Under the Influence

Galen Strawson is my latest male crush. With almost everything I read or hear from him, I say, ‘that’s what I think’, over and over and over again. So I thought I’d share some of my journey to now. I made a post about female influences not too long ago. This is a bit different.

My first obsession, let’s say was the Beatles. I can’t pinpoint precisely when, but when I was a child, it’s been said that I would sing ‘she’s got a chicken to ride’ when it came on to AM radio. I asked for or bought all of their albums, and read everything about them that a kid could get his hands on back in the day. This obsession lasted for years and overlaps some of my next interests. My interests were in John Lennon’s political interests and George Harrison’s spiritual interests. I didn’t really find Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr very interesting beyond their musical abilities. And to be honest, I also got all of the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and so on. At my peak, I had over a thousand vinyl records—all lost in a house fire because vinyl and heat are generally incompatible. Paper didn’t fare much better, as I lost hundreds of books, too. A lesson in impermanence.

I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist

In grades 5 to 8, National Socialism and World War II were fascinating to me. Not Hitler, per se, though I do recall reading Mein Kampf at the time. There was just something about the sense of unity. Upon reflection, I realised that this meant me conforming to some other trend, and that was no longer interesting, as I am a bit of a nonconformist, a contrarian, and a polemicist, so there was that.

At some point, I came across Voltaire’s Candide and it just struck me. This may have commenced me on my path to becoming somewhat of a francophile. I extended my interest into the language and culture. My WWII phase has already primed that pump. I remember reading Dumas, Hugo, and some Descartes.

After I graduated, I was a recording engineer and musician. I remember reading Schoenberg’s Structural Function of Harmony and being enamoured with Dvořák and Stravinsky. I was influenced by many musicians, engineers, and producers, but there was just something about Schoenberg.

I went through a Kafka phase—that eventually included Donald Barthelme. His Absurdism was a nice foundation for my subsequent interest in Camus. It was something that just resonated with me. After Kafka, I discovered Dostoyevsky and consumed everything of his I could get my hands on.

I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor

In the 1990s, I discovered Carl Jung and eventually Joseph Campbell and a few years I spent reading Jung’s Complete Works and peripheral material related to Archetypal and Depth Psychology. I absorbed the material. I took from Jung and Campbell the importance of metaphor, but it never really resonnated beyond this.

Somehow, this experience led me to the Existentialism of Sartre (and Camus and Beauvoir). At the same time something clicked with me, I was always put off by the teleological imperative these guys seemed to insist upon—Sartre’s political involvement and Camus’ insistence on Art. These were their paths—and I certainly had an interest in Art and Politics—, but I felt this was too prescriptive.

For a brief time, I really liked Hume (and Spinoza), but then I discovered Nietzche and felt compelled to read his major works. It all made sense to me. It still does. Nietsche set me up for Foucault with his power relationships and the sense that morality, good, and evil are all socially constructed and contextual.

And Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power. These two still resonate with me. I investigated a lot of postmodern thinkers after this.

Nietzsche brought me to Foucault and his lens of Power

Daniel Dennett came next. He seems brilliant, and I tend to agree with most of what he says. I was still absorbing. Where biologist Robert Sapolsky gets philosophical, it’s about the same.

But Galen Strawson is different. And I have a lot of catching up to do in my reading of his direct work. The difference is that with these prior influences, I was absorbing and synthesising—creating my own perspectives and worldview. By the time I am finding Strawson, with every encounter, I am ticking off boxes.

  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think
  • That’s what I think

Only, he started publishing in the 1960s. I could have been reading his work all along. Since I agree with 99.999 per cent of what I get from him and he is such a deep thinker, I am looking for two things:

  1. Something that expands rather than confirms
  2. Some spaces to operate that he has missed or ignored

As I continue on my Anti-Agency project and gather more inputs and perspectives, I’ll be considering a lot of Strawson. Here’s a clip I really enjoyed. I am thinking of doing a sort of reaction piece, but whether or not that happens, here’s the source.

[Video] Galen Strawson — Is Free Will a Necessary Illusion?

Spoiler Alert: I believe that free will is a cognitive bias related to apophenia. It’s a Gestalt heuristic.

Emotion Trumps Reason

“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” said David Hume said in his Treatise of Human Nature.

Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

Hume claims that “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will,” and that reason alone “can never oppose passion in the direction of the will.”

In the United States, forces on the Left have still not learnt this lesson. They are still trying to fight emotion and irrationality with reason. It’s like trying to coöpt the insane with rationality. It’s not going to happen.

And despite protestations, even the most supposedly logical of us are still motivated by some emotion or passion, as much as we can try to deny it. One can claim to have become an accountant or an engineer or a physicist because it was a calculated, logical thing to do, but in the end, even the brightest of these are driven by passion, by emotion.

As long as we are fighting emotion with reason, the battle is already over before it starts. We need to fight emotion with empathy. This is where the story of the oak and the willow comes in handy. Reason is the oak. Reason is the hare, but emotion is the supple willow of the tenacious tortoise.

Wage this fight and escalating commitment will prevail, as the emotional response will trigger a sort of fight or flight, but your opponent’s reason will form a hard shell to fend off any attacks.

But don’t feel too smug. It’s only your emotions that give you the passion to fight the good fight. Reason has convinced you that this is the logical route.


I’ve not read nearly at a pace as I’ve done in prior years, and I’ve got a million excuses. I did recently start and stop Quine’s Pursuit of Truth, but I’ve just picked up Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason.

EDIT: I’ve since finished this book and posted a review on Goodreads.

As a former behavioural economist, it’s good to see the expansion of the position that the Enlightenment brought the Western world an Age of Reason, but it failed to see how little capacity most humans have for reason even regarding mundane affairs.

Have you ever stopped to consider that literally half of the population has less than average intelligence?

Some guy

Fundamental attribution bias is clearly at play, as the authors of these Enlightenment works were high-intellect individuals. I respect greatly the likes of Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and their near contemporaries, but the world they envisaged was based on an invalid premise.

In the realm of governance, one might try to argue that Plato was trying to address this in his admonishment of democracy in favour of The Republic, but he, too, was incorrect, essentially not seeing principle-agent problems as well as predicating a system on the notion of virtue—naive, to say the least.

I’ve been tremendously busy in my day job, so I haven’t been able to contribute here as much as I’d like, but I’ve taken time to jot down this.

Ethical Subjectivism

Many people are pragmatists, so when I submit that there is no objective morality, the response is that this is unworkable, so I need to find another system. It’s akin to running out of petrol in the desert, and your travel partner responds similarly:

“There has to be petrol; otherwise, we can’t get to where we need to go.”

Hat tip to Captain Obvious, but unlike ethics and morality, one can’t just conjure fuel. This is why we have created normative ethics—the operative being normative.

“How can anyone work with a system without objective morality?”

I get this reaction often when I broach the topic of ethical subjectivism.

Ethical subjectivism [or moral subjectivism] is a philosophical theory that suggests moral truths are determined on an individual level. It holds that there are no objective moral properties and that ethical statements are illogical because they do not express immutable truths.”

For me, as a moral anti-realist (vacillating at times toward non-cognitive emotivism, if not outright moral nihilism), it’s been relatively easy to hold this subjective meta-ethical position whilst simultaneously adopting a pragmatic ethical theory, though I have always found the prevailing frameworks to be lacking—whether consequentialism, deontology, or virtue ethics. In fact, this is why I decided to go deeper into philosophy, to see what others had to say about the matter. Fortunately, David Hume had trodden this ground before in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.

Subjectivism allows one to have a preference for a given moral framework, it just simultaneously claims that one cannot objectively be judged as better.

This is about where people’s Hitler and rape fantasies are introduced into the argument, and always with an air of checkmate, so let’s explore this. We’ll take historical, evil, bad person, Adolf Hitler and his ill-treatment of Jews in the years leading up to and through World War II.Adolf Hitler, Politiker, NSDAP, D - Lagebesprechung im Hauptquartier des Heeresgruppe S¬∏

The reasoning usually follows these lines: Of course there is good and evil, right and wrong. Don’t (won’t) you agree that what he did was immoral? Sidestepping, that personally, in my opinion, Hitler was not cool, it doesn’t answer to the morality. In the subjectivist domain, there is no good and evil, but I tend to reserve that response, as it falls on deaf ears.

Instead, let’s follow through and reflect on the speculative outcome represented by Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High CastleIn this world, the Nazis won the war and conquered the free world, but in the vein of  “history is written by the victors”, society found a new equilibrium. That’s what people do. Sure, there are always dissenters, as there are today in any government, but this evil moniker is applied by the glorious and victorious Allied Forces over the Axis (of Evil). Had the Nazi’s prevailed, it would have been but a footnote in history—if that. Morality is just perspective. From a societal perspective, it may take the form of ethnocentrism. But in the end, morality and ethics distil down to an individual vantage, even if the individual adopts a package off the rack, as most do in the form of religions and community guidelines.

The Man in the High Castle (AmazonVideo) – Life goes on.
Nietzsche’s Nihilism (and Heidegger) captured this in his subjective authenticity, which is being true to one’s self. In this view, it is irrelevant what moral systems others impose upon you. If you resolve to go to the gym at least once a week yet don’t, you are not being authentic.

Camus noted in his Myth of Sisyphus that one has the option upon realising the Absurd, that there is no inherent meaning to life. Aside from suicide and acceptance, one could adopt a worldview, whether religious or spiritual to Capitalism, Socialism (his preference), or Pastafarian, essentially denying the Absurd.

Ignorance is Bliss™

In a way, the religiously devout have it simpler. They are indoctrinated with a pre-packaged belief system, and they don’t really question it. But other people have political and jurisprudence systems prêt-à-porter, and they are willing to defend them, seemingly to the death.

Some stated arguments against ethical subjectivism are as follows:

“Ethical Relativism has implications such as moral infallibility and moral equivalence. It does not offer a way for parties engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements because each side is required to acknowledge that the opinion of their opponent is equally as factual as their own. Individuals can never have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal. As well, blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always objective [sic].”

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

no way for parties engaged in an ethical debate to resolve their disagreements

True. If you can’t turn a screw with a sledgehammer, perhaps you need to question whether you’re are using the appropriate tool instead of cursing the sledgehammer for not being a screwdriver. If a tool isn’t suitable for a task, perhaps you are using the wrong tool.

one can’t have a moral disagreement if both sides are morally ideal

True. Again, perhaps you need a different instrument.

Blame cannot be placed in a conflict if moral truths are always subjective

True. I’ll sidestep the question of why blame is necessary, but yet again, this may not be the right instrument.

On balance, people seem to need pragmatism, so they seek a workable moral framework. Assuaging cognitive dissonance is as natural as breathing. Ah, the joy of delusion. Humans fabricate moral systems in an attempt to address issues such as these, but all of these systems are, in fact, human constructs, and none are objectively better than another. Subjectively, one may prefer one over another.

Don’t blame me. I’m just the messenger.