Returning to Eden by Daniel Pouzzner


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Cargo Cultism

The utopian socialists believe that deliverance (from pain and toil, to Edenic bliss) springs (mystically) from the simple fact of having, professing, and practicing the correct (ideologically pure) convictions. As Dick Morris puts it, in explaining the ascension of Howard Dean to the DNC chairmanship (New York Post, 2005-Jan-31), they are gripped by “a Jacobin desire for revolutionary purity and revenge against those who urge pragmatism”. Many of them believe that deliverance is a critical mass phenomenon, so that each person who offends against purity (as they conceive it) is robbing them of their due deliverance. The peer opinion motivation is dipolar: gain peer approval by professing ideologically pure convictions, and attract their wrath by doing otherwise. It thus maintains and propagates itself.

One of messiah GI John Frum's soldiers, Tanna, Vanuatu, Melanesia, 2002. Not pictured: his bamboo rifle. photo by Mike Jay
The utopian conviction, that the bliss and plenty of earthly Eden will be restored if society reaches a critical mass of ideologically pure conviction and behavior, is similar to the notorious “cargo cults” of some remote Pacific islanders in the post-WW2 era. In 1974, in a commencement address, Caltech physicist Richard Feynman gave us an entertaining description of the phenomenon:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.

Feynman was setting the stage for a discussion of what he termed “cargo cult science” — pseudoscience carried on, at the highest levels of the intellectual establishment, with many of the trappings of authentic investigation, but with the rational heart torn out of it. And indeed, just this sort of pseudoscience is rampant in utopian socialist academia, obviously in the humanities and somewhat less obviously in the life sciences and engineering disciplines. Presently one can witness it raging among Chicken Little climatologists. But the cargo cult at issue in socialism doesn't even gesture in the direction of rationality. The Edenic airplanes the utopian socialists anticipate never landed in the first place — and never will.

The calling card of this Western cargo cult is its pathological superficiality, a fanatical zeal to preserve the appearance of compliance with the commandments of the cult even at the cost of obvious substantive inconsistency and practical futility or destruction. Utopian socialists consistently and reflexively believe equal methods means moral interchangeability — e.g., many believe reflexively that if one takes up arms to defend oneself from an aggressor one has descended to the level of the attacking thug. Actual purposes don't enter their calculus, though this example also hints at their exaltation of victimhood and meekness.

In this book I have spoken of the Edenists' rejection of judgement. This rejection is somewhat systematized, and sometimes takes the form of a denial that judgement even exists. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1970), Jeffrey Sacks writes:

Neurology and psychology, curiously, though they talk of everything else, almost never talk of ‘judgment’—and yet it precisely the downfall of judgment (whether in specific realms, as with Dr P., or more generally, as in patients with Korsakov's or frontal-lobe syndromes—see below, Chapters Twelve and Thirteen) which constitutes the essence of so many neuropsychological disorders. Judgment and identity may be casualties—but neuropsychology never speaks of them. And yet, whether in a philosophic sense (Kant's sense), or an empirical and evolutionary sense, judgment is the most important faculty we have. An animal, or a man, may get on very well without ‘abstract attitude’ but will speedily perish if deprived of judgment. Judgment must be the first faculty of higher life or mind—yet it is ignored, or misinterpreted, by classical (computational) neurology. [...] By a sort of comic and awful analogy, our current cognitive neurology and psychology resemble nothing so much as poor Dr. P.! We need the concrete and real, as he did; and we fail to see this, as he failed to see it. Our cognitive sciences are themselves suffering from an agnosia essentially similar to Dr P.'s. Dr P. may therefore serve as a warning and parable—of what happens to a science which eschews the judgmental, the particular, the personal, and becomes entirely abstract and computational.

Sacks is speaking of a patient (Dr P.) with a profound visual agnosia (in his case, complete absence of visual gestalt and visually evoked affect). The “neuropsychology” he mentions is now called cognitive neuroscience — and a few of its practitioners now treat judgement better, if only because they are scientists heeding the evidence. But a particular version of this prejudice lingers stubbornly in elite academia. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (my abode at the time I write this), for example, it is taboo to treat “consciousness” as a subject of serious scientific inquiry. Instead, various proxies are used — perception, attention, “working memory”, decisions, intention, etc. Importantly, these proxies are seldom considered in their integrated whole. Doing so would, obviously, constitute the study of consciousness. Perception and intention are, in particular, almost never considered in relation to each other, even though perception and attention are openly considered intimate, as are attention and intention.

In any case, the frankly incoherent grab bag of political causes and positions shared by utopian socialists are evidence of a sort of cargo cultism, of a moral and pragmatic agnosia. They idealize freedom of speech and of the press, and notably include transparently seditious speech among that which they most vigorously and sanctimoniously defend, while agitating to criminalize speech that is unpopular with them (which they call “hate speech”). The actual principle — freedom of speech — is subordinated to superficial appearances, appealed to when expedient and ignored when not. As described above, and as is well-known besides, they are fundamentalistically anti-business. Yet the government welfare programs (medicine, housing, food, transportation, etc.) which they ardently promote, can only be financed by taxes on, and provided by the work of, businesspeople. Then, the businesses are venerated. The actual principle — creating wealth through industry — is subordinated cartoonishly. And the utopians are a constant supply of new examples of such demented superficiality, because dedication to the façade — cargo cultism — is the principle. Libertarian David Ramsay Steele, in an analysis likening communism and fascism to each other (“The Mystery of Fascism”), notes the utopian socialist pattern of dissimulation: “Communists defended Russian nationalism and imperialism while protesting that their sacred motherland was an internationalist workers' state. Fascists proclaimed the end of democracy. Communists abolished democracy and called their dictatorship democracy. Fascists argued that equality was impossible and hierarchy ineluctable. Communists imposed a new hierarchy, shot anyone who advocated actual equality, but never ceased to babble on about the equalitarian future they were ‘building’.”

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Cargo Cult Science — A Case Study

Douglas Hofstadter is “College Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy, Comparative Literature, and Psychology” at Indiana University, and famed author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. In 2007, he published his seventh book, I am a Strange Loop. This is a book I wanted to like, and indeed I was perfectly willing to patiently wade through his low octane verbal profusion, provided he interspersed some nuggets to tickle me in the right spots. I was expecting a triumphant climax in the late chapters. In 22 tiresomely analogy-laden, often redundant or indeed superfluous chapters, Hofstadter strains to convince the reader that there is no non-physical aspect to human identity or thought (true), and that individual human consciousness is (as he puts it, even in the book's index) a “hallucination hallucinated by a hallucination”. This latter claim is a pernicious fiction, as I'll explain a little later.

By the twenty third chapter, “Killing a Couple of Sacred Cows”, it had dawned on me that the best of the book was well behind me, and wasn't worth wading through after all. There would be no triumphant climax, no reward. This is a book whose ideas could be well-expressed in a quarter the words, albeit not without displaying more plainly the absurdity of some of them. In any case, in this chapter Hofstadter indelicately segues to a full and open disclosure of his political sympathies, noting “the churning feeling that [he] feel[s] inside [him] when [he] run[s] into right-wing flag-wavers and pro-lifers”. I happen to share his positions and reactions thereon, but if I were writing a book on a theory of mind, I would not mention my views on those distracting issues. It is telling that Hofstadter does. This is only one, and not the gravest one, of many items of evidence that Hofstadter is not primarily interested in understanding and explaining human consciousness as it actually is.

Curiously, in that same chapter he also expresses unquestioning devotion to classical determinism, a physics known for about a century (particularly, since the advent of quantum theory) to be fundamentally flawed, and known by philosophers for centuries as a source of existential horror (unless dualism is invoked, but then that's a horror all its own). Applying this determinism to the concept of “free will” (which he rejects, but for the wrong reasons), he declares that “our decisions are made by an analogue to a voting process in a democracy”. But of course this is not in general how decisions are made. Goals are arranged in intricate hierarchies, and decisions are made within the context of this hierarchy, in order to pursue the goals as economically as possible. This is not democracy, this is consummate autocracy, at least in tendencies and limits. Hofstadter's description of the psychic will is of an arguing, uncoordinated committee bumbling through decisions, quite enervated. Perhaps this is indeed how his will operates...

With the revelations of the twenty third chapter, the reader (this reader, at least) is not wholly surprised when, in the subsequent and final chapter, Hofstadter stops annoying and starts frightening. To summarize his presentation, without unfairness: (1) Souls come in widely varying, quantifiable sizes (his “somewhat light-hearted” unit of soul size is the “huneker”). (2) Slaughter of creatures with smaller souls, to benefit other creatures, particularly creatures with larger souls, is socially acceptable. (3) Larger souls are characteristic of “gentle people such as Mohandas Ghandi [sic], Eleanor Roosevelt, Raoul Wallenburg, Jean Moulin, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and César Chávez — extraordinary individuals whose deep empathy for those who suffer leads them to devote a large part of their lives to helping others, and to doing so in nonviolent fashions.” (4) Smaller souls are characteristic of people who are the opposite of the people in (3), e.g. (most extremely) “uncontrollably violent psychopaths — adults essentially incapable of internalizing other people's (or animals') mental states, and who because of this incapacity routinely commit violent acts against other beings”.

One can recognize the dire implications of this logic, even while conceding there is something legitimate to it. Hofstadter will protest that he is a strict vegetarian (he writes that he became one during the preparation of Strange Loop, in fact, with motivations similar to my own when I converted to vegetarianism a decade earlier), and that he does not propose that his people with smaller souls indeed have smaller souls than do some of the creatures that are routinely slaughtered for human benefit (cows, pigs, sheep, etc.). This is all but irrelevant. Hofstadter has placed humanity on a quantitative continuum with the beasts we slaughter, has put ostensible selfless saints at the apex, and has described humans at the opposite end of the spectrum of humans in terms that put many animals in a favorable position if the two are compared. It is a philosophical edifice upon which utopian genocide comfortably rests. Were Hofstadter to protest some future holocaust of those adjudicated selfish, it would be precisely akin to Margaret Sanger's protesting the brutality of Nazi eugenics (a story told in the next chapter of this book).

Some specifics on Hofstadter's saints are in order. Raoul Wallenburg was “a Swedish humanitarian sent to Hungary under diplomatic cover to save Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust” (from Wikipedia). Jean Moulin was “a high-profile member of the French Resistance during World War II” (also from Wikipedia). Nothing to criticize here, obviously, though perhaps these are not truly examples at the apex of humanity (for one thing, Moulin attempted suicide immediately before his Resistance work). The rest, however, are controversial figures.

In a 1996 interview in Free Inquiry, Christopher Hitchens, author of The Missionary Position, said of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (the Albanian nun known honorifically as “Mother Theresa”):

I couldn't help but notice that she had rallied to the side of the Duvalier family in Haiti, for instance, that she had taken money - over a million dollars - from Charles Keating, the Lincoln Savings and Loans swindler, even though it had been shown to her that the money was stolen; that she has been an ally of the most reactionary forces in India and in many other countries; that she has campaigned recently to prevent Ireland from ceasing to be the only country in Europe with a constitutional ban on divorce, that her interventions are always timed to assist the most conservative and obscurantist forces.

[...] I have the testimony of a former very active member of her Order who worked for her for many years and ended up in the office Mother Teresa maintains in New York City. She was in charge of taking the money to the bank. She estimates that there must be $50 million in that bank account alone. She said that one of the things that began to raise doubts in her mind was that the Sisters always had to go around pretending that they were very poor and they couldn't use the money for anything in the neighborhood that required alleviation. Under the cloak of avowed poverty they were still soliciting donations, labor, food, and so on from local merchants.

[...] I think the answer to questions about her wealth was given by her in an interview where she said she had opened convents and nunneries in 120 countries. The money has simply been used for the greater glory of her order and the building of dogmatic, religious institutions.

In a March 2007 editorial in National Review, Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator, wrote of Gandhi:

[...] During World War II, Gandhi penned an open letter to the British people, urging them to surrender to the Nazis. Later, when the extent of the holocaust was known, he criticized Jews who had tried to escape or fight for their lives as they did in Warsaw and Treblinka. “The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher's knife,” he said. “They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs.” “Collective suicide,” he told his biographer, “would have been heroism.”

Drawing again on the haphazard democratic wisdom of Wikipedia, one can see that the virtue of Hofstadter's other heros is mixed at best. César Chávez was an anti-immigrant protectionist, whose claim to fame was organizing and leading farm workers' unions, whose agenda was to get farm workers paid more money for less work. Martin Luther King, whatever his merits, was a plagiarist. Eleanor Roosevelt owed her prominence to that of her husband, and used it to promote her husband's program of planned command economics (the “New Deal”). Who could think these people are the best on offer? Hofstadter unwittingly — to be blunt, foolishly — exalts these characters to the apex of humanity.

Hofstadter then turns to a gushing hagiography of Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer collaborated with Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in their promotion of American disarmament in the opening years of America's Cold War confrontation with the Soviet menace. He was a millenarian Christian, something of a mystic, and is famed for his fanatical and conspicuously practiced devotion to the welfare of all animal life, even that of lowly bugs. His Wikipedia entry includes a summary of his philosophical vision: “Respect for life, resulting from contemplation on one's own conscious will to live, leads the individual to live in the service of other people and of every living creature.” This is Schweitzer's chief contribution to our culture — the idea that the highest morality resides in a dogged subjugation of one's own interests to those of everyone and everything else. If everyone were to live by this principle, the likely outcome would be the utter collapse of the market economy, followed immediately by universal poverty and the needless death of billions of people, and eventually by extinction. But of course there is no risk of everyone living by this principle, as it is profoundly unnatural.

Hofstadter tells with importance of a strictly vegetarian lion named “Little Tyke” raised as a pet near Seattle. “Little Tyke refused all meat offered her until finally her owners gave up trying and accepted her vegetarian ways and her joy at playing with lambs, chickens, and other beasts. Until her dying day, Little Tyke was a vegetarian lion. Will miracles never cease?” Whatever their accuracy, these are evidently prima facie echos of the Eden motif specifically, particularly as imagined and illustrated in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe. And Hofstadter finds them so wonderful that he calls them “miracles”. What he does not tell is that, if this were the way lions (and other predators) always acted, there would be no lambs or chickens or other beasts to play with, because without the competitive, adaptive pressure of predators, evolution loses its direction and stalls or wanders aimlessly. Analogous principles apply to economies. In either case, survival itself comes very much into question. Just ask the dodo.

Strange Loop's index is absurdly comprehensive, as the author notes explicitly within the body of the text. In fact, it is deceptively comprehensive. Within it, there is not a single reference to any of the brain organs involved in perception, cognition, decision, and action (collectively, and overlappingly, constituting consciousness). Indeed, there are no brain organs in the index at all, indeed no functionally substantive references to them within the entire body of the text, even though there are entries for and references to the brain as a whole, and to many other biological units of the brain (atoms, amino acids, neurons (“wrong level of brain at which to seek consciousness”), etc., and to a variety of organisms from “birds saved by Albert Schweitzer” to the blue humpback. There is an entry for “brain structures”, which refers to a passage wherein Hofstadter busily excuses away his neglect of physiology, and (ritualistically) prints an organizational hierarchy of the brain, from “amino acids” to “the left hemisphere”, assembled in such a way that the writer's understanding of any of the terms and their interrelations is very much in doubt.

On another occasion, Hofstadter blithely rattles off a layman's haphazard litany of overheard terms of anatomy, all but one of which happens to be peripheral and unessential to consciousness: “the cerebral cortex, the hippocampus, the amygdala, the cerebellum, or any other weirdly named and gooey physical structure” (...which one might have learned the name of from the pages of Newsweek...). Thus, Hofstadter purports to probe the nature of identity, personality, and consciousness, while studiously avoiding consideration of the brain at precisely the organizational level wherein those questions can be (and are, by neuroscientists) meaningfully investigated. And he even argues explicitly that contemplation of the theoeretical interrelations of the theoretical entities of Freud, Dawkins, Schank, Minsky, and other philosophers of mind and artificial intelligence pioneers, ought to be considered “brain research” no less than is the research of neuroscientists (real ones). One can be forgiven, indeed one should probably be rewarded, for concluding that Hofstadter doesn't want to know the true architecture and substance of consciousness, or at least doesn't want to try to.

And a word about that architecture. Contemporary neurophysiological theory holds that consciousness is a sustained waveform circulating (as electrochemical signals) through nerve cells and fibers located in and linking nearly the entirety of the cerebral neocortex and the thalamus. The subjective continuity of consciousness arises from the objective (actual) continuity of this circulating waveform. The direction of consciousness — its time-evolving structure, pivoting on decisions — is formed chiefly by the striatopallidal system, a large and complex set of interconnected structures located anatomically and logically between the neocortex and the thalamus, and coupled most intimately with the frontal cortex and its thalamic counterparts. I apologize, dear reader, for this unusually opaque avalanche of jargon. My purpose is to show that in a short paragraph one can enumerate, in broad terms, the specific physical architecture of consciousness. At heart, consciousness is no more an illusion than is the solidity of a bar of steel or the fluidity of a pool of water.

One might think Hofstadter omitted these specifics to avoid repelling the layman, or otherwise unnecessarily complicating an already difficult subject. But by chapter nine we have already been treated to a fairly elaborate adventure in number theory, and a full page of original hieroglyphics from the Principia Mathematica of Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. By the end of chapter ten the reader has been expected to remap arbitrary symbolic expressions in Russell-Whitehead notation to and from Gödel exponentiated prime products. Not that hard, for someone with a science degree from MIT... But the point is that these forays were apparently intended to impress the reader with the technical acumen of the author. Nevermind Hofstadter's conspicuous confused conflation, in those very chapters, of symbolic self-reference and dynamical feedback, two related but distinct phenomena. Actually, I do mind this, particularly. He seems to believe that symbolic self-reference produces all the phenomena of dynamical feedback. This is the heart of Hofstadter's magical thinking on the substance of consciousness.

It should be fairly clear why Strange Loop belongs in the library of cargo cult science. Hofstadter is not a scientist, but he pretends to be one, in order to convince the reader of his authority and veracity. Hofstadter's purpose and message are not scientific, indeed are not even right. It is all very annoying. Of course, if I hadn't gone to the trouble of reading his book to the bitter end, I wouldn't have been able to write this review — an act of excoriation I evidently much enjoyed.


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Returning to Eden
Table of Contents
1. Preface and Overview
2. Ancient Roots
3. Biblical Chapter and Verse
4. The Eden Motif
5. Cargo Cultism
6. Herding People, Culling the Herd
7. Egalitarianism
8. Keeping Eden Green
9. Progenitors of Edenism
10. Occult Edenism