Friday, October 19, 2018

Internal Alchemy for Everyone---Review of a Book by Chungtao Ho

Sorry, that's the biggest
size image I could find.
In every religion, for every thoughtful person there comes a time when they have to make a decision about traditional texts. Are you going to read them as being literally true---like a cookbook---or you going to read them as metaphors and myth? The decision you make will inform every aspect of what you do after that. Readers of this blog will know that I am someone who reads Daoist literature as being evocative and metaphorical instead of literal. Three Pines Press has recently published a book, Internal Alchemy for Everyoneby someone who has taken the alternative route. I thought people might be interested in my take on this book. Unfortunately, there was almost nothing in this book that I have any sympathy with, so this post will be less a review than a meditation on the relationship between modernity and a literal understanding of internal alchemy.


In a nutshell, Ho argues that it is literally possible to become an immortal through the practice of specific meditation techniques that involved the creation of a secondary spirit body within the existing physical one. This involves creating a "heavenly fetus" that grows to maturity and over the course of many years results in a new non-corporeal body that will leave the adept and slowly learn to live a new, immortal life without being limited by material constraints.

How exactly is someone supposed to respond to this assertion? Could it possibly be true? Are there people in China who use esoteric meditation techniques to dramatically extend their lives and develop super powers? Do some of them become literal immortals who end up residing in paradise with the Jade Emperor?

Is this picture a realistic depiction of a plausible
event? Or is it just a whimsical painting based on an
elaborate metaphor?  Image from
Myths and Legends of China by E. T. C. Werner


I think it's important for casual readers to understand a key element of academic Daoist scholarship:  sociologists of religion don't actually care about whether or not a specific idea is "true". It's totally sufficient for them to simply report on a belief system. I realized this point when I tried to read the book Opening the Dragon Gate:  the Making of a Modern Taoist Wizard, by Chen Kaiguo and Zheng Shunchao. I emailed a leading expert on Daoism (I forget his name.) Because of all the crazy magical events that were described in the main character's life, I asked him "how could this possibly be true?" . The response by the academic was something to the effect of "whether or not you believe that any of this stuff happened, this sort of book is certainly the sort of thing that Chinese Daoists have been writing about for hundreds of years". In other words, as a professional academic he doesn't even care if it is or isn't true---it's a subject that he studies and writes about, simply as a phenomenon of human society.

That's the attitude of a sociologist. I don't have the luxury of thinking that way because I am a philosopher and a practitioner, as well as someone who writes popular books and a blog. I need to come to some sort of conclusion about whether or not something could actually be "true". This is because there are significant life choices one has to make on the basis of your belief system. If you actually do believe, for example, that it is possible to become immortal and gain super powers by intensively meditating for ten or twenty years, then perhaps you should do it. If, on the other hand, you believe that it isn't possible, then you will spend your limited time on other pursuits. It's as simple as that.

Chungtao Ho says that he has studied Western philosophy, psychology, and science, and is attempting to bring a modern sensibility to the subject.
Over the past hundred years, Western philosophy has begun to influence Chinese thought, inspiring scholars to apply epistemology to interpret internal alchemy. Although this offers a new presentation, it still does not touch the core---which goes far beyond theory and centers on practice, always closely linked to verification of concepts through actual experience. Overall, we can thus say that, despite many years of philosophical discussion and interpretation, the approach of philosophy does not offer a perfect interpretation.
Internal Alchemy for Everyone, p-13

"Epistemology" is the study of what we can and cannot know about a specific topic. This is obviously a pretty important issue when we are talking about experiences that only a very few people have, and, which almost always leave no tangible, physical evidence. It is exactly what we need to think about when we are deciding whether or not to spend a very large chunk of our lives pursuing a specific set of spiritual practices in pursuit of a goal that may or may not actually be feasible to achieve. To be blunt, with regard to internal alchemy, the value of epistemology is that it helps people think about whether or not something "actually happens" or whether it is "merely" a hallucination. 


With all due respect to Ho, I think it is safe to say that he really doesn't understand what modern scholarship is all about.  (I find the term "Western" somewhat annoying---philosophy and science are part of the entire world's heritage, not just a small number of countries in Europe and North America.) I say this because he doesn't mention anywhere in the book the absolutely core element of scholarship: consensus building.

Naive people think of the world as consisting of "facts" and "opinions"---and never the twain shall meet. But the process that resulted in the computer I'm writing this blog with, the vaccines that I am injected with to prevent a flu pandemic, the robots that have created a growing prosperity that has spread to most corners of the globe, etc, all come from something as totally nebulous as a consensus among a small group of scholars who have devoted their lives to participating in a public conversation about the specific set of ideas that define their area of expertise.

A small group of experts associate with each other through membership in elite organizations such as a university department, by subscribing to specialist journals, private correspondence between individuals, and, meeting at conferences. Someone puts forward a hypothesis to explain a given set of observations. And then the very small number of people who have done enough research on the issue to have an informed opinion on the subject enter into a discussion about whether or not that hypothesis makes sense.

As a general rule, they do this not by trying to prove it but rather by disproving it. (Only a deductive discipline---math---works on "proof". Everything else is inductive---evidence based---which can only prove a hypothesis wrong through observation.) They do this by creating experiments that attempt to isolate one particular prediction of the hypothesis. If this prediction actually proves true, this doesn't mean that the hypothesis is correct just that one particular prediction seems to be true in this particular situation. But if the prediction doesn't come true, then they know that there may be something significantly wrong with the entire hypothesis.

Usually, if many experiments are undertaken---and hopefully repeated by several experts---and none of them invalidate any of the predictions, then the hypothesis becomes adopted by the majority of experts in the field. At this point, it becomes a theory. Contrary to how people often use this term, "theory" doesn't mean provisional.  Instead, it means an understanding of the world that explains a great many different phenomena and which is accepted by the overwhelming majority of people who have put in the time and effort to have an informed opinion on the subject. Once it is accepted, it then becomes a building block that the scholars use to develop future hypotheses, create new experimental technology, and, future experimentation.

Uninformed people will sometimes assert that one theory displaces another---like when they say that Einstein "proved" Newton "wrong" about gravity. This is nonsense. Einstein's theory of gravitation didn't make any of Newton's insights go away, instead, it "adds to" parts of Newton's explanation that deal with extreme situations that Newton could never have observed---like enormous masses (eg:  stars) bending light. Similarly, evolutionary biologists have found that under periods of extremely fast climate change species can evolve much faster than Darwin would have predicted. But this doesn't change the fact that Darwin was right in the vast majority of instances, just that there are odd situations where his theory needs to be "polished" to explain what happens.


I suspect that Ho would take issue with the idea that internal alchemy as he describes it doesn't follow a similar method. There are groups of individuals working within an elite Daoist community who practice what he would call "experiments" to learn how to create the heavenly fetus and learn how to ride a phoenix to the Jade Emperor's court. Why isn't this the same thing as Charles Darwin being a member of the Royal Society and studying finches to explain evolution?

One problem immediately comes to mind.

Our modern world of scholarship and science has one very interesting feature:  it hangs together. That is to say, as we learn more and more about each individual discipline we find that they compliment and bleed into each other. Physics bleeds into chemistry in a way that atomic theory explains things like the Periodic Table. And, chemistry also explains some elements of psychology---we know, for example, that the human brain contains receptors that connect with many of the chemicals in cannabis, which explains it's many effects on the mind and body. Anthropologists are able to understand important facts about the lifestyle of ancient societies by studying the genetic composition of animal remains found in digs. And even wildlife biologists have explained flocking and schooling behaviour in social animals using computer modeling.

Does any of this wide-ranging, increasingly finely-grained understanding of the world and humanity's place in it leave any room for an individual to create a "spirit fetus" in their body and nurturing it over a decade of practice into an immortal who has super-human abilities?


This leads to the next question. Why should anyone bother with this stuff? 

I'm not a sociologist of religion, and I'm certainly not getting any money from this blog other the the odd donation in the tip jar or book sale (which averages around $10/month in royalties.) But I do think that there is something useful in the Daoist tradition or I wouldn't have expended so many hours studying and popularizing it over the years. That is, it can be a way of living your life that is vital and dynamic while at the same time in harmony with nature and humanity. As I explain in my book, Digging Your Own Well, there is a way of living where you don't fight against impossible odds and destroy yourself in the process but at the same time don't give up and "go along" with a fundamentally destructive society. It is a way that helps you squeeze every iota of awareness from life and at the same time helps you come to terms with our own limited understanding of a vast and incomprehensible universe. It doesn't require that you turn your back on personal freedom, and, modern knowledge---but it does augment them with a deep wisdom about what it means to be a human being.

For me, gaining the wisdom of the Dao is the secret elixir of internal alchemy. It is what I seek when I do things like practicing "holding onto the One", "sitting and forgetting", or, taijiquan. It is what I look for when I read Daoist texts. Whenever I come across the word "Xian", or talk about Daoists and Daoism, I never use the common word "immortal". Instead I use the phrase "realized man".

From this point of view, the idea of creating a "heavenly fetus" over a long period of sustained spiritual practice is a metaphor for reforming my personality and becoming a better person. And the amazing spiritual powers like riding Phoenixes or joining the Jade Emperor's Court, are about the serenity and wisdom that come from that reformation. Ask a reformed opium addict or alcoholic about what is more important---power over others or the ability to overcome their addiction, and I suspect that they would opt for the latter over the former every time. That's real power. Immortality is much the same. What value would there be in living forever if it meant that if you had to watch everyone you love grow old and die? As a Zen story says, it is a real blessing to simply be in harmony with the natural order of life and death:  "father dies, son dies, grandson dies".


I started out suggesting that in all religions one has to decide whether or not you see the texts as being literally factual, or metaphoric. All the faiths of the world have had to deal with conflicts with modern science and culture. And each of them, in turn, has split along this fault line into "fundamentalist" and "reform" bodies. It is hardly surprising that Daoism also has this tendency. Ho's book is a suggestion of what a fundamentalist type of Daoist spirituality might look like. I'm a modern, educated Canadian man and this sort of Daoism has little appeal to me. Unfortunately, a lot of what calls itself "Taoist" in the West comes down to not much more than "don't worry, be happy" and the Dao of Pooh. My hope is that I can push a little bit against both tendencies with my writing.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Daoist China: Governance, Economics, Culture

Livia Kohn, the noted Daoist scholar and practitioner has recently published a new book titled Daoist
Livia Kohn,
image c/o Boston University 
China: Governance, Economics, Culture
. It's available at the Three Pines Press for a little under $30, US.

It's a simple book with a lot of useful information. It consists of a lot short little essays that deal with a specific issue in modern China---usually from a Daoist perspective. Each chapter ends with a list of links so anyone with an interest can pursue their exploration of the issue in greater depth.

The list of chapters pretty much describes all the stuff she deals with. The first twenty are:
1. The China Experiment
2. The Party
3. Religious Control
4. The Chinese Daoist Association
5. The White Cloud Temple
6. Complete Perfection
7. Levels of Priesthood
8. The Kundao Curriculum
9. Personal Attraction
10. Tourism
11. Sacred Mountains
12. Daoist Sites
13. Laozi
14. New Expansions
15. Public Spectaculars
16. Martial Arts
17. Mount Wudang
18. Spreading Abroad
19. International Masters
20. Daoism in the West
After these, they go on for a further forty to total out at sixty. 

This is a format that I find increasingly drawn to as a reader. I have to measure my time with an eye-dropper because of all my commitments, so the ability to take a ten or twenty minutes to read a short chapter means that I can read the book whenever I have a moment with nothing to do. And I've also gotten to the point where I am pretty happy if I can learn one or two things in reading a book. (Just to give an example, Kohn makes a throw-away statement early on about Daoist initiates being encouraged to travel and learn from different teachers---called "cloud walking". This is useful to me because I had the same understanding, although I have come across writers who've said that this describes a type of walking meditation. It's nice to have some confirmation from a respected scholar with lots of experience talking to Daoists in China.)


Years ago as part of a lawsuit against Walmart aimed at preserving a Jesuit retreat centre, I gave a little demonstration of a Daoist ritual. I freely admit that I'm no expert on such things, but I did some research and came up with what I hope was a reasonable approximation. I wore some robes, and burnt a "paper horse" that I downloaded from the Internet. Then I burnt some requests to various members of the pantheon with "Hell money" as "travelling money". When I was finished, I told the Jesuits to throw the ashes in a nearby pond as a gift to the local dragon. I then went inside, gave a little talk, and, answered questions.

It was received quite well by most of the folks present---who were a collection of interested citizens and members of the clergy. On the way out, however, a friend who is a Benedictine nun said a strange thing to me, "Oh it must be so liberating to be able to make all this stuff up from thin air". I sometimes hear this from people. They've never heard about Daoism before, so it's "just make believe"---not "real" like what they grew up with. I try (sometimes with greater or lesser success) to not be offended by this, but it is simply not true. Daoism does exist. It is a recognized tradition, and it has a history, books, buildings, etc. Professor Kohn's book is a useful antidote to this idea because it not only shows the "nuts and bolts" of modern Chinese Daoist culture, it helps people understand how it's sensibility is still important to the culture of the world's second largest economy.  


I recently started getting involved in the Reddit subgroup about Daoism. I need to market my latest book (Digging Your Own Well), and the open secret about social media is that flogging yourself on it actually works. I was a bit reticent to do so, however, because there is a large section of the population that has gotten a bad English version of the Laozi and thinks that all there is to Daoism is to just read it over and over again. If they really want to get esoteric and read a commentary, they will break down and look at Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh. The problem with this is that there is a huge body of Daoist literature---much of it now in English translation---and a continuing tradition that teaches a wide variety of spiritual practices. With the tremendous resources that now exist through the Internet to learn more and more, why would someone just read a (often bad) translation of one book over and over again instead of reaching out to learn more?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Mencius: How Much Do We Owe Our Fellow Citizen?

Mencius, public domain image.
C/o the Wiki Commons
I've been working my way through the David Hinton translation of Mencius for quite a while because I think that anyone who is interested in Daoism should also have a bit of an understanding of Confucianism too. Indeed, the temple that introduced me to the Way not only made the Classic of Filial Piety one of its core texts, it allowed Confucians (the "priests of Ru") to perform rituals in the building. (According to my teacher, the Temple belonged to the geographic community, not any one particular religion. Indeed, he once suggested that it be named "the People's Temple". Unfortunately, the association of this name with the infamous Jones Town cult meant that the board of directors opposed this suggestion.)


Consider this passage:
"These days, if someone in your house gets in a fight, it's fine to rush out and rescue them with your hair hanging loose and your cap untied. But if it's someone from your village that's fighting, then it's wrong. In fact, it's perfectly fine if you just bolt your door and ignore it."     
Mencius, David Hinton Trans, Chapt VIII, Section 29

Of course, Mencius doesn't really think "it's perfectly fine to just bolt your door and ignore it". Indeed, earlier on in this section he talks about Yu and Hou Chi. "Yu the Great" was a legendary ruler of China who introduced the people to hydraulic engineering as a means of controlling flooding. And Hou Chi (or "Hou Ji") was the hero who introduced Northern China to growing millet---China's first staple crop. Mencius says of these men that whenever Yu heard of a person drowning he felt that it was his fault. Hou Ji felt the same way whenever he heard of someone starving. Mencius is contrasting Yu and Hou Ji to the "ordinary man" of his day---who simply doesn't want to get involved unless he has "skin in the game".


This raises an interesting question. How should we react towards the sufferings of complete strangers? Here's another take on the issue, from the excellent movie "The Third Man".

Harry Lime (the character played by Orson Welles) says something to the effect of: "Look at those little people on the street. To us they look like little more than ants. Who cares if they live or die---especially if you can make a lot of money in the process? (Tax-free, no less!)" He then goes on to make a dubious claim about culture, namely that the Swiss have had 500 years of peace, democracy, and, prosperity and have produced little more than the cuckoo clock; whereas Italy at the time of Borgias was a cesspool  of violent intrigue yet it produced the great art of the Renaissance.

I wrote "dubious" because actually the cuckoo clock is a German invention and at the time of Borgias the Swiss had the most powerful army in Europe. This meant that their soldiers were in high demand, which is why the Pope to this day is protected by Swiss mercenaries. This is an important point to consider, because Lime is expressing a very persuasive bit of sophistry in an attempt to convince his friend to work for him instead of the police. And what he does is pretty awful---he steals antibiotics, dilutes them, and, sells adulterated product to desperate people with sick children. Indeed, Lime's friend decides to hand him over to the police after they show him a ward full of children who suffered permanent brain damage as a result of treatment with Lime's shoddy medicine. (Think "meningitis".)


So who should we believe? Mencius or Lime? When a person dies should we feel responsible like Yu the Great did? Or should we simply see them as "ants" that are probably better off dead anyway?

The first thing to remember is that this isn't a logical argument. Confucianism isn't about rational analysis according to the canons of reason. Instead, it's about introspection of our emotions. The traditional Confucian argument is that people are innately concerned about the well-being of others. And the archetypal image that they present in support of this idea is the child crawling towards the open well. The argument is that almost everyone would prevent the child from falling in. But this raises the question posed by Harry Lime---what if you really don't care? What if money really is more important to you than the well-being of others. This isn't a hypothetical question, as illustrated by the crazy behaviour of businesses around the world. Consider, if you will, the actions of milk producers in China who put melamine in their product because it will "spoof" the protein testing system that defines quality of milk.

If you go back to Harry Lime's monologue in the above YouTube clip, around the 1:30 mark he starts to introduce a general theory about people's motivation.  
"Nobody thinks in terms of human beings. Governments don't, why should we? They talk about "the people" and "the proletariat"---I talk about "the suckers" and "the mugs". It's the same thing. They have their "five year plans" and so have I."
Think carefully about this argument. It is an attempt by Lime to move from the relatively easily-defended position of saying "it isn't true that all people care about others" to the totally indefensible position of "it is actually true that nobody cares about others".  This point of view is totally ridiculous. Obviously a great many people care about what happens to other people, which is why there was outrage around the world when people found out companies were putting melamine in milk used in baby formula.


Is it possible that Lime really believes that "everyone does it"? I think that he just might. Consider the following line of argument. The world we live in is, bye-and-large, an abstraction. Instead, the people we interact with is very limited:  our immediate family, who we work with, and a small number of friends. And some of us know a lot fewer people than others. I have a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances from all my years in politics. Other people I meet, however, seem to only know co-workers and family members. Others have wider circles of friendship---but they are limited to a particular subculture, such as a church or other religious organization. Increasingly, I suspect that a significant fraction of the population have self-selected themselves into a subculture of like-minded people who only really interact with people who also see things much the same way.

What if someone is surrounded by criminals like Harry Lime? Could he eventually honestly say "Nobody thinks in terms of human beings---"? He's not right, but he's making an understandable statistical error---he's generalizing about a much larger population based upon an analysis of a non-randomly selected sample: the criminal underworld. If you live in that milieu and never socialize with anyone outside of it, you can start to really believe some pretty strange things.


There's another side to this. People aren't simple. They can hold several opinions at the same time---sometimes ones which directly contradict each other. This is what we mean when we say someone is "conflicted" or "on the horns of a dilemma". A person can be like Harry Lime and honestly think that "everyone does it" and at the same time have a nagging feeling that he is still doing something wrong. Indeed, why does Lime think that he has to justify himself to his friend at all? Why not just shoot him and throw the body out the car of the Ferris wheel?

In cases like these, the arguments that they put forward can be attempts to talk themselves into believing what they say that they believe. Years ago I watched a totally ridiculous movie called "Frankenhooker". It was about a modern-day Victor Frankenstein who's girlfriend was killed and her body destroyed from the neck down. This modern-day Prometheus decided to bring her back to life by killing prostitutes and building her the "perfect body" by stitching together their best parts. In one of many over-the-top scenes the protagonist started having moral qualms so he performed an self-inflicted lobotomy on himself with a electric drill to ream the conscience out of his brain. Do people create crazy arguments in a similar attempt to get those pesky second-thoughts out of the equation so you can continue to make tax-free money off poisoning children? Is Harry Lime using ideas like an electric drill to remove a residual conscience? 

Indeed, could it be that in some minimal way a part of Harry is hoping that his friend will talk him out of his amoral point of view? Confucians put a lot of emphasis on the importance of remonstration in the face of evil. Indeed, a previous post I did on Mencius (Mencius: Filial Piety and the Rise of Neo-Fascism) mentioned the responsibility of scholars to disagree with people---family members or government leaders---who have talked themselves into taking immoral actions. How much of a moral responsibility lies on Harry's friend to try and talk Harry into ending his criminal activities?


Bev Oda, spendthrift Tory
Public domain image c/o Wiki Commons
I'm making a big deal about this issue because I often come across people who justify immoral behaviour in politics on the basis of "everyone does it". In fact, I think that this idea gets a lot of people into real trouble. For example, it seems to be something of a "thing" for politicians to go absolutely wild with their expense accounts. For example, consider Bev Oda---a Conservative Cabinet minister in the Stephen Harper government. She got into hot water after people found out she spent thousands and thousands on limo rides, fancy hotels, and---most famously---$16 for a single glass of orange juice. (I could cite several more recent examples from the Trump government in the US.)

I suspect that these people come into office under the assumption that government is a total cesspool and that "everyone" spends money like water. (That seems to motivate a great many conservative politicians.) With this assumption in mind, it's easy to move towards the idea that "everyone does it---so why not me?" Another possible explanation could be that some of these people start to mix with the very wealthy as part of their time in office and begin to lose track of the fact that the vast majority of people have to watch their money and spending $16 for one glass of OJ is just not acceptable.


Having trouble with an expense account is one thing. But this attitude can also encompass far worse things. If you believe that the opposition are a bunch of amoral traitors, then that would encourage someone to believe that "the ends justify the means". This is part of the reason why Donald Trump has been so damaging to American political culture. He encourages people to believe all sort of outrageous things, such as:
  • Barack Obama wasn't born in the USA and was therefore unqualified to be President
  • Hillary Clinton is guilty of criminal behaviour and should be put in prison
  • prestigious news organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post routinely print "fake news"
  • that immigrants are mostly thieves and rapists who come from "shit hole countries" to take advantage of "entitlement" programs 
This sort of political discourse is dangerous in the extreme because it encourages a fraction of the population to believe that they live in extremely dangerous times where a true patriot should seriously consider taking extreme measures to ensure the survival of his society. Just to consider how much American political culture has changed in the last ten years, consider this clip by the Republican candidate for president in 2008. 

You can see that the poisonous partisanship that was overtaking American society had already affected people that were attending McCain's rally. (Don't pay too much attention to the idiotic questions---listen to the crowd's reaction when the Senator answered them.) I think that what you heard was McCain's honest, personal feelings when confronted by the awful ideas that ordinary voters who supported the Republicans were believing. (McCain deserves some blame for the current mess too. He is a coward who routinely "caved" in order to get along with his idiotic supporters. Don't forget that he inflicted Sarah Palin on the body politic.) 


The big thing that I want readers to get from this post is process related. I'm trying to show you the sort of discursive analysis that Confucians use to make sense of the world around them. Mencius draws from the history of China to compare the way Yu the Great thought of his fellow citizens and how ordinary folks did in his time. In the same way, I've been drawing from today's news as well as films to illustrate important issues. It isn't a logical argument in the sense of using set theory or truth functional calculus. Instead, it is an attempt to develop more and more articulate understandings of our own personal emotions and what we think is right and wrong about the world around us. It isn't a form of meditation as we commonly understand the term, but it does have the effect of calming the mind and developing a deeper understanding. I think of it as "Confucian contemplation". 

Among other things, our culture is suffering from a "crisis of clarity". Hordes of highly-paid "spin-masters" are paid huge sums of money to confuse the general public into supporting very dubious policies. We have fake news, foreign propaganda influencing elections, media that play people's emotions like organists, and, politicians building successful careers on not much more than bullshit and outrage. In a situation like this it is vitally important for citizens to learn how to dispassionately contemplate the world we inhabit and carefully parse out what they do and do not agree with. Moreover, we also need these people to go forth into the public sphere and remonstrate with both the people they meet and the community's leadership in order to push back against the avalanche of fear and anger that they have unleashed.  


Alas, if you thought you would avoid the begging bowl it's not going to happen. I put a lot of effort into these posts and I wouldn't be helping the cause of "creatives" all over the Web if I didn't remind people that if you like this sort of thing you should consider supporting it. I understand that some people don't have a lot of money, and the great thing about using the Patreon model is that it will never take away content and hide it away from people who cannot support it. But if you can help out, consider even as little as $1 a month or per post through Patreon. Tips are appreciated too---if you especially like one particular post or you feel particularly generous. Also, consider buying a book. Finally, share the post through social media. Word-of-mouth is the big advantage that good writing has over expensive advertising, and it is essential for building support. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Something About "Fate"

Like most people, I am a little confused about the concept of "free will". Actually, that's not true. I've come to the conclusion that it really doesn't exist---at least as most people understand the concept. Increasingly, I find the idea of "Fate" much more appealing. Let me illustrate one aspect of it using an idea that came to me the other day.


Not an uncommon sight where I work.
Public Domain Image c/o Wiki Commons
I work in an academic library of a University that has a veterinary college. As a result, it is very common to see dogs in the building. Most of these are "service dogs in training"---ranging in size from quite small puppies, to larger, almost adult animals.

Until my dear sweet significant other got a dog, I had no idea why people brought these puppies into the building. But Misha explained to me that dogs have to be "socialized" to be able to function in situations where people and other dogs are present. This is only possible during a very short "window of opportunity" when they are quite young. If it doesn't happen, the dogs will never be comfortable around other dogs or people, and this will manifest itself either in extreme fear or aggression. Just by way of an example, her best friend---who is a professional dog trainer---has a German Shepherd ("Karbon") that was never socialized around other dogs and will basically kill any other dog on sight. (It's a wonderful dog---but in some ways it is sorta like a pygmy tyrannosaur.)  As I see it, being properly socialized as a puppy is an intrinsic element in the "fate" of a dog. If it is raised like Karbon, it will never be able to interact with other canines.


What has this got to do with people? Well, I have a intuition that humans also have a limited opportunity to "socialize" when they are young. If a child doesn't get a chance to learn how to interact with others, it will struggle with those relationships for the rest of his life. Please note, I wrote "struggle with", not "will be incapable of ever". Human beings are not dogs. We have higher level reasoning than dogs, which means that we are capable of learning very complex social behaviours in later stages of life. Moreover, we have access to a very rich cultural inheritance, which allows us to learn from the experiences of others through art, literature, philosophy, social science, therapy, and, dialogue with other people.

What got me thinking about all of this was the recent sad incident where a young man was so angry about his frustration with women that he drove a rented van down a busy street in Toronto---killing and injuring 26 people, mostly women. After the event, people mentioned that he had made the following statement on social media before heading out for the attack:
Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4chan please. C23249161. The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!
Reading this short statement it's important to understand that the guy, is using a very rich set of coded language, which includes the following terms:

  • 4chan
  • Incel
  • Chads
  • Stacys
  • Supreme Gentleman
  • Elliot Rodger
Before the mass killing happened, I was only vaguely aware of a couple of these terms and had never really heard about the rest. Since then, I've been reading about and studying all of them. That too has got me thinking about the idea of "fate". 


Not really all that awful an image, eh? 
4chan is an imageboard-style social media website that has evolved into a place where people can "misbehave" without being given a hard time. There is no attempt to force people to use their real names (like FaceBook), nor are there any community guidelines, or, moderators enforcing a code of conduct. The result is mostly a lot of interesting pictures with the sort of childish comments you'd expect from teenage boys who believe no adult is listening.  

And, as you might imagine---teenage boys et al---there are also naked pictures of women too. Most of this seems pretty harmless, but there is one "board" that is a little different: "Politically Incorrect". I pulled it up and in a very short time saw the words "kike", "faggot", and, "nigga" being thrown around. There's also an shout out for Siege magazine---proclaimed as being "proudly Judenfrei since 1933".

Yup, "politically incorrect" is right.

This doesn't really surprise me all that much. Young, very intelligent young men who feel somewhat alienated from society get enjoyment from shocking other people. I know that I did at one time. I still do once in a great while. This isn't just something that men do---women too. I know my significant other sometimes gets so angry about the way the world treats her (Dao knows she has a right to be pissed), that she goes on long rants about "the penis". I try to just listen patiently. She directs all this at me, which I've learned doesn't mean that she is angry with me---just that she feels safe and comfortable enough to say it in my presence. And I've repeatedly told her to vent away---that's part of being in a relationship.

In fact, I recently watched a really intense comedy show on Netflix by Ali Wong that bases a lot of its jokes on shocking audiences (using very crude language) about how awful it is to be a woman in a sexist world. (The trailer is quite mellow compared to most of the show.)

I'm enough of a "fuddy-duddy" to have been quite shocked by what this woman was talking about. One thing in particular took me a while to process. She was talking about men giving her "head". She mimed forcing them to "go down" on her in parks, public washrooms, etc. I was more than a little perplexed by why so many women in the audience thought that this was hilarious. Then I realized that what she was doing was taking many women's experience of being coerced and talked into unpleasant teenage experiences giving "blow jobs" to their boy friends and "inverting" them.

So it is possible to dismiss all this idiotic racist and misogynistic talk as just being "humour".

And indeed, a great deal of the time people dismiss this as not being much more than ironic. Indeed, when I was young I can remember reading National Lampoon---which was filled with what would today be considered incredibly sexist
This is far from the most offense thing
that I saw in National Lampoon, but
you get the idea. Fair use.
and racist stuff. But at the time, I considered all that as just being "ironic". For example, I remember one cartoon where a couple of grotesquely-caricatured black men in a pickup were pulled over by a sheriff and ordered to secure a load of trash. Lacking any tarp or ropes, he made one of them lay on top to stop things from blowing off. Driving down the road, an observer opined "People are getting so wasteful nowadays. There's someone who just threw out a perfectly good n*gg*r". My teenage mind said to itself "yup, that's the way those racist pigs think about Negros".

The problem with this, among other things, is that it creates camouflage for real racists and sexists. The thing about symbols and language is that the same image, word, or, story can mean very different things to different people. In the example of the old cartoon I described above there can be three different reactions.

First, it is going to act as a "barrier" towards the entry of people who would be critical of the culture that is on display in social media groups like 4Chan "politically incorrect". Anyone who has direct experience of racism and how awful it is in people's lives is not going to want to spend any time there. Nor are any people who have absorbed a superficial antagonism towards it through some sort of ideological standpoint (these are the SJW types that sometimes really do deserve ridicule for wearing their "grooviness" like a badge---which is known as "virtue signalling".) By using racist language and posting overtly racist images (or sexist, homophobic, etc), the site keeps out enough people who might find all this stuff juvenile and offensive that it creates a "safe space" where people can indulge in this talk without being reprimanded.

Secondly, it can serve as a way of "desensitizing" or "coarsening" people's reaction to racist images and ideas. This is probably the core reason why a whole type of humour that was very common in my childhood has disappeared. There were lots and lots of jokes about Poles, Jews, Newfies, etc, when I was young. Indeed, broadly drawn racial caricatures were part of some very famous, serious movies. Take a look at this clip from the otherwise excellent movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's".

The well-known actor Mickey Rooney put on some false teeth and played an embarrassingly awful racist stereotype of a Japanese man. The role has zero relationship to the plot and seems to have been tossed into the story simply to evoke "cheap laughs". The elimination of this type of "humour" that has happened in society in my short lifetime, IMHO, seems to have been pretty much only the result of "political correct" disapproval becoming more and more common in society. The "Politically Incorrect" space on places like 4chan is an attempt to create a "safe haven" where this sort of old-school stupidity is allowed to flourish.

Finally, this "desensitization zone" gives really nasty racists (sexists, homophobes, etc) a place where they can "fish" for the people who really are vulnerable to their propaganda. So among all the adolescents who are just trying to shock others with their outrageous language, established racist organizations put out links to their own Webpages---like the Daily Stormer

The great thing for racists about using 4chan is that they can always "play" the naive and make them look foolish. This is because "insiders" constantly skate around by tossing around memes and images in ways that are designed to confuse anyone who hasn't invested effort into learning the "inside lingo". To cite one example, consider the phrase I quoted above about Seige Magazine being "Judenfrei since 1933". It's not an old Nazi publication but instead a new art design magazine. If I'd assumed it was the former instead of the latter---and hadn't bothered checking---I would have been identifiable as a silly old fart who doesn't know what he is talking about. That would have totally discredited anything I have to say in the eyes of the "young, hip guys" that are the mainstay of this site. (The problem, of course, is that the only way to be able to avoid these traps is to spend enormous amounts of time cruising these sites, which is more than any reasonable person will do.) 

To cite one famous defender of this idiocy,  
Just as the kids of the 60s shocked their parents with promiscuity, long hair and rock’n’roll, so too do the alt-right’s young meme brigades shock older generations with outrageous caricatures, from the Jewish “Shlomo Shekelburg” to “Remove Kebab,” an internet in-joke about the Bosnian genocide. These caricatures are often spliced together with Millennial pop culture references, from old 4chan memes like pepe the frog, to anime and My Little Pony references.

Are they actually bigots? No more than death metal devotees in the 80s were actually Satanists. For them, it’s simply a means to fluster their grandparents. Currently, the Grandfather-in-Chief is Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who attracted the attention of this group on Twitter after attacking them as “childless single men who jerk off to anime.”


The next question is "what is an "incel""? The word is a "portmanteau" of "involuntary celibate", and refers to people who---as we used to say---"don't get around a lot". It's true that young males have always had this insane sex drive that makes a lot of men somewhat nutty pretty well into their 40s. But the problem that I'm trying to identify is that social media technology has allowed a subset of these people to get together and create an "alternative society" with it's own ideas about what does or doesn't make any sense. And one of those ideas is that there is a definable group of people that society has decided are "failures" in some sort of sexual arms race.

The way they describe becoming aware of this "fact" is by "choosing the 'black pill'". The image comes from the movie "The Matrix" where the hero has to choose between two metaphors:  a "red pill" that means he understands that the world around him is a comfortable illusion masking a dark truth; or; the "blue pill" that would allow him to give in to the illusion and forget that the possibility that it could all be an illusion. For incels, the black pill is the personal realization that they are failures who have totally lost the genetic arms race for sex. 

To get an idea of how their reasoning works, consider the following "black pill" argument that I came across in the FAQ part of the website. Basically, it brings economic analysis to the "Tinder economy". To understand this, however, you first have to know what "Tinder" is, which I have to assume at least some of my readers don't. At it's most basic, Tinder is a dating app for your smart phone that allows people to put up photos of themselves that a person can look at and instantly decide whether or not they are someone they would like to talk to. It's an instant, almost unconscious decision. If that person also decides that you are someone that they would like to talk to, then an opportunity arises to use a chat feature. If the conversation "clicks", then you can set up a date to connect in person. (No, I've never used this thing. I'm just working from the Wikipedia article.)

There is data out there that suggests that 80% of the women on Tinder are only interested in 20% of the men. This attraction is based on physical appearance---which is to be expected when all they have to go on is a photo on a cell phone app. The black pill argument then goes on to say that this means that sexual inequality is actually worse in modern American than economic inequality.
This image originally came off a Web page called
"Tinder Experiments II", used under fair use provision.

These successful men who have lots "hits" on Tinder (and presumably lots of sex too) are known as "Chads". The incels find themselves in the situation where the overwhelming majority of women that they might have sex with are chasing the 20% of the population that are Chads---which freezes them out of the market.

(Of course this is analysis is insane because it is based on the data that comes from a particularly skewed sample---people who date based exclusively on the basis of looks. In effect, this is how the very limited pool of very shallow, looks-obsessed people select a mate. It really says nothing at all about how the vast majority of couples end up together. I wouldn't be surprised if not a single person who reads this blog has ever used Tinder---and I suspect that lots haven't even heard of it.)


But once someone has eaten the black pill, they can then go on to build a whole social world-view on that foundation. The next step is to find out where women fit into this, which leads to "Stacys". These are the "sexually-desirable, dominant women" who drive incels crazy with lust but are only interested in Chads. The "second-rate" females are "Beckys", but they only want to have sex with Chads too---which is the root of the problem for the incels. Since the sexual revolution women have managed to undermine and remove all the biological and social underpinnings of monogamy. Birth control means that sex is possible without creating a child. Legal changes no longer punish women for having sex with non-husbands. And, equality in the workplace and the welfare state mean that women no longer are financially dependent on a male "bread winner". Once the need for a specific, permanent relationship with a man went away, women were free to follow their "natural instinct" to find and have sex exclusively with Chads, which is where we have 80% of women chasing after 20% of men. The implication is that Chads are screwing almost all the women in the world, who are happily becoming parts of "virtual harems" for these guys.


As for the "supreme gentleman Elliot Roger", that was a young man who went on a killing rampage in 2014 because of his frustration with women who wouldn't have sex with him. Before he set out, he recorded a monologue on YouTube that describes his sense of frustration and justifies his actions before the fact. (Warning, it's kinda disturbing to watch. Keep your children away from it---.)

Of course, strange people do strange things all the time. And moreover, some of them try to justify their behaviour. The unabomber had his manifesto, to cite one case. But usually subcommunities don't latch onto these folks and start making them into folk heroes to emulate.


I started off this disturbing mess of a post by introducing the idea of "fate" and the need to expose puppies to crowds of people and other dogs in order to prevent vicious or terrified adult animals. What has this to do with incels? Well, as I suggested, I think that there are probably parallels between dogs and human beings. If a human child isn't socialized properly in his development, he is going to have a problem getting along with other people---which will include finding a mate. As someone who spent his early teen years totally isolated from others my own age except in school, I can relate. Girls and women were a totally mysterious quantity for much of my early adult life, which led to some extreme frustration. Luckily, there were no internet rabbit holes like "4chan" that I could disappear down and be exposed to crazy fever dreams like the incel movement. Instead, I had to work through my "issues" with the help of friends, therapists, and, the great thinkers of the ages---in the form of philosophy, and, Daoism.

We are not isolated, atomic individuals who get to pick and choose what ideas we live our lives around. To a very large extent we are instead created by the ideas we are exposed to. That's because we are eusocial animals---like termites, bees, and, ants. Only instead of being controlled by chemical signals that send us off in search of food for the colony, we exchange memes (self-replicating fragments of culture) that influence our behaviour. The fellow who drove the rented van down the sidewalk in Toronto wasn't some crazed Richard the Third character who "choose to make good his evil, and evil his good", instead he was an individual with "issues" who was influenced by a dysfunctional minority culture to the point of committing mass murder. In this, he was not any different from the guy who walked into a Quebec mosque with a gun and shot a bunch of people, or, the fellows who hi-jacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Centre. All of these people immersed themselves in a weird subculture that created a new way of looking at the world that convinced them that killing a lot of people "just made sense" and was actually "heroic". 

This is the point that needs to be emphasized. Our society labours under an idiotic macro-culture that says that each of us is an individual, atomic, Cartesian individual who has the ability to consciously and rationally choose their actions according to our "free will". I understand why it has yet to give up this absurd fantasy:  our criminal justice and dominant religious culture is built on this assumption. But if we really want to understand why crazy shit like this keeps happening, we need to give up this childish idea and start understanding the ancient idea of "fate". People are controlled by the experiences that mold and shape the way their minds operate---including the strange subcultures that are emerging from the Internet. And, if we want to really curb this sort of nutty behaviour, we need to encourage social science to look at these subcultures and develop mechanisms to vaccinate people against these crazy ideas. One suggestion I that comes to my mind would be to teach children critical thinking skills from an early age instead of teaching them to "shut up and do what they are told"---which was certainly the subtext of everything I learned in primary school, and, church. Another one would be to encourage our leaders to stop babbling on about "evil" whenever some outrage occurs, and instead encourage debate about how these things really do come about.


Lest people think I'm reading too much into all of this. Consider the following quotes. There is this guy named Jordan Peterson, who is one of the highest paid YouTube personalities on the Web. He also has a best-selling book titled 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. He was recently profiled by the New York Times, where he explained the problem that led to the recent mass killing in Toronto:
“He was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” Mr. Peterson says of the Toronto killer. “The cure for that is enforced monogamy. That’s actually why monogamy emerges.”
Mr. Peterson does not pause when he says this. Enforced monogamy is, to him, simply a rational solution. Otherwise women will all only go for the most high-status men, he explains, and that couldn’t make either gender happy in the end.
“Half the men fail,” he says, meaning that they don’t procreate. “And no one cares about the men who fail.”
I laugh, because it is absurd.
“You’re laughing about them,” he says, giving me a disappointed look. “That’s because you’re female.”
Peterson has taken some criticism for this statement, which he explains by saying that he isn't talking about laws, "just" social pressure. You know, like employers refusing to hire women, doctors refusing to give women access to birth control, schools refusing to allow girls to take "men's courses"---stuff like that. The sort of things that people did when I was young, and which the nasty state has outlawed because of politically correct types having too much influence on society.

Jordan Peterson wants you ladies to marry someone---or else!
photo by Adam Jacobs, c/o Wiki Commons

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Book Review: Daoist "Cli-Fi"

Last month I got an email from one of my regular readers asking if I'd be interested in reading a book he just published titled Voice of the Elders. When I answered in the affirmative, Greg Ripley (the author) sent me a review version and I've spent the last month reading it in dribs and drabs whenever I had the time. (Between this blog, my other one, working full time, etc, I have to measure my time with an eye-dropper.) I'm glad I made the effort.

Greg Ripley
The plot revolves around a young woman, Rohini Haakonsen, who attends a youth conference on Climate Change at the United Nations. Totally unexpectedly, a representative of a mysterious alien race, "the Elders", arrives and announces that they have decided to help humanity deal with this existential threat. They literally "pop into existence" and "mind dump" huge amounts of information into the heads of various world leaders, engineers, and, scientists about how they can quickly "rejig" the world economy into one that is no longer dependant on fossil fuels. A nefarious industrialist---who is heavily invested in fossil fuels---organises a terrorist campaign against this transition, and, a secret Daoist organisation emerges to help Rohini and the Elders. Daring do, wisdom teachings, and, hints at future conflicts to be resolved in sequel novels are woven together into a pretty good piece of escapist fiction.


Eva Wong, (from YouTube)
"fair use" provision. 
The first thing to understand is that there is a tradition in Daoism of using popular literature as a teaching medium. The idea is based on the idea that "it's easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar". If you want people to learn about what you are teaching, don't bother with ponderous, hard-to-understand books of philosophy, just write an engaging novel that explains your ideas as part of an enjoyable plot. Indeed, it was with this idea in mind that the guy who initiated me into Daoism suggested Eva Wong (another person from my temple) translate Seven Taoist Masters into English. (I don't generally suggest that people read Wong's translations because they are usually horrible. But I've never found another English version of this book, so I've added the link.) Another, much longer, more well known example is Journey to the West. (This link is to the W.J.F. Jenner translation, which is the best one I've found---there are lots of really bad, abridged translations too.)

So the idea of writing a popular novel to explain Daoist ideas is not innovative but rather part of the tradition. Having said that, just how good is the Daoism in Voice of the Elders?

Ripley manages to work in a bit of lore from religious Daoism, including thing like a brief description of the Three Pure Ones and the martial prowess of the Wu Dang Shan monks. Even the name of the mysterious, alien "Elders" is a good choice---that is the what scholars say was the original meaning of the name "Laozi", who is supposed to be the author of the Dao De Jing. On the experiences of the characters, I cannot fault the author. He does a good job of explaining the psychological elements of "sitting and forgetting" and gets right some subtleties that an outsider might not. For example, he mentions the strong emotional responses from people that lead to uncontrollable weeping. In the Temple where I was taught, one of the staff people was assigned to provide towels to people when this happened---and it did. Even the stuff that outsiders might think far-fetched---like the secret international society---aren't as odd as you might think. Indeed, I once met a man who had been taught hung-gar at an early age by a secret society---"the Chinese Free-Masons"---in Victoria, British Columbia.


You may have noticed that I've removed all the advertisements off the blog. This is because the ad market for small guys like me has pretty much dried up. That's OK anyway, because I never really was all that comfortable with advertising in the first place.

Having said that, as I approach retirement and have added another "mouth to feed" to my costs, I am trying to access a little more money for my soon-to-be much less income. In addition, I now see myself as someone who is a member of the "creator class" on the Web, and I think I should "do my bit" to help create a culture where people get used to supporting the people who consume the art they create. To that end, I've added a Patreon button to the top of the right column. I've been using it on my other blog and have started getting subscribers. If anyone feels like they gain from my posts, consider subscribing for a buck a month---or whatever you think best. Feel free to buy a book or make a one time donation too. Everything helps. 

One of the "creatives" that I support with monthly payments articulated something about this Patreon subscription model that I thought worth passing on. He said that people call things like Uber and Air BnB part of an emerging "sharing economy". That's nonsense, these are just businesses like anything else. But providing things through Patreon really is sharing. That's because people who can afford to pay support the opportunities of people who literally cannot pay to read the content. That's the difference between Patreon and a paywall. 


Fair Use copyright provision
The book isn't just about Daoism, it is also something that specifically sets out to be part of the "Cli-Fi" genre. This is an emerging literary style that integrates climate change into the world that book's characters inhabit. Another example is John Michael Greer's Star's Reach, where climate change has melted the ice cap, the Eastern part of the mid-West United States now experiences a monsoon season, Florida is under water, the South West is an uninhabitable desert, and, society is managed by Druid-like priestesses who enforce a strict code of law that provides for things like burying alive anyone who gets caught using fossil fuels. Octavia Butler's "Parable Books" (mentioned in my last post) also loosely fit into the genre.  In that universe, climate change has damaged the USA's society and strengthened Canada---which now has a militarily-defended wall on its Southern border to keep out illegal immigrants.

In the case of Ripley's book, the climate issue serves to create the plot in that the "Elders" are driven by concern about the future of humanity to actively intervene even though it isn't something that they are generally inclined to do. It also drives conflict by creating a motive for shadowy business leaders to fund a campaign of sabotage against renewable energy installations and terrorism against any humans who are working with the Elders. Since a great many environmentalists do get a lot of opposition from big business, this is a perfectly understandable plot device too. Just in my own personal case, I've been called a "terrorist" in print, had lawyers threaten to take away my home and life savings through lawsuits, got death threats over the phone, and, caught private investigators snooping around my life. And, it certainly is the case that lots of environmentalists have been murdered for organising against collective suicide.


So while it is true that there is nothing in this book that either does violence to various teachings in Daoism, or stretches credibility to the snapping point (at least vis-a-vis human society), I do have some quibbles. 

There are different ways of understanding what Daoism is all about. And some people put a lot of emphasis on things like "Qi", "meridians", "energy", etc. I can understand where all of this comes from, as I have experienced the sorts of feelings that people describe as "Qi", felt if "flow" through my body, and so on. It is also something that is definitely part of the tradition. But I am also a modern man who has a graduate from a competent modern university. And I believe that a lot of this stuff is simply---for lack of a long discussion which I'ved had in other blog posts---a lot of "woo-woo" that needs to be discarded.

I come to things from a very different point of view. My emphasis is on the more prosaic goal of becoming a "realized man" in the sense of dispelling delusion and gaining wisdom. My first meditation teacher explained this with a story. He talked about two disciples who were talking about how great their respective teachers were. One of them said that his teacher could hold up a brush on one side of a river and write on a piece of paper someone held on the other side. The second one said that this was nothing---his teacher managed to eat only when he was hungry and sleep when he was tired. (These are two skills that I have yet to master myself.)

I mention this point because as I see it, real Daoists would not be secretive or use special powers, instead, they would be inherently invisible to outside society because the vast majority of people wouldn't have the categories of thought necessary to process the information that they are seeing. Let me illustrate with a martial art called capoeira. For those of you who don't know, capoeira is a martial art native to Brazil and which incorporates a lot of African dancing and music into it. It really is very different from the Chinese or European martial arts. Let me explain to you how I see things when my viewpoint is informed by the small amount of Daoism that I have learned over my life.


Here's a video of "the money game" and something I think is called "the urban ritual" (I'm far from knowing much about capoeira.) Pay really close attention to the first minute or so and you will notice that there is a small bit of folded paper money on the floor of the gym. Watch how the two men go through their movements on the floor and one the fellow maneuvers the other guy away from the money so he can pick it up with his teeth.

What has happened is that there was a strictly strategic competition between two people to gain access to a specific location without making yourself vulnerable to a counter-attack by your opponent.

The majority of the demonstration is something called "the urban ritual". I don't know how capoeira explains this, but it seems obvious to me that what is happening is a very involved exercise in learning how to adapt to the tempo and balance of another person. As such, it is much like the "push hands" of taijiquan. In retrospect, it makes sense that a martial art that comes with African roots and which is practiced in time to music accompaniment would put a huge emphasis on tempo.

So what has all of this got to do with Daoism and Voice of the Elders? Well, I'd suggest that if real "super Daoists" were to intervene into world society in order to prevent an ecological holocaust they'd use some sort of subtle mechanism that ordinary people are pretty much oblivious to---like the tempo that capoeira teacher uses to win the "money game" or show off during the "urban ritual".

Instead, Voice of the Elders uses Daoism as a "back drop" for a fairly conventional "spy thriller" in the same vein as a Tom Clancy novel. There is a lot of flying around the world. Gangs of mercenaries attack secret bases. People are killed. The plot is developed by focusing on the psychological quirks of individual law enforcement officers. So forth and so on. 


Of course, I'm not being particularly fair to Greg Ripley. A novel isn't a book of philosophy and if you are going to write something that appeals to the general public an author has to use the same tropes that exist in every other novel in the genre. Greg knows what these are and plays them like a pro. These include:

  •  The rich benefactor (loosely based on Jackie Chan) who provides the private plane that jets people from New York to the Daoist Temple in Chinese hinterland. 
  • The well-trained secret agent body guard with a heart of gold who's assigned to watch over Rohini.
  • The magic mysterious "oriental monk".
  •  The "good Czar" who understands when all the petty bureaucrats don't, in the form of the US president. 
  • The magic space bats (ie: the Elders) who can fix all the world's problems by intervention.
Indeed, it could be argued that Ripley is simply using the "Dao" of publishing to get his ideas out there. If he didn't use these tropes, then he'd never get anyone to publish or read his book. 

And that is the dilemma authors always face. How can I give readers what I have to offer in a way that they will actually want to receive?  You always have to make a choice between conforming to what the market wants so much that you have to water down the message you are trying to make;  or;  being so true to your beliefs that almost no one is interested in what you have to offer. And being able to make this choice already assumes that you have something useful to say and are a good enough writer to express it well---which pretty much excludes most people in the first place. That is why many years ago a friend told me "Writing is very easy. You just smash your head on the keys of your typewriter until the blood comes forth and makes words on the page."

Monday, March 26, 2018

Sympathy, Empathy, FaceBook, and, Cambridge Analytica

I have a hard time watching videos where people do embarrassing things. I have a really hard time. So much so that I generally have to stop, walk away, and do something else. If this becomes a "regular thing" in a series, I have to stop watching altogether. This is annoying, because a fair number of otherwise very funny programs base a significant amount of their jokes on people doing "over the top" stupid things and then making the character "twist in the wind" as they realise how dumb they've been. And because of some quirk of my mind, I totally self-identify with this situation and it makes me feel absolutely horrible. This has meant that several programs---even some that I really liked---simply have become unwatchable by me because I get so agitated.

A couple examples are "King of the Hill", where "Peggy" routinely gets into problems because she thinks she knows Spanish and "teaches" it as a supply teacher in a Texas public school---with "hilarious" results. Another is "Bob's Burgers", where "Linda" simply cannot control her curiosity and as a results trespasses on other people's property with "hilarious" results.

Peggy embarrassed again
Copyright fair use
Linda gets caught
Fair Use

(I know, I know. I watch too much TV. But I live what most people would consider a very productive life and I have to spend some of my waking hours in undirected activity. And anyway, most of the time I use the plots and character development to think about issues like the one this blog post deals with.)


The late and much missed writer Octavia Butler wrote a couple of speculative fiction novels that came to be called "the Parable series". The central character was a woman named Lauren Oya Olamina who was afflicted with a genetic disorder caused by her mother taking a drug to increase her intellectual powers while pregnant. This disease causes Lauren to literally feel the physical pain of anyone that she sees suffering.

The Late Octavia Butler
Wiki Commons, BrillLyle
Of course, it's very hard to understand exactly how someone could end up with a disease that forces her to feel the agony of something like a having her hand cut off just by seeing it happen to someone else. But as a metaphor it works very well to illustrate how different some people's experience of reality is from others. Without getting into the skin of other people, it seems to me that there are very different levels of empathy expressed in the human population. Obviously psychopaths don't even feel anything when they torture people to death (except, of course, pleasure.) But there are a lot of people who are closer to the middle but somewhere towards the unfeeling end of things. These are the folks who don't care about the implications of various government policies. Cutting welfare will dump people out on the streets? They aren't upset as long as their taxes don't go up.

Westbrook Pegler
Photo c/o Wiki Commons
On the other end are people like me that are sometimes called "bleeding heart liberals".  These are the folks who get an overwhelming desire to help whenever they seem someone in distress. You might get a bit of a feel for how wide the gap between various types of people is by learning where that term comes from. If the World Wide Web can be trusted, it comes from a 1936 newspaper column penned by a fellow named Westbrook Pegler. In it he is complaining about a law being proposed to stop lynchings.


At this point I hope that I've pointed out that how people react to the problems of others is quite complex and differs dramatically from person to person. Unfortunately, it is really hard to talk about this issue because our language on the subject is badly muddled.  People understand that there is a difference between "empathy" and "sympathy", but a brief survey of articles on the Web has shown me that there isn't anything like a consensus about what that would be.

For the purposes of this essay, therefore, I'm going to arbitrarily define "empathy" as "a direct emotional feeling that purports to allow someone to feel a close approximation of what another person is going through when they are in distress".  In contrast, I will define "sympathy" as "a conceptual attempt to understand the perspective and situation of someone who is in distress".  Using these definitions,  Lauren Oya and myself are suffering from empathy when we feel the physical and emotional pain of other people. In contrast, I would say that Octavia Butler sympathized with people who feel extreme empathetic anguish when confronted with the suffering of others---which is why she came up with the character of Lauren Oya in her "Parable" books.

Please note that I have tried to be very precise in my language. I didn't write that people feel the exact same things as others, I wrote "that purports". Indeed, when I get my strong empathetic reaction to television actors and cartoon characters, there is no way I could possibly be really feeling another person's actual emotions---simply because I'm not connecting with real human beings. This is absolutely obvious in my example, because I'm talking about by crudely drawn, two-dimensional animated fictional characters.


So what is empathy? I'd suggest that it is simply an instinctual emotion that forces people to think about the good of other members of the "tribe". From an evolutionary perspective, this might seem to be opposed to the idea of "survival of the fittest", but it fits perfectly into modern ideas about "selfish genes". That idea is that "fitness" boils down to "ability to have offspring that share your DNA". And if the DNA comes from a relative instead of directly from you, that's perfectly OK.

For most of our existence, human beings used to live in very small extended family groups or small tribes where everyone was related to each other. So in that context, the person you save in a difficult situation would very probably be related and shares at least some of the same DNA as you. This means that from a Darwinian point of view, helping other people makes perfect evolutionary sense. And the way we integrate this instinct with the high intelligence and self-consciousness that is our "evolutionary advantage" over all other species is by developing a strong emotion towards other human beings. People who's "heart bleeds" are acting on this instinct.


One important thing to remember about the hypothesis I'm positing above is to remember that from an evolutionary point of view, empathy makes sense for a small tribe where everyone is related to each other. So why would people feel empathy about strangers---such as black people in another state that are being lynched? The thing to remember is that evolution is brainless, so much so that Richard Dawkins called it "the blind watchmaker". That is to say, there are many instances that biologists can point to where evolution came up with something that works well enough, but isn't a very good or elegant solution. That's because evolution is a totally non-rational system of trial and error rather than a process where some intelligence designs a solution to a specific problem.

To understand this point, look at the two images below. They represent two different times that natural selection developed what's called "the camera eye". The left image comes from a vertebrate like us, the other is from an octopus. For some reason in our natural history, the nerve fibres connecting the rod and cones in our eyes ended up on the side towards the lens of our eye. This means that where the nerve fibres come together to leave the eye and connect to the brain---they have to create a gap in the light receptors so the nerve fibers can go through them. This creates a blind spot in our eyes. In the octopus the nerves ended up underneath the light receptors, which means that they don't have a blind spot. This not only shows that the same sort of eye evolved twice, through "convergent evolution", but that it is a trial and error system that creates "good enough" results instead of "the best" ones.
"1" are the light receptors, "2" and "3" are the nerve fibers,
and, "4" is the blind spot.  Image care of Wiki-Commons
In the case of empathy, people existed in small tribal groups already, so there was no "need" for evolution to develop some sort of "filter" to ensure that empathy didn't extend to members of the group that were not related to the individual. This means that humans developed empathy for every human human they met. This worked fine for hunter-gatherers, but the situation changed when we started living in larger communities. Now people feel empathy for total strangers who do not share any DNA.

At this point humanity has made the leap from small "packs" (like wolves) to large complex societies (like ants or termites.) So now we are what are called "eusocial animals". It might be that empathy has "leap-frogged" from being a mechanism to encourage continued spread of tribal DNA to being a mechanism for preserving the human "mega-colony" that covers the entire earth. (I'm possibly stretching the science well past the breaking point here.) But even if the continued existence of empathy is a vestigial hold-over that no longer serves a purpose in modern life, our change of circumstances has happened so quickly, that it would make perfect sense for the majority of people to still feel empathy, even if it no longer serves any evolutionary purpose.


If this is the case, why doesn't everyone's heart bleed? Well it's important to realize that in an entire population of a species there is a fair amount of difference between individuals and this can result from two mechanisms:  sub-populations, and, gene expression.

In the former case, there is an advantage for a small percentage of the population to not have empathy because this means that they can benefit from the help of others while at the same time not having to expend the effort of helping anyone else. This is a parasitical relationship, but one that only works if just a small fraction of the public pursues it. If the majority stops having any empathy, then it no longer gives anyone a competitive advantage to be indifferent to suffering of others, because no one else is going to help you either. And that situation also wipes out the collective benefit of empathy in the first place. This means that there is a homeostatic relationship between empathy and psychopathy in any give population of individuals---that is, with a minority of psychopaths and a majority of empaths.

In the gene expression hypothesis, people are born with a "toolbox" of potential behaviours. Which particular tool becomes part of your personality is based on what happened to you at specific times of you early development. For example, it might be the case that certain types of stresses would push someone towards indifference to the suffering of others;  while others would encourage an empathetic response.   

Please note that there is no conflict between these two different explanations. It might be that they both exist. It might also be the case that there are no people who are inherently psychopathic and they are simply people who've had the gene express itself. Moreover, I'm not dismissing anything like a social influence either. I'm not a scientist, but rather a Daoist philosopher and all I'm trying to do is use my limited understanding of the modern scientific consensus to make sense of a complex social phenomenon.


At least one modern thinker, Paul Bloom, has written a book that suggests that empathy can be a bad thing:  Against Empathy. (To be honest, I haven't read this book, but I did watch an hour long lecture by him where explains his ideas, so I think I have a good feel for his thesis.)

He doesn't say that the empathy, per se, is a bad thing. It does help to have that specific emotion that pushes us towards helping others. The problem comes from the ability of emotions to "shut down" or "over-ride" our rational minds. When that happens we tend to forget that we aren't really experiencing the actual feelings of other people, but rather a projection of what we think they are feeling. Moreover, we also tend to "confabulate" (ie: make up explanations in the absence of any real knowledge) a narrative to explain the situation. These two experiences often bear no resemblance to reality at all and will encourage people to pursue behaviour that will not only not help, but often will make the situation far worse. Moreover, this tendency to insert a made-up narrative can be exploited by "dark" elements in society who can amass power by encouraging people to accept a specific narrative that benefits no one except the people promoting that story.


Let's look at one particularly simple example of this behaviour.
A bus advertisement, c/o Guelph "Pro-Life",
Used under the "fair use" copyright provision.
Canada recently passed legislation that allows for doctor-assisted suicide in the case of terminally-ill patients who are suffering and request it. This advertisement is working on the empathy of viewers by suggesting that their personal situation is exactly the same as everyone else's, and they can make complex social decisions based on this "fact". This is complete and utter nonsense. I wake up most mornings with a little pain from my arthritis, but this is absolutely nothing like the pain that some folks suffer with as they slowly "shuffle off this mortal coil". I simply do not know what it is like to suffer through a particularly nasty slow death, neither do I think that the people who made up this bus advertisement. This is because death is that "undiscovered country" that Shakespeare wrote about.

My reaction is one of "sympathy"---as I have defined the term for the purposes of this essay---in that I am trying to reason through the objective truth of the situation and made a rational decision about what would be objectively in the best interest of another person. In contrast, the poster is consciously trying to by-pass "sympathy" and instead elicit a totally "empathic" reaction (again, as I have defined the term.) It says "we're all in danger"---implying that euthanasia will be done to us whether we want it or not, and, that we won't ever want it because we will never want to die no matter how awful life has become.

The real point of view that the "Pro-Life" people are supporting is that of the government should force you to have a slow, horrible death. Why? I suppose if pressed, they would say something to the effect that "God says so".  Another option might be to say "if we allow assisted suicide for the terminally ill in horrible pain, we start on a "slippery slope" that will end up with us euthanizing all disabled people too".

The problem with these two arguments are that "God says so" is that it an appeal to a totally idiosyncratic, hidden authority. Who gets to speak for God? Which God? As for the "slippery slope", that sort of argument is always based on the premise that society is simply incapable of making the sort of relatively simple distinctions that it makes all the time. For example, almost no one argues no one should have a beer once in a while because that will inevitably lead to alcoholism. Similarly, why do we assume that the government can't tell the difference between a person dying in agony and someone who just has to use a wheelchair?


OK. So why mention the issue of empathy at all? Why should anyone outside of academia care? I raise the issue because empathy has an enormous impact on politics. For example, consider the huge march in favour of gun control that recently happened in Washington DC. Hundreds of thousands of people took part primarily because of several mass shootings at schools in the USA. I'm not opposed to this effort, but I do think that it's important to remember that the odds are completely over-whelmingly against anyone being killed by a mass shooter anywhere---even at school.

A quick Web search found a report from the BBC. In the USA in 2015 there were 372 mass shootings that killed 475 people, of these only 64 happened at a school (no numbers are given for those killed at a school.) In contrast, 13,286 people were killed by guns in total. This means that only 4% of gun deaths happened because of mass shootings and a much smaller fraction of those deaths happened at a school. In comparison, 35,092 people of all ages died in motor vehicle crashes in 2015---with 2,715 being teens. This really does raise the rational question "Why are people marching about gun deaths versus motor vehicle deaths?" I would suggest the difference is these people are acting on the basis of "empathy" instead of "sympathy" (as I have defined the terms.)

I'm not really opposed to gun controls. I grew up around guns and can't understand why anyone except the police, the military, or, a few exceptional civilians (eg: armored car guards) need pistols or semi-automatic rifles. But I am concerned about the impact of empathy on politics, because it is something that can so easily stampede voters into supporting terrible policies. People felt a great deal of empathy towards Alan Kurdi when his lifeless body was photographed. Empathy generated by this picture had a dramatic effect on Canadian government policy and led to over 25,000 Syrian refugees entering the country.

This photo brought in 25,000 people to Canada:
photo c/o Wiki Commons 
Again, I have no problem with this particular policy. But the knife cuts both ways. Donald Trump won his election in part by whipping people into an frenzy of empathy over illegal immigrants. For example, consider this campaign advertisement:

The shoe is now on the other foot. We aren't having our empathy "played" to support refugees from a gruesome civil war, instead we are being told that immigrants are vicious killers who murder our heroic police officers. This means that people are being whipped up into a frenzy to not help people in distress, but rather to dick them over.

In case the Trump ad didn't make my case, take a look at this piece of Polish fascist propaganda I quickly found on the Web. The inference from video is that Muslim immigrants (ie: Alan Kurdi and his family) are as great a threat to Europe as the Turkish invasion of Austria---and they require just as vigorous a response.


A while back a person complained that she was annoyed with me for putting these little blue advertisements in my other blog's posts because she said I was "attacking people for not paying". Last month she gave me $100 and apologized because she said she "finally realized" how much work goes into writing these things. I don't ask for money primarily to make people feel guilty, but more out of a sense of obligation towards everyone else who is trying to help humanity make the transition to a better world. I don't want all our culture to be controlled by algorithms that are designed by advertising companies. And the best way to do that is to get people into the habit of paying directly by services like Patreon.  Once in a while I get a donation and it really does make me feel that I'm actually building an audience for my weird take on reality. And that does help me---both financially and emotionally. So, thanks Irv, for being so awesome!


Some readers might respond by saying "so what? we've always had propaganda, what's so different about this?"

People may have heard something about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but I suspect many really don't know what it's about. In a nutshell, this quite sleazy political consulting firm was hired by the Brexit Campaign, Donald Trump, and, others to use very fine-grained FaceBook data (which they obtained under false pretenses) to create targeted ads to individual voters. On the face of it, this doesn't sound all too nefarious. Who cares if people who are concerned about the environment get ads that deal with this issue, while others who care more about healthcare something else?

The problem is, however, that you can sort people into different types of categories and parse them out based on their psychological makeup instead of their voting priorities. What if an ad agency was able to identify the fraction of the population who are potentially compulsive gamblers and direct on-line gambling adverts towards them that encouraged them to try on-line gambling? Or people who might become impulse shoppers? Or, what if a political party could identify those voters who were potentially fearful of "the Other" and sent them advertisements that stoked that fear to make them even more afraid? And what if no one else ever saw those ads, so their friends and family never got a chance to explain how misleading and fallacious they are?


People who've never been involved in politics at a high level usually don't know how technical and "numbers driven" it can be. Let me give a trivial personal example just to illustrate. Years ago I remember getting ahold of the poll maps for my city. I found out our municipal elections had a very, very low voter turnout---about 30%. I also found out that senior homes had something like 100% turnout. I asked around and found out that for mobility reasons the city clerk set up voting stations in each retirement facility. I also found out that most homes "encouraged" the seniors to vote---sometimes to the point where people complained loudly because they knew nothing about the candidates but felt that they had to vote anyway. Moreover, I found that the then mayor exploited this fact by constantly visiting these places to entertain them (he played the piano.) So for all the elders who didn't know anything about city Council, the one name they recognized on the ballot was of "the nice young man who comes to play the piano".

Things have come a long, long way since then. Political parties have extremely detailed lists of voters. These identify which party they support, which issues are of concern, how likely they are to actually vote, whether they give money, and, if they ever volunteer. These databases are protected and constantly polished like the crown jewels---because they are the biggest asset that any political party owns. Who gets to have access to them is the best indicator of the status that anyone has in the organization.

At the same time, social media companies like FaceBook also have created lists that they polish and cherish. These lists include all the same people as the political parties, and they also identify people according to their psychological profile and tendencies. In addition, these companies also offer advertising agencies the ability to separate these people into different demographics: potential compulsive gamblers, people who have a hard time saying "no" to aggressive advertisements, and, folks who are prepared to believe the worst of foreign peoples. This sort of finely-grained sorting is what allows party consultants to craft specific advertisements that are designed to appeal to the worst elements of their emotions.  This is what the Cambridge Analytica scandal is all about.


One last point. No one is suggesting that the impact of directed internet advertising is enough to win an election. Neither is playing a piano in an old folks home. But democratic politics is additive. That is to say, modern parties don't set out to craft a platform and campaign for everyone and hope that a majority support it. Instead, they do polling and build a "winning coalition". This includes their "base" who will vote for them through thick and thin (these are the people who would vote for a "yellow dog" if it had the right party affiliation.) When you've identified that, then you have to try to find "wedge issues". These are specific policies that are so important to a fraction of the electorate that they will vote on it and ignore everything else the politicians are talking about (eg: abortion.) Add a couple of these to platform, plus the base, and you approach a chance of winning. Toss in Gerrymandering and some voter suppression, and you get even closer. Using a targeted series of ads that will whip that last fraction of the voting public into voting for you can make the difference about whether or not your candidate ends elected or not. 

This doesn't mean that the candidate that a party puts forward (eg: Clinton) doesn't still have an impact on the election. But in "winner takes all" situations, the dirty tricks that parties pursue can push a candidate that last little inch needed to come first across the finish line.


What should readers take away from this monstrous pig of a blog post?

First, they should realize what all the fuss about social media is about. It might not be the case that Cambridge Analytica (or Russian interference for that matter) was all that important in the last US election. Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate and the "neo-liberal consensus" that she is identified with is well past it's "best before date". But even if this is so, it is tremendously useful for people to start being concerned about how the interaction between increasingly complex computer analysis and sophisticated psychology makes a significant fraction of the public easily manipulated. If this is a "fake scandal", it is still a tremendously useful starting point for important collective discussion.

Secondly, as part of that discussion I think it's also very important for us to ask "what is it about our society that makes so many people willing to believe such over-the-top idiocy?" Is it perhaps that the old "mass market" society of the 20th century and an educational system that was designed to make people into docile factory workers simply simply doesn't work in the emerging 21st century society? Perhaps our electoral systems and representative democracies need a significant rethink too.

Fodder for future blog posts by myself or others---.