Six weeks of weights

I spent two and a half years away from lifting weights, at first because of Covid, and then later because money and time were not as abundant as I would have liked. When I went back to university this year though, I had access to a gym with weights, and I was excited to get back at it as soon as I could.

Two things surprised me. One was how long I felt sore. I seem to remember that the first time I started lifting weights, in my late twenties, I felt muscle soreness for a few weeks and then it basically went away and never came back. This time around, in my mid thirties, the muscle pain stuck around almost twice as long. Is my body really that much older? There are lots of factors other than age that might also have some role in this.

The other thing that surprised me was how quickly there was a visible difference. After six weeks, shirts looked better on me, and I wasn’t the only person who could see it.

Not saying I looked like a movie star or anything. But six weeks of lifting weights, probably an average of three or four times a week, was enough to produce a noticeable change. And that’s the case even though I’m currently focused on eating more for health than eating to put on muscle (e.g., I’m not counting grams of protein or paying attention to when my protein is consumed relative to the timing of a workout).

I do mainly the big “compound” lifts, I think they’re called, such as weighted squats, deadlifts, bench press; and I lift a bit on the heavier side (mostly in the 4-6 rep range). I vaguely follow the recommendations of that man with two first names — Michael Matthews, I think, or perhaps it’s Matthew Michaels. I disagree with some of his opinions about the world, but he seems to give good advice about weightlifting, from what I’ve been able to tell so far.

I think I should be able to keep this schedule for twelve months from start to finish, at which point I’ll need to take a look at my timetable and my responsibilities and see what I will do next. It will be interesting to see how far I can get in those twelve months.

But I can’t help being amazed that six weeks of pretty minimal effort was enough to bring about visible change. It can be annoying to pay for a gym membership, and tricky to fit it into a full weekly schedule, but once you’re there, it’s really not rocket science to get good results out of it.

Conspiratorial demoniacs

If you believe the traditional Christian teaching that there are demons in the world, then you’ll probably think there are demons pestering people all over the place, tempting people of all different walks of life according to each person’s unique weaknesses.

But if there are demons anywhere, it seems to me, there are demons tormenting the angry, resolute conspiracy theorists.

I heard a podcast the other week that shared some of the voice messages that were left with politicians around the time of the so-called freedom convoy last year.

The ranting, the swearing, the threats, the accusations, the vileness, the imagery … it truly sounded like something out of a horror movie. That has nothing to do with “freedom”; they are people in chains of a terrible sort.

Many of these people are themselves no doubt sincere believers of a traditional sort. They would, no doubt, be horrified by the suggestion I’m making.

But for my part, now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think I’ll be able to unsee it.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time, these past few years, thinking of conspiracy theories as things with logical problems or revealing psychological or intellectual shortcomings. And those are important to perceive and to think through. But conspiracy theories are also something often indistinguishable from the diabolical, and it seems to me, that’s important to remember as well.

Conspiracy theorists, in all sincerity: beware. Be careful what you believe. Be careful what you amplify.

Virtue consequentialism as deontology?

If utilitarianism took as its end, not pleasure, or even happiness exactly, but virtue, then I would be much more inclined to it.

If the moral rule were that we should do everything we can to increase the amount of virtue in ourselves and in those around us, then I think that would be an amazing approach to morality.

And it would seem to be entirely compatible with deontological approaches to ethics. Could there be a way of increasing virtue for self or others that involved acting immorally? It is hard to imagine such a situation. That’s not to say that the two are exactly the same thing, only that they perhaps overlap so much that they would look practically the same.

The weakness of this proposal might be the danger of circularity. If a virtuous person is one who acts to increase virtue in the world, then it may seem as if the word virtue ceases to be meaningful.

That would be bad. So the virtue, for which our virtue consequentialism aims, must mean more than simply the habit of acting according to virtue consequentialism. The virtue found at the heart of virtue consequentialism is richer than virtue consequentialism, more comprehensive.

What is this virtue to which virtue consequentialism would point? Let me take a stab at it. I think it would be excellence in human competencies (relative to the capability of a given person), starting with the most basic and moving on from there.

Virtue would mean a high social competence, high intellectual competence, high athletic competence, high competence in dealing with one’s emotions and desires. It would mean competence in the range of skills necessary for living a normal human life. And it would mean competence in other capacities progressively less basic and progressively more oriented to making their possessor invincibly virtuous and beneficial to one’s community.

Is it dangerous to think you know the truth or know the good?

Conspiracy theorists think that one of the greatest tragedies of the normie is that we all feel so sure that we know what the truth is, and know how to tell right from wrong.

Non-believers in conspiracy theories have a blithe, thoughtless certainty that the world is the way we think it is, and that people who want to tear down the established order are in the wrong. The world would be so much better, thinks the conspiracy theorist, if all those people could live with a bit of doubt, could question those omnipresent assumptions for even just a second.

“We’re the good guys,” says the non-conspiracy theorist, and blinks thereby. The conspiracy theorist balks at this naive self-righteousness.

The thing is, though, that there’s nothing wrong with it. Here’s why: There’s nothing wrong with believing that truth is knowable, or that justice can be known and practiced. There’s also nothing wrong with trying to know the knowable truth, or to understand and act with justice.

I get it. We might be wrong. Our reasons for thinking we’re right might be bad reasons. But the answer isn’t to stop trying to believe truth and act well; we should keep on looking to recognize our flaws and improve on them, calibrate our convictions and bring them closer and closer to truth as we’re able.

If everyone lived as though truth were unknowable, or justice impossible from top to bottom, then that would be a much worse world. That would be a world of people believing whatever they want to believe without a care for truth, acting however they like to act without a thought for virtue, without concern for whom they might be harming.

Perhaps it would be somewhat similar, come to think of it, to what a world full of conspiracy theorists would look like.

Philosophy a menace?

I love philosophy. But I do wonder if there should be more of an effort to keep it out of the hands of those who cannot handle it.

The thing about philosophy is that it teaches you to question and doubt, to search for high quality evidence and to suspend judgement on things established by more fallacious arguments. You’d think that is a good thing, and you’d be partly right.

What gets called philosophy, however, is far more frequently misused than used well.

We can apply the tools of philosophy inconsistently, and usually that’s exactly what we do. I’m not just saying that it’s hard to apply philosophical thinking with anything approaching perfect consistently; I’m saying that mostly, we don’t even pretend to try to do so.

Let’s think of a young, religious person. She gets introduced to philosophy in a context that emphasizes the fallacies of those who claim that atheism or dogmatic agnosticism is the best view. That is entirely appropriate! But she isn’t thinking like a philosopher; she is using philosophical tools to believe what she already wanted to believe, which is the furthest thing from genuine philosophy, and deep down she probably has some awareness of that problem.

Imagine that instead she learns about philosophy in a setting that emphasizes the many fallacies employed by the defenders of religion, and the apparent lack of non-fallacious reasons to accept a religion’s claims as true. Also a legitimate way of doing things. After much turmoil, she emerges on the other side of the experience having abandoned her childish faith and confidently embraced a world without gods or spirits. She is just as one-sided and unphilosophical in where she’s ended up as the girl of the first scenario, but with one major difference that leaves her even worse off: unlike the other girl, she has no bad conscience, has no hint of awareness that she is entirely partisan and dogmatic in her approach to philosophical thinking. Her memory of having changed her beliefs, very quickly and in spite of internal and external pressures, has convinced her that she is a courageous person who has found and seized upon the truth.

I think many of us could agree that what people think about religion has a large influence on the direction of society in the long term. Still, it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference to a political community in the shorter term, apart, perhaps, from a measure of social awkwardness in some situations.

But I think of the people I know who were Covid deniers and anti maskers, anti vaxxers, etc., in no small part because they had just enough philosophy to make them considerably less smart than they probably would have been otherwise. As one acquaintance of mine quipped, these folks will accept any anecdote from any stranger on the internet as gospel truth, will embrace any terrible piece of reasoning as long as it supports what they want to believe, but as soon as large groups of knowledgeable scientists start giving evidence and explanations and recommendations, they “become Socrates,” by which he meant that they begin to raise the standard of evidence so ludicrously high that no one could ever satisfy it. Thus they get to believe whatever they want to, and can simultaneously feel good about themselves for being so much more philosophical and shrewd than all those sheep who follow the siren song of those who have knowledge.

In an emergency situation, people with a bit of philosophy can be much worse off than people with none at all. I don’t know what we do about that, but I think it’s important to remember.

Judging past eras by contemporary standards

Let’s imagine two groups of people, one on the left and the other on the right. The group on the left tends to say that everyone (except for the group on the right) should be judged by their own standards, that we shouldn’t impose our own views of right and wrong on others; and the group on the right tends to say that everyone should be held to the same moral standard no matter where they come from, that some things are just wrong no matter what sort of demographic does them.

One of these groups looks at the past and says, those people were barbaric, they were deluded, they were evil, they were selfish liars, they were stupid and cruel and superstitious. The other group says in reply, look, why are you judging them based on our contemporary moral framework? In this situation, though, all of a sudden it is the left who are fundamentalists and the right who are relativists.

How does this happen? How is it that again and again, the people on the right, who supposedly believe in transcendent and timeless moral realities, instinctively reach for the argument that one group of people ought never to judge another group by any standards except the ones that are inherent to that group?

The motivation is obvious. The right feels some loyalty to the people of the past in a way that the left does not, and so the right is stung when the left takes delight in passing haughty judgement against those who have no power to defend themselves. The person of the right is desperate in that moment for any simple argument that will shut up and shame the other side. Why does the right suddenly change its tune only here? It’s because it is highly motivated to do so.

There are a couple obvious justifications that work pretty well to excuse the right for changing tactics in this way. One might be that the right is just turning the tables on the left, saying, look, even if we work from your own premises, which we don’t necessarily share, we can prove you wrong. This is a common debating strategy, and if successfully pulled off it can be devastating in its simplicity and forcefulness. No doubt that’s part of what’s happening.

We don’t need to stop at that, though. There’s even a way for the right to say that they are being true to their own convictions, and not only borrowing the left’s beliefs in order to make a point. Even if there is indeed a universal moral code that everyone should be judged by, we can’t judge everyone equally by that code but do have to make allowances for context. Ignorance of the moral code matters, and constraints based on need or fear also factor in. The person who grew up in a family of thieves, in which stealing was praised, and who later during a tough time took something without paying, is far less blameworthy than an hypothetical wealthy person who was brought up to recognize the importance of property rights and who takes the same item for the sake of a laugh. On these grounds, we could say that past societies, which were poorer, should be given extra leeway in our moral judgements upon them; their ignorance of what we now know of morality (either because less was known at that time, or because the structure of society meant that fewer people could learn even that which was known) is even more of a reason to avoid judging them too harshly.

Still, the right needs to be more self-aware about the fact that in this sort of scenario, they have not accomplished as much as they seem to think they have. Even if we shouldn’t blame the past so harshly because of their limitations, we still can and should say that what they did was wrong, if it was. Even if you’ve shown that the left can’t consistently blame the past as it does, you have by no means shown that the past can’t be blamed on the basis of your own starting point, which is what should really matter to you. The only way to refute the left successfully and completely, if that’s indeed what a person wants to do on this matter, would be to show why, from universal and timeless moral principles, the things done by the people of the past were not wrong. This doesn’t have to be accomplished every time you’re challenged, but it does need to happen at least sometime.

In certain instances, such effort might be really worthwhile and instructive, even if your conversation partners won’t in the final accounting give your arguments a fair shake. (That’s their problem, not yours.) Much of the time, though, it would probably be best for the right just to focus on enumerating the evils that were indeed done and admitting their agreement with the left. It’s far too easy to be overly zealous in defending the honour of past ages.

The ideology of truth?

The ideological right, in its various stripes, likes to tell itself that whereas the left sees the world as we wish it could be, the right sees the world as it really is. This is the spirit behind the infamous “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

The claim isn’t entirely preposterous. Libertarians, conservatives, and militarists of the right do all see true things that the opposite end of the ideological spectrum tries to downplay, politely ignore, or explain away.

That’s not to say that truth is the exclusive property of the right. Certainly not! There’s a joke that truth always seems to have a left-leaning bias (eg on climate change), and there are many examples that support this.

However, there is still a certain steely-eyed realism to be found in the mindset of the right. In places where the left might say, accept yourself as you are and if the world doesn’t like you that’s the world’s problem, the right is far more likely to say, it will take hard work but you can change yourself in order to succeed and thrive in the world we live in. This is not always a helpful position, but it very often can be.

For a set of ideological positions that prides itself on its realism and acceptance of the truth, the right has done a lot to champion a strange relativism.

The right of late frequently appears incapable of imagining, say, news reporters, or scientists, who are motivated by any desire for truth. Everything is pure information warfare. Everything is propaganda.

Much of the right doesn’t even try to claim that its news sources are in any way unbiased or oriented to truth. You’d think this might bother them, but the simple justification is that all news is presented ideologically and if you don’t read right-wing news then you’re going to get left-wing news, and at least right wing news is honest about its bias.

The right, with all its pride in its realism and blunt honesty, is actively working to reduce everyone to life in a world without truth, a world of inescapable perspectivalism. By producing and promoting sources of information that do not aim at dispassionate investigation of truth, as if it were the highest we can hope for, they are contributing to the situation of nihilism in which we increasingly find ourselves. If we think that’s okay or appropriate or praiseworthy, then we are already the victims of such efforts, if not perpetrators as well.

Freedom and petulance

Freedom is a good thing. Petulance is a bad thing.

That can be confusing. Petulance can look like a love of freedom, if you aren’t thinking very carefully.

Petulance is defiance for the sake of defiance. It is fighting against a rule merely because it is a rule, with no thought of whether it might be a good rule that’s worth following.

This looks like a love of freedom only if freedom is severely misunderstood.

Freedom isn’t the absence of rules. Freedom isn’t the ability to do whatever you want — at least, not the good freedom, the desirable freedom, the freedom that is beneficial rather than destructive of individuals and societies.

Freedom is the ability to do the things that are good. Laws that stop you from doing things that are not good are, all else being equal, good laws that don’t actually infringe on your freedom.

Don’t be petulant. It is bad for you and bad for all around you.

Be free.

Technocracy is interesting

I’ve never met someone who claims to be in favour of technocratic governance. It seems like the only time the word “technocratic” is used, is when it’s used as a pejorative.

But every time I’ve heard someone criticize something as technocratic, I feel like it’s been something I could get behind. It’s always a criticism of letting a knowledgeable group of people make decisions about what they’re knowledgeable about. I for one feel like we could do with a bit more of that.

The accusation “technocratic” seems to be reached for by people on the left and right (and centre) alike. It seems as though the alternative to technocracy is seen to be greater freedom or a more thoroughly democratic society. I certainly see the appeal of that, and perhaps the corresponding danger of a more technocratic approach, but it does seem to me that it’s worthwhile not to jump to conclusions. I have an instinct telling me it could be valuable to withhold judgement for a moment to wonder whether there is something important here to see.

The example that immediately comes to mind for me here is central banks. (I’m sure that I am just rehashing old debates that have already been thought through at higher levels than I can manage, but for now this is the level of my ruminations.) Central banks were at one time more directly answerable to democratically elected politicians, with devastating consequences. It was once central banks were somewhat sealed off from the sort of democratic accountability they were previously subject to, and instead put under the control of experts with the relevant expertise, that economies came to be largely spared from the instabilities of the earlier time.

There is absolutely a place for rights and freedoms and for democratic control, and whatever that place is, we must never diminish it or threaten it. However, that doesn’t mean that every area should be directly under the power of the market or of democratically elected representatives. It seems highly likely to me that there are probably many areas where we would be better off if we were to turn much of the power currently under democratic accountability over to the relevant experts.

I realize there are risks, and arguments against what I’m saying. I don’t think everything should be turned over to experts. We need to proceed on a case by case basis, and in many instances it would no doubt be clear that the benefits of trusting experts would be outweighed by attendant disadvantages. But clearly, in some instances there is great value in insulating the knowledgeable against the caprices of the many; it seems that it would be thoroughly worthwhile to seek out such opportunities and make the most of them.

When it comes down to it, I’m a Platonist. I think that the people with knowledge will ideally make the decisions, and that the most knowledgeable people will be recognized and chosen by the knowledgeable community, not by those of us who are lacking in knowledge. We want to have the sailors choosing a captain for the ship, not the ignorant passengers. My prejudice is somewhat on the side of technocracy — not absolutely, but at least as a general rule.

Thinking against the Christian revaluation

Christian theology turns everything upside down. Honour is bad and humiliation is good. Wealth is corrosive and poverty is ennobling. Pleasure is harmful and pain is purifying. Strength is useless and weakness is powerful.

I grew up in a Christian community of strong faith and strong biblical literacy. I learned the upside-down world almost before I ever saw the right-side-up world.

My situation is unique in one sense, but in another sense it is similar to the situation of all of us who live in a world that has historically been deeply shaped by Christian thought. We remain often suspicious of beauty and strength and wealth and power and pleasure and pride, in ways that would have seemed bizarre to someone from before the biblical religions, even if we can’t always explain why we feel so.

I don’t think that Christian faith is bad for turning everything upside down. Certainly that’s one of the most wondrous things about it.

But as I entered adulthood I began to question whether the world should be simply inverted, whether even Christian theology itself should call for such.

It seems to me that the best thing is to be firmly rooted in the normal orientation of the world, let us call it the pre-Christian or pagan orientation, and at the same time enchanted by the Christian message. We could think of the Christian monarch as symbolizing this option. Second best is to be fully absorbed in the normal orientation of the world, perhaps like a king Saul or a king David. Third best is to live fully in the inverted world, as a monk or an anchorite. But worst is to try and blend the different orientations. That leaves a person disoriented, rootless, continually confused.

I think it’s an important effort of imagination that we have to make today, to try and see the world entirely apart from the lens of Christian theology. Most of us couldn’t imagine what that would entail or why it might be needful. Even those of us who might attempt it are likely to view it as some strange intellectual exercise, like trying to imagine a landscape where all the leaves are purple instead of green. But it’s so much more than that.

The way people used to see the world, the obvious way to see the world, is the default, and it’s probably the closest to correct from a human standpoint. Without that as a starting point nothing makes sense, including the fearsome claims of Christian revelation. It’s hard, and a little uncomfortable, but I think we really ought to try to learn to abstract away from our Christian heritage in a sincere and sympathetic way. It is the only honest place to start our thinking.