I’d like to show how a modern form of asceticism which springs from what I call existential cosmicism relates to some basic philosophical questions about the natures of fact, meaning, and value.
Fact, Meaning, and Value
What’s the difference between truths and facts? Truth requires living things whereas facts don’t. There could be a universe of facts even with no intelligent creatures to appreciate them, but there would be no truth in a lifeless universe, because truth is a relationship between facts and what are called symbols or representations of those facts, and symbols are tools used by living things. To see the difference, suppose there’s a lifeless world in a distant galaxy, and on that world there’s a range of mountains and also a lake with waves that lap against a sandy beach. Now suppose that by chance, as the froth is deposited onto the beach, the froth creates the spitting image of those mountains, picturing their peaks and valleys as they would have been seen were someone standing on that beach. In this case, there would be physical facts of how the mountains are arranged and of their different sizes, but there would be no truth in the froth’s accidental map of those facts, because the froth wouldn’t be a tool used by any creature in its dealings with the world.
Now, from a highly objective perspective, the difference between the froth’s picture of the mountains, and a person’s thought that one mountain is larger than another vanishes; in each case, we might say, there’s just a pair of patterns that happen to match in some respects. The information in the waves can be mapped onto the information in the mountains, just as the neural activity in the viewer’s brain could be mapped onto what she’d view, were she standing on that beach. So maybe neither a fact nor a truth needs any living user of information, after all; maybe truth is just a certain abstract correspondence between patterns. This is how some philosophers think of truth, as an isomorphism between certain sets of data. And indeed, when this match between patterns is lacking, you don’t have truth and you may even have falsehood, but this match alone isn’t enough: one of the patterns must be made up of symbols, and to have symbols you need meaning.
A pattern, like a picture of mountains or the sentence, “One of those mountains is larger than the other,” carries meaning in relation to the mountains if that pattern is directed towards them. But what is it for one thing to be thusly about something? I think we can answer this by comparing symbols to something like guidelines on the tarmac used by a pilot to land the plane. The lines hook up with the pilot in the cockpit (through his eyes and his brain) and direct the plane to its landing position, which is where the pilot wants to go. In the same way, mental symbols--our thoughts, feelings, images, and other mental states--facilitate our negotiations with the outside world. They do this by their useful associations with other mental states, as in a train of thought, and by their access to our motor responses, so that we can intelligently move our body, guided by that inner map. Mental symbols have those features because they’re made up of highly interconnected brain states which, of course, have executive control over the body.
So what is it for a symbol to mean something? This kind of meaning has at least two aspects. First, if you put certain symbols together under certain circumstances, such as the time and place of their occurrence, their directedness towards something adds up to a truth relation, as I’ve said, or else lives up to some other ideal, as in the case of motivational symbols, which I’ll come to in a moment. By itself, this first criterion of meaning is relatively trivial since, as the above thought experiment shows, any patterns might match by chance or else might be interpreted as matching by some arbitrary hermeneutic principle. Second, though, even when they’re not so put together, as in the case of isolated words that aren’t used to form a sentence, symbols guide the symbol-user’s use of that to which the symbols are directed, such as the referent. The semantic relation, then, is like a path extending from the symbol-user to something that might be used, and the path features relevant tools that give the user options in dealing with what the symbol potentially directs the user toward. Again, these other tools consist of the associated symbols, each taking the user down a slightly different path, and also of the symbol’s access to the user’s body, which allows action to be intelligently guided. A symbol’s reference to something, then, is invisible because that meaning is a set of potential relationships between symbol-user and the referent. Indeed, symbols tend to be public property, so the referent isn’t just an idiosyncratic interpretation of what’s out there, like the mountain range, but the conventionally relevant information pertaining to mountains in general.
If a mental symbol is a tool, like a shovel, is it just the symbol that has this one-way relation to something, called in this case the symbol’s meaning? In fact, all tools are likewise directed towards something in what we can call an active-passive relationship. Just like a fact-related symbol (a concept or belief), we use a shovel to achieve some goal in the real world. Like a symbol, a shovel presents us with a way of interacting with parts of the world, depending on the shovel’s capacities. A shovel is normally used to dig holes, but it can be used for other purposes as well; moreover, like a symbol, a shovel can be misused: for example, a shovel would make for a poor toothpick. Just as the thought of shovels presents the thinker with an array of options, as the relevant information streams across her inner vision like the Terminator’s cynical assessments of its surroundings, an actual shovel triggers the user’s relevant know-how when the use of the shovel becomes second nature to her. (On this point, see Andy Clark’s book, Natural-Born Cyborgs, and the philosophical theory of the extended mind.) So the opportunity to apply a symbol in various potential ways directs the user to the world, while other, non-semantic tools direct the user to something in a similar sort of active-passive relationship (the user does things to the used).
What gives neural activity or the word “shovel,” but not an actual shovel, semantic content? Concepts and linguistic symbols are digital rather than analogue, meaning that their physical or biological characteristics are irrelevant to the user, whereas a shovel’s size, shape, and so on are crucial to the user’s ability to carry out the shovel’s function. True, as I said, mental representations can drive behavior only by physically tapping into the brain’s motor center, but the user is typically quite unaware of the mechanisms involved. When you think of shovels, you’re aware only of a rush of cognitive associations, images, memories, and feelings. But when you pick up a shovel, your know-how consists of your experience with the shovel’s physical properties: for example, you have to learn which is the business end, how to bend your back to get enough leverage, and so on. A non-symbolic tool’s active-passive relation to what’s used by means of the tool is thus less ghostly, as it were, than the abstract relation between a symbol and what the symbol is about. But note that the more complex the technology, the more the lay user is inclined to assign the equivalent of a semantic relation between the machine and whatever’s acted upon by the machine. That is, when we’re mystified as to how a machine works, we treat the fulfillment of its function as a kind of magic, attributing the machine’s effectiveness to ghostly forces or to angels or other spirits. For example, a computer’s electrical connections to its peripherals might as well be digital, semantic relations, since our bodies hardly come into contact with most of the computer’s parts, just as we’re mostly ignorant of how the neural basis of a thought works.
This second aspect of meaning is, of course, a pragmatic one, and it can be used to distinguish facts from truth. Again, truth is a match between two patterns, where one of those patterns consists of symbols, and symbols are tools that guide action, helping the user to succeed in some fashion (to satisfy certain wants or needs). By contrast, facts are how things are either before they’re so used or when something is considered objectively, independent of any such particular use. For example, physical facts of mountains pertain to what mountains would be like even were there no such thing as symbols or their users. Facts pertaining to artificial kinds, like toys, clothing, or symbols themselves, which wouldn’t exist without symbol-users, are what these kinds are like regardless of any independent interpretation. In the case of a highly subjective item, like an art work, there may be no facts of the matter but just a host of symbolic pathways leading to no common ground and just connecting symbol-users as they trade their interpretations.
This way of distinguishing facts and truths raises the question of normativity, since the practical aspect of symbols entails that some uses of symbols are more successful than others. Thus, the symbols that relate creatures to facts depend on a separate, more obviously normative class of symbols, which we can call desires. Suppose someone wants to climb a mountain, but instead of acquiring useful gear for the endeavor, the climber uses a shovel to dig his way underneath the mountain, saying “If I dig deep enough, I might just climb this mountain.” In this case, there’s a mismatch between the person’s goal and his means of achieving it. One of these means is his inner, cognitive tool, his mental representation of mountains, which differs strangely from the standard concept of mountains. If your goal is to stand on top of the mountain, you need a useful mental representation to guide your planning and your actions. And if you fail miserably in achieving your goal, there’s a greater chance that you lack the relevant concept in the first place. Moreover, the more limited a species’ goals, that is, the simpler its habits and its life cycle, the fewer symbols its members possess.
The pragmatic aspect of meaning, then, is normative, because actions depend on intentions, and intentions spring from character or from disposition, which consists of a mix of virtues and vices, according to an ethical or aesthetic ideal for judging such things. Instrumentally speaking, the efficiency of tool-use can be evaluated just in case the tool achieves the goal; that is, the tool’s value can be relative just to the specific desire, so that the use is neutral with respect to any ideal that governs the value of desires themselves. For example, a murderer’s use of a weapon can be more or less effective in achieving his goal even though that goal is evil. But then there’s the deeper rightness or wrongness of our goals. Goals motivate us to act and thus drive our use of fact-directed symbols, charging them with meaning. Moreover, goals range from those which are unique to each person to those of wider and wider social networks, such as family, country, and the whole set of language speakers, including the long dead ones whose past experiences help shape the present meaning of words; on top of those, there are the species-wide instincts we inherit from evolution. Each of these motivations pressures the symbol-user to take up symbols and walk down the path that leads to some use of the referent. The more general the motivation, the more well-worn the path and the greater the impact on the symbol’s particular meaning. For example, the lay concept of mountains includes just the stereotypical information that’s useful for fulfilling most people’s potential use of mountians, including the facts that a mountain is an abrupt rising of the earth’s surface, rising to an altitude greater than that of a hill, which amount to a warning that you shouldn’t trifle with a mountain. After all, a mountain has many other properties, but only the practically relevant ones, given most people’s interests, are picked out by the standard concept of mountains. The word “mountain” has several senses, though, and the context of the particular speaker’s interest will decide in which sense the word or thought is intended.
Our mental tools can be divided roughly into beliefs and desires. Beliefs aim towards facts, and the aiming is a matter of the belief’s usefulness in achieving some potential objectives. The concept of mountains contains information that helps us deal with mountains, and this information includes the concept’s associations with relevant concepts, such as those of hills, rugged terrain, avalanches, and so on. By contrast, desires aim towards not something in the actual world, but towards a possibility we’d prefer to be factual. You can think about this in terms of possible worlds. If a belief is true, it usefully connects the believer to part of the actual world, and if the belief is false it connects the believer to a possible, counterfactual world. Some misuses of symbols can be counterproductive or useful, depending on whether the symbol is used in a lie or in a comforting delusion. Now, a desire connects the symbol-user not just to any possible world, but to a preferred one, and the preference derives from a value, ideal, or a vision of how the facts should be. Typically, a desire motivates the user to take some action to conform the actual world with that vision, but some desires, like hopes, don’t have that effect.
In any case, a belief, or an objective fact-directed symbol, is supposed to live up to the ideal of truth, as it were, while a desire, or a preferred-fact-directed symbol, is governed by some other ideal. And the pragmatic aspect of beliefs connects beliefs to desires: we use beliefs to guide our actions, because we prefer a certain state of the world, and beliefs help us maintain or produce that state.
The Meaning of Asceticism
The normative aspect of meaning raises three issues that will lead us to consider existential cosmicism. First, is there a goal presupposed by all human symbol-use, which is partly what enables us to distinguish between symbols and non-symbols, and if so, what’s that goal? Second, assuming there is such a goal, is the corresponding notion of success deficient according to a higher ideal? Third, how can we explain the emergence of normativity (of values, ideals, and so on) without committing the naturalistic fallacy?
As I said, the particular context of each use of a symbol may affect its meaning, but there’s an underlying role of symbols, which is the biological one. Our mental categories are tools used by the genes to manipulate us to survive, reproduce, and transmit the genetic information to the next generation. I discuss one such method of control in Cosmicism and Technology, where I point out that the source of our anthropomorphic projections onto alien nature, which usefully delude us, sparing us the ravages of existential angst, is the associational aspect of our neural nets. We understand something by relating it to what’s more familiar, and we’re most familiar with how we appear to ourselves. Thus, one such underlying purpose of symbol-use is to protect the genotype, by deluding the genes’ host: we instinctively and naively presume the world is personal and humane. As in all biological purposes or functions, though, the appearance of intelligent design is a trick of human perception. All of nature is mysteriously neither alive nor lifeless, but undead like a zombie abomination. What this means is that the use of people by our genes is merely apparent; there’s no ghost in the machine, but spiritless matter is more active than any known biological life, having mindlessly evolved the whole universe.
Another such underlying purpose of symbol-use derives from reason: we play with symbols in a social game of climbing to the apex of our dominance hierarchy, thus again earning privileged positions for our progeny and our genetic lineage, and distracting ourselves with those ulterior pseudomotives instead of taking a good look at our existential predicament. Reason evolved as a tool for Machiavellian manipulation, for spin-doctoring and the rhetorical art of persuasion, for the sake of protecting our personal brand, that is, our status in the tribe. Thus, our typical thought patterns are rife with biases and fallacies, as cognitive science shows.
The answer to the first question, then, is that there is such an underlying purpose, and it’s well-symbolized by the fiction of the machines’ self-serving maintenance of the matrix’s virtual reality. In effect, the primary users of symbols are the genes and the other forces of natural selection, which build our bodies including our instincts to think and react in ways that further the overriding process which is the evolution of biological life. How is this relevant to the meaning of our thoughts? Well, if I’m right and meaning is like the line on the tarmac that guides a pilot’s landing of the plane--except that a thought is connected to a fact only by a ghostly version of such a line, namely by the opportunity for the symbol-user to act on that fact, afforded by the thought’s ability to control the user’s body--then a symbol is directed towards something mainly by our naturally evolved opportunities. The force of natural selection is like a fleet of machines that digs a maze of paths leading from each of us to various ports of call, and most of our activity in life is confined to that pre-existing infrastructure. Our opportunities to influence the world are naturally limited by how we tend to think and by what our bodies can do, which limits are culturally and biologically set. Within those limits, we can choose to take one path or another, as we put our symbols together in different combinations to suit our parochial interests; we can modify the pre-established landscape, changing the meaning of our symbols as cultures and languages develop, digging new pathways and opening up new opportunities. But the main driving force of symbol-use, which sets symbols apart from non-symbols, by giving symbols meaning and thus a causal role in the symbol-user’s behavior, is that of natural selection, which is to say that there’s a foreign zombie hand reaching into everyone’s head, infecting us with the plague of undeadness and coercing us to shamble along well-worn roads.
As to the second question, readers of this blog shouldn’t be surprised to read that indeed I think there are higher ideals and thus what we might call a transhuman use of symbols, that is, a way that truly sets us apart from most animal species. Most thinking is done directly or indirectly in the service of our zombie masters, the micro machines and environmental forces that build our bodies; these thought patterns include the politically correct myths and conventions that distract and delude us, appealing to our vanity even as the narratives act as blinders and leashes around our necks. For thousands of years, though, there’s been the spiritual, mystical, ascetic alternative, reformulated in existentialist terms after the World Wars. This esoteric culture for detached, angst-ridden outcasts, misfits, seekers, and mentally unbalanced freaks of nature is governed by anti-natural ethical or aesthetic standards that put us at odds with the natural world and thus with ourselves. In religious terms, the goal is to escape our cosmic prison, what I call the decaying corpse of the undead god, and this liberation is accomplished by saying “No!” a thousand times to natural impulses, to abstain from many biological and mainstream cultural endeavours, to malfunction, as it were, condemning nature as a monstrosity and throwing a wrench into the works.
Ascetic, existential rebellion against natural processes is ethical, because it calls for the ultimate virtues of self-knowledge and integrity. Perhaps more importantly, this rebellion is aesthetic in that it amounts to any creature’s supremely creative act. You might be wondering, if nature is an undead monstrosity inhabited by mini undead monsters, how could one way of life be better than another? Surely, then, it’s all just rot and decay, the spiritless shuffling along of physically interacting chunks of matter, yielding more and more complex patterns of monstrosity, from molecules to galaxies to alternate dimensions and universes. But this is the point: one such emergence seems to be nature’s ability to deny itself, to look upon itself in horror, through the mystic’s eyes, and to reject our position as instruments in Mother Nature’s experiment on this planet. Plato interpreted the rise of abstraction in normative terms, so that the more general the phenomenon the better it is, with mathematical objects, for example, being better than particular physical things which he saw as copies of their categories. I would replace his measure of abstraction with that of complexity, and instead of calling the increase in emergent complexity generally good, I’d call it beautiful solely in the sense that an emergent phenomenon is original and thus not clichéd. There should be no illusion that what’s new is necessarily progressive. As John Gray says in Black Mass, that linear, teleological way of telling history is an inheritance from Zoroastrianism. But the vertical dimension of Plato’s hierarchy remains in a measure of complexity and thus of natural originality and beauty. (See Aesthetic Morality.)
The point is that whereas slavish adherence to our biofunctions is conformist, ascetic rebellion is creative and thus aesthetically superior as a life option. In terms of symbol-use, the ascetic goal of detaching, to some extent, from natural processes invests the ascetic’s symbols with an ironic sort of self-destructive meaning, since the ascetic uses symbols to formulate paradoxes (in myths and parables) that reveal how reason traps and curses us; alternatively, the mystic may attempt to abstain from thinking, to free her mind from the matrix of biologically- and culturally-imposed virtual reality. The mystical ascetic or rebellious existentialist creates a higher plain in the pattern of her renunciation, which is to say that any degree of asceticism is more creative than conformity to processes that are explainable in strictly lower-level terms, such as biological ones. Granted, rebellion against nature conforms to the metaphysical pattern of nature’s evolution of emergent levels of complexity, and the universe does regularly deny itself, in a sense, by creatively destroying parts of itself, as in the case of a black hole that swallows star systems. But the emergence of what Schopenhauer calls the denial of the will to live raises the stakes, because this denial occurs within the undead god’s crown jewel which is the brain, the most complex, improbable, and thus original and aesthetically praiseworthy object.
There’s more to be said, though, in comparing the conformist and the artistically creative cultures. There is, I think, a tragedy in the machine’s simulation of a supernatural spirit, and the emotional power of this tragedy in the case of rebellion against nature adds to the beauty of antiheroic life. What I mean is that the best mythical way of thinking of the world’s creation, to which we’re led by our social instinct which compels us to personify the impersonal, is to assume that God became corrupted by his absolute power and destroyed himself out of horror at his self-reflection, creating the universe literally out of his miraculously undying, mindlessly creative body. (See God’s Self-Destruction.) That’s just a speculative myth, of course, although I think it’s more psychologically plausible than the commonplace Creation myths. But the aesthetic point is that surely there can be no greater tragedy than such an act of divine suicide, a tragedy which Christianity effectively bastardizes and whitewashes. There’s honour in the idea of a great person’s vindication after she falls, even if that vindication is tragic, given that the only way of improving her situation is to destroy herself. I take this to be the best interpretation of the idea of monotheism. (As to whether God “exists” or once “existed,” that’s merely a childishly exoteric question. See From Theism to Cosmicism.)
An atheist is free to say, “Who cares?”--except that even an atheist is stuck with a human brain that can’t help but rally around something she holds to be sacred, such as human nature, which she instinctively anthropomorphizes just as the theist does with respect to the First Cause. If the atheist can have her fun with secular humanism, glorifying human nature and our scientific progress despite the fact that according to Darwinism we’re a species of enslaved zombie, the atheist shouldn’t begrudge the mystic her entertaining speculations about the ultimate cause. (Of course, when the emotional power of myths drives people to evil behavior, as in the case of monotheistic religions and scientistic cults like Nazism, the evil-doers should be spanked like naughty children for failing to distinguish between reality and their bedtime stories.)
Anyway, the relevance of this tragic Creation myth is that human asceticism is like an echo of that ultimately moving event, of the literal death of God. The idea is that an omniscient and omnipotent being sees and does everything, but that instead of settling into the life of an insipid father figure, God would have become cynical and repulsed by all possibilities except for the most radical one of escaping his godhood through a form of ironically-creative self-destruction. Such would be the fate of pure spirit, of the life we naively imagine we possess. Instead, we’re mere machines playing at life, zombies that mistake our twitches and moans for noble gestures. The best we can do is to simulate a novel level of reality. Our experiences of ourselves and of the outer world are in fact models, which is to say simplifications of what we encounter. So too we undead things can pretend that we were all along meant to be virtuous or beautiful; we can choose to adopt anti-natural ideals that don’t figure so easily in the abominable evolutionary process, which births new life by means of mass executions of all previous generations.
The greatest of our simplifications is surely our simulation of God’s tragic denial of the will to life. This calls not for suicide in the sense of the total extinction of life, since this would cut the rebellion short, whereas our foe deserves to witness, as it were, the prolongation of the act of extending our middle finger, just as the most probable God wouldn’t have replaced himself with nothing at all, but would have transformed himself into the mindlessly creative behemoth which is the natural universe. Likewise, the ascetic who detaches from the more egregious biological and politically correct processes sees herself as the shell she is, which frees her to become something new: a creature that dares to mimic the deity's primordial act of coming honourably face to face with the ultimate horror of its existential predicament and then creatively transcending that horror. God would have done this by the ultimate act of rebellion, by slaying the Almighty and exchanging his supernatural personage with a natural and thus entropically doomed, yet curiously creative and thus undying corpse. And a mere animal can do this by imitating that pattern to some degree, at least, participating in the ancient ascetic tradition.
Finally, I want to ask how all of this ethical and aesthetic talk avoids the naturalistic fallacy. Recall that this fallacy is to say that a prescription of what we ought to do might follow logically just from a description of how things are. There is supposed to be, then, a dichotomy between facts and values. But Darwinism removes this dichotomy, just as it renders obsolete the naïve distinction between life and non-life. Instead, there are just simulations of life by spiritless things which are thus, intuitively speaking, neither living nor lifeless but undead. If spiritless matter can accomplish the work of the evidently-absent God, creating all natural forms by mindless evolution and complexification, the barrier between the logically separate spheres of facts and values is shattered. In a pantheistic scheme, questions of value arise not just for creatures who are alive in the technical, biological sense, but for the whole universe which likewise plays at being alive, albeit with no brain and thus with no mind or intelligence. Hence the Eastern mystic’s judgment that the whole apparent world is a hideous prison, a diabolical system of manufacturing and tricking creatures, thus increasing the amount of suffering. Sure, these ethical and aesthetic judgments are subjective, but they’re likewise subjective when applied to human patterns of behavior; that is, these judgments all depend not just on the observed patterns but on the cognitive tools brought to bear in interpreting them. We instinctively personify what we observe, because we’re social mammals; thus, when we philosophize, attempting to make a coherent whole out of scientific knowledge and our everyday experience, we mythologize and rationalize our vain anthropomorphic projections.
At any rate, the naturalistic fallacy presupposes a Cartesian dualism between facts and values. That dualism is no longer tenable. Note, though, that those who avail themselves of this monistic response to the charge of having committed that fallacy, are all the closer to existential cosmicism, since the metaphysical oneness of everything provides a basis for condemning what Descartes called the entirely lifeless machine of the material world. With that judgment in mind, some sort of rebellion against nature is in order. Hence the need for a viable--as opposed to crudely pseudoscientific or childishly theistic--postmodern religion.
The Philosophy of Existential Cosmicism
To summarize, there are facts, symbols and values. The metaphysical facts of nature are horrifying, and our existential predicament is that reason curses us to discover them and thus to suffer debilitating angst and alienation. Because we have a biological job to do, the forces of natural selection save most of us from that fate, by putting blinders around our minds, designing our bodies to prefer the straight and narrow path along which we act as clownish hosts of our genes. We tend to use mental symbols to bind us to that path and to help us succeed in evolutionary terms while traversing it, surviving, reproducing, raising a family, and climbing the social ladder. But there’s another, anti-natural path, which calls for a higher class of interests and ideals, and by “higher” I mean to say elevated in the hierarchy of complexity, which earns that level aesthetic praise. The ideal that motivates most symbol-use and intelligent behavior derives from the undead god whose forces of natural selection are set along the absurd path of maintaining an endless flow of genes into the future. Most of us adopt that ideal, that zombie moan of our monstrous god, as sacred, even if we rationalize such primitive nature worship with a thousand popular delusions. Some of us choose, instead, to sacrifice their happiness the way the living God would have been forced to, leaving for dead the repellent parts of themselves, and rebelling--however futilely and to whatever degree--against the natural order. The ascetic ideal, then, is the aesthetically-inviting opportunity to create an original level of reality, a cosmic play of rebellion in which nature’s crowning achievement, the clever ape, tears to shreds the monstrous hand that feeds it.