In this blog I’ve sought to carve up some sacred cows, including happiness and sex, theism and new atheism, liberalism and conservatism. In their place I recommend a pretty dark worldview, although not a wholly dark one. This worldview is informed by Nietzschean existentialism and by cosmicism as well as philosophical naturalism. The gist of existentialism is that we choose how we confront harsh truths about ourselves and our place in the universe, and that the mainstream choice is to retreat to self-serving delusions. “Cosmicism” is H.P. Lovecraft’s name for the science-inspired suspicion that our values, hopes, and dreams are all pathetic in the grand scheme, that our knowledge of the ultimate truth of how the universe works would deprive us of our sanity.
Probably the most common objection to my sort of hostility to Western culture takes the form of a stream of personal attacks: existential cosmicists are romantic idealists, often stuck in a juvenile stage of personal development, substituting a suitably dark fantasy for the tauntingly pleasant reality; moreover, the criticism goes, these idealists merely devise an elaborate philosophical rationalization for their personal failures in life, which is to say that existential cosmicists tend to be either losers (poor, unattractive sufferers) or else spoiled whiners, complaining about their anomie instead of seizing their opportunities, participating in society, and not over-thinking everything.
There are several criticisms here of existential cosmicism (EC), which can be conflated, so I’ll tease them apart and explain them more fully before responding to them.
Opposing Existential Cosmicism
Romanticism: Romanticism was the aesthetic movement that began as a recoiling from such cultural impacts of the Scientific Revolution as utilitarianism, pragmatism, and secular humanism. Instead of thinking of nature purely as quantifiable bits of matter that can be exploited, romantics deified the cosmos, portraying natural forces as worthy of awe, horror, and thus respect. Indeed, the pragmatist who deifies humans--especially for our scientific and engineering capabilities--borrows a theistic conceit which modern science itself has embarrassed, namely the notion that we’re similar to the First Cause, to the Creator of the universe. For the pragmatist whose ultimate value is usefulness, nature is a machine that can be reengineered to suit our purposes, and the more we control natural forces, the more godlike we become. Ironically, the romantic takes more seriously the upshot of modern science, holding up as more sacred the sea of natural forces than the hapless creatures who come and go as waves in that sea.
The criticism of my view, though, would be that EC is an hysterical overreaction to the success of technoscience, a sort of misplaced pity for the ecosystem we might destroy in our effort to transform it, and a nostalgic preference for mystery. The romantic denigrates our rational powers to preserve a terror of nature that's supposed to follow from our presumed inability to fully explain the universe. We fear most what we don’t understand, and if we can’t understand everything, such as consciousness or why there’s something rather than nothing, we must always be humble. This humility has social and political consequences; in particular, the romantic tends to oppose the arrogance of unbridled capitalism. And so the criticism is ultimately a personal attack: romanticism is a rationalization of failure, whereas scientistic culture celebrates our success, or at least our bold plan of carrying on as gods now that we’ve deposed the false god, thanks to modern science. Thus, if EC is romantic, so much the worse for EC.
Now, cosmicism is romantic in the historical sense I’ve outlined. In this blog, I’ve criticized the arrogance of scientistic culture, speaking of the curse of reason, the delusions of hyper-rationalism, and so on. But “romanticism” isn’t a pejorative term, which is to say that applying the label doesn’t amount to a criticism. Just because cosmicism can be traced to a reaction to the Scientific Revolution doesn’t mean cosmicism is wrong. On the contrary, as I’ve suggested, the cosmicist may be closer to modern science than is the scientistic humanist. As suggested, the criticism that’s implicit in any accusation that cosmicism is romantic lies on other, personal grounds to which I now turn.
Childish Naivety: I think the root of the foregoing objection to EC is a disagreement about what to make of the power of technoscience. Secular humanists are immensely proud of that power and they have contempt for traditional superstitions and for the prospect of any other retrograde brake on technoscientific progress. Their scorn for religion isn’t due so much to an intellectual difference of opinion on technical questions of theology and cosmology, but on awe felt for human secular achievements and on a revolutionary’s adventurous impulse to follow the technoscientific enterprise to its ultimate end, which may be our apotheosis or our self-destruction. Modern Western rationalists were revolutionary in wresting power from the Catholic Church, replacing that unsustainable medieval oligarchy with a stealth variety that’s more compatible with modern knowledge. Secular humanists want to be on the winning team, and they regard the power of technoscience as a sure sign that a science-centered ideology is best. By contrast, for example, religious fundamentalism isn’t just dangerous to the modern social order, but wildly impractical and thus contrary to the all-consuming desire for technoscientific progress.
Likewise, one of the existential cosmicist’s sins is supposed to be naivety: EC would undermine people’s confidence in their secular pursuits and thus slow social progress, hampering the humanist’s effort to adapt us to the demands of ever-“advancing” science and technology. For the secular humanist, progress requires trust that the gains of that advance will outweigh the costs, that godlike knowledge and power in the hands of clever mammals will be worth the sacrifices of modern oligarchy, wild (“free”) economic competition, and the lowering of aesthetic standards due to democracy and the rise of the corporate monoculture (or anticulture). If we’ll need to sacrifice in modern societies, says the secular humanist, at least we can be placated with the addictive joys of consuming material goods and of having sex with abandon, cheering on our liberal or conservative politicians as partisan team-players who submerge our individuality in the hive mind. In my blog I’ve cast aspersions on some of the ideals that motivate this secular faith, and so the objection is that I’m incredibly naïve, as though anything human-made could alter our modern course. Why waste time on impractical and indeed counterproductive musings, instead of struggling more single-mindedly to succeed like most other people, to reap the material rewards?
Cowardly Escapism: The critic’s answer is that EC is a cowardly attempt to escape from adult responsibilities. Modern civilization is supposedly more mature than more ignorant, ancient ones, and thus those who follow the received wisdom of modernity demonstrate their greater maturity. Outsiders, drop-outs, and other omega losers who gainsay secular culture, may lack the self-confidence needed to succeed in the adult businesses of earning a living and raising a family, let alone of making our collective way in the natural universe.
Bitter Rationalization: The diagnosis may be, then, that EC is a rationalization for character defects and for personal failures. The existential cosmicist may seek to drag secular society down to his level, since misery loves company. Instead of blaming his personal weaknesses, the antisocial outsider may seek a scapegoat or attempt to save face by waging a holy war of iconoclasm. Instead of admitting to being a mere pathetic loser who bitterly and jealously seeks to rob people of their peace of mind, the existential cosmicist puffs himself up, deeming himself a crusader on a mission to enlighten everyone, to show them that the secular activities he fails at (material success, raising a family, being a productive member of society by accepting certain conventions) are degrading compared to allegedly nobler ones.
The opponent’s hypothesis, then, has two parts. First, the expectation is that the existential cosmicist suffers from crippling personal weaknesses, such as physical ugliness, mental disability, or business, social, or sexual incapacities. Second, the opponent would explain this by saying that EC is a rationalization that effectively conceals those weaknesses or transforms them into twisted successes, and in this way the social outcast sustains a modicum of pride despite the dismal state of his affairs.
These sorts of personal attacks, launched reflexively by defenders of modern secular societies against not just existential cosmicists but other radical critics, merely put into words the so-called realist’s disgust with anything thought to be idle and impractical. I assume these charges would spring to the minds of most people were they to read my blog (although those who actually locate and choose to read this blog might tend to agree with it, since those who spend time reading philosophical articles on the internet likely already share an outsider’s mindset). The average secular humanist would be repulsed by a presumed stink of failure that wafts from this blog or from any diatribe against popular culture.
After all, you’d never hear a Casanova speaking ill of sexuality; nor a highly successful family man, who aims to be happy in the secular sense, rejecting the ideals of consumer society as delusions; nor Barack Obama or George W. Bush publicly abandoning their respective political principles. No, those who engage in radical criticism are naturally expected to be outsiders as opposed to the winners whose welfare depends on their constructive engagement with the very society in question. The outcast’s hostility to modern ideals is foolish, on the politically correct view, since were the poisonous attitude of EC more common, it would spoil the only life we have. Worst of all, EC is counterproductive, running up against the ideology of humanistic progress. Thus, the existential cosmicist is a laughable Don Quixote figure, engaging in a naïve, futile project instead of relishing the freedom and other boons made possible by modernity.
Correlation and Causation
I think these personal attacks need to be critiqued, meaning that I agree with them up to a point, but that we should appreciate where they go wrong from their plausible assumptions. Again, it stands to reason that radical critics are outsiders who fail, more or less, in the terms set by the society they oppose. Nietzsche, the early existentialist, and Lovecraft, the cosmicist, certainly suffered from breakdowns or financial failures. It stands to reason that those who excel in certain enveavours will pursue them for as long as they retain their skills. But this is to speak only of correlations between success and a positive outlook on the grounds for that success, and between weakness and failure, on the one hand, and skepticism about the tasks you do poorly in, on the other. Those who are strong in certain areas will excel in them and be proud of their accomplishments, since they’ll look favourably on the world that rewards their gifts or their choice to practice and so eventually to triumph. Meanwhile, those who are cursed with weaknesses, be they physical, mental, or social, and who shoulder the full blame for their predicament likely won’t be long for this world; they’ll succumb to shame from their self-imposed stigma and do themselves in. The losers who persist, therefore, must have some coping mechanism that keeps them alive and kicking, such as an EC ideology that finds more than enough blame to go around, as it were--indeed a whole cosmos to loathe.
But correlation isn’t causation. Where the opponent of EC errs, then, is in assuming that the reason for the correlation is that the existential cosmicist (or Gnostic, religious fundamentalist, ascetic, socialist, or any other radical critic of modern Western society) merely rationalizes those personal weaknesses, that the weaknesses not only cause the EC ideology, but that they are EC’s only sources, that EC is nothing but a face-saving mechanism. There are, of course, other possibilities. For one thing, cause and effect here may be reversed: perhaps the ideology of EC comes first to some people at a young age, and that unrelenting skepticism then causes them to fail at business, social networking, and intimate relationships; that is, hostility to certain social norms should naturally take someone out of the running, causing her either consciously or otherwise to withdraw from conventional walks of life. Then again, even if the personal weaknesses come first, they may be only partial causes of EC, which is to say that those weaknesses may also afford the outsider a detached perspective from which society’s ills can more clearly be seen, so that EC has a philosophical as well as a psychological basis.
Indeed, the opponent of EC has a curious double standard. She’d credit the success of insiders--in part at least--to their personal strengths (their attractiveness, ambition, talents, family connections, and so on), maintaining that those strengths collectively make possible the gloriously progressive modern civilization. This opponent would also blame the failures of outcasts on their personal weaknesses, as I’ve explained, but she’d be stingier with her assessment of the fruit of those “weaknesses,” as it were; that is, the so-called strengths of physical attractiveness, ambition, and so on bring about secular happiness, an enviable sex life, and the whole Age of Reason, but the opposite qualities, such as ugliness, mental “dysfunction”, cynicism, and antisocial tendencies are assumed to cause only the poverty and alienation of these few outcasts. No, if we’re speaking here of causality, of natural processes whereby certain types of people differentially alter their environments, the radically hostile mindset seems to produce or sustain not just a handful of people’s suffering, but a mental representation of an ideal way in which the world might be, based on an unflinching recognition of reality and an aesthetically sensitive reaction to that reality. Granted, the labours of healthy, productive people add up to the construction of an actual society, but insightful outsiders may have the vantage point to coldly calculate the difference between that society and the one that should replace it.
EC may indeed serve as an elaborate mechanism for coping with bitter disappointments, at least for some outsiders and losers. But failure in life seems to have a silver lining, which is that bitterness, ugliness, introversion, and poverty may force the loser to adopt a detached, alienated position, to look upon society from an external vantage point and thus to be able to objectively catalogue our absurdities and tragedies. Just as an anthropologist gains unique insight when studying a foreign culture, insight unavailable to members of the tribe who can’t afford to be skeptical of their cultural conventions, the loser should have a unique perspective on the culture she needn’t accept for her own good. The very personal weaknesses that disgust the successful, well-loved, upstanding member of a modern society may be the primary means of attaining the ultimate philosophical insight.
Indeed, the greatest of these outsiders have usually been lauded and even worshipped for precisely that reason. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an outsider (due to his skin colour) when he said he dreamed of the day when freedom would ring for everyone regardless of their race, gender, or physical appearance. Gandhi was physically weak and frugal when he led the Indian nationalist movement against British colonialism in India. Likewise, the biblical character of Jesus was an impoverished Jew in Roman-occupied Judea when he contrasted that imperial society with what he called the kingdom of God. Again, the legendary character of the Buddha was a wandering spiritual teacher, detached from conventional concerns of family and wealth, when he contrasted the illusory world of individual things with the interconnected, ego-annihilating reality. And, lastly, to take a more recent example, the fictional character of Batman secretly renounces the ideals of corrupt Gotham City, leading a double life in which he pretends to honour those ideals as a preeminently upstanding citizen, while using his wealth mainly in a heroic war against social corruption. Notice that in each of these cases, the hero is born to relative wealth and luxury, only later to renounce it as a result of a higher, moral calling. King earned a doctoral degree from Boston University, Gandhi a law degree in London; Jesus was God in utopian Heaven, who degraded himself by becoming a man; the Buddha was a prince who gave up his palaces to live as an ascetic; and although Batman retains his inherited wealth and secular ambition, he employs them only as covers for his subversive agenda as a superhero.
My point is obviously not that the average loser is as heroic or divine as any of these personages. Again, the most heroic outsiders seem to voluntarily withdraw from the game as opposed to having their outsider status forced on them by their failures. Still, the famous prophets, gurus, and heroes fulfill the same ascetic ideal that lifts up less influential outsiders, and happen to be esteemed by losers and winners alike. Granted, many materialists only pretend to worship the colossal loser, Jesus, for example, or else worship him because they assume his resurrection and eventual triumph negate the resentful message he conveyed while he suffered as a hermit. But the fact that some of those who fail in the mainstream, materialistic, biologically-determined sense are nevertheless held as sacred by great multitudes surely indicates that opponents of inspired, radical social critiques might just want to suppress disheartening truths about the society they’ve embraced. The insiders may fear that they live in corrupt Gotham after all, that they’ve pledged themselves to delusions and that the outsider tends to understand the world at a deeper level. The personal attacks function, then, as distractions, having no logical force as they stand but only the practical goal of shaming the loser to put an end to the rants.
There’s another questionable aspect of these attacks, besides their confusion of correlation with causation, which is the notion that idealists are less mature than pragmatists who tend to achieve more in materialistic terms because they (the pragmatists) dedicate themselves to that more “realistic” task. At root here is the naturalistic fallacy, the inference that because certain goals are normal, therefore they’re normative, that because we’re genetically predisposed to seeking a mate and earning enough money to raise a family, therefore we’re supposed to achieve those ends so that those who fail are malformed or stuck in some earlier stage of development. Now, all of this requires theism, a set of ideas which is laughably preposterous. Theism, you’ll recall, is the vainglorious delusion that human nature is fundamental to the universe, that there would be no cosmos without an almighty person who thinks and acts like us, who allegedly created everything around us. Were there such a creator god, his creation would have a function, just as we give our creations functions, which is to say jobs they ought to perform. But when Darwin showed that the intelligent design of organisms is illusory, he also discredited the normative interpretation of biological phenomena. Thus it became fallacious to infer a value from a biological, naturally selected fact.
And yet the upstanding citizen pities the ascetic and alienated outsider as immature, as failing not just to satisfy social expectations but to grow into a complete human being, leading a so-called rich, full life. In turn, the ascetic outsider, the omega person who is last in all mainstream estimations, is disgusted with the winner’s delusions of grandeur. Instead of trotting out an archaic teleological presupposition according to which we have a natural purpose even though our creators, namely natural forces, are thoroughly undead, the opponent of EC should appreciate that people are differently equipped. Some are beautiful, ambitious, and gullible, and thus well-disposed to succeed in the matrix sustained by politically correct delusions that prevent mass outbreaks of debilitating angst. Others are unattractive, socially awkward, inept at business, but philosophically curious. These others will likely not acquire much wealth nor attract many friends or mates, and if they nevertheless long to be happy, they’re just the sort who will foolishly kill themselves. Again, the losers who remain will develop in a different direction: rather than being immature in some cryptotheistic sense, they’ll devalue mainstream expectations, preferring a more or less ascetic life of contemplating the comical results of our instinct to personalize the thoroughly impersonal natural order. If an outsider doesn’t belong to the consumer culture, doesn’t share the hedonistic desire for a rich, full life, the opponent of EC merely begs the question when she calls the existential cosmicist a loser or a failure. To be sure, relative to mainstream conventions, an ascetic with little income or social life fails miserably, but whether those conventions are best is just the question at issue.
Finally, I want to consider the question of bitterness. Does the existential cosmicist opt out of a normal life due to bitterness, that is, to a begrudging admission that this person is ill-equipped to succeed in that respect, which causes her to lash out blindly at the word like a wounded animal? Blaming the world primarily for your personal disappointment is highly egoistic, as though you were central to the universe and nature owes you a favour. Still, bitterness is close to what I’d call an ethically proper response to suffering, namely disgust for what’s distasteful. The difference is that the bitter person takes her suffering personally, whereas someone whose ego has been so overwhelmed by failure that she laughs at her own pathetic defense mechanisms holds the world in contempt with greater detachment. What revolts the existential cosmicist isn’t that she lacks what many others possess or that the world won’t hear her prayers for a greater fortune. No, she understands that her failures are brought about largely by her inherited inabilities and peculiar predilections (what closet teleologists call “weaknesses” and “malfunctions”), and by her eventual decision to renounce the mainstream way of life. Nevertheless, her aesthetic sense is assaulted by the hideous imbalance between nature’s inhumaneness and our human nature. That we sentient, intelligent beings should have been produced not by a loving god but by an entropically decaying yet mindlessly creative, buzzing chaos of quantum fluctuations isn’t beautiful at all, but appalling for its tragic and absurd implications.