Currently, Scott and I are debating an issue that’s of great interest to each of us, namely that of how subversive cognitive scientific discoveries are for the nonscientific, “folk” conception of ourselves. In other words, the question is to what extent the traditional view of the mind as having freedom, consciousness, meaningful beliefs, and desires that are right or wrong is exposed as so much pablum by recent biology, psychology, and by the other relevant sciences that collectively make up what’s called cognitive science. As radical as I think I’ve been in saying repeatedly that science shows we’re not as rational, conscious, or as free as we usually think we are, I find myself resisting, to some extent, Scott’s more radical--or perhaps just more informed!--understanding of the philosophical implications. At any rate, we agree that modern societies would do well to prepare now for the upheavals of a catastrophic shift in self-understanding, due to what I’ve been calling the curse of reason. I hope eventually to post our email discussion on this blog.
Here, though, are the first few paragraphs of my introductory, greatly-hyperlinked post at TBP:
Some centuries before the Common Era, in a sweltering outskirt of the ancient Roman Empire, a nameless wanderer, unkempt and covered in rags, climbed atop a boulder in the midst of a bustling market, cleared his throat and began shouting for no apparent reason:
“Mark my harangue, monstrous abode of the damned and you denizens of this godforsaken place! I have only my stern words to give you, though most of you don’t recognize the existential struggle you’re in; so I’ll cry foul, slink off into the approaching night, and we’ll see if my rant festers in your mind, clearing the way for alien flowers to bloom. How many poor outcasts, deranged victims of heredity, and forlorn drifters have shouted doom from the rooftops? In how many lands and ages have fools kept the faith from the sidelines of decadent courts, the aristocrats mocking us as we point our finger at a thousand vices and leave no stone unturned? And centuries from now, many more artists, outsiders, and mystics will make their chorus heard in barely imaginable ways, sending their subversive message, I foresee, from one land to the next in an instant, through a vast ethereal web called the internet. Those philosophers will look like me, unwashed and ill-fed, but they’ll rant from the privacy of their lairs or from public terminals linked by the invisible information highway. Instead of glaring at the accused in person, they’ll mock in secret, parasitically turning the technological power of a global empire against itself.
“But how else shall we resist in this world in which we’re thrown? No one was there to hurl us here where as a species we’re born, where we pass our days and lay down to die--not we, who might have been asked and might have refused the offer of incarnation, and not a personal God who might be blamed. Nevertheless, we’re thrown here, because the world isn’t idle; natural forces stir, they complexify and evolve; this mindless cosmos is neither living nor dead, but undead, a monstrous abomination that mocks the comforting myths we take for granted, about our supernatural inner essence. No spirit is needed to make a trillion worlds and creatures; the undead forces of the cosmos do so daily, creating and destroying with no rational plan, but still manifesting a natural pattern. What is this pattern, sewn into the fabric of reality? What is the simulated agenda of this headless horseman that drags us behind the mud-soaked hooves of its prancing beast? Just this: to create everything and then to destroy everything! Let that sink in, gentle folk. The universe opens up the book of all possibilities, has a glance at every page with its undead, glazed-over eyes, and assembles miniscule machines--atoms and molecules--to make each possibility an actuality somewhere in space and time, in this universe or the next, until each configuration is exhausted and then all will fly apart until not one iota of reality remains to carry out such blasphemous work. How many ways can a nonexistent God be shown up, I ask you? Everything a loving God might have made, the undead leviathan creates instead, demonstrating spirit’s superfluity, and then that monster, the magically animated carcass we inhabit will finally reveal its headlessness, the void at the center of all things, and nothing shall be left after the Big Rip.
“I ask again, how else to resist the abominable inhumanity of our world, but to make a show of detaching from some natural processes of cosmic putrefaction, to register our denunciation in all existential authenticity, and yet to cling to the bowels of this beast like the parasites we nonetheless are? And how else to rebel against our false humanity, against our comforting delusions, other than by replacing old, worn-out myths with new ones? For ours is a war on two fronts: we’re faced with a horrifying natural reality, which causes us to flee like children into a world of make-believe, whereupon we outgrow some bedtime stories and need others to help us sleep.”