Indispensable Goods

I’m going to move discussion of the book Indispensable Goods to a fixed page, so that it will be accessible as my blog posts move on to my next project.  I’ll post links about the book here as they become available, and also entertain questions, objections, or disagreements—and, if I’m lucky, perhaps some suggestions about how to extend the arguments I’ve made.

I’ve been asked about a Kindle version of the book, but it is my plan that there will never be one.  Let me explain.  It seems to be sufficiently well established that reading online or on devices leads to far less retention and comprehension than reading a physical printed text.  Even so-called “digital natives” retain far less of what they read, and are less able to follow complex arguments, when reading a book on Kindle.  So, much as I love my Kindle for reading detective and horror novels, I don’t think it’s of much use for reading an extended philosophical argument, particularly one in which later chapters require recall of earlier chapters.

My goal here is to shift the way we think.  Skimming for the “conclusions” will be of no use—because the real function is in following the kinds of argument that led to those conclusions.  The form of argument is more important, and the goal is to make readers into the kinds of subject who can reason and argue in this way.

So I plan for there only ever to be a print version of the book.

Here are some links to the Amazon sites where you can order the book:

In the UK

In the US

Looking forward to your feedback!  And remember—this is a great book to give those graduating from college this year!  (Or, perhaps, those recent graduates stuck in neutral and facing an economic depression like we haven’t sent in generations.)

 

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30 Comments

  1. On another page, sonoran_ghost posted this comment:

    First off… I want to complement your book’s title. The multidimensional aspect hit me this morning. “Indispensible goods,” as such, “goods one can’t do without.” But also, “Goods you can’t just pop money into a vending machine, and receive for immediate consumption.”

    The section on reductionism is hitting me hard this morning… not because of any particular affinity for Dawkins–I don’t really have any. But because if I had any worldview prior to Buddhism it would be Scientific Materialism. So I’m thinking this might actually be the hardest part of the book for me to wrestle with, and it already has my energies high–but in a good way. I get excited by opportunities to fundamentally question my belief system, and I haven’t felt like this since… well that class about Nietzsche and as well with my own exercise of “burning it all to the ground.”

    The contradiction in Dawkins’ argument took me a few readings to really process. It strikes me as wrong as well, but maybe from a different vantage point?

    The observation about American relativism I have to put down until I’ve worked through that part of chapter 2. I recall firmly those words coming from Thich Nhat Hanh, hence my initial mental “but but but…” but I can’t pretend to comment where I haven’t even given you time to make that case. I’ll keep your questions in mind when I go back over those dhamma talks that caused me to hiccup. Reincarnation is a subject that I can take up if I mentally transform it to accord with my materialist views, but I can’t accept it at face value because to me it’s an artifact of the Hindu spiritual system and the Buddha himself avoided metaphysical questions. I haven’t reached a point yet where I can say he was just reinterpreting reincarnation or if he really meant what he said by being able to “recite your previous lives.” The former makes sense, the latter–at least for me here–harder to swallow. With your oppression question… Hinduism was used as a tool for oppression….

  2. I want to continue this discussion here:

    A number of people have mentioned that the section on reductionism is the hardest to understand. I’d like to hear more about why, so that perhaps I can figure out how to revise it in the future. If there is some “different vantage point” from which to approach the error here (I expect there are several such vantage points), maybe discussing them would help clarify the matter?

    My major concern here is to call attention to the host of contradictions necessary to make an argument for reductionism. Dawkins is just an example, but the same pattern is followed in everything with the “neuro-“ or “cognitive-“ prefix. In every case, for the reduction to be possible, there needs to also be some kind of completely free and uncreated mind, which must remain undetermined by the “really real” material level being argued for. This transcendent mind is necessary both to make the reductive determining level work (as when genes will only combine into organisms when they have some intention for the future, and some desire to be considered part of a proper individual), and is also understood to be capable of escaping determinism and freely choosing how to manipulate the “lower” material level (as when we are able to recognize the “intentions” of our genes, and subvert or resist their influence, according to Dawkins).

    That is, we must accept the argument that we are completely “robots” in the service of mechanistic self-replicating strings of molecules, and not at all robots but free self-directing minds capable of choosing, in some unspecified way, our intentions and so directing our own lives.

    My hope here was simply to give a short example, so that my readers (hopefully my daughters at some point in the future) will be able to see the same pattern of error in other instances of reductionism.

    I am not exactly a “scientific materialist,” but I am a realist, in the philosophical sense. So I do not accept the easy recourse to some magical free and independent mind that is required by the present version of “scientific materialism”: reductionism. There is a mind-independent reality, we can come to a more correct understanding of how it works—but we cannot do so with reductive materialism, which tries to collapse ontology.

  3. nicky

     /  October 5, 2020

    Hi
    Can I try? (It just gave me some appetite to look closer at the “positivism dispute” in the sixies)
    According to the positivism dispute between Frankfurt school and Popper, I`d argue the reductionism of Popper consists in his ignoring the minddependent world you are talking about – kind of thinking he`d have a direct access to the raw data of perception. McDowell calls this the Myth of the Given. But since Kant we know there is the conceptual veil between the subject and the world. Not to admit this leads to a reductionism, so as if I could connect some dots and get a thought. Why do I not get a thought? – Because it is not the dots (raw data) that gives me the information, but the frame, from which I look at those dots – the minddependent world.

  4. sonoran_ghost

     /  October 5, 2020

    I’ll have to hit this from two posts… the one I’ve been nursing is sorta big, trying to pinpoint the aspects that were hard for me to understand, but in rereading your post this segment may be part of my difficulty.

    “There is a mind-independent reality, we can come to a more correct understanding of how it works—but we cannot do so with reductive materialism, which tries to collapse ontology.”

    Your goal here… It’s missed the mark with me almost entirely. When I think “reductionism,” I think of metaphysical naturalism which is the basis for the scientific method, and *normally* I hear “reductionist” applied as that form of investigation rules out the supernatural as even in its most generous, you can’t differentiate natural and supernatural phenomena in most formulations.

    I know I’m going to sound stupid but I had to research “reductive materialism” to realize that the whole time you’re talking about the context of *theories of mind* and I’m more or less lost in the weeds thinking of reductionism in the context of basic naturalism.

    Wow. I’m a damn fool. Well, with THAT knowledge in mind, the chapter makes quite a bit more sense. I’m going to have to reread it, probably 75% of my comments I was going to make I can now delete. Let me regroup and reread the chapter.

  5. Nicky:
    One of the things I want to avoid is the “since Kant we know that…” kind of thinking. That is, any time we accept the “conclusion” of some thinker without working through the argument. I don’t accept the idea of the noumena, the “conceptual veil” between subject and object. This is instantly convincing to most people, who never bother to really think much about it, because it is perfectly in line with the standard Romantic ideology of the subject—which is our “common sense” version of how minds work.

    I may read McDowell a bit differently than others seem to, but what I take from his book “Mind and World” is that we need accept neither the Kantian “veil” or relativism. Rather, the “framework” of thought, which we learn from others, is a tool that gives us access to the thing. Language doesn’t screen us from the world, but is the reason we have access to it in a way that animals do not.

    This is why I like the analogy for the x-ray. We wouldn’t say that an x-ray is a screen between us and the thing it images—rather, it is the only way we can get a clear and correct image of the thing.

    My hope in this book is to help people escape the trap of our “common sense” way of seeing the world, and so find ways to move past all the aporia and paradoxes that prevent us from solving our most pressing problems and so from reducing human suffering. Perhaps because I was educated as a Romanticist, I find the Romantic assumption to be among the greatest impediments—folks like Kant, Schopenhauer, Deleuze, and all x-buddhists and psychologists, who keep reproducing the Romantic ideology of the subject and mistaking it for a mind-independent “truth.” We are then offered only the same anodyne Romantic solutions to problems, and told that there’s nothing more we can do.

  6. nicky

     /  October 6, 2020

    I didn`t mean to smuggle in a subtle atman, although I see how “a (separating) veil” produces it. I find McDowell convincing how he incorporates Kants conceptual perception without closing the subject in but insisting on its openness to the world, why imo he can avoid the ontological collpase in the reductionist and the relativist sense.
    I think, the chapter confused me, because McDowell`s “realm of reason” was my understanding of nonreductionism – you seemd to start from another scenario: in contrast to a romantic subject, where a consciousness is caged in, the transcendent mind of reductinists in your sense is some weird ghost that is glued to the robot, which accounts for the rest of the phenomena – so my question if the reductions you mentioned are placed within the realm of reason or as I argued are reductions BECAUSE they are placed outside of it, did not really come into the picture ? But ok. I probably need to rethink and reread, I cannot make it clearer right now.

    And aha Deleuze, I just wanted to start reading him, I wonder if I will spot it…

  7. sonoran_ghost

     /  October 6, 2020

    So after a 3rd… 4th go around? Reductionism reads more smoothly. Still not perfect–though I’m not sure how much of this isn’t due to my own idiosyncrasies–and ignorance. Some of it too though is that I’m not precisely your target audience… I’m a decade removed from undergrad and am almost done with my Master’s, though none of it applies to this conversation really, except for my semester exploring Nietzsche in 2008 that then sent me hurtling through different internal worlds.

    Where I have “a little” heartburn. I’m not sure we’ve fully focused the reductionism setup. Your arguments make a ton of sense when we’re talking about the mind; I still have some difficulties, but for the moment I want to just focus on the things that made the chapter more difficult for me. I understand where you want to go with your idea of the reductionist collapse: it’s at the root of scientism–something Dawkins is certainly guilty of, and I’ve been guilty of it as well. There’s something here that feels left out though, namely Naturalism. I would lay MUCH of the blame for the kind of reductionism you’re against here more on the assumptions of naturalism required to make the Scientific Method work. I understand for example, that you (seem) to take issue with how Evolutionary Biology “reduces” to chemistry. Here’s my problem walking through the classroom door:

    We have the “big bang.” (Physics) After cooling, we eventually get matter and then elements (birth of chemistry) then compounds and eventually carbon-based chemistry. At some point in time… we *know* life emerges from nonlife. (abiogenesis) and then we know that from *this* point onward, evolution by natural selection occurs, then eventually terrestrial mammals after dinosaurs… blah blah blah… humans and symbolic reasoning.

    We *do* have major gaps, to me the worst being abiogenesis, the second worst being how consciousness is created from organic matter. Going from the Big Bang to Beethoven’s 5th–at this abstract level–absolutely happened, and the fact that the results of the big bang demonstrate a fairly linear trajectory of increasing complexity of matter with evolution *also* showing an increasing trajectory of complexity, reductionism doesn’t seem terribly wrong. I have a hunch that you’re going to argue that Dawkins’ subconscious ideological thinking is thinking of hierarchy and individuals due to capitalism and ISAs–but my intuition has failed me miserably in the past. I think however how evolution and the big bang show relatively linear progressions has more to due with this, which is why I think it would have helped me understanding some *positive* examples of reduction, more than the sentence or two at the very beginning of the section.

    The last bit that caused confusion is that on page 47 you placed a qualifier, “This is the form of the core mistake of all types of reductionism which (and this is an important qualifier) assume that we can reduce all cause[es?] to only one explanatory level.”

    This qualifier needs to be more up front, I missed it 3x before finding and heavily highlighting it. Just so you have a little better idea where I’m coming from, my understanding of evolution has more in common with Eva Jablonka and E.O. Wilson than it does from Dawkins. I’m not seeing the “Dawkins theory of mind” making a whole lot of sense, for other reasons than where you’re arguing. It’s making horrible sense just based on the science which is making it harder for me to approach your argument. (Thank you E.O. Wilson and Jablonka…)

    I’m also glimpsing a sort of “meta” level above the fray.

  8. Nicky: yes that’s a good way to put it. The reductionists that I find troubling sort of “glue on” a free and independent consciousness, while trying within their theory to deny that any such thing can exist. This is a common problem, the same basic error pointed out so often and so well in behaviorism. For some reason, it is impossible for people like Dawkins or the Churchlands to see the error they are making, not matter how painstakingly it is explained to them. Another version of the same formal error is found in utilitarianism, which is by far the most popular philosophical theory among college students today. In fact, much of my concern with this error is that all kinds of reductionism, like Dawkins, are enormously popular with younger people, who tend to spend much more time in school than previous generations without ever learning how to think well. In fact, the goal of our educational system seems to me to be to prevent thinking, and serious critical thought is generally punished with bad grades and denial of opportunity for further study.

    Sonoran: I’m not sure I follow your comment completely. But in short, I certainly wouldn’t want to reject evolutionary theory. I would, however, want to learn to question the implicit assumptions that guide all our “scientific” thought, such as the assumption that there is an endless progression from simple to complex. That is widely assumed, and we tend to find evidence only for what we assume must be true, and ignore evidence that violates our assumptions. What might we find if we were able to doubt such fundamental assumptions?

    The “gaps” are the key point here. I want to encourage people to stop assuming the linear progression from Big Bang to Grand Theft Auto, as if the latter were inevitable once the former occurred. My favorite piece of music, as far as the one thing I’ve listened to most in my life, is undoubtedly Beethoven’s 6th symphony. To explain why this is so would be impossible in terms of any reductive account. Dawkins’s Meme theory would suggest I ought not to like this as much as the Beatles (given my age). No attempt to explain musical preference can ever succeed without abandoning reductivism. The very existence of this symphony depends on a host of social and political factors that made this kind of music popular, and another host of factors that preserved it, recorded it, and taught people in the 20th century that it was worth listening to. There is no account of the working of my brain that will explain why I always put this CD on when I go for a long drive.

    Also, in music at least , we would have to say that progression has been from complex to simple, right? Certainly the inane pop music of the last half century, like commercial jingles, is much less “complex” than music of the Baroque or Romantic period, right? Certainly what passes for “literary” fiction today is much less intellectually sophisticated and complex than “popular” fiction of the modernist period. We cannot explain why people would rather read “Where the Crawdads Sing” than Proust simply by looking at their brains—although this is what the new “cognitive literary theory” taking over English departments hopes to do.

    I would suggest we need to grasp the possibility of emergent properties, and multiple causal levels, if we hope to explain anything. And we need to realize that our collective minds can have causal powers, and are “real” not mere epiphenomena.

    As for Dawkins’s implicit goal—like Rorty, I would suggest that the main interest is to rule out consideration of the economic system as a causal factor in human life. Both just assume this as a natural background. It is skipped right over as we move from the level of genes to the level of memes, ruled out as something with causal power. That is, capitalism becomes an effect of our natural genetic tendencies, not a humanly created social practice with causal powers. Rorty, from the other direction, also wants to rule out consideration of capitalism as a humanly created practice open to change—so, all we can change is our (individual, atomistic) minds! We can’t “know” anything, according to Rorty, about social formations (he is not “relativist” about things like physics and biology).

  9. sonoran_ghost

     /  October 7, 2020

    “As for Dawkins’s implicit goal—like Rorty, I would suggest that the main interest is to rule out consideration of the economic system as a causal factor in human life. Both just assume this as a natural background. It is skipped right over as we move from the level of genes to the level of memes, ruled out as something with causal power. That is, capitalism becomes an effect of our natural genetic tendencies, not a humanly created social practice with causal powers.”

    I’m perfectly fine with how you explain this here. I’m still grappling a bit with the reductionism part, but I think part of my issue is helped in Chapter 3 when we start talking about Maxwell’s Demon. But that argument, while it makes the tendency to ignore intention show out in stark relief… has good arguments to ignore intention in that very example. If the Demon in that argument has *any other* intention other than to defeat the theory of entropy… then the thought experiment fails, because the demon can’t even let one particle pass. Measuring intent isn’t possible. I’m going to stop here though, because I have a feeling given your words around this section that I’m embodying exactly the kind of error you’re trying to teach me to avoid. But then… I don’t think I’m the kind of believer in determinism that Dawkins or Dennett is. I’ve been castigated before for contradicting Daniel Dennett based purely on my personal experience of increasing my own free will after beginning to learn Buddhist meditation. (But… I’m also not against the idea that our brains are “machines” to the extent that they allow for complex phenomena like thinking or consciousness to happen–it wouldn’t be illusory though, I don’t get where Dawkins or Dennett would say that. If you can trace impulses in the brain, and even using electrodes force a person into anger or make them feel a malevolent presence behind them–we’ve still established a material seat for the mind, it’s still a natural process… sure we can’t yet accomodate for the part of the mind that controls agency… how is any of that *illusory?*)

    I think a bigger part of my problem here is that I don’t realize exactly how common the belief in determinism IS here? I was taught Libet and college, but also a host of arguments back and forth about volition and the readiness potential… (Have I been sleeping in a cave or something?)

    Is the common view in neuroscience really that we’re this mechanistically determined? I always thought Dennett’s was an extremist position.

  10. sonoran_ghost

     /  October 8, 2020

    Chugging along in chapter 3, you…. cleaned up an extremely tricky problem I’d been grappling with. I don’t tell virtually anyone this, but after more or less receiving the neoliberal indoctrination in college, I attempted to “burn my foundation of ethics and morals to the ground and start from nothing, but of course, the individual.” This lead me into some rather interesting thought experiments of my own, which lead me to some conclusions that were disturbing to that thought process. (But if I hadn’t done that, I likely wouldn’t be here today.)

    The first… ethics and morals mean literally nothing in any context where you’re dealing with “the only individual.” While that may seem obvious to you and to anyone else who stumbles into this… this was a disturbing revelation to someone that was more or less fabricating a ‘religion of the self.’ The same thing with language: What use are words without anyone else to communicate with? Then came the final blow: what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the world… is ultimately determined by whoever controls political power, whether by force or consent. Some of this was of course influenced by Nietzsche, who would pointed out other things for me to think about: “A thought comes when *it* wills.” Another thing I learned is that it’s really hard to write new values… Moses and Jesus were heroes of a sort to Zarathustra, but most of us simply inherit values inscribed by the society and family that we grow up in. If I recall correctly, something to the effect that other people get to “write on your tablet” before you get the chance.

    Your line: “Harmon’s point is that this supposedly eternal intuition, taken to be derived from innate natural tendencies, in fact *depends upon a collective social agreement.*” I literally was so struck by that sentence and all the writing that came before it that I reread the section, got there again, and had to put the book down for the day. Here is both you and Harmon, already discussing precisely *this* thing. Sure there had to be a little Buddhism in there too, I have more books from Thich Nhat Hanh than from any other author. That idea of “non-self” rings SO true. This is part of the “self” or “individual” that is artificial because it allows us to separate ourselves from *everything.*

    And I’ll go you one further, part of why I picked up Buddhism this year after setting it down 2yrs ago, is that addiction reared its head, and I got involved with the Refuge Recovery program. The two main causes for my addiction are: Boredom. Alienation from other people. Add to this, that I already was learning that Buddhist meditation was increasing my perception of free will… combine that with other experiences–like taking on personality characteristics for particular characters I was creating and having those manifest in myself… this social element explains *so much* of several of my own problems, as well as some predilections I had for escaping the “normal” social order. (I grew up single kid, only mom, lived on foodstamps for the first 10yrs of my life… 12 schools in as many grades) I’m not trying to say that I’m special here, but the very meta-sketch you’ve pieced between Althusser and these first 3 chapters also explains how I managed to miss quite a bit of the acculturation that I was supposed to receive during those early years, and if you’ve never read the autobiography of Malcolm X or the story told by J. D. Vance in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, you start to learn ‘success at incredible cost and lucky relationships’. Meeting with people now regularly in a spirit of brotherhood has done more to heal me in the last six months than at any other time in my life. (And yes, I’m open to the economic system being criticized as part of that…)

    All of that, on page 120.

    You still have an open question about music… I’ll be travelling again for the next several days, and I hope to answer you then.

  11. Sonoran:
    My point is that the reductive determinist view is not only common in the neuro-everything disciplines, but is our general “common-sense” way of thinking about things. Then, just like Dawkins or Skinner or any other reductionist, we tend to add in an kind of ghost in the machine, a subtle atman, with “free will,” that is denied by our determinist model but necessary because the determinist model turns out to be unable to account for even the simplest phenomena.

    Sure, we can stimulate the brain and cause things like fear, anger, or even hallucinations. We then assume this proves the mind is determined by the brain. But it doesn’t. It merely proves the mind is dependent on the brain. The metaphor I use is playing a game of baseball, and the laws of physics: baseball is dependent on the laws of physics, but not determined by them—that is, we could never predict the rule of baseball from the laws of physics.

    Similarly, we can prevent correct thought about the world by interfering with the brain. This should be obvious. We can also do that by blindfolding someone, or in a host of other ways. What we can’t do is to stimulate neurons that will make someone, say, happy about settling for Biden for president. Or explain the causes of World War I. Or teach them to enjoy reading Dickens. The mind is not caused by the brain in this direct way.

    I do think it is often the case that those who live outside the “normal” pattern are less thoroughly interpellated into the hegemonic ideology, and so more capable of thinking critically about it. The addiction connection is also of great interest to me. Some day, I may finally get around to doing something about the topic of addiction—it is a daunting subject, with an entire industry devoted to creating and reinforcing misconceptions about it.

    As for Thich Nhat Hanh, I’ve never been a big fan. Several years ago, I wrote an essay about him on Glenn Wallis’s blog: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2012/08/24/comfort-food-buddhism/

    My position hasn’t changed much.

    In short, though: yes, it does seem that Dennett’s position is not even the most extreme, and is increasingly common. But I would suggest it is increasingly popular because it captures the structure of common-sense thought: we believe in absolute material determinism, but also in the completely free and unconstructed (atomistic) “mind” which can account for all the “gaps” reductive materialism leaves. We generally see no contradiction in this.

    I think seriously engaging with texts outside this common-sense framework can often help us to see the contradictions we are blind to. For instance, Aristotle had no concept of “free will,” because his understanding of the subject and agency didn’t require one. Nagarjuna is another great source for this—his texts are so “difficult” because they do not share our common-sense assumptions about the world.

  12. thesonoranghost

     /  October 14, 2020

    I just finished your book while on vacation… and let me just say *whoa.* First off, a very hearty thanks for your time, effort, and energy to put all of this together. When I sit back and just look at how my reading list practically doubled… That said, there’s also no way I absorbed everything here in this first pass. As I tackle some of the second-order material you’ve suggested, I think I’ll be returning often. The book, at its closure, makes me feel both more powerful–and–powerless at the same time.

    So the whole issue with reductionism. For me, the discussion of Mind-Dependent and Mind-Independent phenomenon in chapter 3 was the key concept. I haven’t gone back to reread that again just yet because I just finished the book yesterday. But your arch metaphor I think is truly instructive here, and I should probably have finished the whole thing before coming back. I also see the error of my prior ways of engaging Marxist thought before. Though, kinda like when I was learning mathematics, sometimes it just takes the right teacher to “make it click.” Marxism prior to this book, anytime I encountered it and could break through the interpersonal barriers required to even get to the point where I could ask beginners questions, seemed to be conspiracy theoretic. It’s not now: we’re fulfilling our roles. The system isn’t broken: It’s working as designed. I’m for the first time understanding the revolutionary spirit really at play here: Yes power might be distributed more diffusely than it was under aristocracy and feudalism… but it hasn’t come close to reaching the masses yet.

    My initial thoughts after having set it down yesterday… yes there was definitely some catharsis. Some of it definitely was confirmation bias. In the nearly six months that I’ve been seriously engaging Buddhist practice I’ve been witnessing some restoration of agency, namely, that concept of intent. I know you’re not a fan of TNH, still his metaphor about planting seeds is apt. I’ve watched how particular meditations–especially Tonglen and Metta–have resulted in subtle shifts in my behavior, especially with my wife and kids. It’s also been pushing me away from anything like neoliberal politics, but not in that… “fake” new-agey whole foods kind of way that I always used to make fun of. Hence why your review on that McMindfulness book lead me here.

    I only found One item that had something I flagged as an error in the book, and likely this will be debatable since I don’t think it really impacts the overall message, but important enough to bring up here.

    The 2008 financial disaster *was* predicted. Part of my homework here is to get the references to back that claim up, but I remember watching Alan Greenspan briefing congress sometime between 2003-2005 warning that there was going to be a massive housing bubble burst that was fueled in part by A.R.M. and market speculation. His explanation was sufficient enough at the time that when my wife and I were getting ready to buy our first house, insulating us from the crash played an extremely important role in determining the purchase. My suggestion here is that predicting collapses is possible, but that the other forces at play–especially the myth of plenitude combined with that “laissez-faire” idealism puts us in horrible positions to do anything about them. “There’s a big Hurricaine coming! you’ve got about 2 years to prepare!” Markets chug along undisturbed. Middle class America demands nothing. This more or less undergirds one of the messages I received in the book, even if you manage to “wake up” to the point where you gain knowledge that you’re a psychological cog in the human machine…

    Powerlessness…

    A much broader reason I’ve had in the past to “fight” with Marxism is because I’m one of those outliers. I grew up poor, only child, single mom, family, schools, and religion totally failed us. That said… had I not met key people in my life, I wouldn’t have the “successful” life that I have now. But that said… I’ve felt like I’ve had a ton of agency, and I have to ruminate and linger alot longer here to more fully read, engage, and absorb. Everyone I know who graduated college along with me has had full employment well over a decade now. I realize fully that my story of rising up from the poor class is rare even among my cohort. And it’s… ultimately theater? [I’m telling you this so you can understand a bit how my mind has been and still is grappling with the insights from your book.]

    Art is the only thing we can do? And *no money?* Well… if nothing else it’s a worthy exercise to get us to think of some things to be left behind for the future.

    As I kept reading through your book, and more or less knocking down dominoes “Yep he’s right… he’s right about THAT too… not sure about this one, we’ll come back to it, but he’s been right about everything else…”

    Let me start out by saying that I’m completely stupid to art.

    The painting analysis you give at the end of the book, I would never in a million years have come to any of that. I saw “precariat,” knew what that meant, and I even said to myself, “Is that a wall or a door separating the two porches? Ah… the light outside was hand-wired. This must be lower-middle class. Wait there’s a condemned sticker on the door. Why are the bricks reflected in the blue houses screen door, the angle is wrong for that?”

    So I really suck here.

    At any rate, this was the most difficult chapter in the book. Art has *been my release.* My first desire was to be a rock star, mostly because I enjoyed the feeling of being God, and now after deeper reflection, because it’s at a concert where a group of people can get together and have a “religious experience of oneness.” That said, the default tendencies here tend to be fractious and divisive unless it’s one of those rare artists like Gogol Bordello, where for a little while at least, you feel welcomed into an alien culture. But still oneness. <–Plays into my own issues with addiction and I'm aware of it as I continue the path of healing AND community, which I had denied myself entirely.

    Your book accomplished this in me for sure: In a completely non-buddhist way, since I'm learning how to do that, you've shown me that the demands of human nature are precisely MORE than material well-being and that even if I walk away from this experience as an American liberal… I'm going to have to demand MUCH more out of society than JUST food, water, and a roof. In fact, Maslow's Hierarchy might be inverted… My education is still woefully incomplete here. I'm starting first with one of the books on reasoning that your chapter on reason was designed to refute, and then I'm deepening my historical knowledge, starting with that book about the history of states. FWIW I also just bought "The Conquest of Bread" because it's been awhile since I've touched base with Kropotkin.

  13. thesonoranghost

     /  October 14, 2020

    One of several questions which troubles me:

    Right now I’m caught in a flow where there is still some confusion in regards to what in my head might just be “interpellated illusion” vs “reality as it is.”

    What do I mean by that? (See, I’m such a bad thinker than I can’t even make sense to myself…)

    In science, part of the process is that to be valid, a result has to be reproducible. Of course, it also has to be falsifiable… but if I understand this correctly, the interpellated reality we live in *isn’t* falsifiable. Nor is any other ideology. Other things we use as scientists: Occam’s razor. (The fewest assumptions required for an explanation is typically the best.)

    Are there similar tools like these we can use to help us navigate the differences between the “Marxist” explanation for something and the… I guess “interpellated” explanation for something? Or is THAT just the process of critique you present at the end of the book? [In which case, I need to develop new habits of reading, and apply it everywhere…]

    How do we untangle this mess I’ve made? The more I engage with your book, the more I realize that I can’t just take Buddhism at its word and run with it–I need to actually resolve some of these problems that should be… simple. Just take it as dogma and run. But I have a hard time accepting anything that I haven’t resolved for myself to be the truth. In the Marxist theory you’ve developed here, how exactly do we resolve morals and ethics? If I had been born in Nazi Germany, chances are fairly good that I would at least be complicit in a crime… but how do we resolve this in a way other than “we simply codify what we’ve tended to always do as humans living in groups?”

    Or is this only a question for me because I’m actually already LIVING in an entirely relativistic world and these are only really questions BECAUSE of living in this state of non-nature? Part of that alienation?

  14. thesonoranghost

     /  October 14, 2020

    Sorry, I misspoke, you didn’t say that ideologies weren’t falsifiable but that they weren’t falsifiable in regards to practices creating meaning and enjoyment.

  15. A lot to reply to here! Yes, we do tend to think of the market according to how we fared in it. Those who succeed, who rise from poverty, tend to think that the capitalism works just fine, and really is a meritocracy. My father grew up in poverty, abandoned by first his father then his mother, and went into the military at 17. He got a GED, and happened to wind up in an area that was just starting a county-wide police force. He made next to nothing for years as a cop, then the union got stronger and before long he was making good money as a superior officer. In his mind, none of this had to do with the accidents of population explosion, unionism, and post-war economic growth—he’s sure that he “rose” because of his hard work and ability, and anyone who didn’t do the same doesn’t deserve anything.

    For myself, I also had opportunities to “succeed”. I didn’t take them, party because of my political beliefs and partly because of my addiction. But I don’t think that those who are struggling today are necessarily failing because of their own lack of ability. And I think that those who do succeed always succeed at the expense of others—that’s just how capitalism works.

    As you say, if you were raised in Nazi Germany, you would have been complicit in crimes whether you directly participated or not. In America, we are all complicit in the oppression of the majority of the world’s population, just by accepting capitalism as “natural.” When we buy a T-shirt or sneakers, we are enabling capitalists to make profit from oppression of workers in the Southern Hemisphere. As I drink my tea, I know that tea was produced by oppressed workers, and and great cost to the environment. The first step, to my mind, is just convincing people that this is so—that because we seem to be “earning” our money, and aren’t employing any underpaid workers ourselves, that doesn’t mean we are “innocent.” A teacher’s salary is possible only because of the global economic oppression and environmental destruction that keeps capitalism working.

    As for the falsifiability of ideology, well, it just isn’t the same kind of thing as science. Science treats of mind-independent reality, things that would be what they are if humans stopped existing. Fields like psychology are only pseudo-sciences because they try to treat mind-depending reality as if it were mind-independent. This is why these fields have had no success rate—it isn’t because they are “young sciences”: physics made enormous progress very quickly, as do most sciences. Once a science is founded, the progress is usually quite fast, in historical terms.

    It is hard to get out of the usual notion that interpellation=illusion. Trying to help people break through that error is a big part of why I wrote this book. If we would just understand that mind-dependent things are real, and have real causal powers, even if they are dependent on human practices for their existence, then we could begin to see a way to moving out of capitalism. We can gain knowledge of the real causality of mind-depending things—but the old “scientific method” won’t work for this. The scientific method, however you define it, is great for making cell phones and vaccines that work, and many other things. But it can’t tell us much about our ideological practices, or the human mind.

  16. thesonoranghost

     /  October 17, 2020

    Still reeling from the read.

    I think the pieces are clicking into place, firstly, I want to thank you again for the book. I started reading Althusser’s “On the Reproduction of Capitalism” from the beginning, and I realized that part of the problem I’ve had in the past with Marxists I’ve met, that “condescending” attitude that I’ve seen before is because on some level they’re aping the familiar. Althusser has these… breaks where he more or less gushes dogmatically about “Marxist-Leninist science.” I won’t lie, had I not read your book I would have probably not been able to look past that. I have a self-programmed *loathing* for that kind of thing.

    I’m going to try and summarize Marxist thought as you’ve taught it… this is mostly so I can resynthesize so that I can be corrected. I’m doing this now because Althusser is already adding to this model and before it possibly gets polluted I’d like to make sure I’ve got the bones right.

    What we’re ultimately doing is creating an explanation for the unconscious acceptance as ‘normal’ of the way of life that any human being has been subject to for as far back as we have recorded history, very probably much longer than that. It’s how we accepted [overt] slavery for so long. Marxism points out and systematizes this basic functioning of the human animal, but leaves as incomplete the discussion of ideology which truly ends up being the keystone, as it is ideology and how it helps reproduce the “normal social order” that allows for this “steady state flow.” Synthesizing from the little bits I’ve come across before, class struggle happens when you accumulate enough people upset that the social order isn’t living up to its promises and engages with its ruling class either in revolution or in demands to alter the rules of the game. (I’m thinking here of the Peasant’s revolt in 1381 in England, but pick your poison…)

    Capitalism overthrew the aristocratic order and for all intents and purposes radically diminished or outright destroyed monarchy. This has pushed the levers of power down… but for all intents and purposes we have simply replaced one set of societal “owners” with another. More diverse true… more numerous… true. But still capable of having an outsize influence on day to day life.

    In our current societal mode we see a reactionary movement for example, to “reclaim the American family,” because the subconscious tendency especially since monarchy is to overemphasize the family as a central unit of sociality. This then explains to me for the first time the Evangelical political push so much better. Because if your societal social unit is to be the church and family, then there’s no need for anything else. With Church though, there’s still a strong implication of community, but that’s more or less–and this is an educated guess–that the church started playing the role that would normally have been filled by standard social action by growing up and living within a small community, such as what you see with some of the primitive societies that still remain. That fear of alternative forms of social organization however drives fear into many humans, which sparks… missionaries and then the typical pattern of colonialism we saw beginning about 400 or so years ago.

    And here I was thinking I was going to have to write a book to summarize all that. Am I at least in the right ballpark?

  17. thesonoranghost

     /  October 17, 2020

    I’ve accepted that “right” and “wrong” in morality/ethics are purely a function of a dominant power. This is important to me for several reasons. Part of why I *really* disliked Harris was how he was more or less trying to create a “science” of morality… but I realize now that I wasn’t liking it because he was basing it on sets of *implied* assumptions. I must thank you for allowing me to systematize my thought better here.

    My analysis on this topic left off on this observation: Two moral/ethical systems are only commensurable if and only if they agree on the same sets of values, additionally, only if there is agreement on the ordering of those values. This precedes any attempt to compare two moral or ethical systems based on outcomes: the values you bring to the “scientific” analysis of two moral systems… will alter not just how the observer constructs her hypothesis, but how the outcome is interpreted. At the risk of oversimplification, a morality of individual hedonism is going to place personal pleasure above collective goods such as a park or a library. And those value-based starting points lead to different conclusions on both activities.

    But we’re not left with anything like a science that helps us determine if we should be a hedonist or a puritan? Where is the… “science of values?” Why should I pick one set of values over another? This is where you maybe glossed over the pathology implied in my Nazi question: If our species is eventually going to be gone, *no matter what we do*, what difference does it make if we halt climate change, stop global capitalism, or end poverty? I’m not thinking you understand how deep this abyss of mine feels. The only answer I can come up with… is that helping people feels good in this life… but then I’m just on a different level of hedonism. (And now you maybe understand why I decided to finally take up Buddhism as a real, life-affirming practice.)

    One of the dilemmas your book has posed for me (and Buddhism before then) is that I’ve LONG had a tendency to try and turtle up in my river, and just watch everyone swim and walk by. The personal part of this… my mentor asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks: “What does it take to become your friend?”

    I answered honestly: “Chance.”

    That level of isolation isn’t leading to flourishing. Sorry for the ramble… I felt though it might be useful to help me find the right diagnostic. Maybe the solution is that I just keep on this Buddhist path and allow the practices to do their work, and these questions go away? Or don’t they? If this is a better conversation to be had by a phone call, I understand.

  18. I want to preface this comment by saying that because I’m still in considerable pain, I’m having trouble writing well—it’s not just a matter of difficulty using my arm, but of difficulty focusing my mind. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try—and hope others will be charitable readers.

    The most important point here, for me, is the question of how we might decide between two “ethical systems.” This is often taken to be impossible: if you are a hedonist, then no argument offered by an ascetic could be convincing to you, etc.

    My belief is that a correct understanding of ideology overcomes this problem. An ethical system in our usual limited sense of a set of moral rules is dependent on our ideology in the Althusserian sense: our intention about how we collectively believe we should produce and distribute indispensable goods. Once we decide this, we then can figure what counts as “good” behavior, in a limited moralistic sense. But we need to be able to decide this.

    In this sense, then, I reject the Nietzschean idea that morality is dictated by power. It seems that way to us, because for us it is, but this is not necessarily or always so. Ideology would best be collectively decided upon.

    The problem with folks like Harris (and all the rest of the modern libertarian and neoliberal pseudo-philosophers, especially those writing books like “thinking fast and slow” purporting to explain how our biological “nature” limits us), is that what they take for human “nature” is actually a result of our capitalist culture. The supposedly universal psychological traits do not exist among people not raised in Western capitalist society. There’s a new book recently published called something like “The Weirdest People on Earth”, that attempts to make this case using scientific evidence. That is, he tries to prove that what we usually take to be biologically determined psychological traits are in fact a product of Western, educated and affluent (capitalist) culture. It will be interesting to see if he gets any traction—mere concrete evidence and logical argument are not likely to be persuasive with most academics today, who pride themselves on holding beliefs impervious to change by mere reality.

    Anyway, another problem would be that because this is true, because our very nature is determined by the culture in which we were raised to a degree that is probably beyond changing in adulthood (Aristotle argues this in his Nicomachean Ethics, and most psychoanalytic theorists today would agree), we should no try to concoct a hypothetical utopia to strive toward. That Utopia would be inherently an attempt to create a world suited to the capitalist subject—which we already have! And look how much misery it causes?

    I would argue that one of the great contradictions of Capitalism is that it requires its subjects to produce desires and capacities they are then forbidden to fulfill or use. So that even the relatively “successful” in our system are usually miserable—suffering from addiction, depression, anxiety, medicated and angry all the time, looking for “answers” in new manipulations of their brains, or new technological toys, or something they think will give them some illusive happiness.

    It is a commonplace it scholarship on Aristotle to say that “the ultimate goal of human life is the aim of that expertise which is required in order reasonably to govern a political society” (I’m quoting Pakaluk here, who is giving a widely accepted account of the problem with Aristotle’s ethics). This gets it completely wrong. The highest good for Aristotle is not to know how best to govern a given economic/political system. The highest good is to be able to choose, employing reason, the kind of economic and political system we want to live in. This seems inconceivable to, well, all philosophers for the last several centuries—for whom capitalism is simply a natural force to which we must adapt. Therefore, they cannot grasp Aristotle’s point, and see his claim about the goal of a life of “contemplation” as deeply flawed. In a world where we take there to be an unbridgeable gap between mental and manual labor, we cannot comprehend how Aristotle would have thought of the subject.

    That is to say, we cannot imagine that the highest good is in fact to consciously choose the kind of social practices we want to live in—and also to be able to continuously evaluate and modify them. This seems impossible, since we “know” we have no choice others than capitalism, and so Aristotle is taken to be suggesting a kind of intellectual elitism, which seems unacceptable to us today.

    One thing I learned from Shinran: anything we take to be enlightenment will be at best a warped and distorted idea of enlightenment, because it is what we desire from our current position as foolish beings. We need to move toward it, and then realize as we do that it is not as ideal as we once thought, and modify it.

    For me, the only meaningful approach to life I can discover, isolated and disempowered as I am, is to endlessly try to work to denaturalize the current ideology. So this is my “ideology”: not one in which I produce my own food, clothing housing, art, etc., but one in which my everyday practice is an attempt to denaturalize and defamiliarize the hegemony of global capitalism. This is how I can use my capacities, those capacities produced in a capitalist culture and by capitalist educational institutions, but which I am denied the ability to use within the current economic system. That is, this is how I produce a practice that operates in the interstices of global capitalist ideology. I try to produce a practice of critical evaluation—which is the goal I have in mind for “Imaginary Relations,” when I am able to get that started.

    Again, I realize much of this could be spelled out much more clearly, and I would like to be writing blog posts about these things, but I’m having considerable trouble focusing my mind on sustained intellectual argument right now. Acute pain is very distracting!

  19. thesonoranghost

     /  October 18, 2020

    Your insight into my poorly worded questions cuts straight to the “soul.”

    I sincerely wish I would have had the chance to take a class from you back when I was in college. I guess I’m still at that point where I have to… re-find my purpose. I’m a little saddened that the view would be that its too hard for adults to re-learn… I’d like to take some credit here but as you’re well aware of I couldn’t be here if I didn’t already have both exposure to radical philosophy/politics in the first place. Finding George Carlin at 14 was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.

    I’d love to help if you ever do tackle the issue of addiction. Part of why my own recovery is so successful is that I realized that addiction is an extreme form of craving and that it was simply a current manifestation of a recurrent theme in my life. I don’t have credentials here, but it’s my belief that Addiction is simply the undirected application of basic human urges to pleasure; I think it’s deeply related to living in a world without agency. I’ve read everything I could get my hands on from the ancient stoics, but I noted myself… “This seems like a philosophy for slaves… but some of it is written by some of the most powerful people that existed in the Roman empire!”

    I have to think though that the rejection of Nietzsche’s observation of morality and power doesn’t make that question disappear: even in an anarchistic environment where there is an agreed upon set of rules, that’s *still* power–those born into it are subjected to rules agreed upon by others.

    I’ve not asked questions today because I genuinely would like you to heal. I deeply thank you for helping me to heal today, just on a different level. I’m about to meditate, I always begin with a round of metta, I’ll make sure again that you’re in there as I respect my teachers. Thank you again!

  20. Nicky

     /  October 18, 2020

    Tom, I like the thought it implies on authority: not a Führer, a person of power on the top of the hierarchy, but a common intention or common intentions we have to decide for, a “contrat social”? The rest is particular struggles about what according practices to apply to the intention and see what happens, what kind of subjects arise and how things are going…we know the seed but not (yet) the plant growing out of it…

  21. Yes, regular struggle to decide which practices are the best way to fulfill our collective intention. There’s an old saying among leftists that after the revolution you won’t be interested in the nightly capitalist propaganda on the television (or now the internet), but no need to worry about being bored—you’ll have too many meetings to go to!

    So the hope is that, unlike capitalist social-contract theory, there really would be a social contract. The idea that we are all obligated by a “contract” we never had an option to reject is replaced with a world were politics is not just a sham, but actually an attempt to rewrite this contract for every new generation. After all, those raised in the new “anarchist” world would be so different in their “nature” that they will likely find that the previous generation’s idea of a successful intention for producing our indispensable goods no longer suits them.

    On this I agree with Aristotle (at least, on my peculiar reading of him): to be fully human, we need to exercise our uniquely human capacity to decide on our social formation. We can’t expect to establish rules that will bind all future generations—we need to hope they will do better than us.

    Capitalism gives us no more than the anodyne opportunity to “choose” what we will major in in college, or to “choose” the careers we hope to pursue. But don’t get the chance to decide on what kinds of goods will be produced, or how, or how they will be distributed. Sure, plenty of new video games—but no art. Lots of job training, but we’ll cut out history, philosophy, foreign languages. Learning about the world, producing some form of art, are just as much indispensable goods as food and shelter!

  22. One more quick point, on the idea of taking a class with me. I would never have been able to discuss things like this in a college classroom. I was repeatedly dismissed from teaching positions for doing things like teaching Derrida in an upper-division literary theory class, or asking students in a Shakespeare class to write a paper explaining why we might want to continue to teach Shakespeare to high school students today. As I’ve often said, I’m broke and unemployed largely because of my own choices!

    I think Raymond Geuss is right about the function of the university, as I said in the introduction to “Indispensable Goods.”

    My idea would be that this kind of learning should be the goal of the truly Buddhist sangha, if we could ever let go of the attachment to mindfulness and all the other supposed cures for the ills of capitalism Western Buddhism is made up of today. Why change a system that oppresses billions, when we affluent Americans at our retreat centers can learn to have a bit more fun, and learn to ignore our complicit in that oppression? Such reactionary bromides have always been a part of Buddhism. But we could learn something from the more dangerous and critical practices that reactionary Buddhism worked to contain. Just as we can learn something from the strands of philosophy and religion that have been co-opted or buried by the institutional forms.

  23. thesonoranghost

     /  October 20, 2020

    “Why change a system that oppresses billions, when we affluent Americans at our retreat centers can learn to have a bit more fun, and learn to ignore our complicit in that oppression?”

    Well… speaking as a pretty freshly recovering neoliberal… that paralyzing Nihilism that made me “Nietzsche’s soothsayer” and “last man” when you look at the totality of what needs to be changed…

    That said you’re killing me with that video game hate because I’m a software engineer by trade and I happen to think games (properly done) are an interactive art form. My attraction as a kid were the JRPGs that told epic stories but had you playing them… and yes technically an illusory free agency but IMHO no less free agency than you have when reading a novel.

    Another observation… Indispensible Goods made me dust off an old classic… Mortimer Adler’s “How to read a book…”

    I don’t know if it was your pedagogical intent, but your “Spaghetti-western” style that had me go and read Althusser’s last chapter in “On the Reproduction of Capitalism” was the perfect example of Adler’s suggestion of “read the last few pages of the book to glean a better picture of the author’s point of the book…” Whether you meant to or not, you’re also teaching people how to *read.* And you’re also totally making me regret not taking that class on Hermeneutics…

    Another random thought that struck me as I was reading Althusser… since class-based societies seem to keep a stranglehold on more “advanced” types of knowledge, this explains completely how our educational system works to *repress* education. A benefit of my grandma’s being in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie was that she was exposed to *all grades* simultaneously… I actually think you *have* to get better overall outcomes because even if you’re not “ready” for something… you’ll still “grease the groove” so that you get there sooner. I’m starting to hate our Prussian-based system even more. It’s cookie-cutter factory floor… “education…” WHY DID I NOT SEE THIS SOONER? How to teach masses of people for the cheapest possible cost? I hated “NCLB” but for reasons that weren’t deep enough…

  24. That’s funny—I actually started using that Adler and VanDoren book toward the last years of my teaching. Thirty years ago, it wasn’t so necessary, but in the last fifteen years I realized that fewer and fewer students had even been taught how to actually read.

    It is probably always hardest to realize that what we have devoted our lives to is in fact working to reproduce oppressive capitalist social formations. I faced the same problem with both of the fields I studied: English and Psychology. I wanted to believe the Romantic idea that Literature was a radical resistance to the oppressive utilitarianism of capitalist ideology; but eventually I realized that all the “great works” are just producing capitalist ideology, that this is always the function “Literature” in our modern Romantic sense was meant to serve. It doesn’t do it well anymore, so now that role is filled by superhero movies and video games and YouTube videos. And of course I bought the seventies rhetoric of psychology as a source of liberation, and had to accept that its mission is, and has always been, to keep people functioning in a horrifyingly alienating social system—mostly by teaching them to think poorly, as in CBT.

    This was also the source of my disappointment with Western Buddhism: all that talk about seeing reality as it is, and it turns out the goal is always to maintain delusions and ignorance.

    Of course, I think there are ways that Literature and psychology could be used against the grain, and clearly I think the same about Buddhism. But this won’t happen in the current institutions—in universities, the therapy industry, or the bookstore-Buddhist spiritual grift. There’s too much money invested in using these practices to maintain hegemony.

    Perhaps there is some potential positive use for video games—but I don’t play them, haven’t for many years, and can’t imagine what it might be.

    I would be interested to hear more of your experience with addiction. This is a topic that still fascinates and troubles me. I continue to be involved with self-help culture, and over the last six months have watched too many people relapse, give up, and even die of overdoses. All the addictions industry has to offer them is more CBT and mindfulness meditation, and it’s killing people fast. In my experience, though, pleasure is never an incentive for addiction. I never experienced “pleasure” when I drank all day every day—it was pure misery. And those people I know who used to smoke crack or meth seem to describe a similar kind of constant unpleasantness interspersed with periods of abject misery. The literature on addiction always calls it a kind of hedonism, but I haven’t really encountered any recovering addicts who say they were having fun. I suppose there are some, though. Maybe there are just different kinds of addiction?

  25. thesonoranghost

     /  October 21, 2020

    “I would be interested to hear more of your experience with addiction. This is a topic that still fascinates and troubles me. I continue to be involved with self-help culture, and over the last six months have watched too many people relapse, give up, and even die of overdoses. All the addictions industry has to offer them is more CBT and mindfulness meditation, and it’s killing people fast. In my experience, though, pleasure is never an incentive for addiction. I never experienced “pleasure” when I drank all day every day—it was pure misery. And those people I know who used to smoke crack or meth seem to describe a similar kind of constant unpleasantness interspersed with periods of abject misery. The literature on addiction always calls it a kind of hedonism, but I haven’t really encountered any recovering addicts who say they were having fun. I suppose there are some, though. Maybe there are just different kinds of addiction?”

    I think part of the problem of addiction you alluded to with your last question. When I told my mentor my primary reasons for drinking: “In order to decrease the barriers to *feel*” he expressed some level of surprise, also surprise for the amount of effort that I’d been putting into the path of renunciation. Apparently most addicts use to escape mental and sometimes material discomforts–especially feelings. And for me–it did start out that way. Alter the state of consciousness, listen to some music or read and then go to bed. Then I discovered that my preferred “happy place” put me in a situation to more deeply feel, so it became a kind of tortured “escape sometimes” and then… I can’t think of the word. But I’d approach it eagerly and then turn on one of my favorite movies and enjoy amplified *feeling.* But my trend was one of becoming more and more self-isolated and cutting myself off from anyone but my family in a very real sense, and any other project that wasn’t drinking was pushed aside.

    When I first met my mentor, I told him “I think the biggest thing I’m afraid of finding out is that I drank because I was bored.” It was a crutch sometimes… “Mom’s coming over… shit… slam a half liter quick and then I can take it…” other times… “Family’s asleep, let’s put on Guardians of the Galaxy 2 again and make myself weep for the hundredth time.” <–That movie has a lot of psychological impact for me, none of which you'll probably enjoy, but it's there.

    That said, recovery is a process, and so I've gone digging. I'm not sure how deep you'd like me to go here to explain my own addiction?

    I can tell you that for me it was a pattern of behavior that repeated itself until I found alcohol–only that Alcohol has long-term disastrous consequences. I had ample opportunity to become an early addict to both, I had several friends in high school and Jr. High that were drugging out on just about everything, I was able to get all of the escapism I needed in books. Escape from what? Emotions, and a shitty home life. The one good thing my mom did for me as a young'un was buying a set of grocery store encylopedias. Or maybe bad. Give a kid with nothing else to do at home a set of encyclopedias and he'll read the whole damn set. We didn't have a VCR… couldn't afford it. We did have public TV and a few network channels, on air of course. My mom did afford cable once and when she cancelled it it was the worst thing in the world.

    I'll stop there unless you want me to continue. I've noticed a pattern of craving that's been omnipresent, I've just channeled it different ways, some of them horribly ineffective, alcohol being the worst. I've felt the happiest when I was channeling into a project of my own creation: Music in my case, though with your refined taste I'd doubt you'd call it that. I was drawn to the poetry there with words. I've always had something pushing me to DO something, the only time alcohol became a problem is when I had run out of all of that… I was done with school, had a killer job that I loved… I should have been set. If my wife didn't finally start making some ultimatums this last year, I'd probably still be in my pit.

    There's several threads to sample here, all of which run deep. In general, despite my shitty childhood, I still blame boredom. All my material comforts checked? Yep. I blame my passion for learning on the same basic drive; I always have to be DOING something. Meditation and Philosophy just happen to be considerably less harmful on the liver. Unless of course that's where love comes from… 😉

  26. You seem to be suggesting that the need to always be doing something is a flaw to be corrected. My position is that this is our conatus, and the denial of this is in fact the source of most of our unhappiness, including addiction. It is why so many people today need to be medicated to endure their daily lives. I would go further, and suggest that what we do must somehow feel meaningful—that is, we need to see it as advancing our intentions, in the broad sense (our often implicit plan for how we would like to organize our production and distribution of indispensable goods). If we aren’t doing something meaningful, we tend to be miserable—often with that “life of quiet desperation,” but sometimes worse.

    I’ve long suspected that the need to “feel” in some sense is exactly what is lacking in many addicts. At least, this is what I’ve learned in discussion with many former addicts who have achieved multiple years of sobriety. Still, the addiction industry will repeat the same nonsense about addicts being hedonists (unable to seek long-term goals at the expense of short-term pleasures) and as trying to avoid “feelings.” Many addicts will even say this about themselves, because they have bought the explanation offered them by therapists and self-help books and in rehabs and 12-step meetings. But when I talk to them beyond the slogan-slinging at AA meetings, it always turns out that they don’t even understand what this denial of feeling might mean. They don’t know what an “emotion” even is. So when they say they are “afraid to feel their feelings,” what it turns out they mean is that they can’t bear the boredom and absence of feeling required of them in their daily lives.

    Of course, my “sample” for this is a few dozen addicts (usually crack, meth or coke) and alcoholics who did get sober for some time. I still wonder if there may be multiple explanations for “addiction” and I just don’t have any interaction with other kinds of addicts.

  27. thesonoranghost

     /  October 23, 2020

    “You seem to be suggesting that the need to always be doing something is a flaw to be corrected. My position is that this is our conatus, and the denial of this is in fact the source of most of our unhappiness, including addiction.”

    I can see how what I wrote would make it seem like I thought I was pathological. I certainly thought it was idiosyncratic–but not abnormal. It *is* something that I wasn’t able to identify without seriously working with Buddhist contemplation combined with the inventory methods used by Refuge Recovery. I won’t lie… I stayed VERY far away from psychology and sociology for the better part of my adult life precisely because I was working from the bias of scientism. I think this scientism was the better part of my difficulty in the reductionism chapter, it’s hard to cast out patterns of thinking, but at least through the techniques I’ve been learning from Refuge as well as the Theravadan practice that I’ve subsequently embraced, notably teachings surrounding “intent.” It’s very subtle, but part of why your book struck a chord is that my personality *has* been changing since I began the practices. In fact, maybe two weeks before I met you here I called up one of my Refuge Sangha mates and said something like… “dude… what if injected LOVE in politics?” I’m making fun of myself a bit here but the heart practices as well as forgiveness and Tonglen taught at Refuge have been making a transformation *well beyond* what one would expect from another “treatment program.”

    You might consider here sitting in on a few zoom sessions (corona killed in person meetings) as the program deliberately doesn’t segregate addiction types… since all addiction is based on *being human.* I would say after having sit in now on almost 100 meetings with varying addicts… you’re on the right path. That said, refuge is incredibly young and there are plenty of surviving “AA but I got sick of AA” that pull in some of those tropes, but I lack *any* experience here. None of that is in the book. Noah Levine, having been a major leftist punk rocker in his day might have some ideas that stop just short of yours, but I consider it pretty radical myself to orient… life and politics around the idea of love and compassion.

    “Still, the addiction industry will repeat the same nonsense about addicts being hedonists (unable to seek long-term goals at the expense of short-term pleasures) and as trying to avoid “feelings.” Many addicts will even say this about themselves, because they have bought the explanation offered them by therapists and self-help books and in rehabs and 12-step meetings.”

    This here is powerful. One of the important things that Buddhism has been confronting me with is that battle with what I considered my “self” to be. Refuge has “inventories” that are probably half-borrowed from AA, but when you analyze the questions they ask, the goal I believe is to get you to understand that the addiction firstly, doesn’t define you as a human being (despite how ‘dirty’ we addicts are) and secondly, that addiction is a deeper manifestation of basic human tendencies and cravings. I haven’t read the book critically yet but this is on my list. Having attended well over 100 meetings now, I can safely say that while it’s not as directly explicit as what you said: “But when I talk to them beyond the slogan-slinging at AA meetings, it always turns out that they don’t even understand what this denial of feeling might mean. They don’t know what an “emotion” even is. So when they say they are “afraid to feel their feelings,” what it turns out they mean is that they can’t bear the boredom and absence of feeling required of them in their daily lives.” It’s there in the subtext.

    My own mentor had me read “Alone with Others” by Stephen Batchelor, and while I suspect Batchelor might also be in your “eew” category along with TNH, that book helped me re-orient my “western” philosophical ideas in a way that harmonized better with the path. That said, “Buddhism as an answer to our basic existential dilemma” is something that I intuit is *exactly* what you think is wrong with “Western Buddhism.” I’m ill-equipped here to intelligently comment, but I don’t hold it as “gospel truth.” But Batchelor very very clearly explicates the essential problem that I’ve identified as my own root cause for how I ended up where I’m at, and you’ve restated in a different way.

    You’re making me think I should write my own book. In thinking through implications from your book about sociality as well as free will…

    I was exercising my free will. But that wasn’t affecting any radical changes in my life. I was still learning, but the thing that’s missing from this hyperindividualism that in my case was compounded by being an introvert was the fact that until I started refuge, until I allowed myself to become vulnerable, I wasn’t open to changing things on my own because left to our own devices… we’re all steady state until we stumble into something inspiring.

    Sociality adds the potential for that spark. So if free will is exercised by education, building up knowledge to gain “more degrees of freedom” as it were, social interaction can be the accelerant that forces us as individuals to break out of our individual ruts.

  28. thesonoranghost

     /  October 23, 2020

    Sorry, some of that in the beginning has some incomplete ramblings… I went to go edit just now but apparently I don’t have permissions, I don’t see how to “edit post.”

  29. thesonoranghost

     /  October 25, 2020

    I read your review of TNH’s thought, and it IS food for thought. I don’t have strong emotional attachment to him, but I certainly should re-evaluate.

    So full disclosure: I *do* work within the military industrial complex. Since “waking up” from addiction though I’m taking more firm stock of all of these things: I can only defend TNH on the nuclear weapons bit by asking in turn: “Who needs mindfulness training MORE than such people?” I’d have never asked any questions about myself about “is this the right thing” if I hadn’t taken TNH to heart. Slowly. Inevitably. By also learning more about his life and his own activism. My more generous reading is that TNH was out to get people like me into a mindset that would force me to ASK questions of myself. I found TNH because of course Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize… and after learning more about MLK this year–part of what ultimately also brought me here–I don’t know that I agree it’s ‘just platitudes.’ I would never have started learning Anapanasati or Satipatthana if I hadn’t branched out from his footnotes and then looked for his commentary books on those Suttas. And then Analyo’s… eventually to a massive collection of Buddhist literature that’s culiminated in having read so far, the first 48 Suttas of the Majjhima Nikaya complete with having taken some deep notes along the way. (I’ve been keeping my own commentary as I internalize the teachings and incorporating pieces into practice.)

    It’s been some time since I engaged with Zinn or Chomsky, but in the mindset that had been dominating my thought since graduating college, I would have accused anyone criticizing my choice of working with the DoD of ‘moral masturbation’ and walked away. I did it to one of my best friends. I don’t remember if it was Chomsky or Zinn that was directly calling into question the morals/ethics of somebody doing what I was doing–offering materiel support–but I can promise that if TNH had placed something like THAT as a message in his books, it’s more likely that I would have disengaged my reading and searching down this Buddhist path altogether, ultimately meaning I also wouldn’t have met you, bought your book, and be working through how long it’s going to take me to switch industries. (I’m not free from this until I’m out of enough debt to take the pay cut.) [I train other software engineers in the unclassified part of the company to write code that won’t get us hacked.] That said, I still have strong mental ties to this country and that despite its flaws–I don’t see a way out of those flaws except by becoming politically active which has also slowly picked up steam over the last four years. The way to prevent weapons from being used is to fight to gain more control over the levers of power… then and only then can the complex be slowly weaned. This is a deeply conflicted time in my life. (And, as I’m probably already under NSA surveillance that can connect THIS site’s account in some way to me personally, the discussion here on addiction as well as Marxism might well be enough to have that decision made FOR me.)

    So that’s where I’m at on TNH. I have to say though, my library sticks with just his direct explications of Buddhist Doctrines, and 1 book on writing gathas as part of daily practice. I have “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” and then several of his Sutra commentaries. (Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Satipatthana, Anapanasti, Lotus Sutra, and Bhaddekaratta sutta.) It’s entirely possible that I’ve internalized more of the Suttas themselves than of his commentary, but if/when I return to those works, I’ll try to engage critically.

    At any rate, I’ve had people tell me to pound sand after they find out what I do for a living. If this is one of those moments–I still thank you deeply for writing your book and opening my mind in some unexpected ways. I will step away if so asked.

  30. Hey, it’s not a problem for me—but as you said, if you have any kinds of security clearance you might need to worry about having a conversation with an avowed marxist.

    My issue with TNH is that I don’t think he works, for most people, the way he seems to have worked for you. That is, most people take his watered-down platitudes as the final word in Buddhism, and then lose interest. They think all there is to Buddhism is adopting an attitude of benevolence—like the sickly saccharine American version of Christianity from my childhood: you don’t have to believe in anything, and don’t worry about those tiresome commandments, just be a kind person and you’ll get to heaven (so long as you don’t think too much, which is much worse than mere adultery or theft).

    When I was an undergraduate taking intro to psych, I read the chapter in the textbook on Freud and decided he was an idiot. Years later, in grad school, when I had to read a couple of Freuds case studies in a class in Victorian Literature (along with “The Descent of Man” and “The Communist Manifesto”), I did it reluctantly—but realized that everything I had “learned” about Freud was completely wrong. This is what I expect TNH does. I’ve met literally dozens of people who think they know all about Buddhism because they read a book by TNH—and they haven’t the first clue. Most of them “practice Buddhism” for a few months or a year, until “mindfulness” gets too painfully boring and they get tired of pretending to be sweet and patient all the time. Then they say they’ve done the Buddhism thing and it isn’t for them.

    Part of my problem with TNH, also, is that he follows one Buddhist tradition—the one in which there is an eternal, immortal “true self” which is unfortunately trapped in this world, but which will eventually return to the realm of eternal bliss. Okay, fine, if you can buy that. But then he doesn’t point out that there is another tradition in Buddhism that exactly denies the existence of such an immortal “true self.”

    As for TNH’s advice to the guy making weapons, well, one of the things you have to warn people of is that they cannot become enlightened and work at such jobs. Fine, do it if you want, but realize that it will prevent progress toward enlightenment. This is a very traditional Buddhist position. We need to remember that, in the words Upton Sinclair (I think), it is hard to convince someone of a truth if his paycheck requires him to deny it.

    But then, this is true of all of us, right? Absolutely any job in America, or any other country, is tied to the capitalist system. If you want to live, you cannot avoid participating in the oppression and exploitation of people somewhere in the world. Not just your smartphone or your car, but your food an clothing depend on it. My approach is not to “opt out” and find some pure way to live—which doesn’t exist—but to educate enough people in how things really are, to teach enough people to think better, that it becomes possible to change the system. Get rid of the repressive state apparatuses too soon, and we’ll never make progress at all (I am not an anarchist, obviously).

    As for the addiction question, many people have suggested to me that I write something about this—including my wife. But I don’t see that it would help. Just about everyone who’s sober for a year or so thinks they’’ll write a book, or at least an essay, to explain to everyone how to get sober. Usually, a few years later they realize they had more questions than answers. There are a hundred or so such books out there, and none of them says anything useful—most don’t even make much sense. So I doubt I’ll ever pursue this topic in any systematic way. Frankly, the addiction industry is too big and too powerful, and their profits depend on denying their abject failure. And really, nobody is more likely to reject hard truths than an active addict—they’ll listen to the addiction counselor who tells them what they want to hear until it kills them. I hate to see so many people dying from addiction during this crisis (every week or so I hear about another who has returned to using or died), but I don’t think I have an answer. Or, to put it in a more Buddhist way, I may know how they can get sober, but don’t have the skillful means to convince them to try it!

    Years ago, I wrote something about the Levine’s Refuge Recovery book. Around here, the idea never caught hold anyway, so I’d forgotten about it.

    By the way, over a decade ago I helped start a Buddhist recovery meeting here in CT. It took real time and effort—many weeks I was the only one who showed up for the meeting! Eventually, it turned into a rather large group, but few participants were interested in Buddhism in any serious way—they were mostly just tired of, or disappointed in, AA.

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