Street Philosophy: Reexamining Insane Ideas Part I
Historically, ideas that people have deemed to be insane, have this odd quality where once certain conditions are met, they seem to quickly become self-evident. Some examples:
- Black people should have the right to vote
- Women should have the right to vote
- The earth is spherical
- Gay people should have marriage rights (not to suggest that the struggle is over, but the battle of ideas is)
That is, these “radical” ideas thought at one time to be insane, seem obvious or trivial now. We would say, “how could it be otherwise?” If insane roughly meant “not intelligible or ridiculous,” you would think that the effect of the world changing would make them slowly slide down the slope of really bad–>bad–>mildly bad at best, and not move from insane–>self-evident so quickly. In fact, these newly accepted truths feel very much like ahistorical–timeless truths. It’s often not quite this extreme, but here’s an observation:
Insane ideas seem to have very simple premises and all it takes is to follow them to their logical conclusion.
When we reject an idea as insane, we’re often equivocating between different meanings of the word. Ideas are often called insane when one of the following conditions apply:
- When the idea isn’t rational or coherent
- When it contradicts assumptions that were long held to be trivially true
- When *we* really dislike its logical conclusion
*The “we” here is the dominant class usually, but let’s save this topic for another day.
1 is kind of a textbook definition, but in practice we rarely use it in this way. That is, we immediately see that it’s meaningless gibberish, that there is no consistent argument, or that they warrant no merit because it’s internally inconsistent. Outside of the clinical ill, and politicians, it’s rather rare to see actual word salads like this. (I’ll talk about why standards are so low with politicians in another post). Generally, when we dismiss an idea as insane, we are accusing it of 1, but much more often it’s actually 2 or 3 upon closer inspection. If we look at 2 and 3, we can understand why it’s quite typical that, such ideas are considered “insane” until they become obvious. 2 is a description of factual features of the world, whether they are cultural or technological. Most people on the left like to think of themselves as open-minded (perhaps even people on the right too), but in reality, most people are only cosmetically open-minded (diets, lifestyles, activities). Intellectually, all we see are fire-sales on scarecrows and straw mans.
Part of the problem is that there’s little incentive to be open-minded, and plenty to be close-minded.
In the world of business or speculating, the idea that the world changes and with it, assumptions, is nothing new, and there’s a reward mechanism attached to being a heretic (you also have to be right of course). Anyone who is an entrepreneur, speculator or gambler knows that an obviously good idea (stock, sports team) is already priced in and hence, valueless. You are actively, professionally, looking for ideas that were once bad (even awful) and currently perceived as such but in actuality, may not be. If you are thinking that a “high variance” profession like poker, day-trading, or a startup is primarily about finding obviously good ideas, you should probably not quit your job 😦 It’s harder to monetize social or moral ideas, so there’s certainly less incentive to actively search for heresy. Not only this, but the people that have a proclivity to be a heretic tend to also learn very early in life the value of pragmatism: It’s almost never a good idea to share unpopular opinions.
Today, like any other time, we hold many ideas to be mildly insane, like veganism.
Which, if you think about it a bit, is closer to obvious, or trivially true rather than insane; like the right to vote examples, the status of insanity evolved with factual features of the world. What do I mean by that? Certainly, the majority of white men a few hundred years ago, believed that letting colored people or women vote was insane for primarily reason 1 and not 2 or 3; these classes were stupid (which turned out to be incorrect) or uneducated (which was true but not a necessary truth–that is, it was a factual feature of the world). The error seems obvious now, but people had those blinders on that could not be overcome at the time.
Factory farming or intensive animal farming, that is, the primary way in which we are able to eat meat with almost every meal, is unconscionable. It can only be justified if we believe that animals merit zero moral consideration–as in, absolutely none. We can get into sentience, interests, and whatever, but perhaps on another future post. Philosopher Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” is a non-technical, non-emotional, easy to understand work if you’re interested in a reasoned argument for veganism. Similarly to the examples with suffrage though, its moral strength is partly due to changing features of the world; most animals are no longer hunted, but bred into slavery, manipulated at genetic levels, and tortured in a variety of creative and really, clinically insane ways for the sake of efficient profit. Without going into emotionally charged examples, the main reason that we think veganism is insane is 3: we don’t like its logical conclusion, so by a kind of perverted reductio ad absurdum, we conclude that the proposition must be insane. Now, fine, you might not think veganism is insane, but just don’t care enough to be one (like me, although so far, the sacrifice hasn’t really been that bad). Take the consequences a notch further though, and talk to some principled freegans (ethical dumpster divers who shower less) who choose to opt out of market capitalism, and I think most of us would call this insane. Today though, I don’t want to talk about small instances of insanity like veganism or even freeganism; I want to think about bigger assumptions that are insane…or obvious.
Insane Idea 1: Civilization is Unsustainable
Might as well start with the mother lode right? Everything we know to be good comes from civilization. Human history is the history of civilization, right? I and anyone reading this is completely dependent on it. So it seems like a type 1 insanity: Nonsense or contradiction, but is it? Isn’t this just another instance of 2: Contradicting assumptions that were long held to be true, and 3: (inclusive we*) really dislike its logical conclusion?
This is not to mock the idea of pragmatism, but we should not dismiss an idea simply because its conclusions are disagreeable. As Islam critic Ayaan Hirsi says, people say it’s sacrilege to call the prophet Muhammad a pedophile, but nobody asks, “but is it true?” (I disagree with Ayaan Hirsi and pretty much all of the New Atheist types, but not because they shouldn’t allowed to ask certain questions.)
If civilization is dependent on an ever-increasing consumption of nonrenewable resources, can this be a sustainable way of life?
This type of critique is usually typed in with an attack on capitalism. It’s true–Marx himself had the insight that when your economy necessitates constant growth and extraction of resources, eventually you run out of resources. Unfortunately this much more important insight often gets ignored under less important things like the Communist Manifesto stuff.
More broadly, though, when you live in a population dense city, you aren’t sustaining yourself on what the land can provide, and you don’t have to live in Las Vegas or Dubai for this to be obvious. What you are doing is that you are by necessity extracting resources from elsewhere to sustain yourself, usually from the countryside. This was the case prior to the Industrial Revolution as well. When you run out of resources in your locality, you need to expand out, which is why you have an urgent need to take over the neighboring territories and their resources. (There is often desert where there was once civilization; do you really think ancient people thought it’s a good idea to build cities in the middle of a desert where resources are slim?) Technology has allowed us to extend our “lifespan” so to speak, before we run out of resources like our ancient Roman or Egyptian brothers and sisters. We no longer are limited by how far our horses can carry resources, as we can extract oil from even the most obscure and unfriendly environments deep down in the earth. When that runs dry, then what? If this is true, then what does it mean to be an urban vegan/freegan/meagan or whatever? If it’s true that civilization is unsustainable, then it changes the default position:
You are a detriment to nature, the planet, and living things around you. Your existence is making the world worse.
- Go kill yourself then!
Right…but let’s try and take a more charitable view of this outburst. It’s legitimate to ask whether some questions are worth asking, and I don’t have a lot of respect for personal purity without regard for consequences. This is actually a trap that many vegans, environmentalists, and activists of all varieties fall into; it’s also kind of sanctioned Christian doctrine.
I can accept that some ideas may not be logically self-defeating, but pragmatically self-defeating. The idea of free will, I believe is something that we can take as an absolute assumption (there are nuanced positions here too, one can be a compatibilist as well). While it’s true that freedom of the will could be false, perhaps even likely, it’s kind of pointless to assume otherwise. Yes, it makes for interesting philosophical discussion, but it has no pragmatic value to me. On the other hand, saying that your existence is default, -EV is not self-defeating in my opinion. It means that it’s no longer cool to just live a life; it means that you have a moral imperative to effect positive change. Will you? Not likely, but one of the features of the modern world and scalability is that, one person can do what thousands couldn’t so there’s no reason to be nihilistic about it, even if you agree with this insane idea that civilization isn’t sustainable.
Ok, but ideas aren’t good just because they’re insane right? I mean, sure, the good insane ideas survived, but didn’t most insane ideas turn out to be just plain bad? Can’t we just deny that civilization is unsustainable instead of going into this alarmist shit?
Reject 1: You can do Earth Days, not support Big Agriculture, go Vegan, Protest Pipelines etc: This can be summed up in the popular slogan: Think globally; act locally. If people, as a class, started to “awaken” and make responsible decisions, positive change could be effected within the framework of consumerist capitalism. You know, boycott factory farming, support local, ride a bike, plant cool stuff and reduce your footprints and so on.
Clearly, I’m skeptical about the ability to mobilize a global citizenship movement, and I’d say the empirical evidence supports my cynicism. More importantly though, the contradiction of urban sustainable living is considerable. What clothes do you wear? Do you drive to work? While it might seem effective to be vegan or support ethical coffee or whatever, this second, our existence is supporting mass corporate pollution, degradation, and well, straight up genocide. You are swinging a twig in the age of nuclear warfare.
Live sustainably? I mean, with due respect, what the fuck are you talking about? Are you high, and more importantly, can you give me some of that?
To be fair though, acting different makes you think different, something I discovered recently which is why I decided to try veganism. The feedback loop has to start somewhere. Meanwhile, we might be able to buy ourselves time for Reject 2.
Reject 2: You can outrun the problem with technology: We objectively have not only more efficient fuel, but less polluting technology. We beat the Malthusian pessimists that were worried about overpopulation right? Technology, innovation, and sometimes market demand corrects and responds to problems. It’s certainly true that capitalism has allowed us unprecedented growth, nourished billions that were historically starving, and generally created enormous wealth. There is a lot of prima facie evidence that we’ve delayed, rather than resolved the problem:
- We’ve relocated much of the problem, similar to the way we relocate street people to less visible locations
- The scale of the problem we face now is incomparably large
- We’re already seeing consequences where human interest is low (how many species are extinct as a direct result of human intervention)
- While we’re all for NIMBY protest, we don’t have the political will, nor the citizen will to sacrifice even trivial things (which is what the more extreme proponents of anarcho-capitalism never seem to realize)
- Technology and efficiency (even clean energy if pollution is a cost) often increases demand, more than offsetting the gains.
On the other hand, this may be our legit best shot at this point. To think that humans are natural innovators, and we’ll “figure it out” is gratuitous magical thinking. At the same time, if you believe the climate folks, we’re quite a few years past our point of no return. That is, today’s climate is the result of emissions from 10 to 20 years ago as there’s a delay for all the accumulated effects. If somehow we magically changed directions 180 degrees right now via unlikely political will, we are still facing some pretty severe add-on over the next two decades. Not to mention the feedback loops that are already set into motion.
Manipulate Climate/Relocate to new planet: Kind of a given but, it’s obviously too late to start “living green” as a sole or even main solution. Whether we find a way to replicate volcanic ash or spray from sulfur into the stratosphere, it’s a mechanistic manipulation of our environment that will give us our best shot at a good future. Relocate is cool too, but it seems rather costly to get out and find something that’s not uninhabitable in space. We haven’t really figured out how to deal with cosmic rays either, but hey, that’s kind of a small beans.
AI guided policies: This is a given, and should be trivial. People are fucking stupid and therefore democracy is at best, utterly stupid, and should be discarded at the sight of any remotely reasonable alternative. What if AI takeover happens? The unabomber was concerned about AI takeovers, as is Elon Musk and Bill Gates. If the default is that we’re done…you know, this isn’t really a concern right? Also, if we’re not somehow able to overcome collective stupidity and shortsightedness, are we really likely to be able to outrace the devastation without another revolution in progress?
Argument Accepted 😦
Anarcho-primitivism: AKA, Fuck it. End Civ.
The logical conclusion. Unfortunately, the idea is associated with some rather unsavory characters like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, eco-terrorism and so on, not that this should discredit the idea. Thankfully there are other thinkers like Daniel Quinn and Derrick Jensen who have other ideas than blowing people and dams up. They are unequivocal about one thing though, and this is another “insane but obvious insight,” namely, that violence is a tool and that it works. In fact, societies are premised on violence to keep it together, norms and all. You certainly don’t need to be an eco-terrorist to see that this is true once you think about “what happens if I said no…” Anybody who has studied indigenous groups or their history anywhere knows exactly what happens when you choose to opt out. You get massacred.
Criticism: We’re just not going back to grunting and living in caves, sorry. While it’s cool to live like natives, outside of some serious weirdos (right though they may be) we’re not going to do it, so back to the outrun devastation with technology option. Even if I’m forced to accept that civilization and the working assumptions of civilization (as opposed to say, native culture or living off the land) got us to where we are, we’re like ski jumpers that have already accelerated to the point where there’s no opt out option. Also, what does blowing up a dam do? How does that contribute to the bigger goal? Rather, if anything, that we’ll get to the crash landing is a statement of fact. We just need to buy ourselves enough time to find a way out.
Not that personal feels matter, but I’m actually rather optimistic. Being uneducated, miserable, and dying of random shit like Cholera is more or less standard if you were to randomly reincarnate into a random human at a random point in history. While there’s a very real possibility that our generation literally sees Judgment Day, it’s quite the unlikely privilege to be living in this infinitesimally small dot on the timeline of human history where we can debate such matters instead of you know, just kind of meaninglessly starving.
Next time, a slightly less insane but equally obvious idea: Why neoliberalism and creating and protecting jobs is insane (in the clinical sense of the word).