist delivers yet another underhand blow by saying that for Christopher the world was a debating hall, an arena, an editorial page, a stage, while for Christians it is a gift that is ‘bewildering in its excess and perplexing in its simplicity yet undeniably precious’. Perhaps the author, who refuses to come down from his moral high horse, has never heard Hitchens saying very similar things about the bewildering beauty of the universe, the mind-boggling idea that we can see billions of years in the past or that our bodies are host to billions of fellow organisms. This vengeful Christian denies Hitchens the full extent of his own emotions by saying his world view was ‘only black and white’, and he has to do this because he himself logically depends (in fact: believes that his life depends) on a world view that is strongly authoritarian and must deny others soul and sanity. I cannot personally feel anything but disgust about such a lazy and cowardly assessment that, as I’ve sufficiently shown, is devoid of arguments.

This is empty language, comrades. I fear that such a PhD-candidate will eventually receive his doctorate and continue to fabricate the sophisms he needs in order to support his ‘faith’. We need to call this bluff and we need to make it very clear that the purported rationality of such people’s arguments is in fact a dangerous quagmire that, unlike Socrates, deceives the youth into renouncing the capacity to think for themselves.

Writing exercise #1: Deconstruction was originally published on Meandering home

Two types of religion

A father can call the deepest motivation of his child
the tentative and most fragile design of his heart
morally reprehensible. So he summons the energy
that will self-destroy his child.

There are two types of religion
In one, there is a Father and He shall forgive you
In the other, you shall forgive the Father
Our religious energy flows between two generations
in either direction.

We must live free from the filthy desire for redemption.

Two types of religion was originally published on Meandering home

Ducks on Dawkins

Our Reflection is sometimes quite astonishing.

I got carried away a bit by a series of “related videos” about Richard Dawkins and his quest to extirpate religion. His eloquence is mighty and delightful, and I do agree with most of his arguments. Of course science offers a far better explanation of natural phenomenons, and its supremacy in predicting the future is self-evident. With experiments that must be essentially replicable in the lab, and the continuous effort to identify and eradicate every bias, science is the best thing since sliced bread.

Religion, apart from standing in the way of the progress of science, has caused a lot of suffering by offering a rationale for righteousness, martyrdom, infanticide, genocide, and so on. Is all religion delusional?
I am a duck. I understand Dawkins and his crusade very well, and I feel for him. See, we have this quack in our mallard community that keeps preaching about our initial sin and how some broad-billed deity up there in the sky is controlling everything and that if only we believe in waddling Wotan everything is gonna be alright. That quack keeps talking about it so much that some of us have already migrated away. Anyway, if a duck dares to argue with him, that quack asks him if he knows what came first, the duck or the egg, and his critics normally are so abashed about the fact that they don’t know the answer that they back down.
I am a Bucephela clangula, a cool duck you know. I’m from the Arctic, mate. That quack is telling us the ice melt is God’s will and the punishment for our disbelief and unholy hollering. Rubbish. I’m a duck of science and I understand that much. Primitive humans are causing global warming. They have this tradition of feeling supreme, you know, so even mr. Dawkins thinks they can and should do away with religion fast, but that ain’t gonna work. They should kinda slowly phase it out, and after a few generations they’ll be just fine. Of course, there will always be some humans quacking about their discontent and projecting heavens and hells and purgatories. We have that here too. But you know, for some being delusional is better than facing the truth. The truth ain’t all too downy, if you know what I mean.