Book:Universally Preferable Behaviour/2
For countless generations, mankind lived in a kind of egocentric womb of self-imposed ignorance: the world was flat, the sun, moon and stars revolved around him, ancestors beckoned to him from beyond the mists of death, and thunder was the anger of the gods.
Burrowing out from this narcissistic womb of subjective interpretation required the labour of millennia – and cost the lives of millions. The effort required to wrench our perspective from perceptual experience to conceptual logic was terrifying, exhilarating, highly disorienting and extremely dangerous. Understanding that the world was not what it felt like, or seemed like, was – and remains – the greatest feat of our intelligence. The truth of reality turned out to be in the eyes of the mind, not of the flesh.
The world looks flat; it is not. The sun and the moon look the same size; they are not. The stars seem to move around the earth; they do not. Learning the truth requires that we see the world from outside our senses – this does not mean a rejection of our senses, but an airtight compliance with the real evidence of the senses, which is not that the world is flat, but that matter, energy and physical laws are consistent. When we let go of a rock in our hand, it falls – this is the real evidence of the senses, not that the Earth is fixed and immovable. The idea that the world is immobile is an incorrect assumption that contradicts the direct evidence of our senses, which is that everything falls. If everything falls, the world cannot be fixed and immovable.
These are the little truths of the everyday; that rocks fall, smoke rises, fire is hot and the sun and the moon are both round. If we remain steadfastly and rigorously committed to these “little truths,” we can in time derive the great truths of physics, which provide us such awesome knowledge and power.
In between the little truths and the great truths, however, are the illusions that blind us – both in physics and in ethics.
In physics, the great truths cannot contradict the little truths. No “unified field theory” can validly contradict our direct sense-experience of a falling rock or a rising flame. The greatest mathematical theory cannot be valid if applying it returns incorrect change at the checkout counter.
Historically, however, in between our own little truths and the great truths lies what I will call the “null zone.”
The "Null Zone"
We tell our children not to punch each other, and we believe that violence is wrong in the abstract, as a general moral rule. The “little truth” is: don’t punch. The “great truth” is: violence is wrong.
However, there exists in our minds an imaginary entity called “God,” and this entity is considered perfectly moral. Unfortunately, this entity continually and grossly violates the edict that “violence is wrong” by drowning the world, consigning souls to hell despite a perfect foreknowledge of their “decisions,” sanctioning rape, murder, theft, assault and other actions that we would condemn as utterly evil in any individual.
Thus we have the little truth (don’t punch) and the great truth (violence is wrong) but in the middle, we have this “null zone” where the complete opposite of both our little truths and our great truths is considered perfectly true.
Historically, we can see the same inconsistency in physics. There are no perfect circles in our direct experience, but because of a belief in God, all planetary motion had to be a “perfect circle” – a premise that retarded astronomy for centuries. Similarly, if a man turns his head, he does not reasonably believe that the entire world rotates around him – and he would happily put this forward as not just his own “little truth,” but as a great truth, or universal principle. Yet for most of human history, it was believed that the stars and planets rotated around the Earth, rather than that the Earth rotated. Here again we can see the “null zone” between direct sense experience and universal principle, wherein entirely opposite principles are considered to be perfectly valid.
No sane man experiences God directly. In his daily life, he fully accepts that that which cannot be perceived does not exist. No reasonable man flinches every time he takes a step, fearing an invisible wall that might be barring his way. The greatest abstractions of science support his approach.
Conversely, in the “null zone” of religion, the exact opposite of both the little truths and the great truths is believed to be true. Personally, a man believes that that which cannot be perceived does not exist – intellectually, science has proven this repeatedly. However, in the “null zone” of theology, the exact opposite proposition holds true – the axiom there is that which cannot be perceived must exist.
Our belief in the virtue of the military also lies in this “null zone.” If a private man is paid to murder another man, we call him a “gun for hire,” and condemn him as a hit man. If, however, this man puts on a green costume with certain ribbons and commits the same act, we hail him as a hero and reward him with a pension. The little truth (I should not murder) is perfectly consistent with the great truth (murder is wrong) – yet in the middle there lies a “null zone,” where murder magically becomes “virtuous.”
If this “null zone” is valid, then no logical proposition can ever hold. If a proposition is true – and the exact opposite of that proposition is also true – then logical reasoning becomes impossible. The growth of rational science has been the steady attack upon this “null zone,” and the incursion of objective consistency into these mad little pockets of subjective whim.
In old maps, before cartographers had finished their explorations, the drawings of known lands would fade into blank paper. The growth of knowledge requires first a delineation of what is not known, and then an expansion of known principles into the unknown areas.
The same is true in the realm of morality.
Crossing this “null zone” is fraught with peril. The road from the little truths to the great truths is paved with the bones of millions. From the death of Socrates to the torture of early scientists by religious zealots, to the millions who have murdered and died for the black fantasies of fascism and communism, any forward-thrust of human knowledge into the “null zone” is fraught with considerable danger.
Must “crossing the null zone” – or seamlessly uniting the little truths with the great truths – inevitably be so difficult and dangerous? It is an enormous challenge to unite the perceptual with the conceptual in a straight line of logical reasoning – but must this progress take thousands of years and oceans of blood?
If we look at the technological and economic progress of mankind, we see more or less a flat line for countless millennia, followed by massive and asymptotic spikes over the past few hundred years. It is inconceivable that some widespread genetic mutation could account for this sudden and enormous acceleration of intellectual consistency and material success. Theories claiming that a certain “snowball effect” came into existence, mysteriously propelled by an accumulation of all the little increments of knowledge that had occurred since the dawn of civilisation, can usually be dismissed out of hand as entirely ex post facto explanations, since they have no predictive value.
If we understand that our staggering potential has been available to us for at least tens of thousands of years – and that there is both great profit and great pleasure in exercising it – then it at once becomes clear that we really do want to use our amazing minds.
Thus there must be a downward force that has historically acted to crush and enslave the natural liberty of mankind.
In the realm of science, it is not too hard to see the oppressive forces that continually kept our minds in near-primeval ignorance. The combination of superstition in the form of religion, and violence in the form of the aristocracy, threatened rational thinkers with intimidation, imprisonment, torture, and murder. Just as a farmer profits from the low intelligence of his cows, and a slave-owner profits from the fear of his slaves, priests and kings retained their privileges by threatening with death anyone who dared to think.
The simple truth is that “priests” and “kings” were – and are – merely men. The simple truth is that the gods and devils that were supposed to justify their rule never existed.
We have made great strides in understanding the nature and reality of simple human equality, but the sad fact of the matter is that the realm of morality is still lost in the “null zone” – in the destructive illusions of the “middle truths.”
Let us call the oppositional principles that reside in the “null zone” – between sense perception and conceptual consistency – the “middle truths.”
These “middle truths” are the most dangerous illusions of all, because they grant the appearance of truth while actually attacking the truth.
By providing the illusion that we have found the truth, “middle truths” actually prevent us from gaining the truth. They are the last line of defence for fantasy, predation and exploitation.
Since they are not only irrational, but anti-rational, “middle truths” remain endlessly flexible – as long as they serve those in power. For instance, Christianity arose out of the growing fascism of the late Roman Empire partly by lashing out at the “primitive” superstitions of existing theologies. “Forget your old gods, we have a brand new God who is far better!”
“Middle truths” always take the form of a truth, followed by a lie. “Zeus is a pagan superstition” is a true statement, which was openly made by Christian proselytisers. The lie that followed was: “Yahweh is not a pagan superstition, but a real and living God.”
We can personalise this a little bit more with an example that will be familiar to anyone who has ever counselled a dysfunctional friend. “My last boyfriend was a real jerk,” she will say, and you will fervently agree. “My new boyfriend is really great though,” she will add, and you will try not to roll your eyes.
It is very hard not to replace one illusion with another.
“The British government is a tyranny!” cried the American revolutionaries in the eighteenth century – and, after evicting the British troops, they then set up their own government and started attacking their own citizens.
“Aristocracy is an unjust abomination!” cried other revolutionaries, who then set up the tyranny of the majority in the form of democracy.
“Middle truths” can also exist in science, and similarly prevent the natural progress from the little truths to the great truths. Until the eighteenth century, for instance, biologists believed in “spontaneous generation,” or the idea that life can spring from nonliving matter. This had never been observed, of course, but conformed to ancient writings both philosophical and religious, and so was accepted as fact. Also, prior to the Einsteinian revolution in 1905, light was believed to move through a fixed and invisible substance called “luminiferous ether,” just as sound waves move through air. No scientist who believed in this theory had any empirical evidence for this “ether,” either personally or scientifically – but it was considered necessary to conform to other observable characteristics.
Religion is also another “middle truth” – one of the most dangerous ones. It is true that we are a unique species in the universe, as far as we know. A giraffe is a taller quadruped, but man is not just a “smarter” primate, but something quite different. The nature of that difference remains largely unknown – the religious explanation of “we are not the same as animals because we have a soul and were created by a God” is just another example of a “middle truth.” It is true that we are very different from animals. It is not true that we were created by a god and have a soul.
Just as some parasites cannot take root until they dislodge the prior parasites, “middle truths” only attack previous illusions so that they can take their place. Those who are sceptical of the prior fantasies are drawn towards the new fantasy. Thus does Christianity displace paganism, Marxism displace Christianity, post-modernism displace Marxism, democracy displace aristocracy, and so on.
Until the great truths are achieved, and united with the little truths, “middle truths” are just a rotating phalanx of exploitive and destructive falsehoods – specifically designed to prevent the achievement of the great truths.
And the great truths are always achieved from the little truths.
The world falls because a rock falls.
"Middle Truths" And Exploitation
Biologically, parasitism is a wholly viable survival strategy for many creatures. In the absence of ethical norms, stealing energy and resources from other creatures is perfectly sensible. In general, the most sustainable and stable form of parasitism is symbiosis, or mutually beneficial coexistence. Thus the bacteria that inhabit our intestines aid their own survival by helping us digest our food.
However, a virus that renders us continually exhausted, and barely able to keep ourselves alive, can scarcely be called “mutually beneficial.” If we think of our long and grim history of disaster, starvation, war, disease and poverty – and compare it with the astounding material successes of modernity – it is clear that a form of parasitism tyrannised our minds and capacities for millennia. Now that the last few hundred years have shown the power and creativity of the human spirit, we can view our species as an organism that has shaken off a terrible parasite, and sprung from an endless gasping deathbed to perform the most astounding feats of gymnastics.
When we cure ourselves of a disease, we feel better, but the disease does not. From the perspective of the smallpox virus, the smallpox vaccine is genocidal.
In the same way, the parasites that strangle mankind view the liberty of the majority with horror. Since their parasitism frees them from the demands of reality – to earn their daily bread – they inevitably view the freedom of the masses as a form of enslavement for themselves. Thus would a farmer view the “liberation” of his livestock as an utter disaster…
Establishing truth necessarily limits fantasy. Limiting fantasy necessarily limits exploitation. If I can convince you that I am a living man-God, and that the God who birthed me wants you to give me ten percent of your income, or you will be punished for eternity, then I can become exceedingly rich. I am a parasite of illusions, and depend on those illusions for my sustenance as surely as fungus relies on warmth, dampness – and darkness.
Those who use moral fantasies to exploit mankind have always fought tooth and nail against those who threaten their livelihood by discovering and disseminating the truth.
We are familiar with the example of the Mafia, which threatens potential rivals with maiming and death, or the spectacle of religious sects attacking each other, or one government attacking another.
When philosophers expose the falsehoods necessary for continued exploitation, however, they are ideally not aiming to set themselves up as competitors. They do not wish to replace the Mafia, or the church – they wish to eliminate it completely.
A more modern analogy would be the relationship between the state, lobbyists and taxpayers. Lobbyists will ferociously attack other lobbyists who compete for the same tax dollars. However, imagine how all lobbyists would band together to attack anyone who proposed eliminating the state as an institution.
Parasites will aggressively compete with one another for the host’s limited resources – but it is in their best interest to band together to attack anything that threatens to eliminate the host itself.
In this way, in any society where the state and the church are nominally separated, each entity tends to compete for adherents. Where the church begins to lose ground, the state will aggressively recruit patriots – resulting in secular socialism. Where the state begins to lose ground, the church will aggressively recruit adherents – resulting in religious fundamentalism, often with tinges of libertarianism.
However, the philosophers who oppose all intellectual error are the sworn enemies of all the parasites that feed off illusions. The “great truths” of physics eliminate the need for supernatural agents, and render miracles impossible. The explanatory power of science wholly outshines the religious fictions that masquerade as knowledge about the physical world.
The scientific method requires that every thesis be supported by evidence and rationality. Since there is no evidence for gods – and the very idea of gods is innately self-contradictory – the thesis “gods exist” cannot stand. Inevitably, the religious parasites attempt to defend their thesis by trying to split reality into “two realms” – the scientific and the spiritual. However, there is no evidence for the existence of this “spiritual” realm in the present, any more than there was for the parallel universe of Platonic “Forms” two thousand five hundred years ago.
Thus the establishment of consistent and universal truth necessarily limits and destroys the exploitive potential of illusion. In particular, the “great truths,” which are universal and consistent, make redundant and ridiculous the “middle truths” – which are in fact exploitive fantasies. We are familiar with the “middle truth” of religion; a few others will be examined and revealed here, some of which may shock you.
The most effective parasites – or viruses – are those which fool the body into indifference. Our immune systems are designed to attack foreign substances within the body, isolating and killing them. We fear HIV and cancer in particular because they are able to bypass our immune systems. The same technique is used by intellectual parasites to disable the defence systems of those they prey upon.
If a stranger attacks you in an alley and demands your money, you will be horrified and appalled. You may fight back, you may run, or you may give him your wallet, but you would remain shocked, angry and frightened by the interaction. When you repeated the story, you would tell it in a way that reinforced the base and vile violation of your personal and property rights. Others would feel sympathy for your predicament, and would avoid said alley in the future.
This is an example of a “little truth,” which is: “Stealing from me is wrong.”
However, when a government agent sends you a letter demanding that you pay him money, you may feel a certain indignity, but you would not relate the story with the same horror and indignation to your friends.
This is an example of a “middle truth,” which obscures a “great truth,” which is that “stealing is wrong.”
This book will focus on exposing and destroying these false “middle truths.” I believe that mankind suffers endlessly under the tyranny of false ethical “middle truths” which justify the destructive world-views of religious superstition, secular despotism and the cult of the family.
My thesis in this book is that in ethics, as in every other intellectual discipline, the great truths arise directly from the little truths. The disorienting fog of the “middle truths” is a hellish path to navigate, but it is worth struggling through, because the only fundamental alternative to truth is exploitation, destruction – and, inevitably, the untimely demise of millions.