Banter M Issue 61

In this issue of Banter M: 

Donald Trump’s Republican Centipede Economic Plan - The GOP candidate’s economic plan is an unholy monster that attempts to graft corporatist economics onto populism, writes Lenny DeFranco. But Trump failed to reconcile what are two essentially irreconcilable ideologies. 

Drinking the Trump Sand - Donald Trump is the sand and his people are "shoving fistfuls of it into their gaping maws," argues Bob Cesca. Why? Because they don't know the difference between Trump and an actual presidential-level statesman.  

The Journey of a Quarter-Million Marlboro Miles - In an epic tale of his struggle Tommy Christopher remembers his first cigarette, and hopefully his last.

The Limits of Science - Is western science the only way to determine reality, or is it just a method limited by the subjectivity of its practitioners? Ben Cohen engages in an incredibly interesting debate with an arch atheist and a committed agnostic to determine whether we really do know a lot,  or are actually living in the Matrix and haven't got the faintest idea what is going on. 

Trump centipede.jpg

Donald Trump’s Republican Centipede Economic Plan

by Lenny DeFranco

On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump introduced his economic plan at an event in which he read off a teleprompter, used an admirable battery of facts, and even withheld death threats against protesters. For his efforts, Trump was able to look startlingly like a politician up there. He’s not a natural reader of text, but he’s an enthusiastic presence. That’s better than most politicians can say.

He’s starting to wield the fluency of a guy who’s getting in some serious practice time at the podium. This is bad, people. What if he follows through on his promise to act more presidential? What if he starts delivering more written speeches? The last thing we need is for Trump to successfully add some ‘aforethought’ to the malice he embodies. Can somebody get a Muslim family to pick a fight with him again?

Wait never mind, he just threatened Hillary Clinton with assassination. We’re good.

At any rate, his fight with Republicans might be coming to an end. The economic vision Trump laid out on Monday, as predicted, contained an overture to the establishment corporatism he’s spurned thus far. But that message was presented in a strange way: grafted onto the totally antithetical rabble-rousing of protectionism. Trump’s speech tried to reconcile two essentially irreconcilable ideologies.

He had to try. It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s ascent is taking place in the middle of a years-long war for the soul of the Republican Party. Until now, Republican populists and Republican elites were defined by their opposition to one another, not their synthesis. What’s different now is that Trump has clout. He’s not a Tea Partier quite — they almost don’t need a Tea Party anymore, with guys like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio now considered mainstream — but he’s carried the movement’s ideals further than any of those guys have been able. Restive populism was always at loggerheads with the GOP’s corporatist apparatus, but in the specter of Nominee Trump, both sides have an emergency reason to strike an uneasy peace.

The result is a Republican Centipede, where pieces of traditional Reagan-worship affix to the ass end of Trumpism’s hatred of polished talking heads. It’s the sight of American machismo demanding a frightened retreat to safety; Of economic populists undersigning a tax regime that benefits elites; Of concern shifted from big government to the wasted opportunity of misdirected statism. These are radically different political priorities emerging from very distinct worldviews. And yet, they’re sharing the same ticket.

Many have attacked Trump’s economic plan — and really, his stab at normalcy — on grounds that could just as easily point out the flaws in Paul Ryan’s budget. What’s more interesting is to examine the internal illogic of Trump’s unholy creation. His Republican Centipede joins these incompatible stances into one monstrosity:

Embracing capitalism, which doesn’t work.

Trump’s platform both subscribes to and doubts one of the most fundamental concepts in capitalism: the ability of commerce to grow the economy. On one hand, Trump implies that the free flow of capital will result in more prosperity. That’s why he wants to cut taxes. At the same time, his most vocal pronouncements on trade portray a zero-sum game where one party’s deficit is the counterparty’s profit. Capitalist doctrine holds that sharing the pie, grows the pie.

Trump disagrees. He stands athwart marketist concepts like comparative advantage. He doesn’t care about well-studied problems like trade diversion. He reviles international apparatuses that lubricate the gears of complex relationships. Essentially, Trump is staging a protest against the wisdom of capitalist theory. Great — except his economic plan is built around assumptions that come straight out of capitalist theory. It’s almost as if he’s telling the working class what it wants and falling back on boilerplate Republicanism when it’s time to actually generate policy. Janus!!

Cutting taxes so as to increase public spending.

Trump says “we will open a new chapter in American prosperity. We can use this new wealth to rebuild our military and our infrastructure.” This rebuilding project will not be small, based on how dire he portrays the state of both.

Now, I assume this is the same military and public works infrastructure that the government pays for. So his proposal is to increase wealth for the purpose of funneling it into public spending. That’s to the left of most Democrats. Finding a reasonable idea in Trump’s platform is like Walt and Jesse realizing a fly has infiltrated the meth lab.

Ending corporate taxes while still capturing corporate wealth.

One sentence: “All of our policies should be geared towards keeping jobs and wealth inside of the United States.” Next sentence: “Under my plan, no American company will pay more than 15% of their business income in taxes.”

How does this follow? The reason jobs get sent overseas is because companies seek cheap foreign labor, not because they attempt to skirt corporate tax laws. (They’re experts at that already.) Tax inversions do cost American jobs, but offshoring costs way more — especially jobs of the variety that Trump promises to return. So if companies are sending their earnings abroad for cheap labor, and if “all our policies are geared towards” keeping wealth inside country, what lever besides taxes could Trump pull to entrap all that wealth? I suppose we could bring back child labor.

Tyrannically ending executive overreach.

Conservatism has its roots in classical liberalism, which was a robust ideology dedicated to personal freedom through a limitation of government power. Trumpism has its roots in casino management and New York real estate, which are shady-ass worlds run by strongmen.

When he says “I will immediately cancel all illegal and overreaching executive orders,” that’s classical liberalism talking. When he says he’s going to unilaterally withdraw from existing trade agreements, or build a wall along the Mexican border, or capriciously violate treaty obligations, that’s Joe Pesci talking. (They don’t get along.)

Inveighing against regulation that accomplished his stated goals.

“Regulation” isn’t just Uncle Sam telling a business they can’t do something. It’s a large, patchwork concept that refers to the influence of policy on a given sector. A lot of regulatory policy is there to promote desired economic activity, not restrict it. Traditional conservatives dislike this type of regulation as much as taxation; “government picking winners and losers” is the idiom.

But Trump is not a traditional conservative. He is a demagogue who prioritizes jobs above all else. So when he tries to act as though regulation killed jobs in Detroit, he’s exactly wrong by his own standards. “I will have one overriding goal when it comes to regulation: I want jobs and I want wealth to stay in America. Motor vehicle manufacturing is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country,” he said. He could scarcely have picked a worse example.

The auto industry’s woes were functions of natural market forces. Their salvation was an act of regulation. The 2009 auto bailout — begun under Bush — saved probably a million American auto manufacturing jobs. Standing at the Detroit Economic Club podium, Trump looked out on a crowd that was enormously better off for the Obama administration having stuck with an unpopular program than they would have been had he done less “regulating.” Real conservatives don’t care about this; in their free market fundamentalism, any intervention is bad. To Trump, though, the bailout achieved exactly the kind of outcome his constituency prioritizes.

The candidate of yesterday gets derided by the candidate from distant history.

One of the most impactful passages of Trump’s speech was a line that is going to resonate with many voters: the idea that Hillary is “a nominee from yesterday.” But what does that make Trump? Don’t let his current momentum fool you; he is a throwback fad like any other. Big sunglasses, high-waisted pants, and vinyl records have all come, gone, and come back again as slight novelties. The worldview that Trump pronounces followed the same schedule, except it didn’t so much fade out as it was eradicated by modernity. Now, he’s back as a knockoff novelty too.

It’s not just the American-tribal tones of his campaign. It’s the economic vision he promotes. Manufacturing! Trade surpluses! Prosperity from building a literal fucking wall! These ideas hearken back, respectively, to 1950s America; fifteenth-century mercantilist Spain; and 700 BC China. Hillary is certainly a 90s throwback, but Trump is a stack of fossils that have had a lot of work done.

None of these inconsistencies inside the Republican Centipede even touch the void of rationality some of its proposals contain. But Paul Ryan’s budget math never adds up either. Trump’s economic plan is unique because it bears the scars of corporatism hurriedly sutured onto populism. The differences might be possible to gloss over for now, but if the two can develop a genuine synthesis over the course of the next two months, Trump’s doomed candidacy might actually give the GOP an economic blueprint for the foreseeable future.

Next: Drinking the Trump Sand - by Bob Cesca

Drinking the Trump Sand

by Bob Cesca

There's a pivotal scene in The American President, written by the great Aaron Sorkin, in which Michael J. Fox's Lewis Rothschild argues with Michael Douglas's President Shepherd about political leadership.

Lewis Rothschild: You have a deeper love of this country than any man I've ever known. And I want to know what it says to you that in the past seven weeks, 59% of Americans have begun to question your patriotism.

President Andrew Shepherd: Look, if the people want to listen to--

Lewis Rothschild: --They don't have a choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.

President Andrew Shepherd: Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference.

Simply put, Donald Trump is the sand and his people are shoving fistfuls of it into their gaping maws. Why? Because they don't know the difference between Trump and an actual presidential-level statesman. Indeed, caught in the throes of anti-Obama, anti-Hillary derangement, they've been blindly drawn to Trump's campaign, mistaking it for a viable alternative.

They're so repulsed by the gradual societal departure from their all-white 1950s paradise before brown people turned the nation into what they perceive as a banana republic with its east-African president -- they're so repulsed they hallucinated their dream candidate in Donald Trump, who, as we've witnessed in shocked horror, turned out to be an orange mirage.

The problem is this: they still don't realize Trump isn't a viable leader, and, consequently, their guts are impacted with sand.

For years now, we've observed how the conservative base of the Republican Party has grown increasingly disconnected from reality. That's not to suggest every conservative is disconnected, but an abundantly noticeable faction are, in fact, divorced from what most of us objectively agree to be true. As such, they'll accept whatever hooey they've been fed without regard for long-term consequences. While, sure, there are Republican voters who are earnestly dissatisfied with the direction of the nation, and they can cite debatable reasons why. Conversely, it seems that most "alt-right" GOP voters are digesting what they've been told is the truth, but which is nothing more than an illusion. A magic trick performed by trained marketeers and manipulators. (Alt-right is the neologism for pro-Trump conservatives.)

In terms of issues, Republican voters across the board, including the alt-right, have been convinced that Obamacare is an absolute evil that must be repealed and replaced with... something. Perhaps it'd be replaced with the healthcare reform plan formulated by the conservative Heritage Foundation and implemented by Mitt Romney. Obviously, this is what evolved into Obamacare, complete with the GOP-proposed individual mandate, which, as it turns out, is the only unpopular aspect of Obamacare in poll after poll. So, they're chugging the sand.

Another example is the ludicrous notion that American government should be run like a business. That'd be fine if the government at all resembled a business, but it doesn't. Not even close. A business exists to earn a profit; the government never has to turn a profit and, in fact, is praised for simply breaking even. A business is run by one CEO with a singular purpose; the government is tasked with literally thousands of objectives and is run through compromises between three branches and two opposing parties. A business generally creates a product that's intended to create profit; the government is supposed to create laws with social value, which isn't bound to the profit motive. Put another way: if you're a customer of a business and you skip out on your bill, you'll be banned from patronizing that business. Government, on the other hand, guarantees your rights as unalienable, even if you fail to pay your full share of taxes.

Nevertheless, there are literally millions of Americans who are supporting Trump because they think America needs to be run like a business. They don't understand, of course, that Trump is a terrible businessman who's hiding his tax returns because the documents likely reveal massive fraud and duplicity. Author David Kay Johnson detailed how Trump reported on his taxes earning zero income via a consulting business, while taking over $600,000 in deductions. This, naturally, triggered an audit. Furthermore, Trump has prided himself in being the self-proclaimed "King Of Debt." Four bankruptcies back up his claim. But what he won't tell you is that hundreds of subcontractors, as well as employees, were stiffed in the process.

More sand.

There are few things about Trump that are genuine, short of his mental illnesses. Every time he says something obnoxiously irresponsible or controversial, he never admits to the crime and, instead, dispatches his surrogates to tell us what he really meant. Such was the case when he blurted his most ridiculous statement so far -- urging "Second Amendment people" to stop Hillary Clinton when she attempts to appoint justices to the Supreme Court. 

In the wake of the controversy, the National Rifle Association backstopped Trump by releasing a new video in which the gun lobbyists tell us that Hillary, who's been protected by armed Secret Service agents for 30 years, wants to leave us vulnerable by taking away our guns -- our only means of protecting ourselves. Another massive illusion, similar the one about government being run like a business.

igh-level politicians get Secret Service protection because they're more important than we are. It sounds harsh, but it's true. If your home is burglarized and you're shot in the process, it doesn't amount to a threat to national security or American sovereignty. But if the president -- or the wife of the president -- is shot or kidnapped, it's an existential threat and an attack against the United States. Hence, the Secret Service protection. Duh. Furthermore there's exactly zero indication that Hillary, or any other Democrat for that matter, wants to repeal the Second Amendment, and even if it was repealed, it doesn't mean you can't buy a gun. There's no amendment guaranteeing your right to waffles, yet you can still eat as many as you want. Chiefly, though, no one's proposing an across-the-board gun ban, stripping you of your handgun or rifle. No one.

While the alt-right will never see Trump for who he really is, the rest of the GOP's base has been slow on the uptake -- only now realizing how badly it's been deceived. Even those who supported Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush apparently didn't realize how truly terrible he'd be -- mostly, they operated under the false assumption that he'd pivot to a more presidential tone for the general election. That, obviously, will never happen.

If the election turns out the way it should, and Trump is humiliated on November 8, the alt-right will find another pile of sand to drink. But if Trump's elected, they'll surely realize how much sand they've ingested -- the same thing that occurred with George W. Bush circa 2007 or so, only after it was too late. With Trump, the hard lessons will come in the form of disasters that make the Bush 43 administration seem quaint.

Next: The Journey of a Quarter-Million Marlboro Miles - by Tommy Christopher

Tommy Christopher started smoking at an early age

Tommy Christopher started smoking at an early age

The Journey of a Quarter-Million Marlboro Miles

Tommy Christopher

It's tough to peg the figure exactly, but based on very conservative estimates, I've probably smoked over a quarter of a million cigarettes in my life, and if you translate them all into today's dollars, I've probably spent over $100,000 in today's dollars on cigarettes. That also means I've spent about 521 full days smoking. I'm basing all that on a one-pack-a-day rate, but if I'm being honest, that was my floor, and my ceiling, when I was a teenager, was four packs a day. Once, at least, I went through five.

When I had my first cigarette, they cost fifty cents a pack, and by the time I made it a habit, I believe they had gone up to 75 cents. I'm waxing nostalgic about the millions of puffs I've taken for a very good reason that you've probably already guessed: I quit smoking three weeks ago. Again.

Quitting smoking is the kind of thing that you're never quite sure will "stick," so it's hard to know if I've even had my last cigarette, let alone to remember it. This time around, my quit wasn't the result of a meticulously planned strategy and a ceremonial departure from the world of the smoker, it just sort of happened. That's how it is with Chantix, you take it for a few weeks, you feel crummy, and one day, you just don't really feel like smoking all that much.

When I smoked my "last" cigarette, then, I didn't know what it was. It was just another cigarette, and when I woke up the next day, I thought, "I don't really feel like I'll murder someone if I go without cigarettes today, so I'll give it a shot."

The ensuing three weeks have been their own kind of misery, but not the kind that dooms most quits to failure. I haven't smoked, haven't really felt like smoking, but the effects of the drugs and the withdrawal have been wearing on me. I can't concentrate, my writing has been for shit, I'm tired all the time, and everything aches. 

The longer I'm on this medication, the worse my extremely lucid and disturbing Chantix dreams get, which means I don't even get to benefit from the being tired. Over the weekend, I spent hours having such realistic dreams about writing articles that I woke up convinced I had an entire day's worth in the can already. 

For most smokers, though, there's a pot of gold at the end of the quit rainbow, if you believe the chirpy converts you encounter in life. You'll feel better than you've ever felt, food will taste better, the stars will shine brighter, lions will lie down with lambs. 

For me, though, that's a bunch of horseshit, because I've quit before, and none of that shit happened for me. I was off the cigarettes for years, and although I did stop getting winded at the drop of a hat, nothing tasted right, I missed it constantly, and I never felt like myself. It was like inhabiting a stranger's body.

Things are a little bit scarier this time, though, because back then, I was just a health insurance consultant. My entire livelihood didn't depend on a finely-tuned creative alchemy between intellect and imagination that can be disturbed by a butterfly's wings, or even nothing at all. Right now, I just have to have faith that when I go off the pills, and stay off the cigarettes, my job will come as easy to me as it did before. I'll settle for half. 

The mounting smoke-free days and the hope that I have, indeed, smoked my last cigarette have put me in mind of my first cigarette, which I remember quite clearly. In fact, it is with Proustian delight that I recall it now in my hour of deprivation.

It was in either 1977 or 1978, I was in fourth grade, and the weather was reasonably warm. I think it was the Spring of 1978. During lunch recess, I wandered down a path in the woods behind Grandview School in Piscataway where, local whisperings had it, a girl from our school had found a naked dead body the summer before. 

At the time, I was convinced the story was made up because the girl who found the body was supposedly named "Lisa Panic," and was forced to leave school because she'd had a nervous breakdown. A few years later, I wound up being in her music class (the name was right, just spelled differently).

The lore behind those woods made some kids gravitate there, and others avoid it. This was my first venture down that path after hearing the story, and I'm not really sure what I was expecting. It's not like they left the body there.

I ran across Chris Steinhauser, a Chinese-American kid who was completely Americanized. He was a little bit tall for his age, and wasn't a "bad" kid, he was one of the cool-ish kids, and definitely a good kid. No leather jacket or rock t-shirt. He was smoking a cigarette, and he offered me one. 

My mom had smoked ever since I could remember, Marlboro Reds, so I was pretty accustomed to secondhand smoke, and I'm sure I had taken a puff from one of her cigarettes before, but this was my first cigarette all to myself. It was a Carlton 100, which was obviously what Chris' mom smoked. 

In a very non-derisive, non-judgmental way, Steinhauser informed me that a "real" smoker inhales, and if you don't learn to inhale, people will make fun of you. There was no pretense that we were doing this for any reason other than to look cool to other kids who smoked.

If you know your cigarettes at all, you know that a Carlton is about a half-step heavier than smoking air, but to my 10 year-old lungs, it was like an exhaust pipe. It didn't make me cough all that much (thanks, Mom!), but it did make me want to barf.

Still, Steinhauser and I though that learning to convincingly inhale could become a handy skill, so we met periodically om the path to practice. 

One of the many indignities of being a grammar school "smoker" is having to smoke whatever cigarettes you could steal from your parents, and since my mom was in the middle of a quit at that time, we had Steinhauser's mom's Carlton 100s and my dad's Kent III's to choose from. Don't ask me why, but there was a "Kent" and a "Kent III," but no "Kent 2." Kent IIIs are, by far, the most disgusting cigarette ever devised, and I've had them all.

Those early experimentations with cigarettes didn't lead me to instant addiction, and it would be another few years before I would become a real habitual smoker. The habit was helped along by other forms of substance abuse, mainly alcohol, as I used the cigarettes to fill the time spent between abusing drugs and alcohol, and to fill the time spent while abusing drugs and alcohol. 

Basically, cigarettes become time-fillers, which is how I came to chain-smoke my way through four or five packs a day as an insomniac teenager. Once you're addicted, but no longer bored, they become time-keepers. IF you've got a job, cigarettes tell you when it's time to take a break. 

Another thing I never got, that other ex-smokers do, is this feeling that cigarettes are repulsive. Maybe they're all lying to themselves and to me, but I never stopped feeling a jolt of pleasurable recognition at the waft of someone else's cigarette, never stopped missing the pleasure of a cigarette, and the way it punctuated and heightened other experiences. Nothing caps off a great meal like a cup of tea and a smoke. 

Maybe these aren't the healthiest memories to have, but I can't help it. Unfortunately, that rich and vivid imagination is my bread and butter.

My pot of gold is somewhat different. Smoking is a terrible habit even for someone in otherwise great health, but for someone like me, who has already survived a heart attack and a host of other health problems, it is a death sentence. One of the worst things about being a hopelessly addicted smoker is knowing that at any moment, you might already be a dead man. The day you quit smoking could be the day after your lung cancer was born. Shit, I could be dying right now!

But for a self-destructive creative type like me, even the promise of not dying has not been sufficient incentive to get me to quit.

No, if I manage to make it stick this time, my reward will be extra time. The older you get, and the closer to death you get, the more clear certain things become, while others become less so. In the moments I've faced the approaching abyss, it has become clear to me that there is nothing I wouldn't give to spend just one more moment with my kids, especially my little ones, for whom I would give anything to deny them the pain of my absence for just one more moment.

I don't know where I'm going when I die, and I know it less the closer it gets, but for some reason, I feel like if I hang around long enough, I might start to figure it out. If nothing else, though, every day brings them closer to being able to handle it when I do die. Every day they don't have to understand it is a gift.

But even with all of that, it still might not stick. I loved my kids the last time I quit, too, and the time before that. It is a little bit different this time because there is so little else that I care about anymore, but I've lived with this thing long enough to know never to count it out. I don't know if I've had my last cigarette, but I remember my first one like it was yesterday. Like so many things in life, I can't un-smoke it, or the millions of puffs since then, I can only try to control the damage.

Next: The Limits of Science - by Ben Cohen

The Limits of Science

by Ben Cohen

Earlier this week, I had a very interesting interaction with two very good friends of mine over the limits of science, what it means to be an agnostic, and why the psychedelic experience is so important in helping us understand our own cognitive limits. My friend Anthony Evans -- a former sports journalist and editor -- is a committed atheist who takes the position that the scientific method is the greatest achievement in human history, and should be the sole method by which we determine objective reality. Demetri Kofinas is the principal and executive producer of OFFLINE, an Off-Broadway theatre company specializing in modern adaptations of classic works. He recently wrote an article for Quartz on how a brain tumor gave him amnesia and dementia, until he had it removed upon which all his memories came back. Demetri, like myself, is an agnostic and is critical of scientific materialism and atheism. 

The debate kicked off after I posted a comment on a meme I had shared defining myself as an agnostic. Here's how it went down:

[The text has been very lightly edited for spelling and grammar, and some external links have been added]

ANTHONY: Agnostic about Thor, Zeus, Seth, Ra, Hern and all the other 1000s of gods human imagined over the years? Or just the ones not (yet) confined to the childhood of our species? Because there's the exact same amount of reasons to believe in Thor as there is Yahweh.

BEN: Yes, agnostic about all of them Ant. I don't happen to believe in any of them, but I can't completely discount them either (although I'm fairly certain they are constructs of the human imagination and not actual deities!).

DEMETRI: You guys should read what Ben has written about his ayahuasca experience. Once you have an experience like this, it shows you that there is no real objectivity in science. Using our brains in order to arrive at some universal understanding of existence is useful and fun, but alone, lacks texture and meaning. Agnosticism is an acknowledgment that we just can't know the nature of the world beyond our own experience, and this experience is more valuable and legitimate than the laws of physics or the outcome of mathematical proofs....All religions are metaphors for a religious experience, that is very real.

BEN: Yeah, I agree with Demetri on this. I don't discount spiritual experiences at all. I think the interpretations of them and the attempts to build dogmatic religions out of them is often a very grave mistake, but that doesn't mean there isn't something to it. For me, atheism is another dogma based on one's own subjective experience of reality. Once you dig into science, it becomes very clear that it is simply a method by which we attempt to interpret material reality and not much more than that. There is much conflict within science, and the deeper we go into this material reality we believe is the be all and end all of everything, the less it appears to actually be there!

ANTHONY: "No real objectivity in science" - what do you mean by that?

DEMETRI: (To Anthony) Empirical analysis (i.e. Science or the scientific method) is a subjective process. The notion that we can objectively measure phenomena by controlling variables evolves from a false presupposition that the observer himself, is not a variable. In fact, the observer relies on his cognition and his sensory organs in order to observe, all of which are highly subjective and therefor unreliable. This is what psychedelic experiences reveal. We are completely ignorant of the nature of the real world, and perhaps even the notion of "real" is irrelevant.

ANTHONY: I think I see what you are getting at. I can't follow you to the conclusion that we are completely ignorant - the scientific method, putting forward a supposition and then actively testing it - is the greatest accomplishment in human history and has explained reality and even the limits of reality. The biases you refer to are real, and that's why double blind studies are necessary. There is no wisdom or knowledge to be found in religion which you couldn't find in any other allegorical fiction. Show me someone who refutes science as a way of explaining reality at 38k feet and I'll show you a hypocrite: planes stay in the air because of a lot of science.

DEMETRI: And yet, this is why Einstein had such a difficult time accepting the conditions of quantum theory, because they seemed to contradict every natural instinct of what is real. Double blind studies do not address the problem of the observer. The scientific method is invaluable for helping us better understand our world in such a way so that we can successfully act upon it. However, it does not and cannot answer the perennial, existential questions of self and meaning. Those can only be answered through experience, which is entirely subjective, and therefore, outside the bounds of scientific proof.

BEN: Yeah, I have to agree with Demetri here. I don't discount science as an incredibly useful tool in measuring and predicting material reality (although it isn't perfect by any means), but that's about it. We know that 96% of the universe is made up of something we basically can't measure, so I think hard core materialists could do with a little perspective. I think this is why the psychedelic experience is so important as it helps us understand that reality is at its essence, just a perception of the mind. Tweak the mind, and you get something equally real and totally inexplicable. My psychedelic experiences have shown me that we really don't know much at all, and our belief that western science is the be all and end all of determining objective reality is almost hilariously childish.

ANTHONY: You are both grossly mischaracterizing what science is. Demetri - Einstein got things wrong, and we know that mainly because of evidence he didn’t have access to. That's one of the beauties of science: I can read a layman text written in 2016 and knowthings one of the smartest men to ever live didn't. 

On the specific subject of quantum theory and its relationship with physics, we now we are beginning to see how the laws of physics become unwritten at the quantum level. That’s fascinating – it deserves more thought, more study, more science. Not less. 

Likewise, Ben, the reason we now know about so-called "dark matter" (which can be measured) is exactly because of science - it's a little indecorous of you to use a genuinely sensational scientific finding – one which came at the price of decades of research - as an example that science doesn’t explain everything and, therefore, should be mistrusted. 

And your psychedelic experiences where the result of stimuli acting upon the chemical composition of your brain, Ben. It is a very well understood phenomena. That’s not to diminish any reflections/insights or experiences you felt had a positive impact upon your person.

Atheism is a religion/dogma in the same way that not playing sport should be in the Olympics and remaining a virgin should be considered participation in mass orgy. 

I feel genuinely confused by people’s need for a “higher power” to lend them meaning and perspective on their place in the universe. We are star dust, tiny specs of the universe which have become self-aware, hurtling through space for a brief moment. There’s more poetry, perspective, beauty and humility in those scientific facts than any of the slim-pickings offered by religion or spirituality.

BEN: I think you're grossly mischaracterizing both mine and Demetri's position with all due respect Ant. I have the utmost respect for science and deductive reasoning. As I've said, it is a brilliant tool by which we can map material reality. I'm not suggesting we throw it away and never have (and neither is Demetri). To the contrary, we should do as much of it as possible. However, there are serious limitations in that it is a construct of the human mind, and therefore ultimately subjective.

We must remember that science is a subset of consciousness, and not the other way around. As for your point about psychedelics, you are simply incorrect about this. We don't know a huge amount about them in the west because they haven't been studied properly (they are schedule 1 drugs and have until very recently been blacklisted in science and medicine). We know a bit about the physical effect on the brain, but we have no real idea why they have the specific effects they do. As to your point about it simply being "stimuli acting upon the chemical composition of your brain" this is a pretty gross oversimplification of an incredibly complicated subject. We haven't got the faintest idea what is actually going on when someone takes a powerful psychedelic. Anyone who has used them comes away with the same realization: we know very, very little about ourselves and the natural world, and even less about 'reality' -- whatever we think that might mean.

DEMETRI: I think part of the problem with such discussions is frame of reference. The prevalent assumption among atheists is that agnostics require some type of supernatural force and that what is unknowable is simply the type or make. This isn't the case. Rather, atheists assume that the scientific method, if given enough time, will yield the answer to every question and will provide us with a unified theory that can be proven to be true with 100% certainty. This cannot be, because your base instrument is the ultimate variable. Psychedelics show you just how artificial your current perspective of the universe is because it shows you other alternatives that feel just, if not more, real. Scientific theory is invaluable, but ultimately, you have to take it on faith that you are not in the matrix. You actually don't know if your life is real, or a simulation, and if anything, quantum theory has done more to disprove this notion than otherwise.

BEN: Demetri - very interesting points. Not trying to gang up on you Ant! But yes, I agree with this. The belief that science will come up with an explanation for everything is basically a promissory note. "We don't understand consciousness yet, but in time we'll be able to give a strictly materialist explanation as to why it occurs". Maybe, but having had several consciousness altering experiences myself, this would be like a mouse attempting to understand particle physics. It's a truly, truly humbling experience that puts human intelligence and everything we've constructed into perspective.

DEMETRI: And to add to this point, it stand to reason that if consciousness is required in order to make measurements, and consciousness experiences reality subjectively, than all measurements are subjective. The fact that we can all agree that there is one largely coherent and recognizable reality that the vast majority of humans experience almost identically does not put a dent in this argument.There are very smart and learned scientists and philosophers who would disagree with this, many whose brilliance I do not question. Still, they are wrong.

BEN: I wouldn't go that far Demetri. I'm fairly certain the materialist perspective is wrong, but it is again based on my own subjective experience. Which could of course be wrong...

DEMETRI: Ben -- what I said is that they are wrong to believe that the scientific method can prove a universal theory. If I were not sure then my point about the fallibility of the observer would be a non argument. It is the core of my argument, therefore I believe that anyone who asserts that the nature of consciousness and ultimate reality is knowable and expressible through material science is wrong. Science is invaluable for helping us make sense of our world, but they cannot help us make sense of the conscious experience because that is beyond the limits of the scientific method which relies on consciousness. John Searle, for example, vehemently disagrees with this view and calls it nonsense. Yet, despite how thoughtful he is on so much else, on this, his justification is authoritatively dependent. Neither he, nor Dennet, nor any other atheist I have read makes a convincing argument to the contrary.

BEN: Yes, it's rather like those who say nature isn't conscious, when of course they are part of nature and are conscious. It's a strange position to take in my opinion, and a reason why western culture is so toxic towards the earth and environment.  

DEMETRI: Ironically, two of the most famous celebrity atheists of the 19th and 20th century - Fredrick Nietzsche and Christopher Hitches - were not really atheists by my estimation. I read both of their works on the subject of God as a rebuke theism. There was a reverence in both of their words and thoughts for the unknown that went beyond the limitations of the empirical method. Hitchens, in Mortality, comes across as agnostic to me. I will need to find the book and look for the relevant passages to post here.

And as for Nietzsche, his reverence for the tragedians and his rebuke of Socrates was not, in my estimation, an atheist argument. Socrates wanted to reason his way to God. The Bronze Age Greeks saw no such path, which is why they invented tragedy, and why Nietzsche contemplated on the birth of it and comedy as a duality of conscious experience. For me, atheism is about a reverence and dogmatic belief in reason, logic, and empiricism as a pathway to universal knowledge and understanding. Agnosticism is about its opposite and the willingness not to discount the mystical experience only because it cannot be verified through scientific proof.

BEN: I have to say that I never truly understood this until I had my first psychedelic experience. I don't discount materialism or the scientific method, I just see it for what it is -- a rather crude attempt to measure reality!

ANTHONY: Hitchens described himself as an antitheist "Not only is there no a shred of evidence to believe (any religion) but I am all the more happy for it."

Wish I had time to keep up with responses, because there’s a lot of interesting thoughts above. 

I think some of what you are both describing isn’t spiritual/theistic at all, it’s either science or it is a subject that requires further study and thought in order to reach a full description or understand. 

So much of religion and what passes for spiritualism is breathtaking arrogance masquerading as humility (“the creator of the universe will suspend his own rules if I ask him to,”). Religion makes very bold claims about literally every sphere of life – but does so while offering no evidence whatsoever. That’s genuine arrogance manifest. 

The caricature of the arrogant science guy claiming to know everything is trotted out in conversations like this one time after time. But science is the process of actively trying to disprove suppositions, not making claims beyond the borders of evidence, and repeating studies over and over to see if the original results can be replicated. 

Doing science is difficult, slow, painstaking and – often – leads to a dead-end where there is nothing to show for a lot of hard work than the elimination of one of a million false hypothesis. 

Contrast that with those who claim to possess “revealed truth.”

Maybe that’s the appeal of religion: readymade answers that not only don’t require any thought, they actively discourage it. “Shhhhh… don’t worry about that, that unknowable.” 

I’m as interested in the big questions as you are. But when there’s genuine reasons to investigate trippy things like whether or not the universe we live in is a hologram or has 12 dimensions, I don’t see any need to seek out the scribblings of Bronze Age sheep-shaggers to give me a sense of wonder or perspective of how little of reality is truly within our compass. 

I’ll add one more thought, which I hope I express well: I genuinely find it upsetting that you guys – two well educated chaps - have used hard-won acquisitions of new understanding as a reason to question future quests for similar advancements in knowledge. 

Likewise, I’m very uncomfortable that you also have shaded the borders of suggesting that evidence and reason are merely one crude path to arriving at truth/reality. 

Look at the EU referendum result in the UK; look how close an uneducated fascist is to the Oval Office right now. We are now living in what the Financial Times called a “post-factual” world - where evidence and reason no longer have the final word. 

Instead, personal feelings and personal revelations are given equal weight in the public sphere. Half of Americans think the Earth is 6000 years old, there are voters who “just know” that Mrs Clinton was responsible for those deaths in Bengazi despite the results of a zillion investigations, and “just feel” that the President is a Muslim terrorist sympathizer who was born in Kenya. 

I’m sure you both won’t see it as the same thing at all, but when you say evidence and reason aren’t good enough – and can never been good enough - to describe reality, you are helping to open a door to a world where every point of view is equally valid and worthy of equal respect. 

Donald Trump is the President for Life of that world where facts don’t matter as much as feelings and decades of scientific research can be dismissed with a shrug and an insult to “arrogant scientists thinking they know it all.”

The only barrier between that reality and ours is a wall of evidence and reason. 

So, taking us back to the initial comment to Ben when he said he was keeping his options open in answering the question of whether of Zeus, Ra and Thor exist: how is that any different to the thought process which leads folks to want to vote for Trump’s wall?

BEN: Very astute points Ant, and extremely well stated. I agree with you on much, particularly when it comes to blind faith in a system of beliefs that does not require any evidence. I am fundamentally opposed to organized religion for that very reason -- if I can't experience the divine first hand, then I'm not going to take it on someone else's authority or blind faith. This is where the psychedelic experience comes in. It allows the most militant anti-spiritual, dogmatic atheist/materialist to experience 'the other' quite literally on demand. Alter your state of consciousness with the right dose, and you are almost 100% guaranteed to experience something you simply cannot put into words, or even BEGIN to comprehend using the constructs of modern science. Don't take my word for it, just ask anyone who has used DMT or Ayahuasca. It blows literally everything you think you know about reality into a million pieces and makes you see in no uncertain terms just how limited our capacity to understand what is actually going on around us is. It really, really is that profound, and I'm not surprised it has been a big taboo in western science.

This isn't to say that we shouldn't be looking at it with every available measuring tool -- but it would be like an ant attempting to figure out what was going on in the Large Hadron Collider. I can see why you might think this a dangerous position to take as it relates to science and the Republican party's disdain for logic and reason -- but I think this -- like the universe -- is a matter of scale. There are generalities we can all abide by to function safely and intelligently, and claims should always be backed by evidence. I'm not going to have this type of discussion with a Trump voting Republican given he/she would likely take it as further evidence that scientist don't know what they are talking about. Amongst those with a more nuanced understanding of science and philosophy however, I think we can speak more freely. The fact is, the best evidence we have points to humans burning the planet to a crisp via the use of fossil fuels. It may actually be the case that the earth is sentient and is orchestrating the release of fossil fuels through human activity for reasons we couldn't possible understand given the timescales involved (and I have heard this theory discussed by Amazonian shaman). Personally, I say we act on the former, and entertain the latter as an interesting possibility, but nothing more given we are only capable of understanding so much.