Casting Your Shadow Online

Occasionally I’ll migrate a post from Facebook to here because I think it’s worth keeping. This is one of those.


Every few months or so, I try to communicate how the Shadow works, and why we shouldn’t unfriend people on social media for provocative ideas and sanitize our intellectual space. Here’s another angle. Ask yourself, wouldn’t it be great if there weren’t evil in the world? Well, it’s a wrongheaded question from a certain standpoint. There’s no evil in the world. It’s all in you. Deep, huh? No, seriously. How do you know that those around you aren’t robots? Because you process them as fellow moral agents. You paint them with non-robot qualities.

If I were to sever the connection between your limbic system and your prefrontal cortex, something that happens (and may have happened to some extent to the recent mass shooter, by the way), you would lose your ability to do moral calculation. The upside would be that evil would be removed from the world for you. The downside is that you might have a hard time deciding not to butcher and eat the baby when you get hungry.

Perfectly non-evil people do horrifying things all the time, because they’re brain-damaged. Those of us who aren’t don’t have an excuse.

The evil out there is purely theoretical. Your own evil? That shit is real. If social media is to do more good than evil, we have to use it responsibly. Trying not to provoke other people is part of it, but not being provoked is our first duty.

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“A Winter Comes Without a Spring that I Shall Ever See”*

So why is the movie Spring a romance on par with Casablanca for me? First, a disclaimer about criticism. A work of art has more dimensions than any criticism of it. I mean this figuratively, but it’s a tight analogy: a review stands in relation to a book or movie as a photo, or at best a set of photos, does in relation to a sculpture. I published nearly a hundred reviews by Lucius Shepard, and he was consistently right about films from the viewpoint he chose to take, but I thought he often dismissed what was good about a movie to concentrate on what didn’t work. He would stare hard into the butt-crack of Michelangelo’s David, so to speak, before grudgingly admitting it was better than most statues, taking the butt-crack view. Our mutual teacher Kate Wilhelm told both of us independently and years apart that she didn’t think The Lord of the Rings worked, and she was right, I think — according to the same principle. It’s still the best fantasy series ever.

I wouldn’t open with such a blow-hardy disclaimer if I didn’t care about the film enough to validate the experience and look out for the time of those who wouldn’t like it. It’s not going to be on par with Casablanca for most people. If you are wondering whether to watch Spring but don’t want me to give anything away, then maybe this will help: it’s a romance, not a horror movie. Its foil would be Let the Right One In, at least the Swedish original, which I consider the best vampire movie ever, and for me the most disturbing, decidedly a horror movie, staring into the bleak dark hole at the bottom of existence. Physical and spiritual mutilation has damned the young victim of Let the Right One In, who must tragically thirst after a kind of eternal spring while gripped by winter, disdaining the other seasons, clinging to decadent immortality; Spring, on the other hand, is about the final breaking of a true spring after a long, wearying dalliance with unending life.

Now for the spoilers….

Spring is Beauty and the Beast with Beauty as the beast. Louise is a chimera, both genetic and mythic, who has always lost herself in her loveless loves. But the difference between tragedy and poignancy is that tragedy reveals the now-hopeless death of potential or the irresolvable bleak paradox, and that’s not Spring: the horror is backgrounded, not foregrounded. Ultimately, she and the grieving Evan find a little eddy of peace and eternity adjacent to the indifferent forces of nature that claimed her family and toys with her in a parody of reproduction.

In connection with the instincts, I often think of the passage from Kings where Elijah is on the Mount to encounter God: “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” For many religious people, Darwin’s theory is a challenge because they must imagine transcendent God to be in the wind or the earthquake, or following the symbols in Spring, the volcanic eruption or the implacable genes, and because God must necessarily be good and omnipotent, there aren’t any impersonal forces, and everything you do has a simple moral meaning that can be codified.

Well, they’re entitled to their religious view but not to facts, and they are wrong that the facts of evolution are not the facts. An atheist sees their error at the level of facts and dismisses both their literalist conception of God, just as I do, and the whole God project, which I do not. I’ve got a weirder take on God: not in the wind or the earthquake, but next to it, like Louise and Evan. Suffering and loss await them as surely as they do for the old man who has made a deity of his late wife, but he lives in bliss just as much as in grief for what she means to him (in a way that starkly contrasts the elderly and similarly obsessed but used-up minions of the creature in Let the Right One In). Ancient pagan and Christian iconography abound in Spring for good reason: the movie reaches for a statement on love and fertility at the highest level, and so is hugely ambitious for a quiet, low-budget “horror” feature.

At the end of Spring, the past two thousand years and the coming fifty or so converge in a fleeting expression of transcendence. Louise has found a love that she will neither dominate nor be lost in. Poignantly, I’d say, rather than tragically, they will grow old and die.

But there will be a baby.

*Tolkien, of course. I was thinking specifically of Arwen’s sacrifice to wed Aragorn and have children.

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The Kindly Pit and the Pendulum

I recently finished Jonathan Rauch’s book Kindly Inquisitors, the New Attacks on Free Thought (expanded edition), and I think everyone who would style themselves a modern thinker, and especially a liberal, should read it. For the last decade, I’ve been trying to come up with a formula to combat the rampant illiberalism of social justice epistemology that so many people find seductive, and which will clearly (at least to me) lead us to hell. There has always been this authoritarian strain in liberal activism that has subverted the march of liberalism but then swept in to lay claim to its victories. Women’s rights, gay rights, and the civil rights movements owe their successes to liberal free speech, not identitarianism. Rauch originally wrote this book in the early nineties out of dismay that the West coddled radical Islamists in their fatwa against Salman Rushdie, but the epistemology he’s criticizing is clearly the same among identitarian activists.

What does it mean to be a liberal in the epistemological if not strictly political sense? Rauch lays out five rival principles for collectively arriving at true knowledge and justice:

1. The Fundamentalist Principle: Those who know the truth should decide who is right.

2. The Simple Egalitarian Principle: All sincere persons’ beliefs have equal claims to respect.

3. The Radical Egalitarian Principle: Like the simple egalitarian principle, but the beliefs of persons in historically oppressed classes or groups get special consideration.

4. The Humanitarian Principle: Any of the above, but with the condition that the first priority be to cause no hurt.

5. The Liberal Principle: Checking of each by each through public criticism is the only legitimate way to decide who is right.

Rauch argues why the liberal principle, though counterintuitive, is the correct approach, in both the domains of knowledge production and social justice. I thought initially this might be a glib or strident diatribe against certain partisans, but it admirably rises above specific political issues even as it confronts them to explore their epistemological implications.

The new counterculture is liberal-epistemological, not identitarian. We will either join this movement or suffer, maybe even perish, given how important concerted action will be now against environmental collapse. (And here’s where I have a problem with Rauch, because he seems to be a climate change skeptic and a bit deficient in scientific education, though I find his approach to gaining knowledge unimpeachable.) Rauch, as a gay Jewish man, pleads that we recognize the power of free speech, even deplorable benighted speech as we see it, to bring about durable progress. The first edition of this book came out nearly thirty years ago, but it’s more relevant today than then.

One thing that Rauch deeply impressed me with was the value even of intransigent fundamentalism to the debate: as long as it’s checked by a free-speech environment.

This book and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind may be the two most important books I’ve read since the start of covid.

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Alienation from Work

My friend Dr. Greg Scorzo interviewed me a couple weeks ago for his Culture on the Offensive podcast series, and he used my essay Liberalism Needs a Housecleaning as a discussion springboard. I greatly enjoy talking with Greg, and I hate to let him down, which I feel I might have done right off the bat. Why did I open my essay with, in particular, a comment about Adam Smith and Marx? If I remember correctly, I replied that I valued their observations, Smith’s in particular, over any prescriptions they made or might be derived from them, but I didn’t go into detail. I didn’t think even to emphasize that while I’m more of a philosophical conservative, my point wasn’t to discount Marx but merely to confess my bias.

With the benefit of time to ponder, here’s what I wish I’d said. Continue reading

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Thoughts on Discursive Modes and Critical Thinking

I have been a guest lecturer twice now for an undergraduate critical-thinking class at University of Wyoming, and these are among the notes I gave out, minus the last paragraph, which is a late addition.

Continue reading
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A Bayesian Approach to Better Logic

You probably have noticed that I say the same things over and over again. I’m well aware, but I try to say them in different ways. I’ve written many times about how discourse at any given time follows a mode that is either objective, religio-aesthetic, or political. A mode is form of conduct consistent with a given mindset, but that does not mean that the people engaged in the mode actually have the mindset, and to suppose they do is not logically rigorous. For example, a scientist may be passionately arguing the evidence because his reputation is on the line (that is, he’s politically motivated), but as long as he argues according to the strictures of scientific debate, he’s not in a political mode. A given conversation might range back and forth or vacillate quickly between modes, but those trained in a certain mode can hold to it. Politics easily dominates a conversation because everything we do has some motivation behind it. Again, though, that does not vitiate the idea — or the potential of observing — the mode itself.

So one thing that confuses people when I talk about the religio-aesthetic mode is my summing it up as the mode of irrational human truth, of art broadly defined and of religious feeling. It doesn’t sit well with people generally to think of art as either irrational or nonpolitical. Well, the mode of defining things is the objective mode, and it’s difficult to interpret one mode in terms of another. But here’s what might help. We have evolved emotional, intuitive thought-heuristics for survival. We can use logic to guide these intuitions but the intuitions themselves follow a different process than abstract logic does. They were, after all, evolved to line up emotions with the goals of survival, and the “right” answer there is survival, which just happened to be rational enough times that the very concept of rationality could carve out a space for itself. But what’s an example of this problem of evolved intuition not actually being rational? Well, a friend of mine brought this up in the context of applying Bayes’ Theorem to intuition, and sent me a link to a video similar to the following, which I think is a tad more accessible than the one he actually sent:

The religio-aesthetic mode is about exploring the direct experience of evolved heuristics, and the truth it puts you in touch with is a _human_ truth that cannot be fully appreciated from the logical mode; it’s an answer to logically unanswerable questions, at the level of feeling: What’s the meaning of life? Why is love better than hate? Does a song move me? What is the value of a scary movie? We can attempt to answer these questions logically from premises we come up with, but that’s objective-mode stuff. Religio-aesthetic mode stuff is about feeling the answer. And since we are emotional creatures, it’s really impossible for us to participate in the logical mode without feeling the correctness of a logical proposition. But while emotion is essential to the process of logic at the level of motivation and a feeling of understanding (you know that little dopamine hit when the lights go on and you finally really get something you’ve been taught?), logic itself works whether you’re doing it or a computer is doing it, and so far, our computers feel neither smugness for the correct calculations nor chagrin at their errors… as far as we know. [I’ll follow up with another post with another link my friend gave me on the issue of motivation and Bayes’ Theorem.]

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Age of Monsters, Available in Ebook and Trade Paperback

My teen romance about roleplaying gamers in 1980s Portland, Oregon, is live at Amazon.

If you are not interested in Dungeons & Dragons, Portland, teen romance, or vampires, werewolves, giants, or cannibal hags — both terrestrial and aquatic — this will probably not be for you. But if it might be, then I recommend it. Despite all the frustration it’s caused me, it still inspires me. Thanks to Richard Garfield, Pete Adkison, Jesper Myrfors, Jonathan Tweet, Loren Rosson III, Skaff Elias, and Bryan Costanich for the generous blurbs, Catska for the beautiful cover, and everyone else who helped my effort to revise it and pushed me to get it done!

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Shying Away from Meaning

I promised my best friend a couple weeks ago that I’d stop posting on Facebook and get back to writing fiction. And then something happened, and I felt I had to write about it, but I just couldn’t, and instead I did the last two posts to approach what I had to write about.

And it didn’t help.

Two weeks ago, we had a tragedy in town that has upset me like few others that haven’t affected me personally, though it’s a near miss, given that my sister has been close to the people involved. To get some relief from contemplating it, I watched the documentary My Octopus Teacher, and I saw some things clearly that had been only on the periphery of my thought and understanding for most of my life.

The octopus is a very strange product of evolution, an exception that proves general rules. Most creatures with a wide-dispersal strategy for reproduction have a small energy budget for intelligence: fish, mosquitoes, snails. Intelligence is so costly that it’s generally associated with modest broods and parental care of offspring. But nature loaded the octopus with intelligence and amazing dexterity and camouflage ability, along with a short life and no parental support after birth. The male dies after mating. The female dies a short time after hatching her eggs, which can number in the hundreds of thousands.

While most predators teach their young to hunt, among other survival skills, the world itself teaches the octopus, and it’s an instruction marked by huge attrition. Those that survive to maturity are intelligent, playful innocents. And even for them, life is a game that’s soon over, with no transmission of knowledge, and little companionship. You might say, they’re just animals, and oblivious, and the idea of their intelligence and innocence is a silly projection.


I can’t answer with confidence. It’s clear for the filmmaker who spent every day of a year with an octopus, the creature was sentient. His tears at the end of the movie are disturbing. We can scarcely enter his experience, even though he’s done a good job of sharing it, and he has far more authority than anyone else over it. If he is right to cry over his octopus, which he is according to my reckoning, then he’s revealed a larger and stranger world than the one that most of us inhabit. Can you really empathize with an octopus and meet it where it lives? That’s not really the point, is it? He encountered more of himself in the octopus than he had anticipated. He unlocked more of his own potential, and shared some of it. (“Humans are the only animals that matter,” a conservative friend said to me, and this is true, and that which _matters to us_, matters, especially if it challenges us to grow. So conservation is our duty. We are impoverished if we shirk it.)

I promised in an earlier post to explain how the theory of evolution underlies my own sense of meaning, where for many people it threatens to smash their faith. On one level, I really don’t have a choice. There’s no doubting the model. It’s ironclad. There are people who reject it, and there are people who understand it. That may seem dogmatic if you’ve been taught there’s any real controversy, but no, if you have, you’ve been misled, and when I make this binary pronouncement, it’s just the same thing one might observe about physics, or math, or chemistry.

Evolution is a fact, and a challenge for anyone looking to nature for the intervention of God. Christians hold that God gave us freewill, and beyond that we have nature through which we glimpse the lineaments of supernature and by which God directs us toward meaning. He dishes out his miracles sparingly, but he does intercede… or so goes the teaching.

I don’t know. I suspect all texts regarding miracles are figurative. A world that has such wondrous and tragic creatures as the octopus must be one where nature is free to probe out any possibility, any beautiful or horrible thing that might offer a chance at survival or express the shaping force of pain and death. Evolution is biology groping into any conceivable niche, creating new niches, parasitizing, seducing, dominating, cooperating. What is human love and pain and search for meaning to this blind, amoral process?

Well, meaning is central to our survival, physically and emotionally. How can a meaningless process give rise to a human creature — and maybe other creatures — with needs like that? Because it can, that’s why. It was possible, and it happened, and it is preeminent. And its manifest possibility is the thin wedge between a vast, uncaring universe, and one that’s filled with terrible purpose.

So this is lesson one: nature is free to realize its possibilities. Don’t look there for God’s mercy or lack thereof, unless you are really prepared for a challenge that will take you into your own depths, outside any help from other people, and from which you may not return with anything like your old faith. My once-Catholic fishing buddy — my father’s childhood friend — who was a medic in Vietnam was basically done with churchgoing after the war: “There was no God in charge of what was happening there,” he said.

My own father expressed regret a couple of times that he had not undergone the rite of passage that our mutual friend had. Shortly after Dad died, I said to our friend, “I told him he was crazy to regret not going to war. What do you think?”

“Well, Robert, your old man said the same thing to me when I got back.”


He laughed. “I told him he was crazy.”

Which brings me to lesson two, that puzzling line from The Lord’s Prayer “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” How strange. God does not lead us into temptation, according to any teaching of the Church I know of, but these are supposed to be the words of Christ Himself.

I now read it thusly: “Do not saddle me with such challenges that I cannot keep my faith. In humility I accept that some things may be beyond me. (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)” Three young ladies died suddenly in a car crash the week before last, and one of them I had seen often, though I didn’t really know her. I’d met her at my sister’s probably at least once, certainly at the lunch table at the high school where I play games and discuss computer programming with students, probably walking with one of the young ladies in town I knew to be her friend, my niece maybe, or my neighbor’s daughter. I recognized her picture in the paper, but could not exactly place her. Rather than making her death impersonal, though, the uncertainty of how I recognize her has made her loss ubiquitous: she had been part of this town’s welcoming environment and, like all the most important things, easy to take for granted. I don’t know why contemplating her is so poignant for me. I only have guesses: my heart goes out to her mother, who, like me, raised a one-and-only and invests all her love in her, and so I easily inhabit the idea of her loss. Or maybe it’s the young woman herself, who, it turns out, valued writing as I do, and was a very talented essayist. Or maybe it’s sympathy for my sister, who must feel this even more keenly.

Before leading Kaddish for the dead, the rabbi at the young lady’s outdoor memorial observed, “God has a lot to answer for.” And this is wise and appropriate. Her mother implored us not to forget her daughter, and I won’t. At some level, my fixation on her is my own choice; to let go of it too soon would be to abdicate the responsibility — the dreadful honor — of acknowledging a world that’s bigger than me, where I simply do not have control.

Evolution is a fact. Immortal young people, the children of too many of my friends and acquaintances, die suddenly. A tough free-diver is moved to tears by a dead octopus. And no trite sayings or memes will address this terrible burden we each have, to make sense of it without pretending it’s something it’s not. No amount of philosophical or political argument will let us escape our reckoning. I’ve distracted myself too much with Facebook, to avoid confrontation with meaning. Don’t be like me. Don’t tempt meaning to pursue you while you waste your time in senseless logical argument. A meaningful life is not comfortable for long. A grownup holds not just to faith but to honest doubt.

Okay, Rob, I’m done.

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Lies, Prevarication, and Modes of Discourse

“That’s a lie!”

Have you ever heard that in a serious science debate? If you have, the debate has crossed over from objective discussion to inference of intent. In the logical mode, there is no such thing as a lie, just assertions that can be tested as factually correct or incorrect.

I’ve recounted the following anecdote so many times that I’m bored of it, but I realize that grasping my perspective on politics, art, and science is much easier if you know it.

My satori moment with critical theory arrived when the professor said, “All categorical statements are political.” Suddenly I had a deep emotional awareness of being in the wrong class. I stood up and said, “Including that one!” (Well, maybe I didn’t stand up. I can’t remember.)

Boy was he pissed off!

I quit the class soon after. I’d learned everything I needed to learn from that professor.

No, not all categorical statements are political, unless you are looking for their political potential. There is a disinterested mode of scientific inquiry. Is science political? Again, it’s political if you are looking for its political potential. How about art/religion/meaning? Again, it’s political if you are looking for its political potential. There is a different way to receive art; it’s not just a political tool.

What I should have said to the professor is this: “You’ve set up a paradox here, because not everything is indoctrination and persuasion for negotiating power. There’s a disinterested, curious mode of fact production. With the observation ‘All categorical statements are political,’ do you intend to make a statement of fact, or are you trying to indoctrinate us into a certain political perspective? It can’t be a statement of fact, right? Because then the statement would be self-contradicting. When you’re in the political mode, it is consistent to say that all categorical statements are political, but if you are being a real teacher, you operate outside that mode, and therefore the statement is absurd.”

This is the heart of the lying, sneaky-bastard dragon that I hope to slay.

Don’t lie. Don’t lie to other people. Don’t lie to yourself.

And please, for the love of God, don’t lie to the students you’re entrusted to teach.

In the discussion that attended my posting this on Facebook, one person observed that I always make politics the villain. He also claimed that politics and lies could not be separated.

No, I said, they can be separated.

Here’s the problem. If I say John deserves a raise and then someone says that Bob deserves a raise in the same argument, we may have a struggle. It can be equally true that Bob deserves a raise. However, when the topic is John, in the political mode, it may be functionally dishonest to bring up Bob, because it assumes a premise that isn’t at issue.

That’s how facts compete in the political mode. That’s how All Lives Matter becomes dishonest even as it is a morally correct assertion. Slogans are generally dishonest like this. They are only honest if you share the premise. There is no rule in politics that you can’t state the premise and so be honest. It’s just rarely done. Steel-manning is honest. It supplies a working premise to your opponent, but that premise may still be weak and therefore a logical or moral loser.

You could argue that steel-manning takes us out of the political mode into the logical one, so I guess, yes, to make politics honest, you must stop doing politics. Politics is the poker game and then we need the logical showdown to see who had the stronger hand after all, based on shared moral and factual premises. There is a perspective that makes politics dishonest, and that’s where we assume the politicking never stops.

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All Us Zombies

Lucius and I had a disagreement about zombies. I thought they had become popular for some deep psychological reason. He thought zombies were just a fad perpetuated by unimaginative hacks.

Granted that there are many valid ways to look at what zombies represent, I still think I was right.

Zombies primarily symbolize a deep misgiving we have about the power of bad ideas and the mind-body split. If we look at zombies politically, both Democrats and Republicans can get strong confirmation bias that they symbolize the other team. But we need to get outside the political mode to see the underlying issue: zombies represent bad ideas that won’t die.

Zombies (generally) represent a hopeless view of those infected with bad ideas: the best you can do is avoid them, or shoot them in the head (the locus of infection that animates the zombie).

Who gets infected with bad ideas? People. Warfare can be seen as the attempt to kill ideas or at least limit their power, by killing people. Of course, it’s not the dead who keep coming back to life; it’s the idea that infects them that won’t stay down. But when you have begun to look at people as merely the vector of a bad idea, whether they’re mindless resurrected people or people units with the same zombie traits, it doesn’t really matter. 28 Days Later is a zombie movie, even though the infection isn’t supernatural and the killed zombies stay dead — the point is that what looks superficially like a human is basically dead to us and yet still a threat.

To liberals, people infected with fascism are the main zombie threat (as opposed to those infected with the more general “authoritarianism”). After WWII, academics on the left worked hard to define, isolate, and produce a cure for fascist ideas. They cast a baleful eye at Nietzsche, Heidegger, Darwin, and classical philosophy. “We have decided the people aren’t the problem. We’ve tried killing them. Other fascist zombies just take their place.”

Unfortunately, they turned to linguistics as the antidote. “Maybe ideas don’t live in human minds,” someone suggested. “Maybe ideas live in _language_.”

“Is this true?” others asked.

“Eh, who gives a crap? It’s a _good_ idea. Let’s run with it, and not worry about the biology that might be involved. That stuff’s too hard, anyway, and wrong… probably… maybe. What’s truth, anyway? We’ll make our own truth.”

So neoliberal language manipulation was born, with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, it’s based on an error. Ideas are discovered, not invented. They are ultimately true in reference to an underlying reality that actually exists outside social construction and pushes back against falsehood. You cannot kill ideas by destroying them with language tricks. You only delay their articulation, and that of the better ideas that might actually be effective against them. (Ever wonder why critical theory papers aren’t written in plain language? It’s not because they’re written in rigorous technical language.) The best approach to creating a strongly articulated framework of propositions is killing bad ideas with falsifiable good ideas, which means science when we’re talking about the realm of facts (as opposed to the important but irrational realm of Meaning, of “What makes life worth living?”), so science really comes in for the stink-eye too.

If you’ve ever wondered why conservatives distrust liberals from an academic perspective, this is it. We can say #notallliberals, but only if we understand and fight the misguided attack on articulated knowledge that undermines (neo)liberalism. The magic spell against zombies that redefines previously serviceable terms like “privilege” and “racism” to kill their old meanings just doesn’t work.

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