On August 31, 2018, The Rational Argumentator completed its sixteenth year of publication. TRA is older than Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit; it has outlasted Yahoo! Geocities, Associated Content, Helium, and most smaller online publications in philosophy, politics, and current events. Furthermore, the age of TRA now exceeds half of my lifetime to date. During this time, while the Internet and the external world shifted dramatically many times over, The Rational Argumentator strived to remain a bulwark of consistency – accepting growth in terms of improvement of infrastructure and accumulation of content, but not the tumultuous sweeping away of the old to ostensibly make room for the new. We do not look favorably upon tumultuous upheaval; the future may look radically different from the past and present, but ideally should be built in continuity with both, and with preservation of any beneficial aspects that can possibly be preserved.
The Rational Argumentator has experienced unprecedented visitation during its sixteenth year, receiving 1,501,473 total page views as compared to 1,087,149 total page views during its fifteenth year and 1,430,226 during its twelfth year, which had the highest visitation totals until now. Cumulative lifetime TRA visitation has reached 12,481,258 views. Even as TRA’s publication rate has slowed to 61 features during its sixteenth year – due to various time commitments, such as the work of the United States Transhumanist Party (which published 147 features on its website during the same timeframe) – the content of this magazine has drawn increasing interest. Readers, viewers, and listeners are gravitating toward both old and new features, as TRA generally aims to publish works of timeless relevance. The vaster our archive of content, the greater variety of works and perspectives it spans, the more issues it engages with and reflects upon – the more robust and diverse our audience becomes; the more insulated we become against the vicissitudes of the times and the fickle fluctuations of public sentiment and social-media fads.
None of the above is intended to deny or minimize the challenges faced by those seeking to articulate rational, nuanced, and sophisticated ideas on the contemporary Internet. Highly concerning changes to the consumption and availability of information have occurred over the course of this decade, including the following trends.
- While social media have been beneficial in terms of rendering personal communication at a distance more viable, the fragmentation of social media and the movement away from the broader “open Internet” have seemingly accelerated. Instead of directly navigating and returning to websites of interest, most people now access content almost exclusively through social-media feeds. Even popular and appealing content may often become constrained within the walls of a particular social network or sub-group thereof, simply due to the “black-box” algorithms of that social network, which influence without explanation who sees what and when, and which may not be reflective of what those individuals would have preferred to see. The constantly changing nature of these algorithms renders it difficult for content creators to maintain steady connections with their audiences. If one adds to the mix the increasing and highly troubling tendency of social networks to actively police the content their members see, we may be returning to a situation where most people find their content inexplicably curated by “gatekeepers” who, in the name of objectivity and often with unconscious biases in play, often end up advancing ulterior agendas not in the users’ interests.
- While the democratization of access to knowledge and information on the Internet has undoubtedly had numerous beneficial effects, we are also all faced with the problem of “information overload” and the need to prioritize essential bits information within an immense sea which we observe daily, hourly, and by the minute. The major drawback of this situation – in which everyone sees everything in a single feed, often curated by the aforementioned inexplicable algorithms – is the difficulty of even locating information that is more than a day old, as it typically becomes buried far down within the social-media feed. Potential counters exist to this tendency – namely, through the existence of old-fashioned, static websites which publish content that does not adjust and that is fixed to a particular URL, which could be bookmarked and visited time and again. But what proportion of the population has learned this technique of bookmarking and revisitation of older content – instead of simply focusing on the social-media feed of the moment? It is imperative to resist the short-termist tendencies that the design of contemporary social media seems to encourage, as indulging these tendencies has had deleterious impacts on attention spans in an entire epoch of human culture.
- Undeniably, much interesting and creative content has proliferated on the Internet, with opportunities for both deliberate and serendipitous learning, discovery, and intellectual enrichment. Unfortunately, the emergence of such content has coincided with deleterious shifts in cultural norms away from the expectation of concerted, sequential focus (the only way that human minds can actually achieve at a high level) and toward incessant multi-tasking and the expectation of instantaneous response to any external stimulus, human or automated. The practice of dedicating a block of time to read an article, watch a video, or listen to an audio recording – once a commonplace behavior – has come to be a luxury for those who can wrest segments of time and space away from the whirlwind of external stimuli and impositions within which humans (irrespective of material resources or social position) are increasingly expected to spin. It is fine to engage with others and venture into digital common spaces occasionally or even frequently, but in order for such interactions to be productive, one has to have meaningful content to offer; the creation of such content necessarily requires time away from the commons and a reclamation of the concept of private, solitary focus to read, contemplate, apply, and create.
- In an environment where the immediate, recent, and short-term-oriented content tends to attract the most attention, this amplifies the impulsive, range-of-the-moment, reactive emotional tendencies of individuals, rather than the thoughtful, long-term-oriented, constructive, rational tendencies. Accordingly, political and cultural discourse become reduced to bitter one-liners that exacerbate polarization, intentional misunderstanding of others, and toxicity of rhetoric. The social networks where this has been most salient have been those that limit the number of characters per post and prioritize quantity of posts over quality and the instantaneity of a response over its thoughtfulness. The infrastructures whose design presupposes that everyone’s expressions are of equal value have produced a reduction of discourse to the lowest common denominator, which is, indeed, quite low. Even major news outlets, where some quality selection is still practiced by the editors, have found that user comments often degenerate into a toxic morass. This is not intended to deny the value of user comments and interaction, in a properly civil and constructive context; nor is it intended to advocate any manner of censorship. Rather, this observation emphatically underscores the need for a return to long-form, static articles and longer written exchanges more generally as the desirable prevailing form of intellectual discourse. (More technologically intensive parallels to this long-form discourse would include long-form audio podcasts or video discussion panels where there is a single stream of conversation or narrative instead of a flurry of competing distractions.) Yes, this form of discourse takes more time and skill. Yes, this means that people have to form complex, coherent thoughts and express them in coherent, grammatically correct sentences. Yes, this means that fewer people will have the ability or inclination participate in that form of discourse. And yes, that may well be the point – because less of the toxicity will make its way completely through the structures which define long-form discourse – and because anyone who can competently learn the norms of long-form discourse, as they have existed throughout the centuries, will remain welcome to take part. Those who are not able or willing to participate can still benefit by spectating and, in the process, learning and developing their own skills.
The Internet was intended, by its early adopters and adherents of open Internet culture – including myself – to catalyze a new Age of Enlightenment through the free availability of information that would break down old prejudices and enable massively expanded awareness of reality and possibilities for improvement. Such a possibility remains, but humans thus far have fallen massively short of realizing it – because the will must be present to utilize constructively the abundance of available resources. Cultivating this will is no easy task; The Rational Argumentator has been pursuing it for sixteen years and will continue to do so. The effects are often subtle, indirect, long-term – more akin to the gradual drift of continents than the upward ascent of a rocket. And yet progress in technology, science, and medicine continues to occur. New art continues to be created; new treatises continue to be written. Some people do learn, and some people’s thinking does improve. There is no alternative except to continue to act in pursuit of a brighter future, and in the hope that others will pursue it as well – that, cumulatively, our efforts will be sufficient to avert the direst crises, make life incrementally safer, healthier, longer, and more comfortable, and, as a civilization, persist beyond the recent troubled times. The Rational Argumentator is a bulwark against the chaos – hopefully one among many – and hopefully many are at work constructing more bulwarks. Within the bulwarks, great creations may have room to develop and flourish – waiting for the right time, once the chaos subsides or is pacified by Reason, to emerge and beautify the world. In the meantime, enjoy all that can be found within our small bulwark, and visit it frequently to help it expand.
Gennady Stolyarov II,
Editor-in-Chief, The Rational Argumentator
This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.
Everyone intuits an emotional substance to music, yet few can explain its nature and origins. According to some, it is merely subjective; a piece evokes feelings that are personal to the listener but have no basis in the actual structure, melody, and harmonies of the composition itself. According to others, emotion in music can only be explained if anchored to a particular story or the historical context of the composer’s life and motivations. Still others disdain talk of musical emotion altogether and prefer a pure formalism, sometimes seeking to explain why music that feels jarring, discordant, or no way in particular can still be great because of some convention-flouting thing it does. M. Zachary Johnson, a teacher and historian of music and himself an accomplished composer, differs from all of those commonplace views and, in Emotion in Life and Music: A New Science, sets forth a framework by which the mathematics inherent in musical relationships and the feelings to which music gives rise are not only reconciled but shown to be inextricably linked, providing “connection of the emotion with the exact mathematical ratios which measure pitch distance and explain our qualitative affective experience” (p. 163).
Johnson’s concept of the psychological signature of a piece based on three measurable dimensions of intensity, speed, and affect provides a rubric for discerning which basic emotions a musical passage will elicit in the listener. As Johnson points out, these are generalized emotions such as pride or anguish, not anchored to a particular context (e.g., the feeling of accomplishment at having run a marathon or the feeling of having been betrayed) – although other media, such as the storyline of an opera, and even the listener’s personal experiences can provide such a context, which is indeed why different listeners may have different subjective associations with a piece of a particular, objective psychological signature. Even though musical tastes do vary widely among individuals, Johnson convincingly articulates that these tastes are still in reference to something in particular and that an individual’s response to the objective psychological signature of a piece tells more about the listener than about the piece itself. This is a welcome, refreshing contrast to the often militantly intolerant subjectivism of those who proclaim that there are no distinctions of quality or even nature to music or even art in general – that it is all up to the arbitrary preferences of the composer and/or listener, and that anyone who dares challenge this dogma deserves condemnation in the most strident terms. Perhaps contemporary Western culture, or at least the occasional oasis of rationality within it, is beginning to turn away from such absurdity, and Johnson contributes theoretical support to the view most articulately (in our era) espoused by Alma Deutscher that music should be beautiful.
Why is it desirable for dissonance to be resolved? Johnson explains that “Feelings such as pleasure, joy, serenity, inner harmony and balance – these are settled, complete states of mind. They are self-sufficient rewards, forms of satisfaction and contentment. They are ends in themselves. Feelings such as pain, suffering, fear, anger, restlessness, emotional distress and chaos – these are unsettled, incomplete, resolution-demanding states of mind. They motivate us to take some form of productive or corrective action. In respect to psychology, these are a propulsion to satisfy a need, to resolve a clash, to soothe oneself and heal, to strengthen, to gain adaptive flexibility, to stabilize the psyche and bring order to it” (p. 65). Wholesome, constructive music does not merely exist for its own sake but can greatly assist individuals in this task of achieving emotional integrity and strength. This includes music which expresses the darker or incomplete emotions, as long as this expression offers the listener an effective laboratory of the mind to work through such emotions without the risks and harms that would give rise to them in one’s personal life. Johnson notes that “Music rewards you for successful cognitive action, not for successful existential action. And when it gives you darker emotions, the function is not to indicate loss and failure, but to provide a means of sensually enjoying and studying and contemplating the states of consciousness, independently of the issue of actual material loss or gain – which is a form of self-knowledge, an affirmation of the value of one’s own faculties, and therefore itself a spiritual gain” (p. 110). However, there is a difference between a healthy, structured, rational exploration of the darker emotions with the intent of achieving resolution and completeness and the self-destructive embrace of those emotions, which certain types of “music” attempt to inculcate.
I consider myself to be within the same broad Apollonian musical and esthetic tradition as Johnson – as contrasted with the Dionysian revelry in the shocking, debased, and unrestrained. Yet perhaps my most significant difference with Johnson is the scope of what I would encompass within the Apollonian milieu and the latitude which I would allow to certain composers whom Johnson portrays rather harshly. Yes, Richard Wagner had his long, moody, meandering passages – but when his music becomes focused, determined, and structured, it is truly majestic. Yes, Dmitri Shostakovich was often despondent, but he could also write a fugue without any dissonance – and, besides, who would not be despondent when responding to the atrocities of the Stalin regime, but needing to do so in a veiled, indirect manner to create plausible deniability? (Shostakovich, too, had his heroic moments, as in the ending to his Seventh Symphony, which is about as optimistic as one can reasonably be in the midst of the devastation of World War II.) Nor would I agree with Johnson’s portrayal of the Second Movement of Wolfgang Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat as conveying a message of hopelessness or futility; I would rather characterize it as expressing mild, reflective melancholy. As for Arnold Schoenberg – well, Schoenberg deserves all of the criticism that Johnson has in store for him; he had no excuses for the misguided rebellion against tonality.
Yet, more generally, it is perhaps a misdirection of effort to focus on criticism of singular figures in musical or intellectual history. The massive departure of “high” music from tonality in the early 20th century certainly could not have been solely Schoenberg’s doing – nor could the intellectual seeds for this trend have been planted a century and a half in advance by Immanuel Kant (whom Johnson characterizes, following many similar assertions by Ayn Rand, as the mastermind of the end of the Enlightenment and the decline of the West). Kant had his errors, to be sure (though Rand always somehow overlooked the redeeming aspects of his immense humanism and political classical liberalism, especially in the context of his time), and Schoenberg’s music is simply not pleasant to the ear – but one could have a civilized and interesting conversation with either Kant or Schoenberg over a cup of coffee. No – the rebellion against the Enlightenment was more the doing of the rabble who cheered when the guillotine fell during the Reign of Terror. The widespread descent of music into atonality could not have occurred were it not for the slaughter of World War I, a crime of millions against millions – and against themselves. Johnson’s criticism of rock music (perhaps itself a bit harsh – but I offer my evaluation as one who has only heard the music separately from its typical “scene”) is better leveled at the ordinary revelers at Woodstock and Altamont – not the music itself (which is rather harmonious and innocuous compared to what commonly passes for popular “music” today). The tendency toward dissipation and destruction is not orchestrated by a handful of avatars of particular movements – but, rather, it lurks within the masses of people because of regrettable cognitive biases and irrational emotional urges that are the unfortunate inheritance of humankind’s deeply flawed evolutionary origins. In certain eras these destructive inclinations are subdued due to general prosperity and the proper incentives within social, political, and technological systems – whereas in other eras, arguably including our own (though not always or everywhere), they are encouraged by widespread norms of (mis)conduct, cultural portrayals, and everyday attitudes to become acted out by masses of people to great personal and societal toll. This is, in many regards, an ancient and recurring problem, sometimes taking on bizarre manifestations such as the pathological dance epidemic of 1518.
Accordingly, it is more important to advocate the Apollonian mindset in general in opposition to the Dionysian proclivities in general than to seek to single out particular instances of the latter. As long as humans continue to contend with our flawed evolutionary inheritance – which may not and should not always be our lot – and as long as some humans also retain aspects of nobility of character and aspiration for a better life, there will always be some exemplars of both the Apollonian and the Dionysian to point to. A more salient question, though, is, “Which of these paradigms is proportionally predominant?” Furthermore, how can the proportions among cultural creations be shifted in favor of the Apollonian? The more immediate problem we contend with is that there are vast quantities of people who would understand nothing in Johnson’s book and would have no knowledge of anything he praises or criticizes; they would be equally ignorant of Mozart and Beethoven, Aristotle and Kant, Schoenberg and Shostakovich, Brahms and Ayn Rand, and yet they would hate everything about any mention of them (in whatever light) – or about my review of Johnson’s book, or about a review from a critic with views diametrically opposite mine. The problem of anti-intellectualism in contemporary Western societies (particularly the United States) runs that deep, and it is evident that Johnson is gravely concerned about this predicament.
But perhaps good music can offer us a path toward a brighter future. If anti-intellectualism is the predominant cultural malaise of our time, then the inoculation against it may be found in Johnson’s articulation of the purpose of the best music as expressing the love of intelligence: “The essence of our humanity, the linchpin integrating reason and emotion, the special theme of the good life, the hallmark of virtue, the root of justice, the core of idealism and aspiration and heroism, the fundamental guardian of political freedom, and the root of all human love, is the love of man’s intelligence. […] The essence of music is precisely the love of human intelligence. Music, as nature’s reward for cognitive fitness, is the greatest medium in existence for expressing that theme” (pp. 179-180). Could exposure to great music – simple exposure, without even the theoretical explication which is accessible only at a much higher level of erudition – instill a love of intelligence in sufficiently larger numbers of people so as to turn the cultural tide? This is at least worth including as a tactic in the great, ongoing endeavor of civilizing the human mind and ensuring that the nobility of sentiment can grow to keep pace with material and technological advances.
This article is made available pursuant to the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author, Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II). Learn more about Mr. Stolyarov here.
As of today The Rational Argumentator has been in publication continuously for fifteen years – half of my lifetime to date. The more time passes, the more the value of continuity is reinforced for me, and so I hope that these fifteen years have only been an auspicious beginning for The Rational Argumentator. TRA shall continually endeavor to improve and expand in new directions, but always by building upon the old and by remaining rooted in a core identity – the championing of the principles of Reason, Rights, and Progress – the ideas that made Western civilization great. These ideals will hopefully be applied to forge a new global, universal human (and transhuman) civilization which we – all reasonable and decent people who wish to join this effort – can assemble by picking up the pieces of the wreckage of our unfortunate, downward-spiraling moment in history.
We live today in what Robert Heinlein prognosticated in his science fiction as the “Crazy Years”, which he described as exhibiting “Considerable technical advance during this period, accompanied by a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation, and social institutions” – gradual deterioration that became quite sudden and cataclysmic in 2016 and 2017. The climate of contemporary societies and political systems, particularly that of the United States, evokes William Butler Yeats’s famous lines:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The deterioration cannot be attributed to any particular individual or even faction (these are, at most, symptoms), but rather to the fraying general fabric of contemporary Western, particularly American, life. Those who have regularly read the pages of The Rational Argumentator will not be surprised at my view that the deterioration is primarily due to the abandonment of upward aspiration both within mainstream culture and among various subcultures – a rejection of 18th-century Enlightenment meliorism and an embrace of postmodern aimlessness. To reverse this tendency, now, more than ever, it is essential to emphasize the importance of rational inquiry, civil discourse, and the mindset of building a civilization – as opposed to militant subjectivism (where a person considers his or her feelings to be unquestioned dogma – and woe to those who challenge them!), coarse crudity in manners, riotousness, and the mindset of “tearing down the system” in a futile attempt to start from scratch. We cannot and must not start over – for the primitive state of humankind is far worse than our admittedly deeply imperfect morass of institutions and norms. But we can – and we must – repair and build upon the achievements of the past, combining them with new technologies and insights to forge the next great era of our civilization, a project I outline briefly in a two-party video series, “The Great Transhumanist Game”.
Amid the turmoil, I was pleased to see that The Rational Argumentator has gained notice and achieved significant increases in its visitation, receiving 1,087,149 total page views during its fifteenth year, as compared to 823,968 page views the year prior. Cumulative lifetime TRA visitation stands at 10,979,785 page views, and I am confident that the 11-million mark will be exceeded in September 2017. Perhaps more readers are seeking an antidote to the Crazy Years. Reason is that antidote, and these pages provide it in abundance.
During its fifteenth year, TRA published 140 features. While this was a lower rate of publication than the 208 to 314 features published per year in the preceding five years, TRA has at the same time become allied with the United States Transhumanist Party, of which I became Chairman in November 2016. The U.S. Transhumanist Party website has been brimming with new content, contributed by a wide variety of forward-thinking minds, and I am proud that this young but steadily growing organization has published 105 features during my tenure as Chairman thus far. I am also proud of the cadre of volunteer Officers that the U.S. Transhumanist Party has assembled – a team of dedicated advocates for the future, which will hopefully greatly expand with time and become the core of a movement that will transform and redirect society and culture back toward the ideals of reason and amelioration.
Thus, for the upcoming year, I pose an ambitious task for The Rational Argumentator and its readers. Let us make sure that Yeats’s words remain a warning rather than the ever-present reality. The center must hold, and we must ensure that it holds. Each of us can participate in this project. We must become the center upon which human civilization depends for its survival, continuity, and growth. Through both great endeavors and small, routine maintenance tasks; through creation of elevated and noble works, as well as everyday kindnesses to the people in our lives; through the rhetoric that inspires great aspirations and the decorum that conveys respect and uplifts our sentiments into the realm of good will – we must be the agents of cultural transformation – a New Renaissance, a Re-Enlightenment, indeed, a Recivilization to follow the Crazy Years. One of my most inspired moments of the past year has been seeing the finished painting of the City of New Antideath, which I commissioned from artist Ekaterinya Vladinakova. I invite you to gaze upon this colossal cityscape to gain glimpses at an era where all of our major aims – the return of reason as the paradigm for life, the attainment of indefinite longevity, the liberation of humankind from privation and conflict – have been attained. May it inspire you to go forth and take the many necessary incremental steps toward such a world.
This essay may be freely reproduced using the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 License, which requires that credit be given to the author, G. Stolyarov II. Find out about Mr. Stolyarov here.
Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman of the United States Transhumanist Party, interviews Bobby Ridge, a researcher into transhumanist philosophy and the scientific method and the new Secretary-Treasurer of the United States and Nevada Transhumanist Parties.
Watch this conversation regarding the subjects of Mr. Ridge’s research, the scientific method, and transhumanism more generally.
Bobby Ridge has a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Science from California State University of Sacramento (CSUS) and is striving to achieve his MD in Neurology. He only recently became a Transhumanist. He conducts research for CSUS’s Psychology Department and his own personal research on the epistemology and Scientiometrics of the Scientific Method. He also co-owns Togo’s in Citrus Heights, CA. Mr. Ridge considers transhumanism to describe the future of humanity taking its next steps in evolution, which are both puissant and daunting. With the exponential increase in information technology, Mr. Ridge considers it important for us to become a science-based species to prevent a dystopian-type future from occurring.
Visit the website of the U.S. Transhumanist Party at http://transhumanist-party.org/.
Become a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party for free by filling out this form.
Academics like to say that we teach “critical thinking” without thinking too critically about what it means to think critically.
Being Critical, Not Thinking Critically
Too often in practice, people equate critical thinking with merely being skeptical of whatever they hear. Or they will interpret it to mean that, when confronted with someone who says something that they disagree with, they either:
a) stop listening (and perhaps then start shouting),
b) find a way to squeeze the statement into our pre-existing belief system (if we can’t we stop thinking about it), or
c) attempt to “educate” the speaker about why their statement or belief system is flawed. When this inevitably fails we stop speaking to them, at least about the subject in question.
Ultimately, each of these responses leaves us exactly where we started, and indeed stunts our intellectual growth. I confess that I do a, b, and c far too often (except I don’t really shout that much).
To me, critical thinking means, at a minimum, questioning a belief system (especially my own) by locating the premises underlying a statement or conclusion, whether we agree with it or not, and asking:
1) whether or not the thinker’s conclusions follow from those premises,
2) whether or not those premises are “reasonable,” or
3) whether or not what I consider reasonable is “reasonable” and so on.
This exercise ranges from hard to excruciatingly uncomfortable – at least when it comes to examining my own beliefs. (I’ve found that if I dislike a particular conclusion it’s hard to get myself to rigorously follow this procedure; but if I like a conclusion it’s often even harder.)
Teaching Critical Thinking
Fortunately, people have written articles and books that offer good criticisms of most of my current beliefs. Of course, it’s then up to me to read them, which I don’t do often enough. And so, unfortunately, I don’t think critically as much as I should…except when I teach economics.
It’s very important, for example, for a student to critically question her teacher, but that’s radically different from arguing merely to win. Critical thinking is argument for the sake of better understanding, and if you do it right, there are no losers, only winners.
Once in a while, a student speaks up in class and catches me in a contradiction – perhaps I’ve confused absolute advantage with comparative advantage – and that’s an excellent application of genuine critical thinking. As a result we’re both now thinking more clearly. But when a student or colleague begins a statement with something like “Well, you’re entitled to your opinion, but I believe…” that person may be trying to be critical (of me) but not in (or of) their thinking.
It may not be the best discipline for this, but I believe economics does a pretty good job of teaching critical thinking in the sense of #1 (logical thinking). Good teachers of economics will also strategically address #2 (evaluating assumptions), especially if they know something about the history of economic ideas.
Economics teachers with a philosophical bent will sometimes address #3 but only rarely (otherwise they’d be trading off too much economic content for epistemology). In any case, I don’t think it’s possible to “get to the bottom” of what is “reasonable reasonableness” and so on because what ultimately is reasonable may, for logical or practical reasons, always lie beyond our grasp.
I could be wrong about that or indeed any of this. But I do know that critical thinking is a pain in the neck. And that I hope is a step in the right direction.
Sanford (Sandy) Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.
I first encountered Ayn Rand through her nonfiction. This was when I was a junior in high school, and I’m pretty sure it was my first big encounter with big ideas. It changed me. Like millions of others who read her, I developed a consciousness that what I thought – the ideas I held in my mind – mattered for what kind of life I would live. And it mattered for everyone else too; the kind of world we live in is an extension of what we believe about what life can mean.
People today argue over her legacy and influence – taking apart the finer points of her ethics, metaphysics, epistemology. This is all fine but it can be a distraction from her larger message about the moral integrity and creative capacity of the individual human mind. In so many ways, it was this vision that gave the postwar freedom movement what it needed most: a driving moral passion to win. This, more than any technical achievements in economic theory or didactic rightness over public-policy solutions, is what gave the movement the will to overcome the odds.
Often I hear people offer a caveat about Rand. Her works are good. Her life, not so good. Probably this impression comes from public curiosity about various personal foibles and issues that became the subject of gossip, as well as the extreme factionalism that afflicted the movement she inspired.
This is far too narrow a view. In fact, she lived a remarkably heroic life. Had she acquiesced to the life fate seemed to have chosen for her, she would have died young, poor, and forgotten. Instead, she had the determination to live free. She left Russia, immigrated to the United States, made her way to Hollywood, and worked and worked until she built a real career. This one woman – with no advantages and plenty of disadvantages – on her own became one of the most influential minds of this twentieth century.
So, yes, her life deserves to be known and celebrated. Few of us today face anything like the barriers she faced. She overcame them and achieved greatness. Let her inspire you too.
Kudos to the Atlas Society for this video:
If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that boring politics are the best politics. A staid political culture is a sign of a healthy society, as it allows humanity’s passions to flourish outside of the coercive and violent realm of political power. Those who say we should look to our leaders to inspire us, or that politics should be the engine of “progress,” are unwittingly calling for the destruction of civil society.
The Joy of Boredom
Since the end of the Cold War, for example, the political climate of northern and western Europe has been characterized by the yawn-inducing push and pull between liberal democracy and social democracy (with a side of Christian conservatism here, a dash of old-school leftism there). Both sides share a broad commitment to stability and market economics, but may have marginal scuffles over the size of the welfare state and the extent of government regulation. Political factions are more likely to fight about numbers and the wording of a law than engage in grand, sweeping oratory over revolutionary manifestos. Prior to the migrant crisis, this order was rarely disturbed – even by the troubles within the Eurozone.
While this doesn’t get the blood rushing in the way that romantic mass-movements did in the past, it’s also a good backstop against the bloodletting that those movements produced. People here exercise their passions through sports, music, and entertainment. Nods to historical glories and national myths are safely cordoned off in powerless, symbolic royal families, rather than ecstatic throngs yearning for a “dear leader.” While political life in this “end of history” scenario doesn’t make for epic storytelling, it helps to produce the world’s happiest societies.
For the most part, this reality exists in the “Anglosphere” as well, as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia all enjoy a situation similar to that of the Eurasian peninsula. And yes, even Great Britain and the United States broadly share this state of affairs. We can tell when this order has been disrupted in the wrong way. I remember hearing pundits and journalists decry the 2012 election as “bitter” and “divisive.” Well, here we are in 2016. We’ve seen America’s own centre-right party swallowed whole by a candidate’s cynical campaign of nationalism and a narcissistic cult of personality. Meanwhile, factions of our centre-left party have shown an affinity for unilateral executive power and ideologies that should have crumbled with the Berlin Wall. The most awful political campaign of our lifetimes makes 2012 look like the pinnacle of sane, democratic discourse.
Inspired into Misery
By contrast, look at the countries with the most passionate, ideologically-charged and “inspirational” political cultures. Chavismo-style socialism has led Venezuela into a grave economic crisis and turned one of the most resource-rich countries on Earth into a humanitarian disaster. There’s no need to exaggerate the effect of the Kim-dynasty cult in North Korea, with its toxic mix of Marxist-Leninism and the legacy of the Japanese Emperors: famine, malnutrition, and the stultification of the mind that comes with any closed society. Theocratic societies may do a great job at fulfilling humanity’s need for spirituality and transcendence, but are abysmal in terms of civil liberties, women’s rights, and any sense of pluralism.
To the extent that life has improved in places like China, it is due to the regime moving away from its motivating ideology, not a misplaced loyalty to it. Ideas like property rights, limited government, and sovereignty of the individual may seem mundane to those in the West who’ve been conditioned to take them for granted, but once people abandon these ideas for the sweeping romantic ecstasy of leader-worship, national supremacy, or prostration before a man-made god, they become more willing to see their fellow citizens as numbers or a means to a political end. It’s this ecstatic frenzy that makes people comfortable with deportations, torture, show trials, and mass murder.
Libertarians and classical liberals would do well to read the advice Alan Wolfe gives in The Future of Liberalism. Though Wolfe is a liberal more in the New Deal/Great Society sense of the word, he still provides valuable insight for maintaining a stable political culture:
On matters of the heart, romanticism touches on the deepest emotions, expands the human imagination, and produces world-class music and art. But however much romanticism can serve as a corrective to liberalism, it ought never to be a substitute for it. “Politics,” Max Weber wrote, “is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” That does not sound very dramatic, but its undramatic quality is what makes politics a blessing in disguise. When liberal politics works – either at home or abroad – fewer people are killed in the name of a cause, and fewer lives are disrupted to serve as characters in someone else’s drama.
He’s right to note that romanticism can be a corrective, as ideas are still important, but he wisely splits the difference in showing that proceduralism must still prevail over lofty notions of “getting things done.” He goes on to say that liberals
… ought to be aware of the powerful attractions of militarism, nationalism, and ideology, and they ought to be strong enough to resist them. Let the passions reign in the museums and concert halls. In the halls of government, reason, however cold, is better than emotions, however heartfelt.
In much the same vein, Robert O. Paxton wrote in The Anatomy of Fascism that
Fascism rested not on the truth of its doctrine but upon the leader’s mystical union with the historic destiny of his people, a notion related to romanticist ideas of national historic flowering and of individual artistic or spiritual genius, though fascism otherwise denied romanticism’s exaltation of unfettered person creativity. The fascist leader wanted to bring his people into a higher realm of politics that they would experience sensually: the warmth of belonging to a race now fully aware of its identity, historic destiny, and power; the excitement of participating in a vast collective enterprise; the gratification of submerging oneself in a wave of shared feelings, and of sacrificing one’s petty concerns for the group’s good; and the thrill of domination.
We’re right to be worried at the impulses at work in this election cycle. As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker earlier this year, “The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak.” When examining the two major party candidates, the American electorate is indeed left with a terrible choice. Still, we can survive, resist, and undermine the inevitably bad outcome.
J. Andrew Zalucky is a Connecticut-based writer focused on politics, history and cultural issues. Since 2011, he has run his own website, For the Sake of Argument. In addition, he writes about extreme music and is a regular contributor to Decibel and Metal Injection.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.
The whispers of late have had it that UNITY Biotechnology was out raising a large round of venture funding, and their latest press release shows that this was indeed the case. The company, as you might recall, is arguably the more mainstream of the current batch of startups targeting the clearance of senescent cells as a rejuvenation therapy. The others include Oisin Biotechnologies, SIWA Therapeutics, and Everon Biosciences, all with different technical approaches to the challenge. UNITY Biotechnology is characterized by a set of high profile relationships with noted laboratories, venture groups, and big names in the field, and, based on the deals they are doing, appear to be focused on building a fairly standard drug development pipeline: repurposing of apoptosis-inducing drug candidates from the cancer research community to clear senescent cells, something that is being demonstrated with various drug classes by a range of research groups of late. Senescent cells are primed to apoptosis, so a nudge in that direction provided to all cells in the body will have little to no effect on normal cells, but tip a fair proportion of senescent cells into self-destruction. Thus the UNITY Biotechnology principals might be said to be following the standard playbook to build the profile of a hot new drug company chasing a hot new opportunity, and clearly they are doing it fairly well so far.
UNITY Biotechnology, Inc. (“UNITY”), a privately held biotechnology company creating therapeutics that prevent, halt, or reverse numerous diseases of aging, today announced the closing of a $116 million Series B financing. The UNITY Series B financing ranks among the largest private financings in biotech history and features new investments from longtime life science investors ARCH Venture Partners, Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management and Research Company, Partner Fund Management, and Venrock. Other investors include Bezos Expeditions (the investment vehicle of Jeff Bezos) and existing investors WuXi PharmaTech and Mayo Clinic Ventures. Proceeds from this financing will be used to expand ongoing research programs in cellular senescence and advance the first preclinical programs into human trials.
The financing announcement follows the publication of research that further demonstrates the central role of senescent cells in disease. The paper, written by UNITY co-founders Judith Campisi and Jan van Deursen and published today, describes the central role of senescent cells in atherosclerotic disease and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells holds the promise of treating atherosclerosis in humans. In animal models of both early and late disease, the authors show that selective elimination of senescent cells inhibits the growth of atherosclerotic plaque, reduces inflammation, and alters the structural characteristics of plaque such that higher-risk “unstable” lesions take on the structural features of lower-risk “stable” lesions. “This newly published work adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the role of cellular senescence in aging and demonstrates that the selective elimination of senescent cells is a promising therapeutic paradigm to treat diseases of aging and extend healthspan. We believe that we have line of sight to slow, halt, or even reverse numerous diseases of aging, and we look forward to starting clinical trials with our first drug candidates in the near future.”
So this, I think, bodes very well for the next few years of rejuvenation research. It indicates that at least some of the biotechnology venture community understands the likely true size of the market for rejuvenation therapies, meaning every human being much over the age of 30. It also demonstrates that there is a lot of for-profit money out there for people with credible paths to therapies to treat the causes of aging. It remains frustrating, of course, that it is very challenging to raise sufficient non-profit funds to push existing research in progress to the point at which companies can launch. This is a problem throughout the medical research and development community, but it is especially pronrounced when it comes to aging. The SENS view of damage repair, which has long incorporated senescent cell clearance, is an even tinier and harder sell within the aging research portfolio – but one has to hope that funding events like this will go some way to turn that around.
From the perspective of being an investor in Oisin Biotechnologies, I have to say that this large and very visible flag planted out there by the UNITY team is very welcome. The Oisin team should be able to write their own ticket for their next round of fundraising, given that the gene therapy technology they are working on has every appearance of being a superior option in comparison to the use of apoptosis-inducing drugs: more powerful, more configurable, and more adaptable. When you are competing in a new marketplace, there is no such thing as too much validation. The existence of well-regarded, well-funded competitors is just about the best sort of validation possible. Well-funded competitors who put out peer-reviewed studies on a regular basis to show that the high-level approach you and they are both taking works really well is just icing on the cake. Everyone should have it so easy. So let the games commence! Competition always drives faster progress. Whether or not I had skin in this game, it would still be exciting news. The development of rejuvenation therapies is a game in which we all win together, when new treatments come to the clinic, or we all lose together, because that doesn’t happen fast enough. We can and should all of us be cheering on all of the competitors in this race. The quality and availability of the outcome is all that really matters in the long term. Money comes and goes, but life and health is something to be taken much more seriously.
Now with all of that said, one interesting item to ponder in connection to this round of funding for UNITY is the degree to which it reflects the prospects for cancer therapies rather than the prospects for rejuvenation in the eyes of the funding organizations. In other words, am I being overly optimistic in reading this as a greater understanding of the potential for rejuvenation research in the eyes of the venture community? It might be the case that the portions of the venture community involved here understand the market for working cancer drugs pretty well, and consider that worth investing in, with the possibility of human rejuvenation as an added bonus, but not one that is valued appropriately in their minds. Consider that UNITY Biotechnology has partnered with a noted cancer therapeutics company, and that the use of drugs to inducing apoptosis is a fairly well established approach to building cancer treatments. That is in fact why there even exists a range of apoptosis-inducing drugs and drug candidates for those interested in building senescent cell clearance therapies to pick through. Further, the presence of large numbers of senescent cells does in fact drive cancer, and modulating their effects (or removing them) to temper cancer progress is a topic under exploration in the cancer research community. So a wager on a new vision, or a wager on the present market? It is something to think about.
The mainstream of aging research, at least in public, is characterized by a profound lack of ambition when it comes to treating aging as a medical condition. Researchers talk about slightly altering the trajectory of aging as though that is the absolute most that is possible, the summit of the mountain, and are in many cases ambivalent when it comes to advocating for even that minimal goal. It is this state of affairs that drove Aubrey de Grey and others into taking up advocacy and research, given that there are clear paths ahead to rejuvenation, not just a slight slowing of aging, but halting and reversing the causes of aging. Arguably embracing rejuvenation research programs would in addition cost less and take a much shorter span of time to produce results, since these programs are far more comprehensively mapped out than are efforts to produce drugs to alter the complex operations of metabolism so as to slightly slow the pace at which aging progresses. It is most frustrating to live in a world in which this possibility exists, yet is still a minority concern in the research community. This article is an example of the problem, in which an eminent researcher in the field takes a look at a few recently published books on aging research, and along the way reveals much about his own views on aging as an aspect of the human condition that needs little in the way of a solution. It is a terrible thing that people of this ilk are running the institutes and the funding bodies: this is a field crying out for disruption and revolution in the name of faster progress towards an end to aging.
Quote from “Want to Live Longer? Our Complicated Relationship to Longevity” by Tom Kirkwood:
How can we overcome our niggling suspicion that there is something dubious, if not outright wrong, about wanting to live longer, healthier lives? And how might we pursue longer lives without at the same time falling prey to quasiscientific hype announcing imminent breakthroughs? In order to understand why aging is changing, and what this means for our futures, we need to learn more about the aging process itself. As a biologist who specializes in aging, I have spent more than four decades on a quest to do exactly this. Not only have I asked why aging should occur at all (my answer is encapsulated in a concept called disposability theory), but I have also sought to understand the fastest-growing segment of the population – those aged 85 and above. The challenges inherent in understanding and tackling the many dimensions of aging are reflected in a clutch of new books on the topic. Are these books worth reading? Yes and no. They take on questions like: Can we expect increases in human longevity to continue? Can we speed them up? And, on the personal level, what can we do to make our own lives longer and healthier? If nothing else, these books and their varied approaches reveal how little we actually know.
To find out more about factors that can influence our individual health trajectories across ever-lengthening lives, my colleagues and I began, in 2006, the remarkable adventure of the still ongoing Newcastle 85+ Study, an extremely detailed investigation of the complex medical, biological, and social factors that can affect a person’s journey into the outer reaches of longevity. For each individual, we determined whether they had any of 18 age-related conditions (e.g., arthritis, heart disease, and so on). Sadly, not one of our 85-year-olds was free of such illnesses. Indeed, three quarters of them had four or more diseases simultaneously. Yet, when asked to self-rate their health, an astonishing 78 percent – nearly four out of five – responded “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.” This was not what we had expected. The fact that these individuals had so many age-related illnesses fit, of course, with the popular perception of the very old as sadly compromised. But the corollary to this perception – that in advanced old age life becomes a burden, both to the individuals themselves and to others – was completely overturned. Here were hundreds of old people, of all social classes and backgrounds, enjoying life to the fullest, and apparently not oppressed by their many ailments.
As for my stake in the enterprise, I began investigating aging when I was in my early 20s – well before I had any sense of my own body aging. Quite simply, I was curious. What is this mysterious process, and why does it occur? Everything else in biology seems to be about making things work as well as they can, so how is it that aging destroys us? Now that I am growing older myself, my research helps me understand my own body and reinforces the drive to live healthily – to eat lightly and take exercise – though not at the cost of eliminating life’s pleasures. For all that I have learned about aging, my curiosity remains unabated. Indeed, it has grown stronger, partly because as science discovers more about the process, it reveals that there is ever more to learn, ever greater complexity to unravel, and partly because I am now my own subject: through new physical and psychological experiences in myself, I learn more about what older age is really like. I know all too well that the next phase of my life will bring unwelcome changes, and of course it must end badly. But the participants of the Newcastle 85+ Study have shown me that the journey will not be without interest.