A Kierkegaardian Approach to Philosophy: Replacing an Objective Career with a Subjective Relationship

Philosophy has been firmly and comfortably institutionalized. It exists primarily to teach useful, marketable, career-building skills, buzzwords like critical thought and complex reasoning and clear writing. Philosophers are another cog of capitalism, mass-produced in university departments to either join the economy or perpetuate the academic study of philosophy. Like physicists and biologists, they are judged by their ability to produce original, peer-reviewed work. Philosophy is a specialized field along with the sciences, practiced in research institutions.

Any ‘serious’ philosopher is found solely in the university; no longer can philosophy be practiced by any audacious questioner. Measured by gross product, philosophy is more successful and productive than at any other time in history. Thousands of philosophers throughout the world produce well-researched, logical papers that engage with the traditional problems. Many of these papers are ingenious marvels of philosophical reasoning. Who can deny the brilliance of Slavoj Zizek’s cultural criticism, John Searle’s philosophy of mind, the late Hilary Putnam’s rigorous analysis?

And yet perhaps we are missing something in this Cambrian explosion of philosophical activity. Philosophy has gained a permanent place in the academy. To paraphrase an introduction to “Socrates Tenured” by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle, philosophy has its own arcane language, its hyper-specialized concerns, a network of undergraduate programs, and an ecosystem of journals. Like Bertrand Russell, I wonder whether institutional philosophy is “anything better than innocent but useless trifling, hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.”

The goal of philosophy is no longer to guide individuals on their attempt to become paragons of wisdom and virtue. Its purpose is not to assist the philosopher in reconciling the absurdity of the world, nor can it instigate the creation of meaning out of this nihilism. It is not meant to be related subjectively to the individual who is actually living the philosophy and experiencing its effects. It is meant to produce knowledge. An honest, valuable task – yes. But it is not enough.

After all, this knowledge is produced in the typical academic fashion. It is based on rigorous, ‘impartial’ research by graduates trained in cleverly analyzing arguments. This research is then applied to produce objective knowledge that has no moral impact. I mean: the knowledge is not meant to make one a better person, but to be used as a “de-moralized tool” for civilizational progress (source). Throughout the process, the producers of knowledge remain separate from the knowledge they produce. It is sterilized, abstracted – without impact.

The philosopher argues passionately for his/her thesis, employing every art of logic available. But what if the thesis is true? No matter. It will not change the philosopher’s life nor anyone else’s. It is merely another postulate verified until refutation, another step on the track to tenure. As Kierkegaard wrote, “not until he lives in it, does it cease to be a postulate for him.” It is ridiculous to imagine the philosophers living by their theses.

All this production and institutionalization is merely disguising a catastrophe. We are facing the same problem in philosophy that Kierkegaard faced in religion: the demise of the subjective relationship. We have lost the duty to philosophy that Socrates felt and in some ways died for, the intimately personal, individual relationship to the content of our study. At his final Apology, Socrates said “as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practice philosophy.” He had so fully embraced philosophy that any other form of life was “not worth living.”

Philosophy is not merely a set of practices and shared academic norms. It is a way of living. And if it fails to be a way of living, all its academia will be unmasked as hollow. Then could Nietzsche’s madman declare with certainty that along with God, the Philosopher must be buried as well – “We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers” (The Gay Science). Divorced from the lived experience of the philosopher, how can philosophy be meaningful? If philosophy is to have any value, it must be “through its effects upon the lives of those who study it” (Bertrand Russell).

Perhaps no one but Kierkegaard has articulated this problem in all its scope. In his Truth is Subjectivity, he wrote:

Our discussion is not about the scholar’s systematic zeal to arrange the truths of Christianity in nice tidy categories but about the individual’s personal relationship to this doctrine, a relationship which is properly one of infinite interest to him. (source)

To be a philosopher, one must take a radical leap. It is like Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, the jump into the abyss. Namely: one must be willing to live by one’s conclusions. After all, philosophy claims to both describe and prescribe reality, the ethical life, the social sphere. If this is the case, then how should we live differently because of it? If Plato is indeed correct about the immortality of the soul, what then should we do? Every philosophical premise, when carried the full length, has an ethical conclusion. They dictate what should be done.

But even here we encounter a problem. We are supposed to live by our conclusions, yes, but we are also supposed to live by the method of philosophy. And yet this method questions every conclusion. How can we live by a conclusion that can be called into question and invalidated the day after? Philosophy is built upon the dialectic, the constant shift in thought and relentless doubt of each and every premise. An objector might claim that the dialectical is fundamentally antithetical to the meaningful, as a life cannot be built upon an ever-shifting foundation.

Perhaps, then, Kierkegaard’s approach is only sensical in religion. After all, religion is not dialectical. It remains solid, and thus a subjective relationship can be built. A subjective relationship to religion builds a bridge between rock-solid cliffs; a subjective relationship to philosophy builds a bridge between wind and tossing waves. One must be able to stop somewhere if a meaning of life is to be built, and religion provides the stopping-point.

Philosophy, however, is not incapable of providing meaning. It has merely been so often misapplied that it seems impossible to truly live by. The solution is this: one must be willing to set a direction for the dialectic. Kierkegaard himself did not set a rock of Christianity and declare “now, build a relationship with this!” His project was to advance, not end the dialectic. His intention was to “create difficulties everywhere” (Concluding Unscientific Postscript). He sought to push individuals to recognize the flaws of dogma, and through this to create their own relationship with Christianity independent of the traditional Nicene doctrine. But this dialectic was not unguided: its goal was to become a Christian.

This aim, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, could only be achieved by first negating it: recognizing that I am not a Christian now. Thus, the dialectic became essential to the process. The creation of a true relationship with Christianity was made possible only through destruction – through eliminating the bromides and dependence on institutions.

This same process of guided dialectic applies to philosophy. By focusing on a specific end goal, our dialectic gains a foundation. New information does not destroy the foundation. Rather, it clarifies and polishes the foundation and assists in its construction. For example, I may decide my end goal is to become a virtuous person. When I discover that one of my practices was not after all virtuous, this does not destroy my ability to live by my philosophy. After all, my end goal is not called into question. I still aim to be virtuous. But my process has been refined, as I now know one more thing that I should not aim for.

Therefore, we now have a basis for developing a personal relationship with philosophy. Before anything, an aim must be set as the goal of all dialectic. Then, we must live by this aim, constantly seeking to refine and expand it. The aim cannot be called into question. This aim is the fundamental, subjective truth, one that is lived by the individual so intensely that it cannot be invalidated. It must be of infinite significance to the individual. It should not be taught in universities, but pursued by the individual.

We must assume the end goal in order to justify the process itself. After all, if we open up our end goal to justification – and therefore criticism – how can we truly be devoted to it? It becomes merely another premise among many, one that may be quickly invalidated by a new paper in an academic journal. Only through the powerful, subjective force of faith can we believe in the end goal. (To clarify, I do not at all mean faith in the religious sense. You’ll catch my meaning as I develop the idea.)

Faith, after all, is inevitable in life. Over the centuries, the most powerful trend in philosophy has been skepticism. We have certainly not completed Aristotle’s task of classifying and demonstrating everything, but we have made tremendous progress in Socrates’ task of calling everything into question. In a philosophy where there is no convincing demonstration of the possibility of knowledge itself, how can we claim to have a comprehensive system that eliminates the need for faith? Rather, we have merely shown the overwhelming need for faith.

Faith is a teleological suspension in the face of uncertainty. The need for this suspension derives from three fundamental and undeniable aspects of existence. First, we are uncertain at the most basic level, and unable to make a decision based on the process of systematic reasoning. Second, despite our uncertainty, we must make a decision. Third, and too often ignored, we have ends, desires, dreams – things that we feel we must accomplish or at least strive for. We may know objectively that these dreams are irrational, unjustified – and yet every individual feels a need to search after some aim. In the face of this telos, it is unacceptable to merely deny agency and revoke our ability to make a choice, and it is unacceptable to choose arbitrarily.

How can we reconcile these three facts of our existence – uncertainty, agency, and the telos? Only through faith. We ignore our uncertainty, and make the decision based on the telos, the goal. We decide our ends and believe them by faith. Every decision must be directed by this touchstone. It is constantly refined through the dialectical process, but the telos itself is never subject to the dialectic.

In his Existenzphilosophie, Karl Jaspers wrote, “Philosophic meditation is an accomplishment by which I attain Being and my own self, not impartial thinking which studies a subject with indifference.” The philosopher should be intimately engaged with the philosophy; it should not be an object of study, but a way of living that has infinite impact. The goal of philosophy must be reexpressed in Kierkegaard’s terms, as the search to “find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live or die.”

Why Philosophy Should Abandon the Metaphor of Light

One of the most commonplace images in philosophy and religion: a light in the darkness.

In the beginning, there was Plato’s cave. There, only shadows without recognizable form existed, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. A prisoner freed himself, and escaped into the light. And he saw the light, and that it was good, and he recognized the origin of the shadows. He returned to the cave of his imprisonment, and said: “Let there be light.”

Entrenched in the core of the Western tradition is the metaphorical narrative of light from the darkness. It is central both in religion, as in Genesis 1, and philosophy, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave. I merged these two narratives together to show their fundamental similarity. They describe a myth in which everything is covered in shadow until an enlightened being – God in Genesis and the escaped prisoner in Plato – brings light to the darkness. But where did this metaphor come from? What does it really mean? Is it a valuable metaphor for society, metaphysics, and epistemology? Should we keep it, modify it, or scrap it entirely?

A History of Light

The first metaphors of light occur in religious texts. The origin myth in the Rig Veda, a founding collection of Hindu verses written around 1500 B.C., sounds almost eerily similar to Genesis:

At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
All this was only unillumined water. 
That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing,
arose at last, born of the power of heat.
However, this narrative has one crucial difference from the Bible. In the Rig Veda, one of the most ancient texts ever discovered, heat is the first to come into being, not light. This reveals that until the last century, light and heat were virtually synonymous, because almost all light was generated by fire or the sun. Light and heat are the essence of basic physical comfort. The warmth of the fire provided early humans a refuge from the terrors of the cold, menacing night. Most importantly, it protected us from the fear of blindness. 
 In our ancient history, we feared the night not because of the darkness itself, but due to what darkness was associated with: savage beasts, murder, losing one’s way. Over time, this dread became so fundamental that we became afraid of the night in itself. The absence of light, became a primary cause of fear, not a secondary terror associated with more dangerous prospects. It is no surprise, then, that the metaphor of light has become ingrained in the human psyche, a permanent relic of more dangerous times. 
From the golden age of the Indus valley to the founding of Rome, the world’s major religions were hard at work solidifying the metaphorical position of light as good, truth, and piety. The Quran is dotted with the phrase “He bringeth them out of darkness into light.” In the Hebrew Bible, John 8:12 directly connects light to God and righteousness:

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
In religious iconography from nearly every sect, priests, prophets, and saints are distinguished by a halo of light of some kind. 
The Buddha is represented with a halo of light in this ancient Chinese painting.
Muhammad leads the saints in prayer, surrounded by a mantle of light or fire.
Ra, the sun god of ancient Egypt, was almost always depicted with a solar disc on his head.
In Simon Ushakov’s icon of the The Last Supper (1685), Christ and all of the apostles except Judas Iscariot have a halo.

The Lighted Clearing: The Epistemology of the Enlightenment

The metaphor of light is not merely a decorative literary cliché. “Already in Plato,” writes Hans Blumenburg, “the metaphorics of light already has a metaphysics of light implicit in it.” The metaphor is at the core of the idea that the world submits itself to the light of reason. Without the language of light-dark duality, it would be challenging to formulate or understand enlightenment philosophy. 

Light-dark dualism is connected with nearly every major European philosophical movement. In Greece, the birthplace of Western philosophy, the Sun was a god – Helios, “the Father of the piercing beams of light” (Pindar). Plato built upon the established iconography of light to represent his epistemology. In The Republic, light is knowledge, while darkness is ignorance. Daylight exposes the night’s filth, untruth, and vice, and therefore light is enlightenment and truth. 

Centuries later, Descartes constructed the philosophical meaning of “the natural light of reason,” a phrase coined by Cicero. This light alone, said Descartes, can intuit truth beyond doubt, as it is disconnected from the senses and the corporeal world. In Meditations on First Philosophy, page 14, he writes: 

…for I cannot doubt that which the natural light causes me to believe to be true, as, for example, it has shown me that I am from the fact that I doubt, or other facts of the same kind. And I possess no other faculty whereby to distinguish truth. from falsehood, which can teach me that what this light shows me to be true is not really true, and no other faculty that is equally trustworthy. 

This light, the lumen naturale, is the intuition of truth. Descartes recognizes that reason is not always a meticulous logical process. Often, he writes, it is simply a powerful intuition, a “spontaneous inclination.” We feel the logical coherence of certain truths, and we feel dissonance if we reject these truths. He recognizes the flaws of this intuition, but ultimately accepts it as the only method for discovering reality. In the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes that truth cannot escape the light of reason: 

Nothing here can escape us, because what reason brings forth entirely out of itself cannot be hidden, but is brought to light by reason itself as soon as reason’s common principle has been discovered. 

In short, the radiance of reason exposes all knowable things.

Later in the history of light, Heidegger uses the lichtung, or lighted clearing, as the location where being is disclosed. Lichtung, writes Heidegger, 
”designates
 a bringing 
to 
light
 which
 is
 also a
 clearing
 of
 space” (Garbutt). In the lichtung, truths are revealed. It is a site of revelation and exposure, where our inner selves can no longer be hidden.

Therefore, most philosophical figures of the Western tradition, including Kant, Plato, Heidegger and Descartes, use a conception of truth best described by the ancient Greek word for truth, alethia, which means “unconcealment.” This perspective assumes that everything can be illuminated by light or grasped by reason. This epistemology’s foundations are attacked as the postmodernist movement comes into its own. 

The Collapse of the Metaphor of Light

In the 20th century, postmodern philosophers like Levinas and Derrida recognized that the world is not completely intelligible. By contesting the most fundamental imagery of the Platonic legacy, they are counter-philosophical (Sparrow). These deconstructionists are Simba in the Lion King. They are told that philosophy can understand all that the light touches, but this does not satisfy them. Exploring the borders of the epistemology they inherited, the postmodernists reach the edge of the kingdom and realize that there is existence in shadow and darkness. 

The totalizing vision of the Western tradition restricts truth and reality to objects that fit the understandable mold of reason:

“what does not enter into form is banished from this world”

(Levinas 1). This vision fails to see that the light of reason can only reveal objective knowledge. The Enlightenment framework assumes that because reason can only understand objective knowledge, objectivity is the only kind of knowledge. In this way, the Platonic legacy ignores subjectivity.  Ironically, the disciples of Enlightenment epistemology are like the prisoners of Plato’s cave – they assume that what they can see is all that exists. 

On the other hand, Levinas understood that the most basic fact of our relation with other people is that we cannot understand other people. This is alterity: the infinite otherness of everyone we know. To live is to come into contact with other beings that are fundamentally alien to us, to encounter another consciousness that “wells up inside of us to disrupt and menace the smooth operation of the intellect and the cultivation of a solipsistic identity” (Sparrow). Here, Pythagoras is relevant – in his writings, light represents limits, while darkness is infinity – shadow is associated “with the unexplored, indefinite interior” (Notopulos). Our world, then, is better represented by a dark forest than a lighted clearing. I am subjectivity and I live in the midst of subjectivity – all around me are unexplored selves, and I am an unexplored self. 

Derrida made a more political  criticism of light-dark dualism. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the protagonist, Winston, is told he will meet his fellow resistor in “a place where there is no darkness.” He did not know what this meant, “only that in some way or another it would come true.” In the end,  oppressive and all-powerful Party imprisons Winston in a cell where inescapable artificial light tortures him for all hours of the day. This demonstrates the political meaning of light as what allows beings to be revealed, manipulated, controlled, and used as tools toward an end. As Derrida wrote on page 91 of Violence and Metaphysics:

…the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and techno-political possession. 

Derrida argues that the state cannot possess humans if they do not have the philosophy to justify their act of ownership. This justifying philosophy is the Enlightenment, which views subjectivity as penetrable to reason, and thus open to ownership. Light exposes objects so they can be used, while “A philosophy of the night recognizes that form disintegrates in the darkness, objects lose their graspability” (Sparrow).

In absolute visibility, humans become objects. As Foucalt might say, an anatomy textbook exposes the human body completely, which makes the body seem like an object that can be understood if we simply comprehend all the cells that compose it. If we view others in this way, what is the moral significance of owning a human? The state seems to say, a citizen is merely a beast of labor with a different conformation of cells. In reality, we do not encounter the Other as an object, but as an infinite force outside ourselves, with a subjectivity we cannot fully comprehend. 

The traditional metaphor of light has failed philosophy. It collapses the moment we step away from our solitary philosophizing and into the world of others. The ancient need to expose, objectify, disclose, and grasp subjectivity causes us to ignore any realities which escape our attempt to understand. We should replace this all-exposing worldview with a philosophy of night that recognizes uncertainty and alterity. 

Works Cited

Descartes, René. "Meditations on First Philosophy." Indianapolis: Hacket Press. 2000. Print. 

Garbutt, Robert. "The Clearing: Heidegger's Lichtung and the Big Scrub." Southern Cross University. 2010. Print. 

Levinas, Immanuel. "Phenomenon and Enigma." Collected Philosophical Papers. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987. Page 70. 

Notopoulos, James. "The Symbolism of the Sun and Light in the Republic of         Plato." Classical Philology, Vol. 39, No. 3. Pp. 163-172. University of Chicago Press. 1994. Print. 

Pindar. "The Odes of Pindar." The University of Chicago Press. 1947. Print. 

Sparrow, Tom. "Levinas Unhinged." John Hunt Publishing. 28 Jun 2013. Print. 

A Comprehensive Demonstration of the Harms of Mass Surveillance

Composed by Logan Norris, Jeremy Hadfield, Sean Robinson, and Gabrielle Garner

For the International Public Policy Forum

On the topic Resolved: Mass surveillance is not a justified method of governmental intelligence gathering.

“The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door.” – G.K. Chesterton

Mass surveillance pervades every aspect of life in the digital age. The global surveillance network, codenamed ECHELON, has fifteen cooperating states and an extensive web of corporate ties and participating programs (Nabbali 2004). These ever-vigilant programs collect trillions of communications annually (Taylor 2014), can now monitor over 75% of the internet (Gorman 2013), and are expanding at a shockingly rapid pace (Von Drehle 2013). There are 30 million surveillance cameras deployed in the United States alone, shooting 4 billion hours of footage every week (Vlahos 2014). John Villesenor recognizes the significance of this: “We are crossing a threshold that has never been crossed in all of human history. It has become possible – even easy…to essentially document everything that has been said and done,” (Goodspeed 2012). Often, the damage that this surveillance creates is downplayed (Heller 2014). It is vital that society recognizes the long-term impacts and consequences of mass surveillance, from the collapse of people-ruled societies to the promotion of conformity, and that its claims at meager benefits are not sufficient to justify its use.

 

Framework and definitions:

Justified is defined as shown to be right or reasonable (Merriam Webster 2014). Three tenets that must be adhered to establish justification:

  1. Because mass surveillance is used on an international level, international laws, as represented by the International Covenant on Civil Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, must be adhered to.
  2. In accordance with the UN’s interpretation, mass surveillance can only be justified if it is proportionate and necessary. If mass surveillance is abused in most cases then it is not justified.
  3. A cost-benefit analysis, weighing harms and benefits against one another, will be used to determine justification. A cost-benefit analysis is the most useful way to measure the justification of an action (Kee 2014).

Mass Surveillance is defined as the pervasive surveillance of an entire or substantial fraction of a population. Surveillance is usually carried out by governments but may also be done by corporations at the behest of governments (U.S. Legal 2014). Mass surveillance can be accomplished through advanced technologies or through spying and police organizations (Cornelius 2004).

 

Mass surveillance increases state opacity and leads to oppression:

“[A] democratic system demands that government be transparent and accountable to the people, not the other way around.” – American Civil Liberties Union

There is not a single country in the world that has a fully transparent surveillance program (Greenwald 2014). With mass surveillance, governments make the affairs of their people completely translucent while they are bound by no standard of openness themselves. These omniscient overseers are free to conduct whatever sort of search that pleases them – unrestricted by the people and behind thorough bulwarks of secrecy.

Mass surveillance programs throughout the world have sacrificed their translucency to prevent national security secrets from entering the public domain. The NSA constructed a highly secretive court, in which “the hearings are closed to the public and the rulings of the judges are classified, and rarely released after the fact,” (O’Neill 2014). The link between mass surveillance and opacity is also evidenced by the increasing opacity of the United States government after the growth of NSA surveillance. In 2013, a record percentage of Freedom of Information Act requests for government files were denied (Bridis 2014). Almost all of the refusals originated from the Defense Department.

Countries such as the United States often hire private contractors to carry out their surveillance work. Currently, 70% of the NSA’s budget goes towards hiring private contractors (Cohen 2013). While the practice is profitable, it reduces transparency, as it is harder to track the work of the contractors and determine whether their work is justified (Thiessen 2013). The people have no oversight or power over these contractors (Goldman 2014).

When there is no oversight over or disclosure about mass surveillance, it’s impossible for the people to make an informed decision about or check the powers of surveillance programs. As James Madison wrote, “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both.” Unchecked government power leads to dangerous excess; power must be checked at every turn, the overwhelming evidence of history teaches us, or people will be abused. Countless regimes have perpetrated mass oppression and genocide because they were not checked by the people (Rummel 1993).

 

The abuse of systems of mass surveillance

Mass surveillance clearly breaks international law. A report given by the UN found that “the States engaging in mass surveillance have so far failed to provide…public justification for its necessity, and almost no States have enacted explicit domestic legislation to authorize its use” (Greenwald 2014).

Furthermore, the harms of a mass surveillance society outweigh the benefits, not just in America, but across the globe. Countries with endemic mass surveillance, such as China, North Korea, Iran, and East Germany give us a lucid view into the detrimental effects of mass surveillance.

In North Korea, citizens are under constant surveillance (France-Presse 2012). Authorities use an extensive network of informants that report individuals they suspect of subversive behavior (HRW 2014). North Korea uses this network to imprison anyone who practices free speech, political opposition, association, petition, or media representation (Winslow 2014). Mass surveillance has allowed North Korea to imprison over 200,000 in concentration camps with a 40% death rate (Amnesty International 2011). Instead of preventing terrorist attacks, mass surveillance turns governments themselves into terrorists that use technology to subjugate their citizens.

Iran has been christened one of the “State Enemies of the Internet” because of its drastic  measures of mass surveillance (Reporters Without Borders 2013). Using various digital forms of surveillance (Alimardani 2014), Iran gravely violates the freedom of information and multiple human rights (Reporters Without Borders 2013). Iran has used mass surveillance methods such as the wiretapping of phones and the monitoring of Internet activity against critics of the Iranian regime (Reuters 2012). Saleh Hamid was beaten with an iron bar by Iranian security agents who claimed that he was spreading propaganda against the regime, using Saleh’s own phone calls as evidence (Stecklow 2012). Anyone who is claimed to be a threat to the authoritarian government may be arrested and sent to Iran’s infamous Evin prison. Journalists, intellectuals, netizens and dissidents are held there for undisclosed amounts of time (Amnesty International 2014). Brutal conditions and horrendous interrogation procedures make Evin a “hell on earth” (Chiaramonte 2013).

China uses its mass surveillance, including over 30 million security cameras, to “crush its critics” (Langfit 2013). China has enacted legislation to secretly hold dissidents who challenge the Communist party (Buckley 2012). The regime used surveillance techniques to find activists and torture them for months in the name of ‘security’ (Lei 2012). For example, Ai Weiwei was held for three months and brutally beaten for speaking against the government (Foster 2014). China now monitors nearly every conversation to intimidate citizens into obedience (Langfit 2013). Chinese security agents can turn cellphones into listening devices, and Li Tiantian, a human rights lawyer in Shanghai, said that they eavesdropped on her conversations to track her movements and arrest her (Langfit 2013).

These despotic surveillance states are unnervingly similar to Western nations that are thought to be more exemplary. Documents reveal that UK and US surveillance agencies have manipulated online discourse in their favor with tactics of deception and repression, infiltrating activist groups with no conceivable connection to terrorism (Aevin 2014). They have targeted political candidates, activists, academics and lawyers (Aaron 2014). Muslim leaders who live exemplary lives have been subjecte

d to intense scrutiny (Greenwald 2014). This surveillance is used to coerce and oppress. For example, in 1963, the FBI sent a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., requiring him to commit suicide to prevent personal information that had been obtained through mass surveillance from being publicized (Corn 2013). Surveillance programs are also used for sheer voyeurism – one NSA employee spied on nine women for six years (Lewis 2013).

As it is used to abuse and silence entire populations, governmental intelligence gathering represents an implement of oppression rather than a benefit.

 

How surveillance breeds conformity

A substantial literature manifests that surveillance breeds conformity, silences dissent from state policies, inhibits creativity, and stifles intellectual freedom (Roche 2014; Tolstedt 1984). Using mass surveillance, governments have the power to see how long someone’s attention lingers on a webpage, how she expresses herself in communications, and what kinds of ideas she is being exposed to. This comprehensive data about our virtual persona means that intelligence agencies have an incredibly pellucid view of our minds, second, perhaps, to only ourselves.

One study (“Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor,” 2014) surveyed over 520 writers, and found that because of surveillance, 14% refrained from visiting controversial or suspicious websites, 27% expressed reluctance to write or speak about certain subjects, and 40% were averse to participating in social media. Another inquiry into the effects of surveillance on Internet search behavior revealed a significant decline in searches for sensitive terms after the NSA was publicized (Marthews and Tucker 2014).

These results demonstrate that without the option of privacy, individuals self-censor; they do not express dissenting views, voice opinions, or challenge the status quo. Thus, surveillance is more dangerous, if subtler, than censorship, the removal of an idea after it is expressed: it prevents ideas from ever being expressed. Free minds are key to free societies; anyone must be able to present their conception of the truth (Richards 2013), and surveillance places fetters on the mind, reinforcing compliance to the state and the imperative to act in obedience to norms (Greenwald 2012). This is illustrated by those societies that have fully invested in mass surveillance, such as North Korea, where individuals entirely conform to the government because of its all-seeing surveillance. As Edward Snowden remarked, “Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

The crippling psychological effects of a watched society are demonstrated by totalitarian nations. A watched society coincides more with a fear-instilling totalitarian regime stripped of rights than a free government. Such regimes have decreased life expectancies, economic growth, and stability. According to Harvard University, citizens in totalitarian regimes experience less individual liberty and political stability; chances of a finishing secondary school are 40% lower, infant mortality is 25% higher, and agricultural yields are 25% fewer. Totalitarian regimes are also more likely to exacerbate terrorism and end up in a perpetual cycle of violence and war (Siegle 2005).

 

Mass surveillance undermines societies

A variety of behaviors key for maintaining functioning societies, such as involvement, cooperation, and well-connected relationships, are undermined by mass surveillance. In post-WWII East Germany, the surveillance agency known as the Stasi established a society where every seventh individual was an informant (Koehler 1999). Here, a single informant was associated with a 10% decrease in organizational involvement (Jacob 2010). The surveillance also had a strong negative effect on social connectivity. In addition, the effects of surveillance remain today: there is a significant economic disparity between East and West Germany, as evidenced by unemployment rates: 13.5% in the East and only 7.2% in the West. This significant imbalance owes to the lingering deficiency in cooperation that is ultimately traced to the Stasi regime’s crushing surveillance (Jacob 2010).

Not only does surveillance damage relationships between individuals, it erodes trust between the state and the people, and between private companies and their customers. This is empirically supported by the explosion of distrust and mass protest that followed the release of the “Snowden files” in the United States (Osborne 2013).

Furthermore, surveillance’s eradication of trust has harmed the economy, especially technological companies. The cloud computing industry alone will lose $35 billion by 2016, and the total profits foregone due to surveillance will be almost $180 billion (Miller 2014). Draconian mass surveillance represses creativity and reduces productivity in workplaces, and both of these are key drivers of the economy (Ovsey 2014). Microsoft labels government snooping an “advanced persistent threat,” a term usually applied to malicious hackers. Experts in technology and the internet are deeply concerned that trust will deteriorate in the wake of mass surveillance (Anderson 2014). Surveillance has also weakened computer systems to gain access to their data, which has harmed the systems comprehensively to great effect on the economy (Holder 2014).

The U.S. has seen a growing controversy regarding its inability to separate systems of mass surveillance from independent legal matters. While many countries preach that mass surveillance is only used to thwart terrorist operations, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit and the FBI have admitted that nearly 250 arrests have been made with illegally obtained information, and that they were instructed to lie about its origin (Shiffman 2013). This highlights an example of constitutional abuse and slippery illegal activity that is not proportional or necessary, reminiscent to the despotic Stasi, which expanded into jobs meant for other sectors of the government, “in essence becoming a state within a state” (Knabe 2014). The NSA now has more than 55,000 employees (not including private contractors), as compared to the Stasi’s 91,000 (Groll 2013).

 

Mass surveillance is impotent and counterproductive:

The unprecedented and brutal rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria begs the question: why didn’t the almost completely unhindered surveillance programs of Western nations detect the growing militant movement? The mass gathering of metadata has so far yielded no noteworthy assistance in the effort against the Islamic State, even though it uses the Internet to communicate (Pye 2013). The answer is simple: mass surveillance is inept, and it is even harmful to national security and efforts against terrorism.

An inquiry by the Review Group of the U.S. Federal Government failed to find a single case in which metadata collection provided crucial information in a terrorism investigation (Richardson 2014). In addition, the New America Foundation investigated 54 commonly cited NSA ‘successes’, and found that the agency “played an identifiable role in initiating, at most, 1.8% of these cases” (Bergen et al 2014). NSA director Keith Alexander has admitted that there has been only one terrorist plot in which mass surveillance played a significant role (Brinkerhoff 2013). Government claims about the NSA’s success have repeatedly been shown to be false (Beauchamp 2014).

Private contractors hired by surveillance agencies are not supervised, and thus the national security secrets they manage are at extreme risk. If they release information, it can be exploited by foreign actors for malicious ends. Edward Snowden, who worked for a private contractor, released national security secrets that have been stolen by Russia and China and are now an enormous threat (Dreyfuss 2013).

Moreover, one of the central devices to the rhetoric of those who support mass surveillance is that it will prevent the horrors of terrorist attacks like 9/11 from ever happening again. However, the intensive accumulation of data would not have stopped these massacres, as they resulted from “a failure to connect the dots, not a failure to collect enough dots,” (Medine 2014). Hijacker Khalid al-Midhar’s phone calls to other conspirators were listened to, but intelligence agencies failed to recognize their significance, despite repeated opportunities (Elliot and Meyer 2014). In fact, the sheer amount of data collected by mass surveillance would probably result in the communications between hijackers being lost (Kopstein 2014).

In addition, mass surveillance is, in several ways, counterproductive. Surveillance programs often hack encrypted communications and install ‘back doors’ in internet programs (Sasso 2014). These back doors can be opened by cyberterrorists, allowing them to utilize the government’s methods to wreak catastrophe to the economy and national security of the nation in question. Inserting backdoors, sabotaging standards, and tapping commercial data centers provide malicious actors opportunities to exploit the resulting vulnerabilities (Schneier 2014). With the onset of backdoors created by the NSA, there has been a seventeen-fold increase in the amount of cyberterrorist attacks against the United States (Goldsmith 2013).

Counter-terrorism efforts have been paralyzed by mass surveillance. Knowing of surveillance programs, terrorists have changed their communication patterns to avoid them (Starr 2014). This causes them to “go dark” on surveillance radar, and makes security programs blind to defend against their attacks (Yost 2014).

Furthermore, the abrasion of trust caused by mass surveillance is damaging to counter-terrorist efforts. The recent monitoring of German chancellor Angela Merkel undermined the central pillar of diplomacy: trust (Jeffries 2013). Surveillance demonstrates to Europeans that the U.S. does not act in their interests, but only to further its own international power (Knigge 2013). A strong European-American alliance has been crucial to combating terrorism and working towards stability in the Middle East (Mauer and Möckli 2013). Damaging that alliance will allow terrorism to expand in this already-chaotic area. This is not only an issue of transatlantic diplomacy, however. The injury of trust that surveillance causes will harm relations between all states, leading to an increase in scuffles and perhaps even wars, and thwarting progress towards agreement and peace.

Furthermore, the strategy of mass surveillance is ineffective, as it means that insights are neglected and the amount of spurious correlations found multiplies (Guillart 2014). A small and highly contextual level allows for far more effective intelligence gathering, with fewer mistakes and more results (Friedersdorf 2014). Mass surveillance has had remarkably few successes despite, or perhaps because of, its immense pool of data.

 

Conclusion

The inherent nature, negative results, and dysfunctionality of mass surveillance render it a thoroughly unjustified method for governmental intelligence gathering. Mass surveillance requires an opaque and unchecked government that inevitably begins to abuse the rights of its people. It negatively affects the behaviors and relationships of individuals, states, and companies. It is and has been used by international governments to oppress their people. It leads to a collapse of trust and a subsequent fallout in international relations, obstructing the struggle for peace and against terrorism; bolsters conformity; and undermines economic relationships, leading to a decline in overall affluence. Finally, mass surveillance is an impotent and counterproductive strategy of intelligence gathering.

 

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The Incompatibility of Kantianism and Christianity

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

— Matthew 5:48

I’m about to argue that one cannot be a Christian and a Kantian at the same time. Before I do that, we’ll need some definitions: First, as deontology, or duty-based ethics, is a broad field, I’ll limit it to Kantian deontology, as set forth in the Metaphysics of Morals. Second, Christianity will be defined as belief in Yawheh; the deific nature, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus; and a general belief in the truth of the Old and New Testaments. Now on to the argument.


Summary 

1. The Christian God does not act immorally; he is morally perfect.

2. The morally perfect Christian God performed the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

3. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is immoral under a Kantian framework.

4. Thus, Christians may not be Kantians and maintain rational consistency.


Premise one: The Christian God does not act immorally.

As shown in the opening quote, the Bible frequently repeats that God is perfect, and it supplicates God’s followers to strive to be perfect like him (Deuteronomy 18:13 is another good example, though it is ironic, considering the atrocities committed by God in that same book). Furthermore, moral perfection is one of the defining aspects of the concept of God; if God is not morally perfect, then why call him God? Why not just an advanced human? An omniscient being would necessarily know all things, including the nature of morality, and an omnibenevolent being would necessarily follow the nature of morality.


Premise two: The morally perfect Christian God performed the Atonement of Jesus Christ. 

This is not very controversial, though it gets slightly strange if you are trinitarian, considering the whole ‘God sacrificing himself and then praying to himself on the cross’ deal. The only controversy may arise around how exactly God went around performing it; was it God who did it, or was it Jesus for the sake of God, or was it Jesus’ singular choice? And how much choice, exactly, did Jesus have? He was most certainly Christ's atonementcoerced, after all, by the fact that everyone’s souls would be set on fire if he didn’t atone for them. Like the coward that I am, I’ll avoid these questions by simply saying that God caused the Atonement to happen by integrating it into his plan. Again, there is the question of how much choice God had in creating the plan, but regardless, he created the plan, and that inevitably led to the Atonement.


Premise three: The Atonement of Jesus Christ is deontologically immoral. 

It is quite clear that Kantian deontology would rule the Atonement immoral. The Atonement distinctly violates the primary principle of Kantianism: we should never act in such a way that we treat others as a mere means to an end. It is using Christ as a mere means to an end, primarily as an instrument for the benefit of the vast majority. I do not mean ‘mere’ as a derogatory term, but rather as a philosophical condition: mere as in ‘little more than as specified.’ The Atonement, after all, was not a mere act, but a pivotal point in Christian theology.  However, it is almost universally recognized that Christ was never an end, but that he was always a means. After all, he was called the Lamb for a reason: he was a sacrifice for the sake of others. He offered all of his glory unto his father. This is the type of ‘sacrifice of the minority for the majority’ situation that Kantians condemn. Christ went through horrific tortures, suffering  the pain of literally everyone, so that the sins of humanity could be erased. This is permissible under a teleological moral framework, where the means can be justified by its ends, but abhorrent under a deontological, and especially Kantian, moral framework.


Conclusion: Christians may not be Kantians and maintain rational consistency. 

One who believes in a morally perfect God must also model his/her morality around this God. Any action that this God performs is necessarily good, and so mortals cannot deny the morality of the action and must, instead, agree with it. It would be irrational and contradictory to say that a morally perfect God did something immoral. If the Atonement is immoral under a Kantian framework, then either God is morally imperfect, the Kantian framework is false, or God does not exist. Only one of these options allows one to retain their status as a Christian, which I defined as one who believes in a morally perfect God, among other things. The other option is to believe that Kantianism is false.


Possible criticisms 

1. God and humans have different moral standards. It is justified for God to kill, but it is not justified for humans to do so. It is justified for God to bystand in the face of suffering, but it is not justified for humans to do so. Thus, we do not have to base our morality on God’s.

2. Kant’s morality is only for autonomous wills (Stanford), and God did not have any choice in the Atonement. It was a necessary aspect of the universe. Thus, he was not an autonomous will, and he was not making the sort of act that Kantianism applies to.


References

Deuteronomy 18:13 – Thou shalt be perfect with the Lord thy God.

Kant’s Moral Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published in 2004; substantive revision in 2008.

Synaptic Pruning

This is a short informative essay I  wrote for the final project of the Neurobiology course from the University of Michigan. 

Synaptic pruning, or synaptic elimination, is an essential aspect of the development of the brain. It is when the brain destroys itself, removing unwanted synapses, neurons or neuronal configurations to increase efficiency of connections. The process and timing of  pruning is thought to be significantly changed by the experiences, genes, and even the thoughts of the developing mind.

During early childhood, there is a huge proliferation of connections between neurons, usually peaking around the age of two. The adolescent brain then cuts down the amount of connections, deciding which ones should be kept and which can be let go. While there are various theories as to the molecular mechanisms by which pruning actually occurs, most agree that pruning is primarily carried out by a very motile form of glial cell, called microglia [1], which is the first part of the nervous system that is active during synaptic pruning. These microglia are thought to remove cellular debris during the healing process of an injured brain, but in the healthy, developing brain they have a possibly more important function. If a synapse receives little activity, it is weakened and eventually deleted by microglia and other glial cells. After the synapse has been removed, the space and resources that it once used are taken by other synapses, which are thensynapsesgraph strengthened.These processes [2] and various others take place throughout development, peaking at adolescence and ending around the age of 21, and transform the brain to create more complex and efficient neuronal configurations.

Various factors can affect the methods, timing, and results of synaptic pruning. Comprehensive research [3] has shown that mutations in genes lead to abnormalities in the pruning process that lead to unwanted connections remaining active or important connections being pruned out, impairing the brain permanently.  Some neuroscientists have made educated guesses as to the nature of these mutations, and there has been relative consensus that microglia, being part of the immune system, remove the synapses because they appear to be either unnecessary, damaged, or a foreign object. This abnormal synaptic pruning could be a significant source of the symptoms of schizophrenia [3]. Pruning is also highly dependent on experience. Neural plasticity reaches its peak during childhood and before synaptic pruning begins. Thus, if a child begins to learn a language or any other complex function before synaptic pruning, that function will be deemed important and the neural connections pertaining to it will be kept and strengthened [4]. This gives new meaning to the saying “use it or lose it.” Experiences during and before synaptic pruning are perhaps some of the most important in development, because they directly affect brain function for the rest of the subject’s life. It is thought that connections deleted during pruning cannot be regained. “The fact that there are more connections [in a child’s brain] allows things to be moved around,” said physiologist Ian Campbell from the University of California, Davis. “After adolescence, that alternate route is no longer available. You lose the ability to recover from a brain injury, or the ability to learn a language without an accent. But you gain adult cognitive powers.” [5]. Your actions during pruning affect which circuits remain in existence and which do not.

It is not fully known what the function of synaptic pruning is, while the general explanation of “pruning removes unnecessary connections” is the most widely accepted and well-researched. It remains unknown whether connections removed during pruning can ever be regained. Pruning is often thought to represent learning, but this is almost certainly an oversimplified explanation for a very complex cluster of processes. Synaptic elimination may also be a method utilized by the brain to adapt to the most efficient form of thinking in its specific environment [6].

There are a wide variety of very interesting questions that deal with synaptic pruning. One that has intrigued me specifically is whether children and adolescents who have not fully undergone synaptic pruning are more creative than adults. It seems that large amount of synapses leads to more overall thought, and thus we can infer that before pruning, the brain is more sidetracked and inefficient. If distraction aids creativity, as a considerable amount of research shows, then that would mean that the more distracted, pre-pruning mind is more creative than the post-pruning mind. Some researchers believe that synaptic pruning is determined somewhat by the culture and society in which the child is raised. This would mean that after pruning, an adult in one society no longer has the same neuronal connections as an adult in a different society – those connections have been trimmed out. Is this an underlying cause of culture shock and/or genocide? Is the developing mind more open to change and new connections then the “narrow,” developed mind? Until the scientific community has a greater understanding of synaptic pruning, these questions will remain unanswered.

Synaptic pruning remains only barely understood by scientists, and the research already conducted has shown that it is far more complicated than previously thought. It is a critical part of neurobiological development that has tremendous consequences on the fully developed adult.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

[1] “The Role of Microglia in the Healthy Brain,” Marie-Éve Tremblay et al; Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1/3/2014

http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/45/16064.full.pdf

[2] “Synaptic Pruning in Early Development,” St. Olaf University Department of Neuroscience. http://www.stolaf.edu/depts/ciswp/buff/Documents/synapticpruning.pdf

[3] “Abnormal Synaptic Pruning in Schizophrenia: Urban myth or reality?,” Patricia Boksa, PhD; March 2012, US National Library of Medicine. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3297065

[4] “Brain Development and the Role of Experience in the Early Years,” Adrienne Tierney and Charles A. Nelson et al; Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital of Boston, 3/6/2009. http://main.zerotothree.org/site/DocServer/30-2_Tierney.pdf?docID=10001

[5] “Teen Brains Clear Out Childhood Thoughts,” Clara Moskowitz, LiveScience Magazine, March http://www.livescience.com/3435-teen-brains-clear-childhood-thoughts.html

[6] “Pruning Synapses Improves  Brain Connections,” Ed Yong; 2/2/2013, The Scientist http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39055/title/Pruning-Synapses-Improves-Brain-Connections/

SIDENOTE

A thought-provoking interview of Jeff Lichtman and Juan Carlos Tapia, professors at Harvard University who conducted some experiments on synaptic elimination.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5y2HyD-wH0