Note from Mr. Stolyarov: For those interested in my thoughts on the connections among music, technology, algorithms, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and the philosophical motivations behind my own compositions, I have had a peer-reviewed paper, “Empowering Human Musical Creation through Machines, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence” published in Issue 2 of the INSAM Journal of Contemporary Music, Art, and Technology. This is a rigorous academic publication but also freely available and sharable via a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license – just as academic works ought to be – so I was honored by the opportunity to contribute my writing. My essay features discussions of Plato and Aristotle, Kirnberger’s and Mozart’s musical dice games, the AI-generated compositions of Ray Kurzweil and David Cope, and the recently completed “Unfinished” Symphony of Franz Schubert, whose second half was made possible by the Huawei / Lucas Cantor, AI / human collaboration. Even Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen make appearances in this paper. Look in the bibliography for YouTube and downloadable MP3 links to all of my compositions that I discuss, as this paper is intended to be a multimedia experience.
Music, technology, and transhumanism – all in close proximity in the same paper and pointing the way toward the vast proliferation of creative possibilities in the future as the distance between the creator’s conception of a musical idea and its implementation becomes ever shorter.
You can find my paper on pages 81-99 of Issue 2.
Read “Empowering Human Musical Creation through Machines, Algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence” here.
Abstract: “In this paper, I describe the development of my personal research on music that transcends the limitations of human ability. I begin with an exploration of my early thoughts regarding the meaning behind the creation of a musical composition according to the creator’s intentions and how to philosophically conceptualize the creation of such music if one rejects the existence of abstract Platonic Forms. I then explore the transformation of my own creative process through the introduction of software capable of playing back music in exact accord with the inputs provided to it, while enabling the creation of music that remains intriguing to the human ear even though the performance of it may sometimes be beyond the ability of humans. Subsequently, I describe my forays into music generated by earlier algorithmic systems such as the Musikalisches Würfelspiel and narrow artificial-intelligence programs such as WolframTones and my development of variations upon artificially generated themes in essential collaboration with the systems that created them. I also discuss some of the high-profile, advanced examples of AI-human collaboration in musical creation during the contemporary era and raise possibilities for the continued role of humans in drawing out and integrating the best artificially generated musical ideas. I express the hope that the continued advancement of musical software, algorithms, and AI will amplify human creativity by narrowing and ultimately eliminating the gap between the creator’s conception of a musical idea and its practical implementation.”
Ayn Rand and Friedrich A. Hayek: A Side-by-Side Comparison – Article by Edward W. Younkins
Ayn Rand and Friedrich A. Hayek did more than any other writers in the Twentieth Century to turn intellectual opinion away from statism and toward a free society. Although they are opposed on many philosophical and social issues, they generally agree on the superiority of a free market. Rand’s defense of capitalism differs dramatically from Hayek’s explanation of the extended order. In addition, Hayek approves of state activity that violates Rand’s ideas of rights and freedom. The purpose of this brief essay is to describe, explain, and compare the ideas of these two influential thinkers. To do this, I present and explain an exhibit that provides a side-by-side summary of the differences between Rand and Hayek on a number of issues.
In their early years of writing, both Hayek and Rand were dismissed by intellectuals, but they were heralded by businessmen. Hayek began to gain some respect from intellectuals when he published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. He wrote a number of scholarly books, attained formal academic positions, and earned the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974. Rand never did write scholarly works or hold a formal academic position. Her philosophy must be extracted from her essays and her fiction.
Hayek was read in college classes sooner, and to a much greater extent, than was Rand. He was viewed by intellectuals as a responsible and respected scholar, and Rand was not. His vision of anti-statism was more acceptable to intellectuals because he called for some exceptions to laissez-faire capitalism. In his writings he permitted concessions for some state interventions. In his immense and varied body of work, he touched upon a great many fields, including anthropology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, philosophy, economics, linguistics, political science, and intellectual history. During the last 25 years or so, Rand’s works have been increasingly studied by scholars. There is now an Ayn Rand Society affiliated with the American Philosophical Association and a scholarly publication devoted to the study of her ideas—The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. In addition, her writings are now being covered in college classes.
A Summary Comparison
Exhibit I provides a summary comparison of Rand and Hayek based on a variety of factors and dimensions. With respect to metaphysics and epistemology, Rand holds that “A is A” and that reality is knowable. Contrariwise, Hayek argues that reality is unknowable and that what men see are distorted representations or reproductions of objects existing in the world. The skeptic Hayek goes so far as to state that the notion of things in themselves (i.e., the noumenal world) can be dismissed. Whereas Rand’s foundation is reality, the best that Hayek can offer as a foundation is words and language.
Hayek supports the view that the human mind must have a priori categories that are prior to, and responsible for the ability to perceive and interpret the external world. He adds to this Kantian view by making the case that each individual mind’s categories are restructured according to the distinct experiences of each particular person. Each person’s neural connections can therefore be seen as semi-permanent and affected by his or her environment and experiences. The mind’s categories evolve as each specific person experiences the world. According to Hayek, there is pre-sensory knowledge embedded in the structure of the mind and the nervous system’s synaptic connections which can be further created and modified over time. For the neo-Kantian Hayek, knowledge always has a subjective quality.
Reason for Rand is active, volitional, and efficacious. It follows that she sees rationality as man’s primary virtue. She sees progress through science and technology as the result of the human ability to think conceptually and to analyze logically through induction and deduction. Rand also contends that people can develop objective concepts that correspond with reality.
In his philosophy, Hayek relegates reason to a minor role. He argues for a modest perspective of people’s reasoning capabilities. He contends that reason is passive and that it is a social product. Hayek’s message of intellectual humility is primarily aimed at constructivist rationalism rather than critical rationalism. As an “anti-rationalist,” he explained that the world is too complex for any government planner to intentionally design and construct society’s institutions. However, he is a proponent of the limited potential of critical rationalism through which individuals use local and tacit knowledge in their everyday decisions. Hayek views progress as a product of an ongoing dynamic evolutionary process. He said that we cannot know reality but we can analyze evolving words and language. Linguistic analysis and some limited empirical verification provide Hayek with somewhat of an analytical foundation. His coherence theory of concepts is based on agreement among minds. For Hayek, concepts happen to the mind. Of course, his overall theory of knowledge is that individuals know much more than can be expressed in words.
Rand makes a positive case for freedom based on the nature of man and the world. She explains that man’s distinctive nature is exhibited in his rational thinking and free will. Each person has the ability to think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to act according to those thoughts. People are rational beings with free wills who have the ability to fulfill their own life purposes, aims, and intentions. Rand holds that each individual person has moral significance. He or she exists, perceives, experiences, thinks and acts in and through his or her own body and therefore from unique points in time and space. It follows that the distinct individual person is the subject of value and the unit of social analysis. Each individual is responsible for thinking for himself, for acting on his own thoughts, and for achieving his own happiness.
Hayek denies the existence of free will. However, he explains that people act as if they have free will because they are never able to know how they are determined to act by various biological, cultural, and environmental factors. His negative case for freedom is based on the idea that no one person or government agency is able to master the complex multiplicity of elements needed to do so. Such relevant knowledge is never totally possessed by any one individual. There are too many circumstances and variables affecting a situation to take them all into account. His solution to this major problem is to permit people the “freedom” to pursue and employ the information they judge to be the most relevant to their chosen goals. For Hayek, freedom is good because it best promotes the growth of knowledge in society. Hayek explains that in ordering society we should depend as much as possible on spontaneous forces such as market prices and as little as possible on force. Acknowledging man’s socially-constructed nature, he does not view individuals as independent agents but rather as creatures of society.
According to Rand, the principle of man’s rights can be logically derived from man’s nature and needs. Rights are a moral concept. For Rand, the one fundamental right is a person’s right to his own life. She explains that rights are objective conceptual identifications of the factual requirements of a person’s life in a social context. A right is a moral principle that defines and sanctions one’s freedom of action in a social context. Discussion of individual rights are largely absent from Hayek’s writings. At most he says that rights are created by society through the mechanism of law.
Whereas Rand speaks of Objective Law, Hayek speaks of the Rule of Law. Objective laws must be clearly expressed in terms of essential principles. They must be objectively justifiable, impartial, consistent, and intelligible. Rand explains that objective law is derived from the rational principle of individual rights. Objective Law deals with the specific requirements of a man’s life. Individuals must know in advance what the law forbids them from doing, what constitutes a violation, and what penalty would be incurred if they break the law. Hayek says that the Rule of Law is the opposite of arbitrary government. The Rule of Law holds that government coercion must be limited by known, general, and abstract rules. According to Hayek certain abstract rules of conduct came into being because groups who adopted them became better able to survive and prosper. These rules are universally applicable to everyone and maintain a sphere of responsibility.
Rand espouses a rational objective morality based on reason and egoism. In her biocentric ethics, moral behavior is judged in relation to achieving specific ends with the final end being an individual’s life, flourishing, and happiness. For Hayek, ethics is based on evolution and emotions. Ethics for Hayek are functions of biology and socialization. They are formed through habits and imitation.
Rand advocates a social system of laissez-faire capitalism in which the sole function of the state is the protection of individual rights. Hayek, or the other hand, allows for certain exceptions and interventions to make things work. He holds that it is acceptable for the government to supply public goods and a safety net.
For Rand, the consciousness of the individual human person is the highest level of mental functioning. For Hayek, it is a supra-conscious framework of neural connections through which conscious mental activity gains meaning. He states that this meta-conscious mechanism is taken for granted by human beings. The set of a person’s physiological impulses forms what Hayek calls the sensory order. Perception and pattern recognition follow one’s sensory order which is altered by a person’s own perception and history of experiences
Aristotle is Rand’s only acknowledged philosophical influence. They both contend that to make life fully human (i.e., to flourish), an individual must acquire virtues and make use of his reason as fully as he is capable. Hayek was influenced by Kant and Popper in epistemology, Ferguson and Smith in evolutionary theory, Hume in ethics, and Wittgenstein in linguistics.
Although Rand and Hayek are opposed on many philosophical questions, they generally agree on the desirability of a free market and are among the most well-known defenders of capitalism in the twentieth century. The works of both of these intellectual giants are highly recommended for any student of liberty.
A Summary Comparison
Words and Language
Reality is knowable.
Skepticism – The idea of things in themselves can be dismissed.
Reason is active, volitional, and efficacious.
Reason is passive and a social product.
Based on power of human reason and conscious thought
Evolution and social selection
Logical analysis, including induction and deduction
Linguistic analysis and empiricism
Theory of Concepts
Objective concepts that correspond with reality
Coherence or agreement among minds
Positive case for freedom
Negative case for “freedom”
Man has free will.
Man is determined but acts as if he has free will.
Subject of value and unit of social analysis
Perpetuation of society (i.e., the group)
Dependent—man is socially constituted
Based on the nature of the human person
Created by society through law
Rule of Law
Ethics and Morality
Rational objective morality based on reason and egoism
Evolutionary and emotive ethics based on altruism which is noble but cannot be implemented because of ignorance. Established through habits and imitation
Desired Social System
Minimal welfare state that supplies public goods and safety net
Highest level of understanding and mental functioning
Consciousness of the Individual
Meta-conscious framework—neural connections
Ferguson, Smith, Kant, Hume, Popper, Wittgenstein
Universal Physical and Moral Laws, With No Lawgiver – Video by G. Stolyarov II
Mr. Stolyarov endeavors to refute the common argument that any law, be it a physical law or a law of morality or justice, requires a lawgiver – an intelligent entity that brought the law into being. While some laws (termed manmade or positive laws) do indeed have human lawmakers, a much more fundamental class of laws (termed universal or natural laws) arise not due to promulgation by any intelligent being, but rather due to the basic properties of the entities these laws concern, and the relations of those entities to one another. To the extent that positive laws are enacted by humans, the purpose of such positive laws should be reflect and effectuate the beneficial consequences of objectively valid natural laws.
– Formula for the Universal Law of Gravitation: F = G*m1*m2/r2, with F being the force between two masses, m1 and m2 being the two masses, r being the distance between the centers of the two masses, and G being the universal gravitational constant.
Here I endeavor to refute the common argument that any law, be it a physical law or a law of morality or justice, requires a lawgiver – an intelligent entity that brought the law into being. While some laws (termed manmade or positive laws) do indeed have human lawmakers, a much more fundamental class of laws (termed universal or natural laws) arise not due to promulgation by any intelligent being, but rather due to the basic properties of the entities these laws concern, and the relations of those entities to one another. To the extent that positive laws are enacted by humans, the purpose of such positive laws should be to reflect and effectuate the beneficial consequences of objectively valid natural laws. For instance, it is a natural law that each human being possesses a right to life. A positive law that prohibits and punishes murder of one human being by another would reflect the natural law and therefore be desirable. On the other hand, if any positive law were to mandate murder (as various edicts by tyrannical regimes throughout history, targeting political dissidents or disfavored minority groups, have done), then that positive law would be contrary to the natural law and therefore illegitimate and harmful.
The physical laws of nature pertain to all entities, including humans, and describe the regularities with which these entities will behave within applicable situations. Examples of physical laws include Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, the law of gravitation, the law of conservation of matter and energy, and the law of conservation of momentum. If it is asserted that these laws require a lawgiver, then the lawgiver would hypothetically be able to alter these laws on a whim at any time, thereby depriving them of their universality and predictable application. Such a state of affairs would not only be highly inconvenient (to say the least), but also completely incompatible with the reality that these laws are derived from the nature of entities as they are.
We can draw upon ubiquitous observation and the fact that these laws of nature can indeed be harnessed so precisely that every functional technology ever invented works because it takes advantage of them. The argument that the laws of nature could change tomorrow depends on a false perception of what those laws are – a kind of Platonic view that the laws of nature are superimposed upon the world of objects. In reality, however, objects (entities) and their qualities and relationships are all that exist at the most basic level. The laws of nature are relationships that are derived from the very properties inherent to objects themselves; they are not some higher layer of reality on top of the objects that leads the objects to behave in a certain way. That is, the laws of nature are what they are because the things whose behavior they describe are what they are.
The truth that the laws of nature are a function of the objects whose behavior they describe pertains to fundamental physical laws, such as the law of gravitation. While the law of gravitation and the equation  describing that law apply universally, the very existence of the law is dependent on the existence of entities that have mass and therefore exhibit gravitational attraction. Were there no entities or no entities with mass (incidentally, both logically impossible scenarios), then the concept of gravity would not have any relevance or applicability. Likewise, the amount of mass of particular entities and their distance of separation from one another will determine the extent of the gravitational force exerted by those entities upon one another. The gravitational force arises because the entities are as massive as they are and located where they are relative to one another; it does not arise because a supernatural lawgiver imposed it upon entities who would otherwise be completely static or random in their behavior in relation to one another.
The key parallel with the laws of morality is that, as the laws of gravitation stem from the objective properties of entities themselves (i.e., that they have mass – which is a universal property of all entities), so do the laws of morality stem from the objective properties of human beings themselves – namely, the biological and physical prerequisites of human survival and flourishing. Different specific decisions may be the appropriate moral decisions in different contexts, but because of the essential similarities of humans along many key dimensions, certain general moral truths will hold universally for all humans. But again, were there no humans (or similar rational, sentient, volitional beings) with these essential attributes, the concept of morality would have no relevance.
Neither morality nor gravitation require the existence of entities outside of those exhibiting moral behavior or gravitational attraction. A system of physical or moral laws is not dependent on an outside “lawgiver” but rather on the objective natures of the entities partaking in the system. Objective moral laws include the principles of ethics, which address how a person should behave to maximize possible well-being, as well as the principles of justice, which address how people should relate to one another in respecting one another’s spheres of legitimate action, rewarding meritorious conduct, and punishing destructive conduct against others. There is a natural harmony between adherence to objective moral laws and the attainment of beneficial consequences for one’s own life, material prosperity, and happiness – provided that one adheres to a view of long-term, enlightened, rational self-interest, which does not allow one to sacrifice the lives, liberty, or property of others to achieve a short-term gain.
Some would assert that principles of behavior that tend to maximize well-being and serve one’s rational self-interest may be part of prudent or practical conduct, but are not the same as morality. In the minds of these individuals, morality (typically, in their view, willed by an external lawgiver) is independent of practical means or consequences and often (as, for instance, in Immanuel Kant’s outlook on morality) inherently divorced from actions conducive to self-interest. I, however, strongly reject any notion that there might be a dichotomy between morality and practicality, happiness, or prosperity – when a long-term, enlightened, and multifaceted outlook on the latter conditions is considered. Some might be so short-sighted as to mistake some temporary advantage or fleeting pleasure for true fulfillment or happiness, but the objective cause-and-effect relationships within our physical reality will eventually disappoint them (if they live long enough – and if not, their punishment – death – will be even greater). If some or even many humans might be drawn toward certain pleasurable feelings for their own sake (which is an evolutionary relic of a very different primeval environment inhabited by our ancestors – but a tendency ill-adapted to our current environment), this is not the same as achieving truly sustainable prosperity and happiness by using reason to thrive in our current environment (or to create a better environment for human flourishing). One of the objectives of a good moral system is to guide people toward the latter outcome. My essay and video “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness” offer more detailed thoughts on key elements of a life of flourishing and the concept of eudaemonia – the actualization of one’s full potential, as Aristotle and later virtue-oriented philosophers described it.
Objective moral law, derived from the fundamental value of every innocent rational, sentient being’s life, posits an essential harmony of the long-term, enlightened self-interests of all who earnestly pursue truth and goodness. Unlike many proponents of an externally legislated moral framework (for which the alleged lawgiver might be a supernatural being, a single human ruler, or a collective of humans), I would not consider self-sacrifice to be a component of morality. I align more with Ayn Rand’s view of sacrifice as a surrender of a greater value (e.g., one’s life) to a lesser value (e.g., abstractions such as nation-states, religions, or perceived slights from another nation-state or religious or cultural group). A person can behave morally – promoting his own life, respecting the rights of others, and contributing to human flourishing – without ever surrendering anything he values (except as an instrument for obtaining outcomes he might justifiably value more). Morality should therefore not be seen as the subordination of the individual to some higher ideal, be it a divine order or a manmade one. Rather, the individual is the ideal for which moral behavior is the path to fulfillment.
A person who behaves morally advances himself while fully respecting the legitimate prerogatives of others. He improves his own life without damaging anybody else’s. In the process of pursuing enlightened self-interest, he also benefits the lives of others through value-adding interactions. Indeed, he may enter into an extensive network of both formal and informal reciprocal obligations with others that result in his actions being a constant, sustainable source of improvement in others’ lives. The virtue of honesty is part of objective ethics and impels a moral individual to strive to honor all commitments once they have been made. The key to a morality based on objective, natural law, however, is that these obligations be entered into freely and not as a result of the self being compromised in favor of an alleged higher ideal. Consequently, a key component of natural law is the liberty of an individual to evaluate the world in accordance with his rational faculty and to decide which undertakings are consistent with his enlightened self-interest. When positive laws are crafted so as to interfere with that liberty, positive law becomes at odds with natural law, leading to warped incentives, institutionalized sacrifices, and painful tradeoffs that many individuals must make if they seek to abide by both natural and positive laws.
Objective natural laws – both physical and moral – do not require a lawgiver and antecede manmade, positive laws. Some natural laws, however, may require positive laws – such as prohibitions on murder, theft, and slavery – in order for the desirable outcome brought about by the natural laws to be reflected in actual (rather than simply hoped-for) human behavior. In order to improve human well-being, positive laws should be developed to advance and effectuate natural laws, instead of attempting to resist them or contravene them. Just as a law that redefines the value of pi as 3.2 (one actually unsuccessfully attempted in Indiana in 1897) is rightly seen as absurd on its face, even if a majority votes to enact it, and would result in many failed constructions if implemented by engineers and designers of machines, so would a law that abrogates the natural liberty of individuals to peacefully pursue their own flourishing result in damage to good human beings and increases in physical harm, suffering, and injustice. A good human lawmaker should respect pre-existing objective natural laws and not attempt to contradict them.
 F = G*m1*m2/r2, with F being the force between two masses, m1 and m2 being the two masses, r being the distance between the centers of the two masses, and G being the universal gravitational constant.
“By the mean of a thing I mean what is equally distant from either extreme, which is one and the same for everyone; by the mean relative to us what is neither too much nor too little, and this is not the same for everyone. For instance, if ten are many and two few, we take the mean of the thing if we take six; since it exceeds and is exceeded by the same amount; this then is the mean according to arithmetic proportion. But we cannot arrive thus at the mean relative to us. Let ten lbs. of food be a large portion for someone and two lbs. a small portion; it does not follow that a trainer will prescribe six lbs., for maybe even this amount will be a large portion, or a small one, for the particular athlete who is to receive it…. In the same way then one with understanding in any matter avoids excess and deficiency, and searches out and chooses the mean — the mean, that is, not of the thing itself but relative to us.”
This is not medical advice, but rather a general synthesis of philosophical and common-sense lifestyle heuristics for those who are generally healthy and seek to stay that way for as long as possible. All of the ideas below are ones I endeavor to put into practice personally as part of my endeavor to survive long enough to benefit from humankind’s future attainment of longevity escape velocity and indefinite lifespans. As an educated layman, not a medical doctor, I accept contemporary “mainstream” medicine (i.e., evidence-based, scientific medicine) as the most reliable guidance for specific health matters that currently exists. I consider the discussion below to be sufficiently general and basic as to be consistent with common medical knowledge – though, in any particular person’s case, specific medical advice should prevail over anything to the contrary in this essay.
It is easier for humans to live by absolutes than by degrees. If a practice or pursuit is unambiguously harmful, it can readily be avoided. If it is unambiguously beneficial, then it can be pursued in any quantity permitted by one’s available time and other resources. The very fact of being alive is itself an unambiguous good, of which no amount is excessive. On the other hand, death of the individual is an unambiguous harm, as is any behavior that directly precipitates or hastens death due to harmful effects upon the human body.
But much of life is comprised of elements that are essential to human well-being in some quantity but could become harmful if pursued to excess. This is where Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” – of virtue as being neither a deficiency nor an excess of various necessary attributes – can be applied to the pursuit of health and longevity. Indeed, much of health consists of maintaining key bodily functions and metrics within favorable ranges of parameters. A healthy weight, healthy blood-sugar concentration, healthy blood pressure, and a healthy heart rate all exist as segments along spectra, bordered by other segments of deficiency and excess.
More is known today about what is harmful to longevity than what would extend it past today’s typical “old age”. For instance, smoking, consumption of most alcohol (apart, possibly, from modest quantities of red wine), and use of many recreational drugs are clearly known to increase mortality risk. As these habits provide no support for any essential life function while having the potential to cause great harm to health, it is best to eschew them altogether. Indeed, the mere avoidance of all tobacco use is statistically the single best way to increase one’s remaining life expectancy. Yet this is the easy part, as one can quite resolutely and immoderately reject all consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs with no harm to oneself and only benefits.
An Aristotelian “golden mean” approach is needed, on the other hand, for those elements which are indispensable to sustaining good health, but which can also damage health if indulged in imprudently and to excess. Aristotle recognized that the “golden mean” when it comes to individual behavior cannot be derived through a strict formula but is rather unique to each person. Still, its determination is based on objective attributes of physical reality and not on one’s wishes or on the path of least resistance. The realms of diet, exercise, and supplementation are of particular relevance to life extension. It would particularly benefit individuals who seek to extend their lives indefinitely to adopt “golden mean” heuristics in each of these realms, until medical science advances sufficiently to develop reliable techniques to reverse biological senescence and greatly increase maximum attainable lifespans.
Food is sustenance for the organism, and its absence or deficiency lead to starvation and malnutrition. Its excess, on the other hand, can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a host of associated ills. It is clear that a moderate amount of food is desirable – one that is enough to sustain all the vital functions of the organism without precipitating chronic diseases of excess. Contrary to common prejudice, it is not too difficult to gain a reasonably good idea of the quantity of food one should consume. For most people, this is the quantity that enables an individual to maintain weight in the healthy range of body-mass index (BMI). (There are exceptions to this for certain athletes of extraordinary muscularity, but not for the majority of people. Contrary to common objections, while it is true that BMI is not the sole consideration for healthy body mass, it is a reasonably good heuristic for most, including many who are likely to object to its use.)
The comparison of “calories in” versus “calories out” – even though it must often rely on approximation due to the difficulty of exactly measuring metabolic activity – is nevertheless quite dependable. It is scientifically established that consuming a surplus of 3,500 calories (over and above one’s metabolic expenditures) results in gaining one pound (0.45 kilograms) of mass, whereas running a deficit of 3,500 calories results in the loss of one pound.
Consuming a moderate amount of food (relative to one’s exercise level) to maintain a moderate amount of weight is one of the most obvious applications of the principle of the golden mean to diet. Yet it is also the composition of one’s food that should exhibit moderation in the form of diversification of ingredients and food types.
Principle 1: There are no inherently bad or inherently good foods, but some foods are safer in large amounts than others. (For instance, eating a bowl full of vegetables is safer than eating a bowl full of butter.) Furthermore, one’s diet should not be dominated by any one type of food or any one ingredient.
Principle 2: In order to maintain a caloric balance at a healthy weight, consideration of calorie density of foods is key for portion sizes. More calorie-dense foods should be consumed in smaller portions, while less calorie-dense foods could be consumed in larger portions, provided that there is adequate diversification among the less calorie-dense foods as well.
Here my approach differs immensely from any fad diet – from veganism to the paleo diet to anything in between that prescribes a list of mandatory “good” foods and forbidden “evil” foods and attempts to rule human lives through minute regimens of cleaving to the mandatory and eschewing the forbidden. I acknowledge that virtually any fad diet is superior to unrestrained gluttony or the unconscious, stress-induced lapses into unhealthy eating that plague many in the Western world today. This, indeed, is the reason for such diets’ popularity and the availability of “success stories” from among practitioners of any such diet: virtually any conscious control over food intake and concern over food quality is superior to sheer abandon. However, all fad diets are also pseudo-scientific. Contradictory evidence regarding the health effects of almost any type of food – from meat to bread to chocolate to salt and even large quantities of fruits and vegetables – emerges in both scientific and popular publications every week. While some approaches to diet are clearly superior to others (e.g., most diets would be superior to a candy-only diet or a diet consisting solely of peas, as in Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck), no fad diet can claim to reliably extend human lifespans beyond average life expectancies in the Western world today.
In the absence of clear, scientific evidence as to the unambiguous benefits or harms of any particular widely consumed food, diversification and moderation offer one the best hope of maximizing one’s expected longevity prior to the era of rejuvenation therapies. This is because of two key, interrelated effects:
Effect 1: If some food types indeed convey particularly important health benefits, then diversification helps ensure that one is gaining these benefits as a result of consuming at least some foods of those types.
Effect 2: If some foods or food types indeed result in harms to the organism – either due to the inherent properties of these foods or due to dangers introduced by the specific ways in which they are cultivated, delivered, or improperly preserved – then diversification helps reduce the organism’s exposure to such harms arising from any one particular food or food type, therefore lessening the likelihood that these harms will accumulate to a critical level.
Diversification, coupled with consideration of calorie density of foods, has the additional advantage of flexibility. If one encounters a situation where dietary choice is inconvenient, one might still enjoy the occasion and accommodate it through judicious portion sizing or adjustments to other meals either beforehand or afterward. One does not need to condemn oneself for having committed the dietary sin of eating an “unhealthy food” – as it is not the food itself that is unhealthy, but rather the frequency and amounts in which it is consumed. The Aristotelian “golden mean” heuristic also implies that there is no fault with pursuing food for the purpose of enjoyment or sensory pleasure – again, in moderation, as long as no detriment to health results.
A final note on diet is that the approach of moderation does not favor caloric restriction – i.e., reduction in calorie intake far below typical diets that suffice for maintaining a healthy body mass. Caloric restriction has shown remarkable effects in increasing lifespans in simple organisms – yeast, roundworms, and rodents – but has not demonstrated significant longevity benefits for humans, at least as suggested by presently available research. It is possible that the positive effects which caloric restriction confers upon simpler organisms are already reaped by humans and higher animals to a great extent, such that any added benefits to these organisms’ already far longer lifespans would be slight at best. A calorie-restricted diet is an excellent option for those seeking to lose weight or transition from a diet of gluttony and reckless abandon. It is also likely superior to “average” dietary habits today in terms of forestalling diet-related chronic diseases. However, there is no compelling evidence at present that a calorie-restricted diet is superior to a moderate, diversified diet that maintains a caloric balance. Furthermore, extreme calorie restriction would either require activity restriction (to conserve energy) or would involve descending into an underweight range, which is associated with its own health risks.
Exercise cannot be disentangled from considerations of dietary choice, since it is crucial to the expenditure side of the caloric equation (or inequality). It is, again, scientifically incontrovertible that regular exercise is superior to a sedentary lifestyle in enhancing virtually every metric of bodily health. On the other hand, moderation should be practiced in the degree of physical exertion at any given time, so as to prevent pushing one’s body to its breaking point – which will differ by individual. Exercising in such a manner that gradually pushes one’s sphere of abilities outward will help render the probability of reaching a breaking point – the failure of any bodily system – increasingly remote. For instance, gradually building up one’s running ability can eventually enable one to run an ultramarathon without adverse consequences. However, if an overweight and completely sedentary person were to attempt to run an ultramarathon without any prior running experience (and did not give up after a few miles), the results would be disastrous. Likewise, it is possible to lift large weights safely, but only if one begins with smaller weights and gradually works one’s way up.
For virtually all individuals in the Western world today, no harm can arise from the increase in the absolute amount of physical activity, as long as the exercise is performed in a safe environment and with safe form. Immoderate kinds of exercise would include extreme sports (those which entail a significant danger to life), any sports in extreme weather, or any exertion at the boundary of the current tolerance of one’s heart and other muscles. Most people, however, can easily find activities – ranging from simple walking to light lifting and body-weight exercises – that would pose no such risks and would unambiguously improve health.
Diversification in exercise, as with diet, is superior to exclusivist fad regimens. While any safe exercise is superior to none, it is completely unfounded to insist that only one particular type or genre of exercise is “good” while all the others are “bad”. The currently fashionable “no cardio” camp is a particularly glaring example of absurdity in this regard, eschewing some of the most effective ways possible for burning calories, maintaining cardiovascular and muscular health, and preventing diabetes and many types of cancer. But it would be similarly unreasonable to reject all weight lifting or all flexibility training due to some dogma regarding “ideal” kinds of exercise. It is best to perform a variety of exercises, each of which emphasize different facets of health. That being said, the exact mix would depend on the attributes and preferences of a given individual, and appropriate diversification could still involve a heavily emphasized preferred type of exercise, in addition to various auxiliary types that enable one to also improve in other areas.
Again, it is important to emphasize that, while regular exercise can improve one’s likelihood of surviving to current “old age”, it cannot, by itself, protect against the ravages of senescence beyond perhaps slightly deferring them. The best case for regular, moderate exercise is that it can raise one’s chances of surviving to an era when medical treatments that reverse biological senescence will become available and widespread.
Because exercise should be pursued with the intention of maximizing health and improving one’s likelihood of long-term survival, great care must be taken not to allow the competitive aspects of any exercise to overwhelm the health aspects. For instance, the taking of steroids and other “performance-enhancing” substances in order to set athletic records or beat one’s competitors is counterproductive to the maintenance of good health and is often worse than doing no exercise at all. Likewise, engaging in sports such as American football, rugby, boxing, or lacrosse, which involve a high degree of physical contact and therefore a great likelihood of injury, is counterproductive to the goal of health preservation.
Supplementation, or Lack Thereof
Overall, it is important for the human body to obtain adequate quantities of essential nutrients – such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids – in order for healthy function to be sustained. Because these nutrients are not automatically produced by the body in adequate amounts, they must be consumed from external sources. However, excessive amounts of many such nutrients can be toxic. Moreover, contemporary science has not discerned any regimen of extraordinary supplementation (over and above medically recommended daily values) to reliably result in longevity improvements for those who are already healthy. Worse yet, enough research exists to suggest that supplementation with vitamins and other common substances, significantly in excess of medically recommended daily values, could increase the risk of early death. Again, the evidence points to the desirability of a moderate intake of vitamins and other essential nutrients – but none of them becomes a panacea when consumed in doses significantly above the moderate ones found in foods routinely available to virtually everyone in the Western world. Mild vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not harmful and may be helpful if one’s diet indeed lacks some essential nutrients, but mega-doses of any substance should be approached with great caution.
Supplementation with drugs and hormones – absent the clear and medically determined need to treat a specific health problem – is even riskier for a healthy organism; the side effects could be great, and the benefits are dubious at present. No “magic pill” for life extension has yet been discovered, and rejuvenation therapies are decades away even if billions of dollars were poured into their research tomorrow. Even when they are necessary to treat an illness or injury, many commonly used prescription medicines can result in severe side effects, implying that they should be used with extreme caution and awareness of the risks, even when they are prescribed. The time has not yet arrived for individual self-medication with the aim of life extension. As the details of the human body’s metabolism and its effects on senescence are far from fully understood, there are no guarantees that introducing any particular substance into the immensely complex machinery of the human organism will not do more harm than good. Most people will be much safer by adopting the heuristic of not fixing that, which is not obviously broken, while avoiding harmful habits, obtaining regular medical checkups, and following the advice of evidence-based medical practitioners.
Someday, hopefully in our lifetimes, medical science might advance to the point where it might be possible to inexpensively develop a deeply personalized supplementation regimen for each individual – a more compact, precise, and targeted version of what Ray Kurzweil does today at the cost of immense time and effort. Until then, Aristotle’s golden mean is still the best heuristic to enable most of us to survive for as long as possible, which will hopefully be long enough for improvements in human knowledge and health-care delivery to usher in the era of longevity escape velocity.
Ontological Realism and Creating the One Real Future – Video by G. Stolyarov II
An ongoing debate in ontology concerns the question of whether ideas or the physical reality have primacy. Mr. Stolyarov addresses the implications of the primacy of the physical reality for human agency in the pursuit of life and individual flourishing. Transhumanism and life extension are in particular greatly aided by an ontological realist (and physicalist) framework of thought.
An ongoing debate in ontology concerns the question of whether ideas or the physical reality have primacy. In my view, the physical reality is clearly ontologically primary, because it makes possible the thinking and idea-generation which exist only as very sophisticated emergent processes depending on multiple levels of physical structures (atoms, cells, tissues, organs, organisms of sufficient complexity – and then a sufficiently rich history of sensory experience to make the formation of interesting ideas supportable).
One of my favorite contemporary philosophers is David Kelley – an Objectivist but one very open to philosophical innovation – without the dogmatic taint that characterized the later years of Ayn Rand and some of her followers today. He has recently released a video entitled “Objective Reality”, where he discusses the idea of the primacy of existence over consciousness. Here, I seek to address the primacy of the physical reality in its connection with several additional considerations – the concepts of essences and qualia, as well as the implications of the primacy of the physical reality for human agency in the pursuit of life and individual flourishing.
Some ontological idealists – proponents of the primacy of ideas – will claim that the essence of an entity exists outside of that entity, in a separate realm of “immaterial” ideas akin to Plato’s forms. On the contrary, on essences, I am of an Aristotelian persuasion that the essence of a thing is part of that very thing; it is the sum of the qualities of an entity, without which that entity could not have been what it is. The essences do not exist apart from any thing – but rather any thing of a particular sort that exists has the essence which defines it as that thing – along with perhaps some other incidental qualities which are not constitutive to it being that thing.
For instance, a chair may be painted blue or green or any other color, and it may have three legs instead of four, and it may have some dents in it – but it would still be a chair. But if all chairs were destroyed, and no one remembered what a chair was, there would be no ideal Platonic form of the chair floating out there somewhere. In that sense, I differ from the idealists’ characterization of essences as “immaterial”. Rather, an essence always characterizes a material entity or process performed by material entities.
Qualia are an individual’s subjective, conscious experiences of reality – for instance, how an individual perceives the color red or the sound of a note played on an instrument. But qualia, too, have a material grounding. As a physicalist, I understand qualia to be the result of physical processes within the body and brain that generate certain sensory perceptions of the world. It follows that different qualia can only be generated if one’s organism has different physical components.
A bat, a fly, or a whale would certainly experience the same external reality differently from a human. Most humans (the ones whose sense organs are not damaged or characterized by genetic defects) have the same essential perceptual structures and so, if placed within the exact same vantage point relative to an object, would perceive it in the same way (with regard to what appears before their senses). After that, of course, what they choose to focus on with their minds and how they choose to interpret what they see (in terms of opinions, associations, decisions regarding what to do next) could differ greatly. The physical perception is objective, but the interpretation of that perception is subjective. But by emulating the sensory organs of another organism (even a bat or a fly), it should be possible to perceive what that organism perceives. I delve into this principle in some detail in Chapter XII of A Rational Cosmology: “The Objectivity of Consciousness”.
Importance of Ontological Realism to Life, Flourishing, and Human Agency
Some opponents of ontological realism might classify it as a “naïve” perspective and claim that those who see physical reality as primary are inappropriately assigning it “ontological privilege”. On the contrary, I strongly hold that this world is the one and that, certainly, events that happen in this world are ontologically privileged for having happened – as opposed to the uncountably many possibilities for what might have happened but did not. Moreover, I see this recognition as an essential starting point for the endeavor which is really at the heart of individual liberty, life extension, transhumanism, and, more generally, a consistent vision of humanism and morality: the preservation of the individual – of all individuals who have not committed irreparable wrongs – from physical demise.
I am not an adherent of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which some may posit in opposition to my view of the primacy of the single physical reality which we directly experience and inhabit. Indeed, to me, it does not appear that quantum mechanics has a valid philosophical interpretation at all (at least not until some extremely rational and patient philosopher delves into it and tries to puzzle it out); rather, it is a set of equations that is reasonably predictive of the behavior of subatomic particles (sometimes) through a series of probabilistic models. Perhaps in part due to my work in another highly probability-driven area – actuarial science – my experience informs me that probabilistic models are at best only useful approximations of phenomena that may not yet be accessible to us in other ways, and a substantial fraction of the time the models are wildly wrong anyway. As for the very concept of randomness itself, it is a useful epistemological idea, but not a valid metaphysical one, as I explain in my essay “Putting Randomness in Its Place“.
In my view, the past is irreversible, and it happened in the one particular way it happened. The future is full of potential, because it has not happened yet, and the emergent property of human volition enables it to happen in a multitude of ways, depending on the paths we choose. In a poetic sense, it could be said that many worlds unfold before us, but with every passing moment, we pick one of them and that world becomes the one irreversibly, while the others are not retained anywhere. Not only is this understanding a necessary prerequisite for the concept of moral responsibility (our actions have consequences in bringing about certain outcomes, for which we can be credited or faulted, rewarded or punished), but it is also necessary as a foundation for the life-extension premise itself.
If there were infinitely many possible universes, where each of us could have died or not died at every possible instant, then in some of those hypothetical universes, we would have all already been beneficiaries of indefinite life extension. Imagine a universe where humanity was lucky and avoided all of the wars, tyrannies, epidemics, and superstitions that plagued our history and, as a result, was able to progress so rapidly that indefinite longevity would have been already known to the ancient Greeks! This would make for fascinating fiction, and I readily admit to enjoying the occasional retrospective “What if?” contemplation – e.g., what if the Jacobins had not taken over during the French Revolution, or what if Otto von Bismarck had never come to power in Germany, or what if the attacks of September 11, 2001 (a major setback for human progress, largely due to the reactionary violation of civil liberties by Western governments) had never happened? Unfortunately, from an ontological perspective, I do not have that luxury of rewriting the past. As for the future, it can only be written through actions that affect the physical world, but any tools we can create to help us do this would be welcome.
This is certainly not the best of all possible worlds (a point amply demonstrated in one of my favorite works, Voltaire’s Candide), but it is the world we find ourselves in, through a variety of historical accidents, path-dependencies, and our own prior choices and their foreseen and unforeseen repercussions. But this is indeed our starting point when it comes to any future action, and the choice each of us ultimately faces is whether (i) to become a passive victim of the “larger forces” in this world (to conform or “adapt”, as many people like to call it), (ii) to create an alternate world using imagination and subjective experience only, or (iii) to physically alter this world to fit the parameters of a more just, happy, safe, and prosperous existence – a task to which only we are suited (since there is no cosmic justice or higher power). It should be clear by now that I strongly favor the third option. We should, through our physical deeds, harness the laws of nature to create the world we would wish to inhabit.
Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II
as Part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXX of The Rational Argumentator on November 26, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
One of the most grievous errors made by most people in the Western world today can be found in the prevailing view of happiness as constant pleasure or euphoria. This vision of happiness is not only unattainable but destructive of genuine happiness. A much more realistic and satisfying understanding of happiness can be found by combining the insights of Classical Aristotelian and Enlightenment philosophers and applying them to the vast opportunities we have in our time.
The view of happiness as pleasure or euphoria fails in multiple ways. First, it is physiologically unattainable. It is simply impossible for the human body to experience euphoria except in short, fairly infrequent bursts – the body simply cannot produce enough of the pleasure-stimulating chemicals that lead to the desired sensations. Moreover, the body reacts in the same essential manner to pleasure deserved through effort – such as the pride in having completed a creative work or in having transformed an aspect of the world – and to pleasure brought about by the introduction of certain foreign substances, such as drugs, into the body. It is well-known that a drug user needs increasing doses of a drug to experience the same euphoria; the doses that could produce it originally no longer suffice, because the body becomes accustomed to them. However, a lack of the drug altogether results in feelings of active, often severe, displeasure, because the body has come to treat the presence of certain amounts of the drug as its default, neutral state.
The same can be said of any life dominated by pursuit of pleasurable feelings for their own sake – detached from the events and conditions of the external reality. If an individual does manage to experience feelings of heightened pleasure all the time, his body will eventually become desensitized to them – to the point of viewing them as the neutral state. Every pleasurable feeling has a cause – be it internal or external. The individual will therefore come to view the cause of the pleasurable feelings as needing to be present in order to maintain even a neutral state of mind. As it is virtually impossible to maintain the causes of unusual pleasure in operation all the time, this individual will be certain to experience emotional “withdrawal” more often than he experiences pleasure.
Furthermore, a life dominated by the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake becomes a trap for the individual – preventing him from exercising his agency in the external world and instead confining him to replication of biochemical patterns within his own body that are aimed at producing the sought-after feelings. Instead of reshaping the elements of the world outside him into increasingly favorable configurations, he will become a slave to the peculiar construction of his own organism – and he will short-circuit its mechanisms in such a manner as to deprive feelings of pleasure of the utility they would have for a person who is not obsessed with them. The external reality is often quite unaccommodating; the man who focuses on his own feelings instead of observing and responding to the outside world will quickly find the outside world wearing away at his life until there is nothing left.
The sensible function of pleasure is as a reward for objectively beneficial behaviors. If an individual feels good after performing an act that improves his chances of survival, then this gives him an incentive to perform that act in the future. This is why the human capacity to experience pleasure was favored by natural selection for thousands of generations. However, this capacity evolved in a very different environment from our current one – where feelings of pleasure were largely extremely difficult to earn; good food was scarce and only attainable after strenuous hunting and foraging, and even the comfort of a shelter secure from the elements was a rarity. In our era, human beings have become extremely adept at artificially stimulating their pleasure centers without doing anything beforehand to earn such stimulation. The coupling of humans’ new possibilities with their ancient biology can explain such bizarre phenomena as obesity, recreational drug use, promiscuity, and the teenage culture in the contemporary Western world.
Pleasure can still serve its more beneficial function as an incentive for accomplishment, and, by being framed in this manner, it can be limited to a reasonable presence. But it has become much easier to bypass this much more demanding route to pleasure. The solution, of course, is not to reject our life-improving modern conveniences, but rather to alter our thinking about what constitutes a happy life.
To gain a more sophisticated understanding of happiness, it is useful to refer to two sets of historical philosophers. The Classical Greek philosophers, beginning with Aristotle, developed a concept of happiness as being inextricably linked with virtue. The Aristotelian view of happiness, or eudaimonia, did not emphasize pleasure or emotional states. Rather, it saw the truly happy man as the man who has actualized his full potential and has thereby positively influenced the external reality to the entirety of his ability. Virtuous habits – including moderation in the pursuit of pleasure – enable the individual to devote his energies toward self-actualization, which produces a longer-lasting, sustainable happiness. The Enlightenment philosophers contributed to this view by emphasizing the tremendous potential of the human rational faculty in literally reshaping the world and taking humanity out of the muck of poverty, vulgarity, and violence that it had been immersed in for most of its history. Each individual’s use of reason is his means for cultivating his full potential and for attaining true happiness. When the American Founders talked about a natural right to “the pursuit of happiness,” it was this rational, virtue-driven happiness that they had in mind.
It is important to emphasize that this view of happiness does not advocate asceticism, either. A certain sustainable amount of pleasure is preferable to complete avoidance of enjoyment – because the latter cannot be maintained indefinitely and is likely to result in an eventual reaction toward the opposite extreme of hedonism. It is also important to recognize that what constitutes self-actualization will differ considerably among individuals, and the sustainable level of pleasure will also vary in accordance with an individual’s material circumstances and psychological inclinations.
Nowhere is the sharp distinction between the conventional, hedonistic view of happiness and the rational, virtue-based view more evident than in human relationships, particularly those of a romantic nature. Those who expect their romantic partners to continually inspire them with feelings of ecstasy or euphoria are sentencing themselves to a lifetime of frustrations, breakups, and serial attempts at happiness – which will all inevitably end in the same way. A genuinely fulfilling romantic relationship is not one that continually stimulates the pleasure centers of each party’s brains, but rather one that exhibits a lasting commitment on both sides and a continual cooperation for the purpose of making life better. Feelings of love and affection should be present, of course, but they are much more sustainable in a gentle, comforting, persistent form than they could be in the form of the rapture that so many people mistakenly imagine love to be. My essay, “A Rational View of Love“, offers a more thorough exposition of this idea.
Finally, it is important to recognize that no life – and particularly no productive life – will be free of negative feelings. Whenever we seek to overcome obstacles, we are likely to encounter difficulties we cannot immediately resolve. This may produce feelings of doubt, fear, anger, disappointment, and frustration, in various mixes and degrees. As the world is severely flawed in most ways, it would be unreasonable for us not to have a substantial amount of negative feelings about it. These feelings should not be banished from our brains; indeed, they can serve as useful indicators of the problems in our lives and can motivate us to resolve them. Many people today make the mistake of abandoning any aspect of life they may occasionally feel negatively about – be it a job, a relationship, an educational pursuit, an independent creative work, or a set of ideas. But a negative feeling should not be the equivalent of a mental off-switch or “Keep Out” sign. Instead, it should be seen as an invitation to explore, resolve, challenge, or resist. Turning away from anything that does not trigger immediate good feelings is the surest recipe for unhappiness.
If it is not through a constant feeling of pleasure, then how can one know if one is happy? I posit that this can be ascertained by asking a single question: “Am I pursuing an overall course in life with whose consequences I expect to be satisfied for as long as I live?” This question ignores the everyday fluctuations in emotional states and arrives at the core issue: how one’s choices and behaviors contribute to the actualization of one’s potential and the establishment of a sustainable, ever-improving life. It shifts the focus of one’s attention from one’s present feelings to the future effects of one’s actions. Incidentally, however, it also has the effect of making one feel better on average, since one’s present emotional state is heavily dependent on whether one has behaved in a life-affirming or a life-undermining manner in the past. The more one does now to benefit one’s future, the better one will feel in the future. But it is a good, flourishing life itself that constitutes happiness, and, as a byproduct, results in mild, sustainable, and profoundly rewarding pleasure.
Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’sIssue CCXX.
Progress: Creation and Maintenance (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXXXVIII of The Rational Argumentator on March 8, 2010, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 22, 2014
One frequently encounters the identification of human creativity and inventiveness as driving forces for progress in technology and society. In part, this identification is correct: it is through the human creative faculty – the ability to bring forth new combinations of matter and new ideas – that improvements to the human condition arise. But while creation is a necessary component to progress, it is not a sufficient component.
Consider that the human creative faculty has existed since the emergence of our species; even cave dwellers exhibited it, to the extent that they could take even a little leisure time in their highly dangerous, subsistence-based lives. Cave paintings and tools from several tens of thousands of years ago show clearly that our remote ancestors had the ability, and the desire, to reshape the world in an attempt to improve their condition. And yet, for the vast majority of human history – up until the 18th-century Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution – real progress has been so slow and minuscule as to be virtually imperceptible within an ordinary person’s lifetime. This was the case despite the fact that every generation had its share of great thinkers, artists, and even mechanical tinkerers.
The other necessary component of progress is maintenance of what has already been created. While creation is an ever-present ability within human beings, there are also destructive forces that counteract and diminish its fruits. Nature itself is the source of many such forces: disease, decay, and death are omnipresent unless counteracted by arduous and continual human effort. Just as billions of lives have been lost in complete oblivion to the ravages of “natural causes” – from catastrophic disasters to senescence – so have innumerable works of art, architecture, literature, and technology been lost to these perils. Consider that even the extant works of great known philosophers such as Aristotle or composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann are a fraction of what these great men of the past are known to have created, but which was buried by the sands of time. Imagine, also, what the pitifully short lifespans throughout most human history did to diminish the output of creative geniuses, who, in better times, might have continued to innovate for decades more.
Maintenance is the ability to preserve and transmit existing knowledge, techniques, and objects. It can be performed through sheer effort of will – but only to a point. A European monk or an Arabic scholar in the Middle Ages could spend a lifetime meticulously copying by hand a single book from centuries before his time, only to have it vandalized by one of his successors some generations hence. Even the work of Archimedes was subjected to such savage mistreatment.
Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially since the Information Revolution, the techniques for the preservation of physical goods and knowledge have become tremendously more reliable than was possible in premodern societies. The ability to make multiple copies of an object and potentially inexhaustible copies of an idea – and to maintain detailed visual, textual, and auditory records of particular times, places, and activities, with little effort by historical standards, has preserved many of the accomplishments of prior and current thinkers for the creative faculties of humans to expand upon.
It is doubtful that we, in our time, are inherently more creative than our ancestors. But we do have a much more diverse and advanced subject matter to which to apply our creativity. Where we are free to do so, we may arrange these building blocks of innovation in much the same way that our ancestors arranged sticks and stones – except that the consequences of our actions are much more powerful, life-enhancing, and durable. Our infrastructure and our methods for maintaining and transmitting knowledge separate us from our ancestors to the extent that, to them, we would be as gods.
And yet, none of the wonders that enable progress in our time are ever guaranteed to continue, though not due to inanimate nature and lower life forms alone; those have always been in a steady retreat wherever human reason and productivity were unleashed at anywhere near their fullest extent. But the folly, ignorance, sloth, and envy of other men can all too easily slow the growth of progress-nourishing infrastructure to a crawl, or even reverse it and usher in a new Dark Ages. Coercive policies, economic misconduct and capital consumption, massive wars, widespread prohibitions on peaceful and productive activities, superstitions and irrational taboos, pervasive and disproportionate fears – as embodied in the “Dark Green” environmentalists’ progress-killing “precautionary principle” – and a desire for “security” over liberty, for “tradition” over growth, and for stasis over innovation, are all forces that counteract and threaten the maintenance of our civilization. In most times and places, only a handful of people have been immune to deleterious anti-progressive beliefs and their consequences, but there is no reason why we cannot all rise above such anti-life thinking. We all have the creative faculty in us, and we can all think.
The importance of maintenance to human progress can be carried into the life of the individual with profound consequences that can produce massive personal growth and productivity via a change of habits. A mere creation of reproducible records of one’s past achievements – and their publication on the Internet, where possible – can create a formidable store of knowledge to which the creator and others can refer and which they can build upon. The concepts of open-source software and distributed computing, for instance, are built on this elementary principle, but it can be applied to so many more areas of life. The creative faculty is with us every day, and every day it produces original ideas and methods for improving our lives. But, without adequate maintenance – including the establishment of a concrete form for these innovations – these gifts from within our minds will fade away into insignificance, much like the ruins of antiquity. Developing an improved infrastructure for the products of one’s own mind may be the first step toward revitalizing the infrastructure of civilization itself.
This is a brief history of the philosophy and culture of liberalism. It describes a life-style and civilization which lifts human beings far above that of animals, chimpanzees, hominids, and even tribalist hunter-gatherers. Liberalism features man at his best. Liberals are clear-thinking and rational men: natural, sound, healthy, happy, uplifted, and heroic.
Liberalism is a fundamental category of philosophy and life-style – something broad and general. It constitutes a definitive concept – beyond which one cannot venture or improve – like life, happiness, greatness, transcendence, virtue, beauty, pleasure, thought, reality, existence, and the universe. Liberalism’s subsidiary concepts are also ultimate and final: rationality, egoism, and liberty.
In the story of mankind, first come bonobos, then semi-human Homo habilis, then primitive man Homo erectus, then highly advanced Neanderthals, then truly intelligent and impressive Cro-Magnons – who used their 100 IQs to exterminate their brutish competitors, invent sophisticated arrow technology, and make art such as those Venus statues and cave paintings.
By 9000 BC the last Ice Age ended, and humans immediately converted from hunter-gatherers to rancher-farmers. After domesticating multitudinous plants and animals, by 3300 BC human beings further cultivated them with irrigation on their new private property, backed by their revolutionary social institution called government. By 1700 BC men had well-established written laws, well-developed literature and art, easy personal transportation using horses, and elaborate international trade using sophisticated great ships.
All of this constituted impressive advances in humans’ quality of life; but none of it constituted philosophical or cultural liberalism.
Finally, by about 600 BC, the ancient Greeks created the indescribably magnificent phenomenon of Western liberalism. They invented rationality or “Greek reason” or syllogistic logic – or pure thought or epistemology. This is usually described as “the discovery of science and philosophy.”
But along with the stunning and wondrous epistemology of reason – naturally and inevitably and inherently – came the ethics of individualism, and the politics of freedom.
All of this can be fairly, accurately, and usefully denominated as the thought-system and life-style of Western liberalism – of liberal philosophy and culture, especially as exemplified by Aristotle, Epicurus, and Zeno the Stoic. These three theorists, ironically, were labelled by their intellectual opponents as “dogmatic.” This was not because these scientifically minded open debaters claimed to know everything based on faith, but because they claimed to know anything at all based on evidence and analysis.
By the 100s BC in Greece, the general ideology of liberalism was well-established in the middle and upper classes. Then the Romans conquered the Greeks and within a century made liberalism their own. They even advanced the noble ideas and ideals a bit, with such thinkers as Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, and Aurelius.
But skepticism of reason ascended rapidly by the 200s AD, and with it came the decline of the greatest country in human history. The new phenomenon of monotheism began to dominate in the 300s AD, especially Christianity or “Plato for the masses.” By the middle of the 400s, the philosophy and culture of liberalism were dead, and so was Rome. A long, terrible Dark Age ensued.
This irrational, illiberal nightmare of Western civilization lasted for a millennium. The wretched and depraved philosophy of Jesus ruined everything.
But a bit of reason and hope came back into the world in the 1100s of northwest Europe with the mini-Renaissance. High-quality Greek thinkers were gradually reintroduced. Then came the 1300s and the Italian Renaissance.
By the 1500s a whole Europe-wide Renaissance began with France’s conquest of northern Italy. The French brought their reborn art and philosophy to everyone in the West. The beautiful general philosophy of liberalism ascended still higher while the ghastly evils of fundamentalist skepticism, Platonism, monotheism, and Christianity declined. The classical liberal era was brought about by radical and heroic innovators like Francis Bacon, John Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and Thomas Jefferson.
The late 1700s Enlightenment and Age of Reason in Britain, France, Holland, and America featured liberalism at its height. But it was gradually and massively undermined by the irrational, nonsensical philosophers Bishop Berkeley, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Hegel.
During and after the 1790s the French Revolution went astray and embraced ideological dogmatism, and self-sacrifice to the cause. It also converted itself into an early version of modern communism; as well as the false, evil, and illiberal ideologies of right-wing conservatism and left-wing progressivism. In the art world this was manifested by the slightly but definitely irrational Romantic movement of 1800-1850. Paintings started to turn ugly again.
Socialism and communism fairly quickly went into high gear after Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848. Religion also somewhat revived in the late 1800s. These two monstrous ideologies backed the moral ideal of self-destruction, or the “Judeo-Christian ethic,” or, even better, the “religio-socialist ethic.” The fin de siècle of the 1890s was the giddy, despairing, hopeless, lost end of a noble era in the West – a dynamic, heroic, rational, liberal era.
A practical, real-world, irrational, illiberal dystopia was achieved in the mid-1900s with Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Later in the 1900s there were Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Ayatollah Khomeini, and countless other despots. Illiberalism reached a hellish trough around 1985.
Then came Ronald Reagan in America, Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, and Deng Xiaoping in China. These four political semi-revolutionaries, in four leading nations, used their governments to change world culture in a liberal direction.
These liberal leaders emerged on the world scene because theory always precedes practice, and the theory of liberalism began to rise again – at least intellectually, and in certain recherché circles – around the early 1900s. It began anew with Austrian economic thinkers like Ludwig von Mises, Henry Hazlitt, and Friedrich Hayek. In addition to the dry, mechanical realm of economics, these three addressed the fields of politics and sociology – and even ethics and epistemology. They filled in many of the gaps, and corrected many of the weaknesses and failures, of Locke, Smith, and company.
The Austrians also attacked the communism, socialism, and progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson, among others. And they taught the fiery intellectual novelist Ayn Rand.
Rand converted from fiction to philosophy from the late 1950s to the late 1970s. She was by far the most liberal thinker in the history of man. She created the philosophy of Objectivism. Ayn Rand advanced human knowledge about as much as Bacon, Locke, Voltaire, Smith, and Jefferson combined.
Sadly, however, Rand undercut her liberal ideology with a heavy atmosphere and subtext of cultism and religiosity in her propaganda movement. This was understandable, considering how revolutionary and hated her philosophy was, but hardly rational or legitimate.
However, Rand died in 1982, and a highly rational and non-religious organization, organized around her discoveries, emerged in 1989. This brought the world Objectivism as a thought-system, not a belief-system; and Objectivism as a rational, benevolent, effective philosophy – not an irrational, malicious, weird cult.
There are currently three separate but related avant-garde liberal ideological movements: Austrian economics, libertarian politics, and Objectivist philosophy. All three are tiny but, based on historical intellectual standards, seemingly growing solidly.
Pure liberalism – a pure, clean, complete comprehension that reason was 100% right in epistemology, individualism was 100% right in ethics, and freedom was 100% right in politics – began in the early 21st century. Randroid illiberalism began to die out. A New Enlightenment is about to begin.