Sunday, February 24, 2013

For the hell of it: In Soviet Russia...

Just so you know, I've been taking Russian classes for the last year, and I have every intention to one day visit the rodina and check out just what life is like there. I've been curious for years; my specialty in history has been the economy of the Soviet Union, and the country has become no less fascinating since the fall of communism. I really want to see it, smell it, walk around in the place and talk to the people and get a feel for all the differences and similarities.

Call me a glutton for punishment in that regard, because I hate cold weather and I know perfectly well that much of the country dislikes foreigners and I stand a high risk of getting stabbed. A cottage industry sprang up with the Russian discovery of a semi-functional judicial system; people now walk in front of cars trying to get hit so they can take the driver to court. That's why everyone puts dashcams in their car, and that's why we got so much great footage of that asteroid. they drink more than any people on Earth. They have a conscript army where brutal hazing is perfectly normal. They don't fuck around with false ideals of morality that create unearned trust; friendship, in that place, means that this person will wake up at four AM to give you a ride, or hide you from the government, or invade France, just to help you because you are friends. They are, by all accounts, cynical and fatalist and awesome people. The place is insane, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all. I love everything about it. Every other country is hideously boring to study in comparison.

You internet trolls know about the "in Soviet Russia" meme, which ripped off Yakov Smirnov and his comedy routines from the eighties, but in the language class, we sort of found out where all that really came from. Smirnov wasn't just playing a gimmick; there is one genuine difference in the language that makes Russian particularly apt for such jokes, and it comes from the "accusative case." See, the Russian language has case systems for demarcating sentence structure that English does not have. With accusative case, its most common use is for identifying the direct object. In English:

"John reads the book."

In this sentence, John is the subject, reads is the action verb, and book is the direct object. The sentence relies on word order to tell you what's what. But Russians give a honey badger non-fuck about word order; they use the endings of the word to indicate case and, therefore, to indicate what's related to what. Accusative case is typically indicated by ending a word with a "у", which sounds like an "u" for English speakers. So:

"Джон читает книгу." or John chitayet kniegu means John reads the book. But wait:
"Книгу читает Джон." means the EXACT same thing. If the book were the subject, it would use the nominative case, книга, or kniega. Because it ends with a "u," the accusative case is known and the meaning remains with John as the subject and book as the direct object.

You can see it; translate книгу читает Джон more directly into "The book is read by John" if you like, but you know you want to say it: In Soviet Russia, the book reads John.

A thousand jokes are born, starting with Yakov Smirnov but coming to full fruition at the hands of bored kids on the net today. Putin holding a rifle: in Soviet Russia, president assassinates you! Meteorite comes close to obliterating Chelyabinsk: in Soviet Russia, space explores you! And on and on, no end in sight.

The Russian case system, by the way, is fucking brilliant. It's one of the reasons that Russian authors are so ridiculously badass; Dostoevsky and Gogol and Tolstoy and company have liberty to change word order around in artistic ways that are impossible in most other languages, with their sad reliance on word order. If you know Russian well (sorry, I don't so I won't be embarrassing myself by trying to give examples), then you have tools at your command that can create truly unique power. As you can probably imagine, messing with this can shift emphasis, indicate hidden meanings, and just rhythmically flow in mind-boggling ways.

There are other facets of it, some that tell a cultural story. Some Russian speech can indicate that you are associated with something without actually being in possession of it, which they prefer; if you want to express ownership, you have to use the genitive case, which still usually translates directly into being next to something, and not really possessing it. Hippies, light your bongs; this is your kind of language, and that element of it goes back much, much further than communism. The Russian village, the mir, long ago used a system of land distribution where parcels were divided into long, shallow strips and assigned to individual peasants to work, and the strips were re-divided and re-distributed every season. The villagers considered it fair, even thought the incentive to invest in land improvements simply did not exist when using this method. Those villagers didn't care for uppity, enterprising farmers who became excessively influential through trade, anyway; they called them kulaks, and Stalin "took care" of them back in during the first Five Year Plans.

And that's the thing that's most amazing about Russia; it survived Stalin. It's an invincible country. Lots of things seem backwards, an obvious example being that women do lots of construction work, heavy equipment operating, and basically lots of butch tasks we see as being masculine. It's tradition there, because it had to be that way; during World War 2, so many Russian men died that their labor force would not have functioned afterwards relying on men. This isn't Rosy the Riveter; we're talking peacetime. Basically an entire generation of Russian males was wiped out during that war. America, for those of you not up on your history, did not win World War 2. The USSR won it. That Russian fatalism goes hand in hand with an unbeatable capacity to tolerate anything and keep going in the face of absurd difficulty. Of course the Russians were the first people in space: upon hearing that there was a place completely devoid of conditions that could sustain life, totally inhospitable to survival, where shit going wrong was certain to kill you and the unknowns were impossible to count, the Russian leadership boldly looked at it and said, "that's where we belong." Did they elect that leadership? Of course not; they go through the motions of elections today, but sensible Russians know better. Putin is simply in charge. There's no bullshitting around about the Will of the People, as if it was some tangible, measurable thing. Leadership makes decisions and gets shit done, and it doesn't do so as a service to its people but as a service to itself. When you stop lying about the nature of things, you're less likely to be disappointed, you know.

Russian does not use words like is, am, be/being, or do. Such individualistic terms that indicate existential becoming and identity simply do not get the play there that they get in more Westernized cultural contexts. In this respect, Russian is similar to Chinese and other eastern cultures which makes sense geographically. But really, Russia is its own thing. It's a blend, but it's unlike everywhere else. Their history and culture are incomparable to that of any other nation on Earth. They have dealt with ridiculous power and ridiculous struggle in ways that are difficult to grasp.

And the flights are cheap through Aeroflot, the airline that's like rolling dice with your life. How appropriate! Pass the vodka, товарищ!

Word Games: Addiction

The following is a fourteen page article from the New York Times about the junk food industry:

Can you make it through the entire thing? No, probably not; even people I know who are into this kind of stuff post up TL;DR responses to its size, so I wouldn't expect normal people to read it all. But the point of it, and the narrative way of telling the story, are predictable enough for you to probably guess what it says. Junk food is addictive. There is an amazing science attached to getting you hooked on the stuff, and it works so well that the poor consumer becomes a helpless pawn in the game, at the mercy of corporate greed. There are noble scientists who tried to change things on the inside, who hold the businesses accountable for the welfare of the consumers, and who failed due to the horrible pressures of capitalism.

There are also references to changed lifestyles, increased desire for convenience, the death of family meals, mothers in the workforce, and even how children like power, so there's a bit of honesty. And some of the research is just fascinating; did you know that humans prefer a chip that breaks at four pounds per square inch? The notion of "mouth feel" (insert your own penis joke here) has gone beyond the purview of the sommolier and into soft drinks. Ever heard of "vanishing caloric density"? It happens with dissolving foods like Chee-tos, how they trick the brain into thinking that there's basically no calories there, so you just eat the shit out of them.

Damn, they're good. The comments section already refers to "Big Food" with a deeper loathing than we had for Big Tobacco, back when that was the thing.

So, what's the appropriate response? Does the power scare you a bit, make you think that your eating habits are not under your control and that something should be done? Cool. You're probably right about some part of that. So let's regulate the industry to give us what we need instead of what we desire. We can have the illusion of choice, while making all the choices healthier. Of course, some parts of the article made it clear that communicating to the consumer that a food has become more healthy is also a green-light for the consumer to eat more of it, much more. So maybe we shouldn't tell the consumer about the changes in the food. It's a difficult thing, controllable manipulation: if you control the message and let people cut loose, they can go way too far; if you tell them to hold back, you will probably fail because they will probably fail, so you end up demonizing the stuff for the sake of scaring people into doing what needs to be done; if they do hold back and you tell them that they've done a good job, then they relax and go back to going way too far. Also, there are also economic costs if you reduce the consumption, because thousands of jobs would evaporate if Big Food were to do what was right by its customers' health rather than what makes it money. It would have to; the best thing for its customers' health is to simply eat less, period.

How many jobs in this economy rely on something that could be classified as "addiction"? I ask because there is no easy demarcation between addiction and simple enjoyment of something; all good things can be taken to excess, and that's in the nature of pleasure in our brain chemistry. There's nothing uniquely evil about junk food, or cigarettes, or alcohol, or sex, all of which come in for media scrutiny as causing addictions. I can easily say that I'm addicted to music, both listening to it and playing it. And that addiction comes with a cost greater than just the purchase price; there are opportunity costs, every hour spent on music being time that I could have spent working, or studying, or reading up on the heart-rendering plight of women in Saudi Arabia. Should I sue Sony for making my mp3 player or Gretsch for making my drum set, righteously reclaiming everything they've cost me?

Of course not. And we all know, when it's said in a sensible way, that the philosophical issues at play in issues of "addiction" are far deeper than the media makes it out to be, that responsibility cannot be taken so lightly as a subject. The media portrays it like a good-vs-evil proposition, demonizing junk food makers like drug dealers (another group that gets more shit than they deserve). It benefits their story to over-dramatize it.

The thing about addiction is that it has become our way of assaulting over-indulgence, without actually criticizing people for giving in to what prior generations would have simply called a vice. Do we know the difference between an addiction and a vice or habit? Is there any difference, except for the reaction you want to pull out of people when you use it? Because that's a big difference. A vice is a failure on the part of the person who holds it; an addiction can abdicate the consumer's responsibility and therefore be a safe, non-judgmental beginning of a movement. An addiction demands the empathy of the surrounding society and questions who took advantage of this poor soul. And it treats everyone like a child in the process.

Children played prominently in the article, too, because they're particularly helpless. The hard difference in responsibility between an adult and a child has essentially disappeared, but children still have wider eyes and are less threatening and cuter, so they always pull more concern from the audience. And children are, indeed, particularly vulnerable to creating bad habits early on. But the shadow issue slipped into the article when it talked about Lunchables: focus group questioning brought out the reality that moms couldn't deal with the "morning rush" every day before they bustled off to work. They weren't fixing their kids' meals like homemakers had in decades past, and this is one of the main reasons that convenience has become so important in the food industry. That's what two-income households need. Call this an unavoidable evolution of culture, but you have to admit that so many of these issues could be defeated by having one parent stay home and focus on raising the family, looking into nutrition facts, putting time into watching what the kids ate and fixing meals. But no one questions this, not only because of the problems with media critiquing of feminism and workplace equality, but also because of issues like people's economic expectations of income and convenience that are tied to it. Women aren't required to work, but even if they aren't feminists, everyone in the situation likes money and think it can - hell, it should - solve their problems. Issues like that simply aren't to be brought up. Now, instead, we have to trust a for-profit corporation to create foods for us and expect there be no downsides and no need for the consumer to be careful. Really? Who expects this to just work?

What I do like about the article is that it's too long for most readers. It's highly appropriate to me, because while the report looks to be a mild slam against the excesses of consumerism, it actually isn't. It's consumerist itself. The report brings the attention of the people to a problem, and the people cannot solve this problem themselves, because they're addicted. So then the government should get involved; the media made positive mention of Finland's use of packaging regulation for a reason. Thus the media and government dispense justice with a quick one-two punch, packaged by the machine and sold to us, in convenient fun-size portions. Like the junk food it rails against, the short-term pleasure of it hides the long-term dangers of getting used to it, making it a habit, getting addicted to it. A culture that goes long enough without taking the healthy route of making people solve their own problems, of encouraging workable family structure, of pushing people to purchase products from those they trust instead of those who offer the lowest price tag, the harder it will be to un-fuck the situation and create a sustainable system.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Maxim Hypothesis

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine mentioned to me that he thought the Dr. Pepper 10 ad campaign, aimed specifically at men, was a stupid idea. I really can't blame him for thinking that, either; the TV ads are dumb, the slogan "It's not for women" is dumber, and the majority of diet cola drinkers are women. So what the hell were they thinking?

Well, Dr. Pepper 10 seems to be doing okay in sales, or at least it was last year, given that the soft drink market has been shrinking since 2005. Company advertising reps have described the slogan as "tongue in cheek," so maybe they've figured out something that I've suspected for a while.

Back when I was in my late teens, I had a subscription to Maxim magazine, also aimed at men. This was when I was living in an apartment with roommates that were lucky to avoid jail. Lots of people would end up at our place, frequently intoxicated, and all sorts of ridiculous shit happened. But I was sober enough to notice something odd: when faced with a Maxim on the coffee table, women just couldn't resist picking it up and thumbing through it. I've noticed this in other cases, too. Sports, cars, tools, lots of the stereotypically male stuff just enraptures a lot of women. If nothing else, they have to check that shit out at least once.


A woman might ask, why not? This is the twenty first century, damnit! There are no male-only zones anymore, right? So women check out things that men like. They could be checking out bird-watching or reading about history or doing something gender neutral, but it seems that an obligation of the new gender non-bias is that a lot of women pay attention to anything that strikes them as masculine. So, presenting the Maxim Hypothesis: Anything meant for men automatically attracts attention from a demographically significant number of women as well, simply by virtue of it being meant for men.

If you take this into account, the Dr. Pepper 10 ads make sense. I can see this playing out in stores across the country: woman goes to grab a beverage from the cooler, looks around for a second, browsing the selection. Woman sees a can of Dr. Pepper 10. Woman remembers those stupid-ass ads, how it's not for women. Whatever. Not that I care or anything, it's just an ad, but... I wonder what this stuff is like? It's only ten calories... This can happen on a level well below the forefront of one's consciousness, like most advertising does.

Woman picks up a can, tries it (it tastes pretty good for diet), and likes it. And the ads have done the trick. It seems to me much more likely that, in an era where feminism and boundary breaking are so in fashion, reverse advertising psychology of this sort would be more likely to work on some women who's self-image integrates women's lib. And for some other women, they just seem interested in knowing what men are into, simply because men are into it, the equivalent of a guy reading Twilight to see if he can get some pointers on picking up chicks. Sad? Oh yeah, but it might occasionally work. What this strategy means is that Dr Pepper can push its wares to both stupid, gullible men directly and stupid, gullible women indirectly with the same campaign. I'd bet that, if the statistics were available, Dr. Pepper 10 consumers would turn out to be a decent mix of male and female.

Certain social conditions have to be met for the Maxim Hypothesis to work, of course, namely that there is an underclass which perceives itself as less powerful flexing new muscles. This group will associate taking on the tastes of formerly-superior classes as a form of symbolic empowerment. It's the same situation that had the merchant class imitating the dress and manners of the nobility in Europe and China as it grew in respectability and strength.

An Extreme Case

The Maxim Hypothesis has gone to some ridiculous lengths in the name of equality, well beyond the soft-drink and magazine level. The workplace issues, with all the talk of glass ceilings and unequal wages are so familiar that they need not be repeated. Recently, more changes are supposed to happen in the military; having entered the service in a support role decades ago, women will soon be integrated into combat arms.

Feminists come in different flavors, and some might be a little peeved by this themselves; some feminist ideology views warfare as a masculine habit that should simply be avoided altogether, and women subscribing to this notion can't have entirely positive feelings about women wanting to be a part of it. But most feminists, not necessarily seeing themselves as trying to establish a pacifist matriarchy, will simply want the avenues opened in every career path, and the military is just another occupation from this perspective. So that logic is obvious. Less clear is what the results of it will be; it is the height of ignorance to think that an occupation so reliant on discipline and internal unit cohesion will be completely unaffected, as if they're just throwing in a new group of soldiers with different organs. The organs matter: the first war we fought with women integrated into the military was the Gulf War, in the nineties, and the number one cause of medical evacuation during that conflict was pregnancy. If you throw young, aggressive people of mixed gender into a situation of constant danger, it turns out that they fuck like rabbits and with about the same rate of condom use. And that's FOB shit; the consequences for the move on the battlefield might be greater still. For all we hype diversity, mixed-gender workplaces aren't always environments of enlightened, respectful egalitarianism when there are young people involved. My personal experiences in retail and food service can be summed up with one word: drama. Overcoming that requires somehow making young people either forget or ignore their hormones. Good luck.

It's one thing for this to happen at a restaurant. On the battlefield, there are a whole different set of risks. It takes little imagination to put yourself in the position of a female POW and expect some different treatment by the enemy. And if one assumes that intimate relationships will be formed between members of the same unit - how could you not expect that? - then you should also be able to put yourself in the position of someone who sees a significant other killed violently in front of them. And this in a military already overwhelmed with cases of PTSD. I have a similar concern about integrating gays into combat arms.

We will eventually figure out that the ideological necessity of de-structuring society until we have a level individualist playing field has some unforeseen costs that, if we had any sense, would bring about a fresh wave of doubt about whether this is the right thing to do. I see other examples in the disruptions to family structure and institutional religion, where our inability to accept social roles based on anything outside of our control causes much more harm than good; our individualist activism can only be justified by making extremely slanted cases in favor of those who want something they couldn't have had before, while ignoring the costs to others and the costs to social continuity, efficient specialization, and rational expectations. Could it possibly be that older generations were right to simply require people to accept some boundaries in life, and that no matter how wealthy the society, some requirements on the individual to bear a burden or two in limited opportunities are beyond negotiation?

Whatever. All these issues make for some great marketing gimmicks, in soft drinks and career choice and politics, so they aren't going anywhere.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Church of Reason

Some of this will be easy to infer from the Power and Praxeology post, but I feel it necessary to make it clear just where I stand on the concept of reason. For all you Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fans, I did steal the title of this post from Robert Pirsig. I have my reasons, although I should probably apologize to Pirsig on the off chance he reads this, because he probably won't agree with me.

So What is Reason?

Short answer: it's not totally clear.

One of the most obvious things you can glean from the wiki entry is, we're not terribly sure what reason is, and lots of very well-known people have been arguing about it for some time. We know it has something to do with cognition, with the ability for functioning minds to connect A to B and figure out how things work.

Interestingly, there's reference to right and wrong as being faculties of reason, which is tremendously presumptuous - there is no such thing in a materialistic account of existence - but many seem to have a strong desire to see morality as a process of reason. Even if they have the sense to use consequentialist understandings of right action in most cases, philosophers often refer to a "general good" or a "collective morality" of some kind which is poorly defined. I would define it by the popular conception of right and wrong in the free markets of ideas, but calling it a dominating cultural product undermines its validity and authority for some people who really, really want moral righteousness to be an objective reality. Here, the perceived difference between logic and reason is telling. Logic, the process of inferring one thing from another, is seen as being both a product of reason and a condition of reason, so there are some questions as to which is the element of the other. Here's how I see it.

As I have said before, you can boil most mental activity down to two processes: pattern recognition and evaluation. These are the primary functions of the mind. We need to be able to dice up the environment to understand its parts and how they fit together, and we need to place values on these elements by figuring how they affect us. Where does reason stand in this? It's the ability for us to put together the pieces. It's the side that allows us to recognize the parts for what they are, to understand how they join together, and to perceive cause and effect. This is not the same as evaluating, which is based on subjective interpretations of what is good. What's important and desirable is obviously going to be different for you than for me. We can reason that an international confrontation of some kind, like a nuclear war, will cause the annihilation of the human species without making any value judgments as to whether or not that's a bad thing. Cockroaches would probably find a post-apocalyptic world awesome, and if they figure out how to create a false-flag event that will get us into a spat with Russia, then we are doomed. It is only because we value the human race, and the Cheetos factories it operates for our benefit, that we find the idea of an irradiated chaos to be problematic. For some hardy people, it still might be preferable, and for environmentalists, about the only thing standing in the way of them saying that we need to kill a couple billion right now for society to be long-term viable is the threat of looking like assholes as they try to sell an unattractive lifestyle.

So you have this cause-and-effect, calculator-style faculty of the mind, and the evaluating part of the mind. Logic, in normal use, seems to be the name for the first faculty. But what many people call "reason" is a form of logically connected value judgment, ethics with no objectivity to them in the Western tradition but in which systems of thought can be made internally consistent. This internal consistency is not based on anything outside of the mind; it is the prevailing interpretation of value judgment in society, by no means relevant beyond the individual or cultural worldview of whoever is developing that system. But because Western logic dominates the marketplace of ideas in our society, it has been portrayed as "reasonable" in ways which it clearly should not if we base the standards on observed phenomena in objective reality. There is, quite simply, always bias in these systems, because they start out with givens as presented by the Western intellectual worldview.

Two examples:

In John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Rawls referred to people as both "rational" and "reasonable". Being rational meant that we wanted things we presumed could exist and assumes economic self-interest, obvious enough in observed human behavior. Being reasonable meant something with much more philosophical punch: to be reasonable was to say that people were willing to achieve those ends cooperatively. There are two things to gather from this. First, Rawls takes empathy to be a normal human emotion, and seems to believe that it is not normal to distribute it unevenly. It is a flat-out rejection of the notion that people view each other through an instrumental lens instead of an empathetic one. The other is that authority has little value from this perspective, fulfilling the goal of organization for utilitarian benefit and nothing more.

The other example is from Harvard (correction, Princeton) philosopher Robert Wright, who stated a similar worldview in his book The Evolution of God, but with less obfuscation as to what he was actually trying to communicate. At the end of the book, having made an interesting case as to the economic background and benefits of religion, Wright says that religion was valuable for humanity in "waking people up" to the reality of other peoples' right to exist and pursue their individual interests, and in the realization of a moral order. But while some people will continue to want some sort of faith for personal reasons, it's no longer necessary for civilization, probably harmful for inter-group cooperation, and often dangerous. Wright's work is related to that of the New Atheists' work in looking at religion as creating irrational aberrations to cause-and-effect processes.

It should be noted that Wright has also dedicated an entire book, Non-Zero, to the notion that human existence is not a zero-sum game and that our collective rational understanding of this is imminent. He assumes self-interest, he knows the importance of worldview, but he sees the worldview that disagrees with his understanding of the world as being obsolete or harmful and easily discarded to create a better world. What a surprise. Wright barely touches on hierarchy and legitimacy in either book, and his view of the human as a thinking being who mysteriously places equal and infinite value on others for some greater reason than self-interest stands as representative for Western thought.

The Original Purpose

Rawls also suggested in A Theory of Justice that morality should be viewed from a perspective of, essentially, a disembodied mind unaware of its own gender, race, beliefs, and socioeconomic status; he called this the "original position". Now, never mind that almost every respectable social scientist will say that our thought is shaped by things like our beliefs and socioeconomic status, which makes thought from outside our perspective extremely vulnerable to ridiculous biases. What matters is, Rawls assumed a sense of universal empathy sensible only to Westerners trained in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition; his way of thinking, which gave foundation to arguments which undercut the validity of all hierarchies not purely functional, described life purely in terms of individual opportunities. It's tremendously popular among liberals.

I would prefer a different way of thinking less focused on this conveniently altruistic individualism. I'm suggesting an "original purpose" to reason that might inform us of its value, and its limitations. What is reason for? What is its evolutionary purpose?

I think you can see where I'm going with this; reason exists for power. And only for power. The original position is irrational; reason is always purpose-driven; it is never all-knowing, all-encompassing enough to describe anything resembling the complexity of reality. Only a hypothetical God could have such a perspective. We can try to teach people to think broadly, but it becomes clear after a while that people continue to look out for number one, and stand up for those they identify most strongly with in cases of conflict. All rationality is bounded rationality, and in the arguments over decision-making and moral behavior, it works much more like Jonathan Haidt said in The Righteous Mind; as a political spokesman for our self-interest.

Seriously. Lots of people might look to science and say, "well, this isn't about power." Really? Science doesn't exist for the purpose of empowering the society which values it? So when we try to become more technologically advanced, we aren't trying to manipulate our world to serve our interests? When we build a telescope, is its purpose to allow people to look through it and say, "hey, cool!"? Do we not want credit, appreciation, maybe even to make a handsome living for making it possible? Is research not done with some ends in mind beyond adding to the repository of Western knowledge for its own sake?

An Evolutionary Faculty

Part of the problem here is that this perspective is so obvious. It's the perspective of seeking success. In fact, some people might see it as just saying that people are economically rational and self-interested. There is certainly a good case for economic thought being rational; our attitudes evolved to operate in this way. I mean that literally. Attitudes evolved, mental skills evolved, and the attitude we know as being 'reasonable' is a product of evolution. Go find a biology website and read the descriptions of the creatures and their adaptations. You know what you're going to find: Porcupines with quills, fish with camouflage, geckos and frogs with amazing tongues, adaptations galore. Hunters are well-equipped to attack, prey well-equipped to escape, social creatures well-equipped to live within their respective social structures, but also to thrive in them. This looks so reasonable, for all of this to develop, despite the fact that it's all the product of a process lacking in moral consciousness. It's actually extremely bloody and brutal. That's because evolution rewards power, and we're attuned to power. Knowledge and understanding are products of reason, but reason exists to seek power. The mind is a machine that can circumvent normal evolutionary processes by allowing us to understand and adapt our behavior without needing to be genetically culled, for the sake of greater empowerment. And man, does it ever work. It relies on evaluation, on recognizing the value of what surrounds us, and there is no sense to believing that people don't look at each other in this way as well. We view each other as unequal, which is completely and totally rational. To view people as equal is the irrational idea.

Now, look at what Rawls and Wright were calling "reason" through this lens. Are they practicing truly disembodied, neutral thought, which looks at everyone's perspective as equal? Or is the process of popular reason a tool for pushing a perspective, expanding your cultural identity, while discrediting competing views?

As a matter of breaking down the mechanics of a system, reason has utility for the user. But in a complex system, inherently unstable and dynamic, sophisticated enough to adapt, it cannot be predictive to any significant degree. The field with the highest degree of predictive power in the social sciences - economics - is inherently cynical in its view of human nature; still, it fails to predict anything with greater accuracy than your local meteorologist. When it comes to changing that system to more closely meet one perspective on progress, reason often turns out to be a mess. It's easy to forget that academic reason is a discourse, a dialectic, meant to bring about consensus, a manipulative discussion. You convince, and truth is a secondary matter to effectiveness by nature. If people really understood how little difference there is today between education and propaganda, we might find it easier to understand why Christian parents want their children going to parochial schools instead of viciously secular public ones.

The New Church

In The Evolution of God, Robert Wright talks about a "conformist bias" in people, which he relates to both the survival of religion and Stockholm Syndrome. People believe what their surrounding crowd believes; it's a straightforward case of reinforcement, where you gain acceptance through adopting the traits, the identity, of your group. Now, this is obviously a convenient adaptation, although Wright seems quite happy to mention that it can only exist in the case of there being no optional beliefs to choose from. But I'm not sure how aware people are that they continue to conform in the necessary manner with humanity's opinion on reason.

Western values are convenient in some cases; they bind us into a similar worldview, those values are assumed to be true to everyone, and those values are also assumed to make the world a better place when broadly shared. Our legal system - actually very traditionalist - is based on those shared values. Now, if anyone who was actually viewing the species from a distance were to look at this situation, I think the obvious conclusion would be that Western reason has become a new religion itself, complete with faith that it will bring together the masses in a better world, a powerful and sneaky campaign to eradicate competing beliefs by dressing them up as irrational lifestyle choices, disgust for apostates who convert to that old-time religious irrationality, the desire to get everyone possible into religious institutions for indoctrination (it's called college), and the obvious placing of "reasoned" values above other ways of thinking. It has its heresies - witness political correctness - but the thing is, it lacks the will to really punish violators, because it insists that its purpose is to bring about a better world based on individual choice and freedom, and that the violence of earlier systems marked them out as inferior. Our over-developed sense of superiority to the past fuels such illusions. But we cannot do lab experiments to determine what constitutes truth in personal values; we can only play games and push our perspectives. So reasoning values will continue to be decided how they have always been decided, by people in respected, holy institutions using their power to gain consensus and spread their views. They will just be doing it from universities instead of churches, and they will take on the old job of justifying the hierarchy with false promises and exaggerated claims, only trying to use material satisfaction as the metric by which a good world will be identified.

This perspective is already well established and unquestioned. Reason is thrown around as the ultimate arbiter of correct action in ridiculous ways. How much of the gun control debate is defined by liberals asking, "what's the reason you need these?" Evidently, we must justify every action and preference through a reasoned/religious ideal. But it is enough for homosexuals to say, "because I want to" in justifying an attitude that takes sexuality to be far more important than ever before. This is as biased and ultimately arbitrary as any other system of religious thought. It makes no sense except as a very shallow and mindless way of justifying one's ideological preferences.

As always, we're stuck with a system of thought that looks more and more like different strains of a mass psychotic delusion, fighting each other for public opinion and political leverage. Every opinionated hack can look to the body of "reasoned" thought and find the correct chapter and verse to translate into a justification for whatever they want, vindicated by the scripture of thinkers as diverse as Dawkins, Marx, de Beauvoir, Friedman, and Zinn. Whoever's popular, really. There's something incredibly stupid about expecting a strong and stable ideology to form in such a mess, but that's exactly what a cultural ideology needs to be in order to create peace. Without it, no action will be legitimate or illegitimate, no expectations can be rationally held, and no sense of identity can be formed across the broad swaths of humanity perpetually grasping for control.

Academics know that man is the measure of all things - such is subjectivity - but evidently have failed to understand that man is an aggregate that is difficult to harmonize. When they figure out that the responsibility of the group in power is to create stability, a responsibility important for both themselves and for the people they dominate, then they are going to have a hard time justifying their own exercise of power. So you tell me; can this work? Can reason be what religion has been in the past, or create a more satisfying life out of the material world alone? Do you accept the necessity of submitting to the Church of Reason?

Of course not. You'll just use reason to justify your perspective. Why would you do anything different?