Monday, October 22, 2012

Science and the Matrix Metaphor

When the Matrix movies were at the height of their popularity some years ago, philosophers were ecstatic because those movies popularized some canonical Western philosophical ideas, reaching back to Descartes’ handling of the evil genius form of skepticism, and to Plato’s Cave metaphor. Those films also have Gnostic and other religious themes. Less well-known, I think, is that The Matrix is useful as a way of popularizing what are now becoming scientific conventions, especially in biology and cognitive science. In fact, the core idea of The Matrix, as opposed to the movie’s plot, is shown to be almost literally true by those sciences. I’ve alluded a few times in this blog to The Matrix, and so I’ll explore here the relevance of especially the first of the three movies to Rants Within the Undead God.

First, I need to summarize the movie’s premise. The movie supposes that what most people perceive of the world is actually a mass hallucination, a virtual reality constructed by anti-human, artificially intelligent machines and employed to keep most people docile so that the machines can use their dormant organic bodies for fuel. The hero, Neo, wakes up from the dream world, into the harsher reality and fights the machines, eventually sacrificing himself and rescuing his fellow liberated, enlightened allies.

Genes and Mental Models

Now, there are two scientific theories that The Matrix seems to popularize, one from biology, the other from psychology. The former is Richard Dawkins’ gene’s-eye perspective on natural selection, and the latter is the theory of the self as the brain’s model of its inner processes. To begin with Dawkins, he went as far as to resort to science fiction tropes in pushing his point that natural selection can benefit the replicators at the expense of their “vehicles” or “hosts.” On this view, that which is primarily selected by the environment is a genetic lineage, and the phenotype--with all of its physical and mental adaptations--piggybacks on the fitness of the genes, much as Ayn Rand and plutocrats maintain that relatively poor people survive and enjoy many privileges only because of the greatness of their financial superiors who create civilization in the first place.

The second theory, found in books such as The Self Illusion by Bruce Wood, and The Ego Tunnel, by Thomas Metzinger, is that just as the brain simplifies the external data it receives from the senses, processing the information and producing a model of the outer world, so too the brain simplifies and simulates its neural activity, producing what we think of the self or the ego. The point isn’t that the external world or the self doesn’t exist, but that neither is as we naively assume it to be. For example, even though our eyes dart back and forth when we look at something, we assume that all of what we’re looking at is visually clear, knowing that we could focus on any part of it at will. The focal point of our field of vision is actually tiny compared to everything else we see at a glance. That which falls outside the focal point is comparatively blurry, but the brain remembers what we saw when we focused, say, on the left side of an apple, so that when we focus on the right side, we can think of the whole apple as a crisply-delineated object. In this way, our memories create a simplified impression, or model, of the apple, which edits out the visual information pertaining to the apple’s blurriness.

Likewise, we have an idea of the self as a conscious, free, rational agent, but this self is an illusion generated by the brain and serving an evolutionary function. Anyone who couldn’t simplify her inner or outer sense experience in these ways would be stupefied as a result of sensory overload, and thus couldn’t actively safeguard the genes or transmit them to the next generation. The kind of model at issue here is common in science. For example, the physical model of DNA or of atoms is a highly simplified representation that ignores many details, but the model might be useful for certain purposes. A so-called ceteris paribus law is another kind of simplification, which generalizes about what would happen in a system were everything outside the system left out of the picture. In reality, systems interact and so a ceteris paribus law can have exceptions. But the point is that our folk psychological myth about our nature as human beings, which theists take to the extreme by positing the immaterial and immortal spirit, is like these scientific models. At best, such a model is useful as a means to a certain end, but at worst the end served by the model is detrimental to us or the model oversimplifies the facts and becomes counterproductive (as is likely the case with respect to the theist’s dualistic notion of the self).

Our Biomechanical Overlords

Back to The Matrix. The relevance of the genetic interpretation of evolution is that the genes, the proteins, and the whole cellular assembly system that builds our bodies from the moment of conception are literally machines. You might think we can say that that assembly system, in which the genetic code is read by messenger RNA to build amino acids, proteins, and cells, is only metaphorically a sprawling machine, since there’s no God who designed those chemicals to perform any intended function, Creationism notwithstanding. But this begs the question, since according to the psychological theory at issue, neither is there any self who builds our cell phones, planes, computers, and other devices. Our naïve conception of ourselves is undermined by science, and thus so too is the standard notion that a literal machine depends on a designer’s intention. The commonsensical notion of an intention, of a belief or a desire, is only a highly simplified way of talking about part of the brain. Granted, complex patterns can emerge, but some patterns are subjective illusions that depend more on the eye of the beholder; in other words, a pattern can be a delusion rather than an illusion. We want to see ourselves as rational commanders, and so we define our technology as a slave carrying out our command. But that may be a story we tell only within the matrix, as will become clearer in a moment.

At any rate, as I say in Darwinism and Nature’s Undeadness, the updated intuition we need to make sense of natural creativity of all kinds, including our designing of technology and our genes’ role in building us, is the intuition of nature’s undeadness. Anything which passes the anthropomorphist’s generous test of life is at best undead, given naturalistic metaphysics. There are no supernatural essences of personality or spiritual fragments of a transcendent plane. But given our preoccupation with social relations, we’ll model as intelligent anything that looks to us as though it’s following a plan. Thus, we model each other as having rational homunculi that control our bodies, and most people, being theists, interpret all of nature as following God’s plan; even atheists instinctively blame unseen gremlins, for example, when we meet with ill fortune. Again, the naïve way of looking at this generous way of interpreting natural order is the dualistic one, which is no longer tenable after the Darwinian revolution. Instead, we should interpret all living and nonliving things as neither alive nor dead in the naïve senses, but as blasphemously undead, as mere simulations of ideal, spiritual life; after all, even nonliving things, like DNA, stars, and galaxies perform a great deal of work, evolving, complexifying, and creating everything in nature. So according to the Darwinian intuition, life and death are unified in the concept of the undead, and that undeadness will seem enchanted to zombies like us who instinctively personify everything around us.

In this way, everything in the cosmos, both that which is naively thought to be living by way of being infused with a supernatural spirit, and that which is so thought to be spiritless and lifeless, can look alive by merely following its routine, like a zombie stumbling along as though anyone were at home in its brain. In particular, our machines will look like they follow our orders, and DNA and protein synthesis will look like they’re designed mechanisms that perform the function of building organisms. But there are no such orders or designs--at least, not in the way we naively assume. Instead, the source of natural order at both the micro and the meso levels is the monstrous and mysterious simulation of what we think of as planned work. Work is done everywhere, but there’s no spirit in charge. True, some work in the universe is done by brains, and here we do find emergent patterns of personal autonomy. But underlying the difference between the brain’s self-control and DNA’s lack of personhood is the monistic, naturalistic metaphysics which has become compulsory as a result of modern science, and according to this metaphysics, there’s no substantial difference between a brain and DNA with respect to their apparent vitality. Both work as undead automatons, although brains can tell themselves self-serving (or rather, self-creating) stories to keep their spirits up (or rather to pretend that they have spirits).  

The upshot of this is that while a human brain looks more alive than the proteins that build our bodies by receiving genetic messages, this is a matter merely of degree, not of metaphysical kind. Metaphysically, everything that participates in the natural order is undead, to some extent. With respect to The Matrix, this means that the genes have the same sort of “life” as our machines, the difference being that brains build our machines whereas no brain designs the genes. Still, if the genes and our machines are both undead, in that they pass the test of seeming to be fine-tuned and to work according to intentions, the movie’s narrative applies rather directly to our actual situation. Substitute the genes and the cellular assembly process for AI machines built by humans in the future, and you’ve still got the movie’s core idea: we’re programmed and misled by machines to serve their undead pseudo-interests.

Specifically, the Dawkinsian biologist says that our fundamental role is to serve as vessels for our genes. So in the Matrix, the machines use human bodies as batteries, while in biological reality our bodies are used as vehicles to store, defend, and propagate the microscopic machinery that sustains us. Moreover, in the movie the dormant humans are abused by the machines and forced into the dehumanizing, humiliating position of lying in a jelly-filled pod with tubes down their throats. In biological reality, the genes implant in us the instinct to procreate, which is to say, to assume various dehumanizing and humiliating postures involving organic jellies and tubes. The parallel, I trust, is clear.

Finally, there’s the matrix itself, the virtual reality of delusions that transfixes human slaves. In psychological reality, the brain produces a highly simplified model of its neural interactions, and we inhabit the space of that model; that is, we spontaneously apply naive concepts, anthropomorphizing each other and virtually anything else, projecting that model and reflexively retreating to it even after enlightening ourselves with respect to our true nature, by studying biology or psychology, for example. We’re trapped in that misleading view of ourselves, because our bodies are built--by our biomechanical overlords, no less--to adopt that naïve viewpoint. We wear blinders that focus us on completing tasks that aren’t even tasks in the ordinary sense, but are the end results of our genes’ undead wanderings.

Our anthropomorphic models force us to think of each other as gods, as conscious, free, and rational spirits, but the “lie” of those models is given by the fact that instead of treating each other as such, we’re preoccupied with primitive urges, sexualizing and otherwise objectifying each other, calculating breast sizes, hip-to-waste ratios, and other signs of fertility or else the wealth and status of a reliable provider of resources for the woman to raise a child. In the matrix of our naïve self-conception, we ignore our animal nature and pretend that we’re godlike, whereas our predominant behaviors, such as our secretive sex practices and our short-sighted, irrational, and violent servitude to tribal conventions, unveil the grim truth for all to see. Despite the obviousness of that truth, we seldom ever appreciate it or dwell on it for long, because we are in fact trapped in a false view of the world, and we’re put in that trap by machines that are roughly as undead as the machines we design and engineer. Thus, the premise of The Matrix is a highly useful myth, which is to say a powerful story that makes sense of where we are and what we should do.

Escape from the Matrix

This brings me to the prospect of a higher self’s escape from the matrix. In the movie, there’s a real self who underlies the illusory one in the matrix and who frees himself by recognizing that the matrix isn’t real. Here I think science and the movie diverge. There is no real, hidden self that either coexists with or exists prior to the brain’s mental model, which can then overwrite that model in an act of enlightenment. However, I do think there’s an important distinction between the enlightened and the unenlightened, between esoteric and exoteric knowledge, between authentic people who understand their existential situation and who heroically overcome it, and those who thrive on delusions. The enlightened person can’t escape from being just a brain’s model of its inner activity, but some models are aesthetically and ethically better than others.

At our best, we create an enlightened self from the rude materials of our more gene-friendly pseudo-self, and just as some paintings are more inspiring, original, and beautiful than others, so too some minds come closer to achieving certain ideals. Some ideals transparently serve the routines of our undead, biochemical overlords, whereas others are only byproducts of naturally selected traits, or what Stephen Jay Gould calls spandrels. One such spandrel is surely the existential cosmicist’s ideal of appreciating the full horror of our existential situation, summarized in the above section, for example, and of taking at least a symbolic stand against that situation.

Unlike in the biblical Job’s case, there’s no one to hear our protests since our overlords are undead, as are we, their “victims.” The price of liberation, then, is angst, alienation, dread, and perhaps social detachment or even insanity. The brain didn’t evolve to sustain a rebel against its makers. To become such a rebel, we have to overcome genetic and social conditioning, and we need the courage and the creativity to invent new and worthwhile ways of being undead, even while recognizing the tragic futility of this spiritual, transhuman endeavor. To paraphrase Plato, those who are confined to the matrix (or to the Cave of reflections) demonstrate their creativity mainly in the sexual realm, dutifully producing a fresh generation of slaves, whereas the enlightened philosopher creates brainchildren. Ultimately, neither sort of creativity will likely matter. Natural forces create biological patterns, but eventually such forces will replace those patterns with something else; the universe’s evolution is monstrous--inexorable and inhumane. But enlightenment is the best we can do; confronting the philosophical implications of modern science, and living with dignity in light of that accursed knowledge is, to use Nietzsche’s word, nobler than the alternative of sleepwalking with a biochemical leash/noose wrapped around our neck.  

A liberal secular humanist will protest that philosophy is irrelevant, that all that matters is pragmatically applying science and technology to “raise our standard of living.” You wouldn’t know it from the scientistic technocracy implied by this protest, but the humanist has a burden of justifying the values that set the standard of living. How then shall the humanist proceed, by polling a population, asking what its members want to do with their life, and taking their answer as gospel? Will even the humanist be satisfied by that grossly fallacious plan of action? Or how about deferring to the oligarchs that run the system managed by the technocratic liberal? Should the most vicious among us who rise to the pinnacle of a dominance hierarchy be trusted to dictate our ethical and aesthetic standards? Surely not! No, this is where enlightenment is a prerequisite even of the anti-philosophical liberal’s busywork. Those who feign pragmatism still need to justify their goals, even as they preoccupy themselves with devising more and more efficient means of achieving them. And enlightened people will have ethically and aesthetically superior goals to those of the deluded folks who are mesmerized by the matrix.


  1. You wrote, "And enlightened people will have ethically and aesthetically superior goals to those of the deluded folks who are mesmerized by the matrix."

    What does ethical and aesthetical superiority mean? Whose judgement in this regard is right?


    1. I explain what I mean by "aesthetic morality" in my two June 2012 entries, "Morality and the Aesthetic Conception of Life," and "Case Studies of Aesthetic Morality..." Also, Nietzsche talked a lot about this.

      Briefly, the moral and aesthetic perspectives on values are different. A moralist tends to be interested in unifying society, even if that requires the spreading of noble lies or myths. An artist is interested in originality as opposed to cliches. One way we can be original is by rebelling against natural expectations, which leads ultimately to asceticism. Artists also look to their inner voice, their muse, as opposed to following politically correct conventions. According to an aesthetic reconstruction of moral values, we should evaluate actions as artworks, holding them up to judgments of taste.

      Whose taste is best? Is aesthetic value entirely subjective or arbitrary? These are tough questions. I don't think beauty or ugliness are entirely subjective, though, since they're based on instinctive reactions (attraction and disgust). Those with the best taste would be creative geniuses, those who are the most original and creative in rebelling against cliches.

  2. Hmm, I believe in right and wrong and good and bad, but I sure hope I am not a "moralist". And I believe I am also quite typical in not being able to care less about "unifying society" per se, except as a means to an end. And that is not a pure consequentialism (which, not respecting individuals, really is unifying society), but a consequentialism with some sort of deontological side-constraints broadly a la Scanlon.

    Hopefully you do believe in right and wrong and good and bad when you aren't writing your blogs. Like Tallis says, even pomo professsors expect their pay-cheques according to contract, good behavior in queues, and airplanes taking them to conferences piloted by pilots with "a conventional sense of responsibility".

    I understand you did a PhD in Philosophy? I would like to look at your thesis, but I could not find it in Proquest Digital Dissertations, assuming your name above is not a pseudonym. Can you make it available for download?

    1. Did you read the two articles I cited in my above comment? I reject not moral values, but the moralist's rationalistic or cryptotheistic myths that are supposed to justify them. I'm interested in reconstructing those values from an aesthetic viewpoint.

      My dissertation was in the philosophy of mind, and the name is indeed a pseudonym. Sorry, but I don't know that I want to make it available for general download.

    2. No, I didn't read them (I am not the first Anonymous above to whom you replied). The reason I asked about the thesis is that I am interested in these things you are writing about, but I do like like to read this highly literary, allusive style. I prefer that the premises, arguments and conclusions be laid out clearly and that opposing views are carefully considered and not straw-manned. ("Moralist" for example sounds like a definite putdown, and the offhand claim that any naive soul (along the lines of Nagel and Scanlon for example) who believes in right and wrong and good and bad is usung "cryptotheistic myths" is quite distasteful to me. Perhaps that claim is argued for in other posts a person could be sent to, but all the posts I have seen still contain this sort of thing).

      I assume that in general, theses committees tend to require a less literary style and a more argued and reasoned presentation, although I know that is not always true.

    3. I think you mean to say you *don't* like to read this literary, allusive, ranting style (you said you do). My dissertation doesn't much overlap with the topics of this blog, though. Like most philosophy dissertations, it's on a pretty narrow and academic topic. My department specialized in analytic philosophy, so indeed the style of my dissertation is argumentative rather than literary. With regard to my blog's writing style, I try to mix in arguments with rants, so I call my writings here philosophical rants.

      Stay tuned, though, since I'm in the middle of a more technical email philosophical exchange (about how radical are cognitive science's implications for the manifest image, that is, for our naive conceptions of our consciousness, values, freewill, and rationality) with the fantasy author, R Scott Bakker, who runs the blog Three Pound Brain. We aim to post this exchange on our blogs.

      I don't mean "moralist" by itself to be a put-down, nor is it mainly defined in that way in the dictionary. I intended it in the first three senses (but not the fourth), given here: . More relevantly, though, I meant to distinguish traditional moral principles from an aesthetic reconstruction of morality, so a moralist, in my sense, would differ from an aesthetic moralist (both would technically be moralists). The kinds of meta-ethics that trouble me derive from liberal secular humanism or Enlightenment rationalism (deontology, utilitarianism), but also from the teleology of ancient virtue ethics, as well as from flat-out theism. But I argue against those positions (hyper-rationality, theism, etc); I don't just call people names and leave it at that. To what sort of morality do you subscribe? Maybe I can give you a sense here of my counterarguments.

      In any case, thanks for checking out the blog.

  3. Yes, obviously I meant to write "do not" instead of "do". I can't say really what morality I "subscribe" to since I haven't figured all these things out to the degree you have, and doubt that I ever will or even could, but basically I don't think there is any real problem with the sort of general normative theory in the ballpark of people like Nagel and Scanlon (applying it is specific cases is another issue) and I find the idea of "reconstruction" of morality on "aesthetic" grounds to be a total non-starter,not to mention very ugly! (Not that I would, or could fairly, based much on that visceral reaction). No point in arguing about it in little blog comments, though, and I see you have some posts that talk about that so I should read them first (I marked a large bunch of them to read). Perhaps I will comment on your article about dentists before that.

    I really wish, though, that you avoid the word "moralist". Any word that has such totally different dictionary definitions has to be suspect. Hopefully your position doesn't get any weaker if you use some phrase that is clearly more neutral. Also I have read a lot of moral philosophy and I have almost never seen that word used in referring to contemporary moral theorists. And I hope you would agree that the derived adjective, "moralistic", sounds pretty negative.

    Still would like to see the thesis (you could send with all identification removed). I don't know that any area in philosophy is really all that isolated from any other: in particular, philosophy of mind is essentially about intentionality, and I believe that intentionality is essentially a normative concept.

    1. I haven't read Scanlon, but I like much of what Nagel says about objectivity (I write about this here in "The Curse of Reason"). Judging from Scanlon's Wikipedia entry, both of these theorists are pretty much rationalists and specifically Kantians about morality. As I argue in numerous writings here, such as my criticisms of hyper-rationality and liberalism, there are at least two big problems with this approach to morality. First, cognitive science has shown relatively recently (i.e. after the Enlightenment, whence this rationalist view of morality came) that we're not as rational as we usually think we are. So the premises of rationalist morality are dubious.

      Second, there's the naturalistic fallacy: even if immoral people contradict themselves, so what? That's not necessarily bad unless you presuppose the value of logic or the biofunction of sanity. Indeed, reason does come with certain values, and these are questionable ones. Reason evolved to make us Machiavellian in our social dealings, and our social instinct in turn is a strategy for protecting our genes. (See also "Existential Cosmicism and Technology.")

      Indeed, just as in Kant's deontology (the need to treat everyone as ends and not just as means), in utilitarianism (maximize happiness), and in virtue ethics (virtue fulfills our function of being rational in society), Scanlon and Nagel make morality out to be a noble lie, a rationalization of a humiliating natural process that itself abuses human beings over and over again. Kant speaks of our dignity as rational ends in ourselves, but when we see morality as a matter of following the categorical imperative of being logically consistent, and when we note that consistency is a spandrel, a biproduct of reason's biofunction of tracking our social status and of using rhetoric to advance ourselves in the social dominance hierarchy, we see that that dignity is a sham. In so far as we're proud of our rationality, we're actually rationalizing the extent to which we're slaves of our genes.

      For example, Scanlon apparently grounds moral judgments in "the positive value of a way of living with others." But this presupposes that antisocial behaviour is immoral. By making morality out to be a social convention, a rule that holds society together, like the rule to stop your car when the light is red, Scanlon effectively apologizes for the natural processes that force us to endure what Sartre called the hell of other people. Ascetics decide to break out of society, though, and their authenticity may be moral in a higher, existential sense. (See "Revenge of the Omega Men.")

      Indeed, in my view, existentialism accounts for the basis of morality (the need to pick the best values). True moral principles, as opposed to social conventions that dehumanize and enslave us, enter the picture when we choose to be what existentialists call "authentic" persons. This means we must be free of delusions, seeing our natural position in all of its horror and then creatively and heroically overcoming that horror, choosing an uplifting lifestyle that gives meaning in the face of the bedrock facts of nature's absurdity and tragedy.

      My thesis is about the problem that naturalistic theories--Fodor, Dretske, and Millikan--have of explaining the normative aspect of mental content. Instead of posting the whole thesis, what I might be able to do is post an article I wrote that summarizes the thesis using less technical language.

  4. I am quite skeptical of this sort of line. First of all, morality based in rationality doesn't require perfect rationality at all; to suggest this is a straw man. Haidt and his fellow travellers seem to me to have very dubious positions. The empirical research they do (although methodologically suspect) is quite important in exposing failures of rationality, but it presupposes a a strong and genuine core of rationality that I hope will ultimately be better exposed as a result of this movement. Second, I am skeptical of evolutionary explanation in general. I agree with Chalmers and others that it cannot explain the existence of true first person phenomenology and once that is acknowledged, it seems to me that the field is pretty wide open. Third and related, the theoretical reason that that goes far beyond what could plausibly be selected for under current models, including the arrival of many at these positive evolutionary conclusions (not all that well supported but more based on, I agree with Nagel, "the fear of religion"), should also be just as suspect as moral reason based on the same sort of argument. Fifth, even if none of this applies (and how can that be if we continue to try to actually argue), I think an error theory about morality is a lot more plausible that "reconstructing" morality on "aesthetics" (Although, strangely, Mackie for one doesn't let the error theory stop him from moralising (and here I mean it pejoratively, because given the error theory he has no base to stand on)). I have not studied this at all (as I said it seems to me to be a total non-starter) but I don't see how typical common-sense morality (which largely I would endorse) could be supported any better by "aesthetics" than moral intuition. I'm much more likely to be a non-realist or subjectivist naturalist reductionist about aesthetics than I am basic principles or morality. And all this aesthetics, higher man, rebel stuff can certainly seem to be in many cases nauseatingly narcissistic and sour-grapey. (I also frankly find it potentially very scary). Sixth, I think as a matter of fact you have Scanlon wrong. He is not all that Kantian for starters (calls his view "Kant on the Cheap") but mainly, I don't think he considers morality essentially to be any kind of "convention" since it is a hypothetical contractualism not a Hobbesian style actual contract.

    But anyway, as I said, I think it is to hard to discuss this in replies to blog posts. (Nor do I like discussing things as part of a (potential) public spectable. I suspect you actually do like that...)

    I would agree that FDM do not account for the normative aspects of sophisticated mental content. I used to be a big fan of Millikan's views before I realized they had serious probems and in fact I carried out a lengthy correspondence with her in the days prior to the Internet. Took a course from Fodor and watched him fume amusingly as I tried to defend Millikan.

  5. By the way, how much of David Benetar's work would you endorse? I assume also Brian Leiter's general use of Nietzsche (in particular his recent "The Truth Is Terrible") would be something you were sympathetic to. (Now Leiter is someone to whom I would be willing to apply the term "moralist" in the pejorative sense).

  6. I'll just clarify what I'd say in response to your objections, for any interested readers. I agree it would be a strawman to attack human morality as not perfectly rational. But that's not how I use cognitive science in this connection, and this ties in with your interpretation of my view as aiming to "support" morality with aesthetics. Morality doesn't need to be supported by anything philosophical, since morality is instinctive: it's caused by neural and other biological mechanisms. The philosophical issue with morality, as I see it, is the Nietzschean one, which is that in our postmodern climate (see my "Untangling Modernism and Postmodernism"), we're no longer enchanted by the myths that secular humanists used to tell to make us proud of our values. So the problem from cognitive science is that it shows we're not as rational as Enlightenment rationalism led us to believe. Cog sci bursts that bubble, and so we naturalists, atheists, and humanists could use another metanarrative to reassure us that our way of life isn't wholly absurd and tragic. That's where I think Nietzsche's talk of reconstructing morality from an aesthetic viewpoint of good taste is relevant. You'd have to read my articles on aesthetic morality to see where I take this, but I too haven't come close to working all this out even to my satisfaction.

    Regarding evolutionary explanation, I'm also skeptical specifically of the teleological interpretation of natural selection and of the lazy talk of biological "functions." But I don't see the evidence of our lack of rationality, consciousness, or freedom (compared to the Enlightenment myths) as coming just from Haidt. It goes back to Freud, and demonstrations of our cognitive biases and fallacies are pretty standard in cog sci, as far as I can tell.

    I don't quite understand your third point (and you skipped the fourth), but regarding the sour grapes aspect of existentialism, see my "Defending Existential Cosmicism."

    Regarding Scanlon, I may well be wrong since I haven't read him, but conventions can be implicit (and thus resting on a hypothetical scenario or thought experiment) rather than explicit. Indeed, the Hobbesian state of nature is likewise hypothetical or presupposed. Anyway, my point was just that he takes moral rules to be about how we can best live together. (The point about conventions was more an analogy than anything else.) Again, this presupposes that it's always wrong to live apart from others. The Eastern mystical perspective says otherwise, so it's hardly an analytic truth that morality is for social purposes. That means there should be a meta-ethical defense here. Scanlon may well provide one, but I'd be skeptical of it.

    1. Oh, and I haven't read Benetar or Leiter's Nietzsche paper, but regarding antinatalism, see my "Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?" The authors I've read on antinatalism are Schopenhauer and Thomas Ligotti.

      Regarding Leiter's summary of his Nietzsche paper, that diagnosis of our existential predicament is indeed a big part of what my blog assumes. I've been calling my view existential cosmicism, since it intensifies Nietzsche's existentialism with Lovecraftian cosmicism. I don't agree necessarily with Nietzsche's prescriptions, although I am tempted to work out how an aesthetic perspective could provide the remedy. (I'm also a visual artist, so I hope I'll have interested things to say about aesthetic morality.)

    2. It sure sounded like that's how you are using it. I don't think observing failures of rationality (whether it is done as a results of "cognitive science" or just common sense) impugn rationality. In fact they rely on rationality to proceed. Just because something is instinctive doesn't mean it doesn't have to rely on something. Lots of instincts, habits, tendencies (such as those documented failures of rationality) cannot be defended in the end. I never brought up Haidt, you did, I wouldn't have mentioned him otherwise. But he is at least a little more systematic and tries to be a little more careful than Freud. But the knowledge of flaws in human reasoning is really just common sense, it doesn't need much science (just common sense writ large, I think Quine has said). Thought the third point was fairly clear but no energy to elaborate, and as for the fourth point, there is no fourth point (cf. Monty Python although I couldn't just now find the skit with google). I don't like the way you toss consciousness in with these admittedly more contentious things rationality and freedom. I know I am conscious, true I don't know about you, that's why the other minds problem is a real, genuine, difficult, I would say unsolvable, problem. But I know I am conscious and strongly believe that is not something evolution alone can account for. I glanced at your piece relevant to the sour grapes claim, I will have to read it, but I wasn't accusing you personally of this. Some people may adopt this position for truly rational reasons, but I think we have to admit that other reasons are common as well. Scanlon's theory I don't think is explicit or implicit convention. It is no convention at all since even in a society where there are implicit or explicit conventions regarding so-called "morality" in those societies, Scanlon would say they are mistaken about morality if their "moral" conventions could not be derived from his analysis of morality (roughly: I don't want to put words in his mouth -- but for example if people have agreed happily to certain rules because they don't know any better or are meek, he would not call those rules morally right even if they make society "run smoothly"). I don't think he says morality is "for social purposes". It is not a pragmatic or sociological reductive account, but more sui generis. Maybe I have it totally wrong, though. I am not a professional philosopher and probably don't think straight.

  7. By the way, I found your thesis myself so you don't need to provide it. So many things to read, I probably won't be able to read it but I would like to glance at it, at least.

    Also by the way, I find your captchas, like many others, almost impossible to read! There must be some that are easier for dumb myopic people to read but still adequately difficult for "robots"...

  8. You mention recognizing the full horror of our existential situation and taking a stand against it. I find this to be an interesting perspective which relies on allowing certain thought processes to flourish and others not.

    I, personally, fully accept our existential situation and make no stand against it. Nor do I view it as horrible. I simply make a practice out of reconstructing my psyche to thrive regardless. Our brains and thought processes are enormously plastic. Self-administered CBT can create pathways which result in happiness within our current existential situation, or any existential situation, simply by refusing to judge any potential situation as inherently negative. There is simply no reason to do so; I do judge negative judgment, raw phenomenal suffering as bad, and as such deconstruct and reconstruct my mind in such a way that it can handle this. It may not be heroic, but it is rather nice.

  9. I'm sure you're right that we can program our minds to feel less pain in certain situations or even to feel pleasure when we'd naturally feel pain. Buddhist meditation is an ancient technique of detaching from your ego so that you don't feel the suffering that results from unrealistic desires. Delusions that keep out cognitive dissonance is a more mainstream way of being happy despite our existential predicament: we buy into social conventions, including theistic myths, to distract and comfort us, allowing us to escape into a fantasy world.

    So what's wrong with any of this from my point of view? As you say, it's not heroic, which means it fails to live up to certain ethical and aesthetic standards. The question becomes why we should prefer to care about those standards which force us to sacrifice our happiness or at least our pleasure in the only life we have.

    I think this largely depends on two things: how great our temptations are and what sort of underlying character we have due to patterns in our experiences, especially in our early ones. Characters like the Buddha, Jesus, or Batman, who give up lives of luxury out of an obligation to live up to some higher ideal than any recognized by most societies, are heroic but also highly unusual. Most people born into a life of great privilege don't voluntarily give up that life; the temptations are too great, their upbringing too strong.

    However, if someone isn't faced with so many temptations, because she's an outsider for various reasons (mental illness, social awkwardness, poverty, ugliness, weirdness, etc), she'll be more inclined to make the best out of her situation by trying to live up to higher, ethical and aesthetic ideals. Her experience will shape her character and both will influence her choice. She won't be so inclined to fool herself into thinking she's pleased with her life, even though in reality she ought to be suffering, because she won't know what she's missing: her life will be too full of suffering for her to care much about pleasure or happiness.

  10. This is off topic for this post, but I noticed one of your favorite movies is the Truman Show. I consider that movie one of the most philosophical I've seen. You've done such a great job with the Matrix, I would love to hear your thoughts on the Truman Show.

    1. Thanks. Like Dark City, the Truman Show is actually pretty similar to the Matrix and both came out before the Matrix. Something else I think is going on in Truman Show, though, is a message about celebrity. Famous actors who are surrounded by sycophants must feel like they're at the center of the world, like everything is designed for them. That's because it is! They're in the middle of a carefully constructed bubble world, whether it's their gated community or their penthouse suite or private jet when they're away from home, or their trailer when they're on set. Dictators too must have a similar experience, and the internet likewise seems to lock us into familiar patterns as opposed to truly opening us up to the unfamiliar. I suppose there might be enough material here for a separate article, even though Truman Show is very similar to the Matrix.

      I do like writing reviews and philosophical analyses of movies. Have you seen my Woody Allen article? I also wrote something on the use of light in Spielberg and Michael ay movies. I've been thinking of writing something on the use of framing in Wes Anderson films. Anyway, I will write some more film commentaries. The next article, though, is on environmentalism.

  11. I agree the Matrix and Truman show are very similar. I prefer the Truman Show, because even though the message is similar, it's much easier for most to watch/digest. It's also open to even more interpretation, in my opinion. In fact, I hadn't even thought about the celebrity aspect, which make perfect sense! To me, it represented the surface attractiveness of mainstream society, popular television/music, fashion, cars, etc. versus a more genuine life.