Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Happiness is Unbecoming

Many people profess to be confused about the question of life’s meaning, of whether there’s a best way of life: the question is a philosophical one, and since philosophy has so little cultural prestige, people suspect that the question is idle. These people are doubly mistaken, since their behaviours if not their words indicate that they typically accept not just the question, but the hedonist’s answer to it. The best way of life is assumed to be the one filled with the most happiness, which is to say the most contentment and pleasure.

But should happiness be the ultimate goal of a person’s life? There’s a clue in the fact that people are widely thought to be perfectly happy only in heaven, when God shows his face and directly rules over creation. The myth of heaven, in which disembodied people feel ultimate joy on a spiritual plane, implies, of course, that there are presently obstacles to feeling happy. In theistic terms, the main obstacle is God’s remoteness from the world, which permits the inhumane forces of nature to dictate the course of our lives. Some people win the lottery, others get hit by lightning, while nothing of lasting significance happens to the majority.

In nontheistic terms, there’s no God and there’s just the frigid, impersonal universe, evolving along its alien trajectory. Far from being at home in nature, we live in one of the few, relatively miniscule spots that aren’t perfectly lethal to us; were we to try to explore the outer reaches, we’d be snuffed out. We can take pockets of the Earth with us in spaceships, but we’d die within them before passing much beyond merely the neighbourhood of our own solar system. Most of the universe is thus effectively hostile towards us, has no mind that can be changed on the subject, and seems far beyond our power to modify to our benefit. Even on Earth, our oasis, the universe rears its alien head in the frugality of natural selection, which equips species with barely enough adaptations to survive, if even with those, so that shortages of resources are commonplace and many people suffer rather than flourish. A meteor could destroy us all as one wiped out the dinosaurs, making nonsense of any pretension to our cosmic importance. I’ll call the set of such obstacles to our happiness, whether they be characterized theistically or nontheistically, Our Existential Situation (OES).

OES, then, necessitates the myth of heaven in an afterlife, on the assumption that happiness is the ultimate good in life. We can’t be perfectly happy here and now, and some of us are prevented from being even remotely happy, but there will be a time and a place in which everything will change for the better. I’d add, though, that when our response to OES is weighed by an ethical standard, we’re left with the normative implication that happiness should not be our ultimate goal in the first place. 

Kinds of Happiness Despite OES

To see this, consider the spectrum of possible relations between happiness and OES. At one extreme, in heaven, there’s an ontological split between the two. The situation becomes ideal for happiness, because the natural barriers are obliterated by God at a metaphysical, supernatural level. Next, the philosopher, Robert Nozick, conceived of a thought experiment in which there’s only a physical split between the two: imagine there’s a virtual reality machine that makes the user happy in a simulated world, as the machine prevents the real world from impinging on the user. In this case, the person’s happiness would be more fragile than the supernaturally-guaranteed sort in heaven, because the machine, being just another part of nature, could break down, interfering with the virtual paradise. Then there’s the case in which there’s only a psychological split between them: a happy person may be ignorant of the facts of OES or else may pretend that there’s no such thing, subscribing to myths or fairy tales so that the individual effectively lives in a make-believe world without the need of an external happiness machine. Finally, there’s the case in which there’s no split between them, in which OES thus prevents someone from being happy. This prevention can be physical, as in the case of a natural disaster or a genetic deformity, or psychological, as in the case of the melancholic pessimist or ascetic who becomes morbidly fixated on the facts of OES and feels that contentment is unseemly under those circumstances.

Let’s consider the positions in this spectrum from an ethical standpoint. Details are sketchy about heaven, and not just because no one’s been there and back; as Christopher Hitchens likes to say, heaven represents a “celestial dictatorship” in which we’re swept up in God’s arms and forced to have our minds blown by the infinite majesty of his presence. The fact that theists are more scared of hell than of heaven shows that they still operate with a childishly anthropomorphic view of God. Being hugged by a human parent may be comforting, but the prospect of being “hugged” by the necessarily alien source of all creation, and thus of OES, should terrify us, which is why “fear of God” is a proper synonym for “faith in God.” Ethically speaking, then, a finite creature’s endurance of heaven should be heroic. But of course, this esoteric, mystical understanding of what theism amounts to undermines the exoteric promise that people are happy in heaven. Anyone who would be so happy must have access to a psychological means of keeping the terror at bay, which reduces this position in the spectrum to the case of the psychological split between OES and happiness. I’ll reserve judgment, then, until I come to that position.

What of the ethics of entering the happiness machine? According to Nozick, were we given the option, most would choose to remain in the real world despite the loss of perfect feelings of happiness, which suggests that happiness isn’t a matter of mere feelings. Regardless, the ethical failing of opting for the machine would seem to be cowardice, since the machine would provide an escape hatch from earthly troubles. The nobler, heroic choice would be to face those troubles regardless of the cost to one’s feelings. As for the psychological split, the ethical judgment seems similar. The mental walls have the same effect as the machine’s physical walls that prevent harsh reality from intruding on a dream world. It’s hard to believe anyone could be ignorant of any aspect of OES, but even were this possible, such a person would be either mentally incompetent and thus incapable of human levels of happiness, or else guilty of the vice of incuriosity if not that of cowardice. Lastly, there’s the tragic hero who carries on with no illusions, whose confrontation with the facts of OES takes its toll on his or her capacity for pleasure. Such a person could be expected to lose in life’s races, because the pessimist tends to be shunned and social connections are needed for success as well as for happiness. Now, the person who is physically prevented from being happy may be just a victim with no special virtue, unless she stands up to the alien face of nature despite the personal cost, as in the case of someone who chooses to go on living with a severe physical deformity. In any case, ethically speaking, the tragic hero shines.

Assuming, then, that we should be ethical and that OES is a fact, we shouldn’t seek to be happy. That’s my unsettling conclusion. Note that the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, could take the primary ethical goal, on the contrary, to be happiness, because he anthropomorphized nature instead of knowing about the stomach-churning reality of OES. Aristotle viewed all of nature as imbued with purpose, so that rocks literally succeed when they move downward to their natural home, while air succeeds when it rises, and all of nature works towards The Good. We could feel at home amidst so much teleology, so many human values possessed animistically by everything in the universe. But scientists have shown that that’s not our existential situation. And so happiness, contentment, or joy makes sense in some situations but not in others: in our actual situation, happiness is not just often mixed with anxiety, sorrow, or pain, but is always awkward and guilt-producing as soon as we step back and appreciate OES.

Knowledge versus Happiness

Take, for example, a child who begs his mother for a lollipop, is awarded the treat and is overjoyed, slurping the sugar out of it. This is an uncontroversial, perhaps even archetypal case of joyous contentment. We praise the boy for enjoying his treat, for “taking life easy” while he can (assuming the boy doesn’t have excessive access to candy, causing obesity). We smile and perhaps feel a tinge of bittersweet nostalgia, longing to relive our own such carefree moments.

But widen your perspective to encompass the child’s existential predicament, his inhumane physical environment that makes possible his pain just as much as his pleasure. We then see that his pleasure is due partly to his ignorance of the scope of OES, to his disinterest in planning obsessively for the future in which the indifferent world will threaten to crush his dreams. The child doesn’t know the evolutionary reason why he loves the taste of sugar despite its ruinous effect on the body when consumed in abundance. Moreover, the child lacks self-control and his parents have to restrain his self-destructive impulses. Mother Nature thus created this grotesque relationship between the infant or child, on the one hand, and the parent on the other, betting that the parent’s pity for the former’s helplessness will cause the adult to care for the little one. And does Mother Nature do this for the child’s benefit? No, nature selects the genes, and the parent’s pity is a mechanism for propagating them. What good are the genes by themselves? What’s their value without the travails of their host organisms? If none, then those travails are absurd. When viewed in this broader context, it becomes harder to smile innocently at the child’s beaming face as he stuffs his gullet with candy, harder to excuse his moment of joy as a respite from OES: there is no escape from the fact that sensitive, sentient beings don’t belong in brutal nature. 

This problem with happiness is a very old one. In one of the founding myths of western cultures, the story of the Garden of Eden, Life is divided from Knowledge, our human representatives eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but before they can eat from the other tree, they’re cast out of the garden and condemned to years of toil and misery. The Tree of Knowledge symbolizes, in part, an appreciation of OES, a god’s eye view of what’s outside the garden, such as the fact that God sent a serpent to test his human creations, and the Tree of Life symbolizes not just immortality but the capacity to live well, as a god in heaven. From the beginning of recorded history, then, we’ve suspected that consciousness of our surroundings may be a curse, or at least that it’s comparable to a two-sided sword. There’s a conflict between understanding what’s actually going on in the natural world, and being able to feel good about being in that world.

The monotheist tends to whitewash this conflict by blaming us for it: we simply suffer from original sin which prevents us from seeing that this is the best of all possible worlds, that there’s good in everything and that God who is the ultimate good sustains the universe for a higher reason which makes sense of the suffering and of the universe’s apparent indifference to life. Thus the monotheist blames the messenger. We don’t make the world as it is, nor are we responsible for our manifestly dark existential situation; we just discover that the enchanted perspective enjoyed by people who lived prior to modern science is like the ignorance of Adam and Eve before they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Even as they frolicked in the garden, blissfully unaware of the serpent (i.e. God’s higher plan for humans) or of their capacity for tragic knowledge, the serpent and the tree existed in the garden, according to the myth. Likewise, the natural properties of the universe, which are quantified by exotic mathematical languages and explained by mind-blowing scientific theories, and which alienate animals with anthropocentric instincts like us, have always been objectively there, the causes of all of our potential pains.  

My point, then, isn’t that pleasure of any kind is always wrong; rather, my point is that ethical pleasure must somehow overcome knowledge of OES. What counts as happiness is typically pleasure that derives from luck, ignorance, or vices such as cowardice or self-absorption, and is thus condemnable. What’s the ethical alternative to this pleasure that’s artificially walled off from knowledge of OES? Pleasure tainted by a tragic sensibility, joy periodically cut short by an internal reminder of the terrifying broader context of all human affairs, and a heroic commitment never to feel perfectly comfortable in nature, a place which can no longer be our home. Science shows that we’re effectively stranded in hostile territory, and that our activities are irrelevant to cosmic processes that are beyond our control and that impinge on us in many ways. Ethical pleasure must therefore be felt by a tragic, Nietzschean hero, someone who understands OES and has the will to creatively overcome it. 
Instrumentalism and Consumerism
There’s a liberal gambit for avoiding the thrust of this conclusion, which is to identify happiness with success in attaining any goal at all. Thus, the serial killer who succeeds at murdering is “happy” and the tragic hero who successfully overcomes OES is simply “happy.” What makes this response a liberal one is its telltale avoidance of evaluating goals, its scientistic, systems managerial focus on the abstract efficiency of means. The liberal thus misses the difference between the positions in the spectrum, considered above. The persons in heaven, in a happiness machine, in psychological denial of OES, and tragically at one with OES may all be abstractly successful in achieving some goal or other, but the difference between their goals makes for different kinds of life, and those differences have ethical consequences. 

The liberal’s notion of happiness is individualistic and subjective, and thus facilitates consumption-driven societies in which mental states are sold along with material goods, by associative advertising. As I say in my rant on liberalism, the liberal’s anachronistic faith is that everyone is equal, as rational beings who have sovereign authority over themselves. If people come to different conclusions about what makes them happy, so be it; the world is ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. This Kantian individualism collapses into postmodern nihilism, into a power vacuum occupied in capitalistic democracies by demagogues who tell so-called autonomous moral ends unto themselves (i.e. rational persons) what to think, feel, and consume.

Then there’s the positive psychologist who explains the mechanisms associated with happiness as opposed to those that cause mental illness. For example, one aspect of happiness is thought to be a feeling of flow rather than of anxiety while at work. As with the liberal, the positive psychologist can’t address the normative question, of whether happiness should be a person’s ultimate goal, and still claim to be practicing science. Just as a psychologist can only presuppose the badness of quantitatively abnormal mental states, or risk committing the naturalistic fallacy of attempting to derive normative statement from scientific factual ones, the psychologist can only presuppose the rightness of the most desired goal, for the same reason.

Liberalism and positive psychology, then, are accomplices to the double failure of the pursuit of materialistic happiness. The first ethical failure is the foolhardy plan to be happy in spite of our existential predicament. In the long run, OES won’t let us be happy unless happiness is understood as something tragic. The second such failure is our settling for the lowest kinds of pleasure and for fleeting moments of contentment, which are all that a capitalistic, materialistic culture can afford us. After all, the reason pleasure is our highest goal in the West is that capitalism is driven by our weaknesses, such as our egoism and greed. As I explained in Conservatism, the idea is that human society should be just as wild as the jungle, since competition compels the environment to pick out novel forms of complexity, and according to libertarian conservatism, this natural selection is the most divine creative force. So instead of trying to out-think nature, we should unleash our primitive impulses, thinking only of short-term, personal profit and giving in to fallacious associative advertisements; thus, we let nature take its course and separate successes from failures. When reduced to pleasure-seeking animals, we feel that happiness, rather than some more ascetic duty, is our life’s purpose.

But this social Darwinism backfires. Even were happiness our ultimate good, capitalism tends to make the majority miserable. Businesses churn out an endless stream of services and toys to play with, but in a free market in which the government is naturally corrupted, the predators at the top devise Ponzi schemes to siphon money from the bottom and--thinking only of their own short-term, personal profit--restrict the wages of the middle class so that eventually they can’t afford most products. In this way, the holy pecking order is safeguarded. And instead of living like hedonic kings enjoying a feast in our mansions, we often eat fast food and live in houses we can’t afford, but we’re manipulated into believing that we’re living the good life. Ronald McDonald is always smiling, so a flash of base pleasure from consuming fatty food must be the very stuff of happiness; like that clown, we wear painted-on smiles. (See Scientism.)

On top of the pressure on us from wall-to-wall advertising, cognitive psychologists have experimentally confirmed that we’re prone to a host of fallacies and biases, called “heuristics,” most of which have the evolutionary function of inuring us to unpleasant facts by papering over them. Our thought processes are evidently adapted to distort the truth to make us feel comfortable in what would otherwise seem a terrifying alien environment, to distract us from OES so that we can conduct our sexual transactions and preserve the genes.

Again, liberal and psychological instrumentalism complement this charade, since these cheerleaders for happiness can’t challenge the society’s underlying normative assumptions and can speak only to how we might more efficiently succeed at being happy, within the status quo parameters. If we want, above all, to be happy, despite the facts of OES that make our world horribly absurd, and we delude ourselves into feeling happy when we’re really victimized and bewildered, that’s because our cultural standards have been so lowered to make way for oligarchic capitalism, for the reduction of high renaissance culture--the product of religious rationalizations of monarchy, the rise of scientific reason, and godlike artistry--to a beastly struggle for survival so that a new class of more nihilistic predatorial oligarchs can lord it over the rest of us from their perches in the natural pecking order. Given this calamity, the liberal and the positive psychologist accept its underlying causes and, respectively, merely fine-tune the system like a wannabe engineer or investigate the more nitty gritty, proximal causes of the most desired mental state.


Most people want to be happy; if they can’t be rich or famous, at least they can still be content with what little they have. But an appreciation of OES turns everything on its head. The rich and the famous are ethically worse off than the poor, not because the poor inherit the kingdom of God, but because the poor can’t build such elaborate fantasy worlds to protect them from that which makes their life absurd: their alienation from the natural world. Human life does have a meaning, in the sense of a value, and that value is, as Kurtz says in Apocalypse Now, “the horror, the horror.” Our life also has an ethical purpose, which is to deal heroically with that horror, not to try to escape from it by fleeing to transitory, base pleasures that aren’t earned by confronting our predicament which is the fact that we’re fragile, sentient beings in an alien cosmos that destroys as freely as it creates. Precisely because we are so fragile, because we evolved not to ethically challenge the cosmos but to be preoccupied with a social game that mixes the gene pool so that Mother Nature can keep her options open to fill some future niche with a fresh species, we succumb to vainglorious myths and to the temptation to follow our instincts and submit to religious or to capitalistic dominance hierarchies.

One of these myths is that we ought to be pleased when we succeed in our work so that we can rest contented, with no regrets. This myth fails to take into account the fact that the more knowledge we acquire, the more we must regret having been born at all in the nightmare of our dependence on the practices of an inhumane cosmos for our very survival, let alone our happiness. No amount of hard work can obviate that regret, unless it’s the work of suicide which is itself cowardly. That regret is just the anxiety of a hapless animal that’s cursed to have discovered its existential plight. Pure happiness, joy or contentment is a nonstarter for such a tragic creature. Ethically speaking, anyone’s happiness on Earth is as obscene as any immaterial spirit’s bliss in heaven while knowing about the everlasting holocaust in hell. So if we must smile when the natural cycle spins to our benefit, let’s smile half-heartedly, sparing some revulsion for the fact that for sentient beings alone, that cycle, spinning mindlessly, uplifting and crushing each of us in turn, might as well be a torture device.


  1. Outstanding piece. I just discovered your site, and find much overlap with the sentiments to which I have been coming over the past ten years, through my own thoughtwork. Wish I had more to post in this comment, but I need to do more digestion of your writings. So simply posting to offer my compliments on some great stuff here. JD Rosemont

    1. Thanks! This particular article on happiness is pretty fundamental to this blog, meaning that I find a lot of issues come back to the assumption that we ought to be happy. Another article here that's fundamental is The Curse of Reason (Dec, 2011). Reason's curse is that the more objective we are, the less happy or content we can be; instead, reason produces angst, and I think to cope with existential angst we need a viable religion which doesn't yet exist as far as I know. But see Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion (Jan, 2012).

  2. Please, please, consider organizing/compiling your posts into some PDF/Kindle format, perhaps "Rants Within the Undead God 2011" and RWUG 2012" collections? This is great stuff and I want to be caught up. Please think about it.

  3. Your blog makes me happy ;)

  4. If you haven't read Nikos Kazantzakis' "Ascetics/Salvatores Dei" you so need to do so (You can easily find the english translation online). Your mentions of ascetic duty remind me strongly of his writings there. If you have read it, I'd love to read your insights; but that's probably a topic for an entire article.

    1. Thanks, Evan. I haven't yet read it, but I'm reading it now. I may indeed want to write a review of it. I already agree with some parts more than others, but it looks like it builds on itself so I've got to wait until the end to see what I think.

      By the way, if you like this prophetic kind of ranting, I summarize much of my blog using that prose poetic style, in a guest post at another blog. See:

    2. I agree with EvanT, you just have to read Kazantzakis. Your philosophical rant(teehee) catches exactly the "spirit" of his work, that Nietzschean stoicism in front of the existential terror, which crushes with the terrible apocalypse of the fragility in front of the chaos, yes does not annihilate, but gives this particular kind of strength mixed with fragility. Thank you, I really enjoy your blog!

    3. Thanks very much. I am currently reading it, but it's taking longer than I thought it would, because I'm also writing a novel at the moment. I'll likely do a blog entry on Kazantzakis' piece too.

  5. I got around to translating this article in Greek as well. (link)

    1. Thanks, again. This article is pretty controversial, of course, but it's also fundamental to my outlook. That's why in the pdf e-book form of this blog, this article serves as the introduction. It underlies a lot of what I say on cultural matters.

    2. Oh, I've added your website to my list of favourite links on my blog.

    3. I prefer controversial subjects, which is what drew me to look nihilism in more detail in the first place. Well... that, my love for Nietzsche, Lovecraft and epicurean philosophy and the fact that the fuzzy-wuzzy version of atheism commonly promoted always rang a bit hollow and seemed to be more for show for the theists. Not to mention that there's little point in discussing things we already agree on, after all. (And thx for the plug; I've already reciprocated ;)

  6. Ben,

    Is there any specific aspect of OES as you characterize it that necessarily leads to unhappiness? If so, what? Empathetic identification with suffering creatures? Wounds to our species-narcissism?

    1. As I write in my recent response to Sam Harris's science of morality, for his contest, empathy does indeed make us less happy, because it forces us to suffer on behalf of many people. Buddhists would say, indeed, that much suffering is the flip-side of egoistic craving.

      But if we're talking about a more general kind of unhappiness, about a nagging suspicion that nothing's really right with the world, that we don't belong, that everything's unfair and alien or undead at its core, that life is absurd, we're talking just about naturalistic knowledge as the source of that existential angst. It's knowledge itself that makes us unhappy, unless we're good at rationalizing our desires and living with the cognitive dissonance that comes with delusions that paper over the truth.

      There are plenty of happy naturalists, including liberal secular humanists. Much of their contentment is due simply to their personal success in life. They have good jobs, they're married with kids, they go on vacations, they buy nice clothes and food and toys, and so on. They don't care about philosophical issues, because their life is full of distractions. Extroverts are usually happier and more successful than introverts, and so it's the alienated outsider, who doesn't fit into society, who is forced to wrestle with her vision of how things really are, with only minimal distractions. That produces angst, which is the opposite of happiness (in the sense of contentment).

  7. "There’s a conflict between understanding what’s actually going on in the natural world, and being able to feel good about being in that world."

    What are characteristics of the kind of world we COULD feel good about? The basic conflict seems to be (1) I want to feel like my life matters, but it is short and ephemeral, and each totality I might it to (nation, tribe, the species as a whole, etc.) is also transient (2) much of the good things I enjoy in life seem to depend on the suffering of other earthlings, human and non-human.

    1. That is indeed an important conflict, but there's an even deeper one, I think, between those who want happiness and those who want to sacrifice. This, in turn, is really the difference between those driven by the West's individualistic, egoistic ideology, and those who follow moral principles that posit something more important than the self, whether it be God, the State, or Nature. This explains why many people don't actually care about what you call (2). They enjoy themselves just fine, regardless of whether it's a zero sum game, because they think in social Darwinian terms and naturally they care more about their friends and family than about strangers.

      So the question of what sort of world we could feel good about is one that might appeal more to the first group than to the second. Because of the happiness movement in psychology, you hear a lot of talk now about happiness being central to morality, but I don't see it that way. For millennia, the moral thing to do has been to enlighten yourself and to suffer for that enlightenment. Happiness requires delusions and delusions degrade us and make us existentially inauthentic. So happiness or a good feeling of contentment is about living an amoral or immoral life, such as one that forces you to struggle for success, by beating others in a brutal competition.

      If you're asking what my ideal world would be like, this is of course a very hard question. The main difference, I suppose, would be between the cosmicist or mysterian world that's entirely impersonal or alien and so operates according to its own agenda, as it were, so that we're metaphysically insignificant, and an anthropocentric world in which we can feel more at home. As I've explained elsewhere, we have actually both of those worlds right now. Nature is the impersonal place and we build personalized, artificial subworlds with our technology, infrastructure, culture, and so on. So which would be the better scenario, for one world to win out and replace the other? Which one? Or should they remain in eternal conflict? I really haven't worked that out yet.

  8. What an outstanding article, and I liked your thoughtful comments too. I've shared the article on my Facebook Timeline. Seriously, one of the best things I've ever read about our OES and happiness, and I've read quite a lot.

    1. Thanks, Mark. This is an older article of mine, so I've since polished the formulations and added much to the worldview that motivates this stance on happiness. You might be interested, for example, in the YouTube video I made more recently on the subject, which uses different arguments.

      And for more, check out the links on the Happiness label page:

  9. Isn't creating another value system that deifies the "Undead God" just as unbecoming and values "better" existential aesthetics just as illusory as happiness itself? Sure, it might make for telling yourself another egoistic story in the end, but I'm not so sure it's better than say the different varieties of antinatalism or pessimism. If anything, you could argue that the antinatalist or pessimist lives more authentically by refusing to place aesthetic value in nature in the first place and thoroughly explores its existential implications in how we should move forward as individuals and a species as whole without any such romanticizing it in any way. Your whole dynamic of alphas, betas, and omegas seems to be routed in some sort of elitism, but perhaps I'm wrong. I just can't really see why what you propose as a living authentically is anymore illusory than that of the sheep-like masses you speak of so much. If anything it seems like the last grasp of the ego to attach some sort of value to the meaningless tragedy of it all. I guess my disconnect is failing to see what is exactly so heroic about that, aesthetically or otherwise. It just seems like another way of distracting ourselves until we inevitably die. Even in the case of some sort of transcendent "mystical" reality, why should we assume in the first place that it's any better than this one or should be trusted on psychedelic experiential knowledge alone, but I digress.

    1. I don't think aesthetic values are as illusory as conventional values that are based on delusions. For me, personal authenticity is pretty much just intellectual integrity, the willingness to look hard at your own beliefs and desires to make sure they're coherent and based on reality, as opposed to rationalizing or otherwise expressing vices such as cowardice or laziness.

      I argue for the objectivity of aesthetic values in a few different articles, such as the ones linked below (and see the Ethics section of the Map of the Articles). I can see that you're coming from an antinatalist perspective. I'll actually be writing again on that subject soon, in response to Benatar's new book. It won't be a detailed examination of his book, but more of a forthright explanation of why I think the human species should continue despite all the suffering entailed by self-awareness and intelligence.

      I don't think we "place" aesthetic value in nature. Nature does create itself, according to objective science. Moreover, according to Kant, aesthetic appreciation requires only indifference or neutrality, a detachment from a subjective, instrumentalist perspective, and so the aesthetic dimension is very similar to how nature looks from a scientific, objective viewpoint. When we try to explain how nature works, we're in a similar mental space as when we're in an art gallery looking at the surface features of artworks. Both involve a kind if disinterest. So that's why aesthetic values fall out of science-centered naturalism.

      By contrast, the compassionate antinatalist, like Inmendham, says pleasure is good and pain is bad. That requires the subjective, egocentric perspective, not to mention the naturalistic fallacy. Just because we care about our own pleasure and pain, doesn't mean anyone else has to. Certainly pleasure and pain aren't objectively good or bad.

      There is indeed elitism in the ethological categories of alphas, omegas, and betas. But nature is evidently elitist too, since nature creates these social divisions via several dynamics (law of oligarchy, dominance hierarchies, corruption by concentrated power, enlightenment for social outsiders). My elitism is to some extent Nietzschean, but it's not social Darwinian, as in the Nazi misrepresentation of Nietzsche.

      The difference between omegas and betas ("sheep") is simple: the former understand reality at the philosophical level, whereas the latter don't because they value happiness above understanding. So the sheeple won't be "authentic" since their happiness will be based on delusions, including delusions handed to them by the alpha oligarchs.

      The heroism I have in mind is tragic, although there's the possibility of transhuman heroism, too, which might not have such a bad ending, at least not until billions of years from now when the whole universe will have faded away. Tragic heroism means you do your best even knowing things will end badly. From the cosmic perspective, it's still a waste of time, because the cosmos is indifferent. But there are aesthetic standards built into nature's self-creativity, and so pantheism falls out of that cosmic perspective too. Thus, original, creative lives look nobler than the cliched lives of the unenlightened peons.

  10. I'm a pretty young guy who used to be ignorant of OES and I discovered your blog after first discovering Jordan Peterson (for mainly the self-help aspects) and then I happened across Inmendham commentating (more like berating) over one of JP's videos and as I continued onto his other videos which explained Efilism, I was pretty disturbed by Gary's abrasiveness and philosophy. So I found your debate on here w/Gary, along with some of the other posts, and it was all insightful, so I thank you for that.

    I've been attempting to read your posts to try to gain some sort of understanding. It's difficult because a lot of the concepts are unfamiliar to me, and my reading comprehension is not the best. I've been inviting all these ideas in and some of them are so deeply uncomfortable, like OES. They have left me with the question of how I should even act in the world. You say that tragic heroism means you do your best even knowing things will end badly. That seems noble and it seems right, but honestly, it's all pretty disorienting.

    1. Philosophy can indeed be disorienting, especially the darker aspects of philosophy. This is because mainstream society isn't usually about getting at the truth. We think about buying and selling, about getting ahead and dominating others and being happy and dating and raising a family and saving up for a vacation and so on. It's not such much philosophy that's disorienting, but the underlying truth of things. Philosophy is only the messenger, but it's an unwelcome one so we tend to ignore philosophical questions unless we're forced to consider them because we're undergoing hard times or we have an outsider's personality.

      The article is one of my earliest formulations on this blog. The stuff about the "OES" and "tragic heroism" is pretty much just existentialism. Existentialism gets at the deep issues in an unvarnished way, except that some of the main existential philosophers write with nearly impenetrable jargon, such as Sartre and Heidegger. The philosophy I try to lay out on this blog and now on Medium is influenced by existentialism, but I try to be as blunt and jargon-free as possible. (I have a series on some of the main existentialists, which you can find in the Existentialism section of the "Map of the Articles" on this website.)

      Again, existentialism isn't for everyone, since many people would call existentialists and philosophers in general morbid or subversive for pondering death and other unsettling matters. (Peterson draws from existentialism, too, especially Nietzsche, I think.) If you're wondering how to be heroic in an absurd, godless world, I doubt there's an easy answer. I'm not a therapist, but how someone should behave in the world depends on the type of person they are and on that person's circumstances.

      I've outlined some basic (but cynical) sociology or anthropology where I distinguish between leaders, followers, and outsiders (see the first link below). There's also the important distinction between extrovert and introvert, and between mental health and illness. I interpret these things in some surprising ways. Is it healthy, for example, to ignore philosophical questions or to be indoctrinated by a sick, destructive culture such as the American one? But isn't it foolish also to confront the shocking truth when we may not be strong enough to digest it (see, for example, The Matrix movie)? I'm still thinking through these problems in my writings. I can point you to lots of articles, depending on what you've already read. But maybe you can be a little more specific about what's disorienting you.

    2. Inmendham's antinatalism is about as dark as you can get, so pretty much it can only get more encouraging from there. Jordan Peterson is less deranged, but his views are flawed too, in my view (see the second and third links below). If you're into self-help, I think that, too, is problematic (fourth link), although it depends of course on what exactly you're reading. I take a stab at offering some advice on masculinity, but again from a pretty subversive perspective that goes back to my old article “Revenge of the Omega Men” (fifth link).

      If you'd like an overview of philosophy, history, and science with a view to dealing with the apparent meaninglessness of life, I'd recommend John Vervaeke's YouTube series (mind you, I'm only halfway through the 50 videos). Vervaeke is actually a colleague of Peterson's at the U of Toronto, but Vervaeke's knowledge seems deeper. Eventually, I'll be writing something on Vervaeke's solution to what he calls the “meaning crisis” (sixth link).

    3. First, thank you for your reply. I believe that philosophy attracts certain kinds of personalities. Those of which are mainly introverted.

      "Again, existentialism isn't for everyone, since many people would call existentialists and philosophers in general morbid or subversive for pondering death and other unsettling matters. (Peterson draws from existentialism, too, especially Nietzsche, I think.)"

      I agree. Once you're no longer ignorant about OES, at least for me, all those ideas linger in my head. Which, I suppose, is the price you pay for that kind of knowledge. Initially, I learned about Existentialism through JP's 2014 Personality Lecture Series. I found the whole series deeply interesting. The main existentialists he talks about are Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Kierkegaard, and Viktor Frankl.

      That opinionated medium article on JP seems ideologically biased. I'm inclined to disagree with it because of my own experience with JP's ideas. I'm not saying he's not flawed, however, the weird parts about JP taking a benzodiazepine (not an opioid) to deal with the stress of his wife's cancer and saying somehow because he couldn't handle that, he's going against everything he preaches shows the author's probable conscience ignorance and even disdain for Peterson. Also saying he got hooked on an opioid, which is false and saying that Peterson's literature inspires mass shootings.

      "But maybe you can be a little more specific about what's disorienting you. "

      For whatever reason, maybe personality, age, IQ, etc. I am pretty credulous. The overwhelming amount of information makes it hard to discern what my beliefs should be. I feel like I need a comprehensive life philosophy with a set of morales that has the ultimate goal of just making things better for people so I can just move on and I don't have to keep trying to reinvent myself every day. That's seemingly too idealistic to be based in reality. It's pretty much in line with what you said: "It's not such much philosophy that's disorienting, but the underlying truth of things."

      "Inmendham's antinatalism is about as dark as you can get, so pretty much it can only get more encouraging from there."

      He's certainly an interesting character. I know he has a biologically marked anxiety disorder. He seems like a very sensitive individual and his disposition towards life is likely a result of his highly neurotic temperament. I do try to empathize with him, but honestly, he's very obnoxious and he seems to hate people. He lives in one big contradiction. Also, I don't know if you know this but he has a physics channel called DraftScience where he's attempting to amend physics - something like "that the science of physics needs to return to the post-Newton, pre-Einstein, knowledgebase and reexamine particle-based models of the universe's function."

      "If you're into self-help, I think that, too, is problematic (fourth link), although it depends of course on what exactly you're reading."

      I don't follow any of that law attraction stuff. Mainly just the existentialist, personality, and mental health perspectives of JP. This wiki:
      And a book like The Rudest Book Ever by Shwetabh Gangwar

      I've been meaning to watch John Vervaeke's YouTube series which I learned about from JP. I've only made it a couple of episodes in though. It's A LOT of information. Looking forward to what you write.

      Again, thank you for your writings and I will definitely check out the rest of those links.

    4. Just a word on the opinionated Medium article on Peterson: I agree the author likely has an ax to grind, as do lots of critics of Peterson. But the main point he makes seems hard to argue with. The question is whether Peterson is hypocritical and should adjust the tone of his rhetoric. Here's a passage that stood out for me:

      "The circumstances for Peterson’s battle with addiction are unfortunate, which is why it is important to put the emphasis on his frequent patronizing tone when addressing men battling depression, nudging them to instigate an initiative of self-reform, all-the-while blaming those whom’s men’s misfortune had nothing to do with — feminists, advocates of progressive economic and social policy, and the like. Peterson couldn’t deal with the fallout of his wife’s cancer diagnosis without resorting to medication, proving that externalities can overpower a person’s own will no matter how firm, despite Peterson’s claim to the contrary."

      I don't follow Peterson that closely, especially his personal issues, so I'm going largely by what that article says. But if it's at all accurate, there does seem to be a hypocrisy issue with Peterson.

  11. Re: the main obstacle is God’s remoteness from the world. Meister Eckhart's rants about God suggest a little closer arrangement.