Identity fetish #n+umpity-three: “I identify as”

Just under a decade ago, I had a kind of mental hiccup, then forgot about it and promptly moved on. This mild disturbance was brought on by an assertion that we in the Left don’t use identity labels to describe others that those others wouldn’t use to describe themselves. And while for example I don’t think institutions should author meaning – including identity – it doesn’t follow that individuals get to have their self-identification accepted as “valid” simply because that’s the way they see themselves.

For those of you that may be wondering, the identity label that was being applied against the wishes of the labelled was “teabagger”. If the Associated Press decided to apply “teabagger” as an objective label as part of its editorial policy, or a census used it as part of a leading question, don’t be mistaken, I’d have a problem with that. But individual, living, breathing, meaning-making interlocutors without the power to force their meanings onto others, simply rejecting “tea party activist” as inaccurate in lieu of “teabagger’’; I’ve no problem with that at all.

What entitles people to have their self-belief ratified by others? I can think of some examples, particularly in relation to pedagogy and child raising – nurturing the belief in your child that they’re worthy of their school is something you may reasonably be expected to do as a part of your responsibility for a child’s welfare.

But when adults, especially in political settings where there are conflicting interests at play, want to view themselves in grandiose or fantastic terms, what then? Maybe we let them continue with their fantasy, and opt to get on with other business. Maybe we have a clash of interests and therefore describe them and their politics in terms we find the most truthful, but afford them the respect of not pretending to edit their own copy.

But what do we do when they demand we ratify their self-view in our thoughts and words, simply because that’s the done thing?

“Teabagger”, with its inference of conspiracy theorizing, historical fantasy, scientific illiteracy and economic fetish, is a better fit for the reality of the Tea Party movement, than the grandiose way “Tea Party activists” self-describes. I’m not going to ratify their fantasy, and in their case I don’t care one dot if they’re upset about it.

***

A few years ago, during a period of unease I couldn’t quite describe at the time, there was a blog post published about Rationalist versus Empiricist identity. Now, sure, people call themselves “Rationalist” to self-describe in the here and now, with the inference that they value science and logic, and consider themselves generally sober-minded people, but this isn’t the “Rationalism” of Rationalism-contra-Empiricism.

For one, that Rationalism – the old one – fizzled out along with the debate that defined it. It’s hard to be a contra-Empiricist Rationalist, rather than just the more modern, sober-minded, generally reasonable Rationalist, in a world post-Kant. The modern “Rationalist” can even be – gasp! – a bit Empiricist.

It’s also a fact, that neither Empiricism nor Rationalism sat overly well with this thing called science. This is an important fact because the author of said blog post was a scientist, yet they self-identified as an Empiricist.

Further, the author identified Richard Dawkins as a Rationalist, in part on the basis that he wouldn’t object, and further, to position the author in opposition to Dawkins. But this is problematic.

Dawkins can’t be a Rationalist of the contra-Empiricist variety. You only need to read what he has to say about ontological proofs and the like in The God Delusion; he decries the lack of evidence feeding into the process, and comments that perhaps he just takes this position because he’s a scientist. Rationalists of the old school would not have sympathized with Dawkins, believing that arguing for or against God’s existence from pure logic was the best way, even going so far as to regard evidence as being a bit vulgar.

So maybe Dawkins is a Rationalist of the new variety? Probably. It’s also probably the definition he wouldn’t object to. But that’s not the “Rationalist” of the contra-Empiricist variety, so if your aim was to distinguish yourself from Dawkins along these lines, you’d have failed. There’s an equivocation here; when summarizing Dawkins’ actual views on the relevant points, he’s a Rationalist in the modern sense, but when trying to put him at a distance, the definition is bait-and-switched for the traditional, more exclusive one that doesn’t describe him.

While I can think of a few good reasons why people may want to separate themselves from Dawkins – “please attendant, can I be seated somewhere else so I don’t have to listen to this guy whine about his confiscated honey?” – this Rationalist contra Empiricist confection was pure self-regarding narcissism of the small differences variety.

The author anticipated some of these objections, and no doubt copped some uncharitable, even nasty contributions from some quarters. But the preemptive retort given was simply that “we’re talking about identity”, as if that made a jot of difference. I mean yes, language is malleable, but if meaning can be molded that easily on the fly you can’t have a meaningful conversation anymore; your views are so much wet pottery in your interlocutor’s hands.

Importantly, it was clear that the author expected that mentioning identity would be sufficient to quell criticism; that they expected their audience not to object.

Suffice to say, while I did keep my mouth closed in this case, owing to the harassment the author was probably copping from various forms of winged monkey at the time, I didn’t and don’t respect their “identity” as an Empiricist. If they actually are one, albeit one of the newer variety, they’ll need to articulate it better, explain why they can be that and a scientist at the same time, and quit with the spurious distancing.

Either that, or perhaps admit that the entire discussion was pure self-absorbed vanity to begin with.

***

So here’s my point; we Lefties don’t go around “respecting” people’s identities automatically and universally, so we shouldn’t pretend we do, nor allow ourselves to be gaslighted into doing so.

When MRAs affix “non-sexist” to their identity label, it doesn’t alter their politics or character one bit. When some douche preemptively asserts that he identifies as a non-racist, you’re not obliged to abstain from perceiving their attitudes, actions and arguments as racist. Indeed, you’d probably be more suspicious that they were racist.

Yes, there are situations where supporting someone’s self-image is morally salient – “you’re not a piece of shit”, “women are the equal of men”, “your skin isn’t dirty” – but there is no universal obligation to just up and validate identities. The Left has never as a bloc held this to be universal and it, perhaps more than its critics, needs to be reminded not to pretend otherwise.

Far from being self-evident, the simple observation that you didn’t validate an identity isn’t even sufficient as an objection. And yet some will gasp po-faced at precisely that – “Oh my gawd you didn’t validate their identity, I can’t even!”

Evidence contrary to the idea of the Left universally ratifying identity is all around, so I’ll not labour that point any further. But let me leave you with a line of questioning; what sort of character expects their own image to be reflected back at them by others as if those others were mirrors, and gets angry or manipulative when that reflection isn’t precisely flattering or fabulous enough? And what kind of person would take advantage of your over-obligating yourself in this regard?

~ Bruce

In preparation

jungI’ve been trying to avoid coverage of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules because I’m intending to write a critical review of the text in the near future, and to the best of my ability I don’t want to prejudice my reading. I suspect I’m not going to have terribly good things to say about it as it is, without loading the dice any further.

Lobster memes; suspect interviews and bros whining over probably-fair critiques – I’m turning away it seems like every other day. I’m trying to reserve judgement.

What I do find interesting though, and it’s something I haven’t been able to avoid, is a number of purportedly rational atheists with aversions to pseudo-scientific gobbledygook enthusing over the text. I do know that Peterson is a Jungian Christian mysticist, so it’s an odd relation, and I’m curious to find out why and how it may have come about. Maybe Peterson goes light on the ga-ga?

Something that I have been doing in preparation though is brushing up on my Jung. I understand Jung’s praxis as much as I care to, not being that dissimilar to Freud’s, and my objections on that front are likely to stand irrespective of any differences (see Popper’s objections to Freud for a pretty bog-standard position similar to mine).

What I don’t know terribly well are the particulars of Jung’s thinking, so I’ve gone and grabbed a copy of Jung et. al.’s Man and His Symbols and started having a read. It’s been interesting, although perhaps not in a way the authors intended.

My thinking is that if Peterson depends heavily on Jung, then at least I’ll know more precisely where I stand upon reading. Also, if I remain as ignorant as I am of the specifics, something that I’d otherwise want to criticize may go unnoticed, misinterpreted into something more innocuous for the sake of charity.

A great way of reducing the benefit of the doubt while remaining fair is to make an effort to just plain reduce doubt through education.

As it stands, thus far I’m not surprised with what I’m reading. I’ll reserve judgement on Jung’s book until later though, saving such criticisms and observations for when I’m finished, but before I’ve moved on to Peterson’s book.

Hope to get back to you soon.

~ Bruce

God = Singularity? Good luck with that

There has been an argument in theological/cosmological circles for a while now that I’ve seen from time to time but haven’t addressed, surrounding the existence of a singularity at the beginning of the Universe. Why?

For some reason that I honestly can’t fathom beyond some possible act of desperation, from time to time I’ve seen the singularity being called “God”. I want to have this post in place for the next time I see an example because I think it’s a really problematic argument.

Personally, I think that Coca Cola would make a better deity; the drink not the corporation. It has about the same capacity to give moral and spiritual guidance as a singularity, but with the added benefit of empirical evidence to buttress any ontological assertions. Although maybe a Coke bottle isn’t enough to hang The Infinite off of.

Yes, yes. Very clever. Grow up. Etc. Blah, blah, blah… It’s a reductio. Give a counter argument to show why it’s invalid, or live with it. I suspect most readers here will do the latter.

In case some of you reading this don’t know, there is no empirical evidence that singularities actually exist. They are simply inferred by our current, limited understanding of the Universe. Particularly the general theory of relativity.

Singularities are inferred in general in two (or more) places – in black holes and at the beginning of the Universe (and at the end in some inflationary models, and at the bounce points of some rebounding Universe models).

Get enough mass in a small enough area, and gravitational collapse will, according to the general theory of relativity, become intractable – down to a single, finite point of infinite density and zero width, height or depth. Time comes to an end (or a boundary) as well.

Why is this a problem? Why are singularities a bad thing to hang God (or anything else) off of?

General relativity, a theory which makes a host of testable predictions (including black holes),  provides an extremely accurate account of the way gravity works in the Universe. Quantum mechanics, which deals with the very small in a similarly successful way, doesn’t deal with gravity at all (at least not yet); gravity which is a very weak force, at the scale of the extremely small, isn’t particularly amenable to study. It’s like trying to study the smallest volume of the most diffuse gas – you don’t have enough to work with.

There is of course one glaring exception where gravity is significant on a quantum scale – the alleged singularity, or at least, the confined conditions at the heart of a runaway gravitational collapse. So what if it’s a weak force? Under these conditions you’ve got a lot of it, so much so that in a black hole, it should dominate the other, stronger forces.

The singularity should ideally be the place for general relativity and quantum mechanics to cross over. Indeed, necessarily if the two theories were to maintain logical self-consistency; by definition, both theories have the singularity within their domain and hence both need to explain it seamlessly.

But this isn’t the case. The situation is far from ideal. All those infinites get in the way of being able to tie one theory to the other. The math doesn’t work. The two theories as they stand, are irreconcilable. One or both has to change. And that’s before considering the fact that quantum mechanics normally deals with matter, while general relativity deals with space-time.

Hence the singularity isn’t something that can be reasonably asserted as actually existing. The singularity is a mathematical product of our current deficient understanding of the Universe, at precisely the point that our understanding fails. The part of theory that predicts singularities is the part that is broken. The singularity isn’t a thing, it’s a place-holder for a gap in our knowlege.

I use the word “gap” advisedly. As in “God of the gaps“.

Although maybe it’s even worse than that.

Traditionally, a God-of-the-gaps argument states that “where there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, God did it”. But this singularity mumbo-jumbo is different. This is a case of “there is a gap in human scientific knowledge, and God is it”.

God of the gaps theology traditionally reduce God’s role in the Universe as human understanding advances. God’s agency being squeezed out like the cream in a Monte Carlo.

However, if the singularity is ever done away with, if a theory of quantum gravity is developed that reconciles general relativity with quantum mechanics and doesn’t posit a singularity as a mathematical product, then that gap is gone. But instead of God’s agency being the cream in the Monte Carlo being squeezed out, it’s God itself.

It should be obvious that the rejection of the concept of the cosmological singularity is a possible, reasonable outcome of honest scientific conduct. Or even just a part of responsible speculation in an attempt to develop the first hint of a solution to a very difficult scientific problem.

The Hartle-Hawking theory is just such a speculation (see Hawking’s A Brief History of Time for an in-depth explanation). At least in as far as the Big Bang is concerned. By applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle to space-time, specifically to the state of a given dimension (uncertainty of space-or-time) – Hartle and Hawking demonstrated in theory that it is possible that space time as we know it emerged from a region of uncertain space-time on the Planck scale.

Which is to say a region of space-time that is very, very small, but not infinitesimal.

Singularities are discrete, infinitesimal points (or rings in the case of a rotating black hole) of infinite density and zero volume, but when space-time is itself subject to the Uncertainty Principle as in the Hartle-Hawking theory, there aren’t any discrete, singular points in space-time in order for singularities to be possible. I’ll avoid using the phrase “impossible initial conditions” because even “initial” is in this scheme is by definition impossible.

At such a small scale, according to the Hartle-Hawking theory, quantum effects would hold sway allowing for time to emerge from a fourth dimension of space, and thus allowing the Universe as we know it to follow.

Still, it’s a speculative theory; testable predictions haven’t emerged from it.

It is useful speculation all the same, because it provides logical refutation against assumptions held to be a priori truths that restrict the way the Universe is theorised about. For example, the assumption that a finite Universe must have a beginning (a reoccurring theme in cosmological arguments for the existence of God) is ruined by the logical possibility of the Hartle-Hawking theory.

It may not cure our ignorance about what may actually lay at the heart of a black hole, but what this reasonable speculation and speculation like it does tell us, is that the singularity (and the “first cause” in general) is an ambiguous and unsafe place to park your cherished ideas!

Maybe somebody should put up a sign.

~ Bruce

Afterword: Aside from being a pre-prepared rebuttal, I’m writing this in anticipation of singularity-dogma, and the casting of singularity-rebuttals as alleged atheist propaganda, rather than responsible inquiry.

Virtuous hedonism

If I were the kind of guy to worship a God, I’d worship Bacchus. Sundays wouldn’t be spent drinking the communion wine, just wine-wine.

I spent a dollar or two on wine in the second half of the nineties, when my hedonistic streak hit in 1996. More wine that I’ve drunk since the nineties.

I also like a good beer. Brewed more in the nineties than I have since the nineties as well.

Now I average less than a standard drink a day and I don’t think I’ve passed four in a day more than five times in the last ten years. But this isn’t some creeping conservatism on my part. No.

I genuinely don’t enjoy getting plastered. What I enjoy is the slightest, initial hint of alcohol in the system and what the beverage can bring to a social or gastronomic event.

Well considered hedonism wasn’t something I really had at the time. Ad hoc, faux-considered hedonism was. I reached the conclusion first and then engaged in some pretty superficial, instrumental reasoning to distract my executive functions from cock-blocking me.

However, persistent critical faculties and an increase in the myelin sheathing in my frontal lobe (something that finishes developing in the mid-twenties) gradually put an end to this self-deception. There was more to hedonism that just screwing everything in sight and drinking yourself into a stupor and if I wanted to get my head around it, I’d have to start conserving a few braincells.

You’ve been lucky, or living on another planet, or both, if you haven’t noticed that quite a large number of religious people frown on this kind of behaviour. In as far as rampant hedonism can cause harm, I’m sympathetic. The categorical objections, hellfire and brimstone however can go and take a flying leap.

I’ve never been an egoist, it should be said. It’s usually at this point in the discussion, that you’ll (if you are an atheist) have the occasional religionist associate your ethics with that of Ayn Rand. Even if you have more in common with say, John Stuart Mill (a utilitarian and dare I say, an actual philosopher.)

Whenever my pleasure, or the pleasure of my group has been at the expense of others, it’s been as a result of thoughtlessness. This was more a problem in my youth than it is now. That harmful externalities (loud noise past the neighbour’s bedtime and the like) weren’t good things wasn’t in dispute – they just went un-noticed. I suspect that this is the case for a lot of young yahoos.

I’m not selfish with my pleasure. I cook for people, for example. I share creativity in general with the aim of maximising pleasure. Nowadays, I do so with the aim of first avoiding the afore mentioned harmful externalities.

I think a few of Nietzsche’s assessments of the human condition are flawed in these respects. The things that he asserted were life-affirming on a primal level, I’ve never found life-affirming. And I think I’ve been a tad more primal that Nietzsche.

I don’t gain pleasure in subjugating people. I don’t see pleasure in others in being subjugated and I have a visceral objection to seeing other people subjugated – it’s not just slave morality that sees me looking out for others. Not that I deny what Nietzsche felt, rationally I object to it and the animal in me objects to it.

What I think Nietzsche’s error was, was to generalize his own imperatives the way Freud generalized his own sexual peculiarities to the entire human condition. The primal imperatives of the human condition are far more diverse, subjective and elusive than that.

Sexuality is a great example. Some people are attracted to members of the opposite sex, others to people of the same sex and some people aren’t particularly sexual beings at all. And within these divisions (and others) there are a multitude of other preferences for various sources of pleasure. A virtuous hedonism, as opposed to a self-deluded one, takes all of this into account.

When I worked at a deli in Norwood during the early years of this decade, there was this repeat customer who really got on my nerves. She was the stereotypical pretty girl that supposedly all the guys like. While she was in some respects a nice young lady (she was also at times a very noisy neighbour) and capable of eliciting quite a bit of sympathy from me, I actually found her quite sexually repugnant.

Aside from not being attracted to her that way (I find living stereotypes of all sorts rather unappealing), she quite unwittingly had the body language of someone who took entitlement (to men) for granted – cornering me rather aggressively a few times and otherwise not giving me my space, this annoying, incessant crotch-staring habit and the occasional but rather obvious barging in between me and other females. So when eventually I objected (which in terms of workplace sexual harassment I felt I was rather entitled to do – the crotch-staring was a bit much), she couldn’t quite get her head around the notion that I didn’t find her attractive and had to (self-deludedly) contort things to fit her narrative of men finding her attractive.

Suffice to say it ended with acrimony*. Reminds me of how Ayn Rand went off the deep end when she found out that her lover Nathaniel Branden, found the younger Patrecia Scott more attractive.

Sometimes people just don’t find you sufficiently attractive. It doesn’t matter to them that you find you attractive.

It’s like that with food and drink, music and the visual arts (and more.) A virtuous hedonism is permissive of peculiarity while seeing suffering as the only true perversion of the human condition.

Unaffected atheists clearly have an advantage over theists in accessing this virtuous hedonism, not carrying the same metaphysical baggage (i.e. sin.) Not that a theist necessarily can’t, nor do so easily – at best they fall superficially short of the same ease atheists can achieve the more superficial the differences in ethics become.

The same may not be true for a number of ex-fundamentalist theist, atheists. Not that I’ve ever had the experience of a religious enculturation, but I’m convinced by the tales of people who are still influenced by the spectre of hell even after refuting its existence.

All I’ve ever been able to rebel against in religion is the socio-political privilege it seeks and often attains (which I suspect is more obvious the less your religious enculturation), religion has never had that kind of control over me. I suspect though, that rebellion is still the answer.

Conservative Catholicism is particularly guilty of reducing atheism to rebellion against God, while at the same time finding their imaginary hell insufficiently harmful, venturing to create it on Earth through all sorts of insane sexual restrictions. Atheism isn’t rebellion, but rebellion against religiously motivated suffering is probably quite healthy behaviour for affected ex-theist atheists (and probably for newly moderate theists as well.)

Really, you are coming from a pretty sick place if you can find fault in people wanting to keep the Pope’s (or anyone else’s) liver-spotted hands off their genitals.

A virtuous, life-affirming quest to find and give pleasure is one of those things I think atheists need to give serious consideration before they check out of this fleeting existence.

~ Bruce

* In all fairness though, I think through my creative, generous and then mutating bakkheia, more than a couple of women (and at least one guy) got the impression that I was attracted to them when I wasn’t. This and a fair amount of beating around the bush not wanting to tell people the straight-out awful truth that I don’t actually like them that much, probably served to confuse the situation.

So what is the education philosophy of the Howard Government?

You can’t run an education system without a philosophy of education. To be for education, one has to be for some kind of education; be it democratic and integrated curriculum, theocratic indoctrination, skills-based industry induction or administratively convenient rote education. We know the Howard Government, by means of the disinformation it has been pushing, is against education philosophies that make use of integrated curriculum.

Wrongly claiming (or at least inferring) that integrated curriculum does away with disciplines such as history and results in a “post-modern stew”, we can assume that the Howard Government is also anti-homework (hint Julie Bishop; read your Beane.) Hell, Bishop’s “Maoist-Elitist” bungle shows that she is at least opposed to doing homework, if not opposed to the use of facts. “Maoist-elitist”?

It is clear from the campaigning that the Howard Government want’s to supplant existing teaching philosophies, but what do they intend to replace them with? It’s not enough to be just “anti-education-philosophy-x”, one needs to also be “pro-education-philosophy-y” otherwise you are just anti-education. What is their philosophy – if they have one – and is it supported by their premises? Or are they just anti-education?

It’s a serious question that needs to be asked and answered before the next federal election, that is if you value education.

~ Bruce