Monday, January 7, 2013

Existentialism and the Ideal Religion

I’ve thrown around the word “existentialism” a lot in my writings, and it’s time to consider directly the relevance of existentialism to the philosophy I’m working out here. For a good summary of existentialism, I recommend the article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, especially sections two and three.

The Philosophy of Existentialism

The most widely-known kind of existentialism begins with the phenomenological method of describing how things seem to the conscious self and then draws ontological conclusions based on those descriptions. Thus, the existentialist takes for granted the anthropocentric structure of the first-person perspective and contrasts objective with subjective orders of being. Tools lying in the environment are “ready-to-hand,” meaning that their mode of being is instrumental, that they exist for conscious users, whereas the conscious self is absolutely primary and central from that first-personal, solipsistic perspective. Moreover, from that perspective, the self seems autonomous, and the existentialist builds an ethics of personal authenticity, or integrity, on this apparent freewill. When we introspect, we don’t detect an objective cause of our conscious state, precisely because we don’t perceive--again within that first-person perspective--the self as an object in the field of material causes and effects; after all, the five senses that perceive that material field are all directed outwards and so we don’t process our impression of the conscious self as informing us about just another material object. On the contrary, the self is experienced as being detached from the physical world and thus as free from its laws. So even when the body is clearly affected, say, by drinking alcohol or being punched in the stomach, and the brain is affected which in turn has an impact on consciousness, the conscious self still seems free to decide how to respond to such effects.

The ultimate feeling of freedom is found in the experience of anxiety, when we detach from our practical concerns and come to grips with the subjective arbitrariness of values and social conventions. In that case of alienation, we have difficulty identifying with the social roles we play and just as consciousness seems to itself detached from the body, a person can feel detached from society. Ethics enter into the picture when the existentialist distinguishes between those who accept their freedom and who commit to their life project with integrity, and those who fail to act so responsibly and ignore what we all learn from the first-person perspective, that is, from introspection. Again, what we learn is that when a self fails to define herself by choosing a life path and owning that choice without scapegoating anything, and when she allows herself to be defined by society, her religion, or anything else as though she had no voluntary role to play, she loses her individuality. She becomes an inauthentic person, a subject who pretends to be an object. Thus, existentialism is about the philosophical problem of existing as a human being in the first place, or as this problem is informed by introspection.

Critique of Existentialism

Now you might think that this existential method of just describing how things naïvely seem and then of taking that level of description at face value is just intellectually reckless. For example, work in cognitive science and in philosophy of mind, including R. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory, shows that how things seem to consciousness can be quite illusory. Just because introspection can’t detect the neural causes of conscious states doesn’t mean there are none; instead, consciousness may seem self-sufficient merely because, as Bakker says, the brain lacks the needed information to properly map its operations with the same level of detail with which it maps the outer environment. So everything we think we perceive from the first-person perspective might be illusory. The question is whether this is entirely an empirical matter. Could cognitive science demonstrate that conscious states are entirely erroneous compared to third-personal, scientific reports of what’s happening at the neurofunctional level?

I tend to adopt a relaxed neo-Kantian position with respect to this sort of question. The human brain does support a first-person perspective, thus adding to what naturally exists at the neurological level. From the perspective of brain science, introspection can seem to depend on ignorance, but so too neurology can seem parochial and simplistic from, say, the physicist’s perspective. Natural processes seem to build on themselves and so levels of reality emerge. One such level is that of how a conscious self naively seems to itself. Even if we partially construct that level of reality, by participating in the cultural interpretation of the nature of the inner self, the data obtained by introspection must still be explained. Even cognitive science grants the reality of those data and merely prefers one interpretation of them to another. But whether a neurological explanation, say, of love is superior to a novelistic, first-personal analysis of what the emotion feels like, depends on the purposes at issue, and this is a normative question that can’t be scientifically settled. If values and ideals themselves are illusory, there’s no reason to favour any explanation of data, and a scientific rejection of the validity of introspection thereby eats its tail. I say, though, that my Kantian position is “relaxed,” because I leave open the possibility that, for pragmatic reasons, we may come to reject the subjective description of consciousness, just as we’ve rejected many superstitions once science has given us new ways to think. For example, if technoscience holds forth the promise of transhumanity, of divinizing the self, if only we end our preoccupation with the layperson’s understanding of herself, we may either choose to think of ourselves only scientifically (ultrarationally) or be forced to do so as elements of some natural process.   

The upshot of this is that, for the moment at least, I think we should take the first-personal ontology seriously without being so deferential to it (as in theism) that we define the self in a way that’s opposed to science and to philosophical naturalism. Thus, I think we are conscious, free, rational, and so anxious or authentic as the case may be, but only to a surprisingly limited extent; in particular, we tend to exaggerate the ego’s properties, and cognitive science does show, at the very least, that the naïve picture of the self is incomplete, and that when supplemented by scientific details we become less boastful and more inclined to think of the conscious self as partly, if not yet entirely, a hallucination.

Existentialism and Transhumanism

But how do the basic existential categories fit into the philosophy of Rants Within the Undead God? The existentialist takes introspection and freewill to be philosophically central, whereas I begin with my understanding of the scientific picture of the world. In existentialism, anxiety arises as an emotional proof of our freedom: we experience ourselves as isolated and so condemned to freely, independently choose our direction in life. To my way of thinking, anxiety arises not just from introspection but from Reason, from the objective view from nowhere which presents to us the world in all its strange inhumanity. Anxiety is generated by the clash between the naïve conception of the self, arrived at through introspection, and the sophisticated, scientific explanation of nature. We feel isolated and estranged from the world when we compare what we naively think we are with what we really are, as described at some deeper level. And whereas the existentialist thinks of authenticity, the chief virtue, as the honest way of handling our freedom, I think of this virtue of integrity as a requirement of artistic originality in dealing with that clash between perspectives. Nature builds on itself in its undead complexifications and evolutions, and we should attest to our mystifying presence in the universe by adding a new level of reality, one that creatively reconciles our two main sources of information, introspection and reason. I say “creatively,” because the standards aren’t merely epistemic. It’s not enough for a worldview to accurately reflect the facts; the worldview should inspire with the power of myth and so should be aesthetically profound. The blueprint of the new level of reality is the philosophical worldview that lays out the ideas that inspire a new religious way of life, one guided by the twin virtues of authenticity (integrity and distaste for delusions) and creativity (originality in contributing to the process of technoscientifically deifying our species).

The role of the artistic, mythical dimension of a worldview is to motivate masses of people to take up certain life projects, and this is either a fully natural process that serves the undead god or a process of existential revolt. Our best, most authentic life project might be to prepare for the advent of the posthuman, as Nietzsche said. That is, our most helpful, satisfying form of creativity might be to explain the world in such a way that we can anticipate and take comfort in the ultimate fruit of technoscience: the transhuman force of nature, which is the biological human body’s complete merging with more and more powerful technology. Authenticity for the transhuman would be the marking of its presence, in opposition to nature’s self-destructive tendencies, by literally transforming as much of nature as possible and so undoing what looks like the creation of an insane and suicidal divine monarch. That reengineering of nature, that negation of undead decay might well be our highest goal as a species, and the gods that could carry out such a project might fulfill our highest potential. Thus, our merely-human task should be to appreciate the value of that potential in us, not so much to prove how and when the transhuman revolution will happen, as in Ray Kurzweil’s crass manner, but to take up transhumanism as a thought experiment, to test our convictions. What I’m after, then, is a religion that’s not just compatible with science, but that inspires the noblest use of science. It’s not enough to have vast knowledge; we have to know what to do with our model of nature. It goes without saying that none of the mainstream religions ought to guide us in that endeavor, although the Eastern ones are more useful because they provide process rather than atomistic, individualistic theologies. Meanwhile, liberal secular humanism is a whitewash of the cosmicist implications of philosophical naturalism. Obviously, though, I don’t claim to provide the ideas of the great future religion, but am merely speculating on some preconditions.

What, then, is personal inauthenticity? The bad life, in my view, is defined by delusion, because delusion dehumanizes us. Instead of lifting us up to the transhuman, we can regress to a subhuman, purely animalistic state. We regress when we surrender our creative potential, when we submit to some degrading ideology such as that of the capitalistic monoculture which serves the twisted oligarchs. Now, there is a Nietzschean reading of oligarchy, which is that the centralization of power is a necessary evil: the masses must toil in various industries so that power can be amassed and eventually the amorality of those steering the major technoscientific companies will lead to breakthroughs that will divinize at least a minority of people. Thus, as I’ve said, the sociopathic oligarchs might be avatars of the undead god, amorally creating and destroying sectors of the economy. But there’s a problem with these oligarchs: their natural corruption effectively deprives them of a conscience and thus of the strength of feeling needed to appreciate great art. They are thus poor creators; to be sure, they’re ruthless in pursuing their ambition and they’re not held back by obsolete moral sentiments, but I lack faith in their creative vision. The Western monoculture which they’ve sustained for the masses lowers the bar instead of elevating people’s expectations. The dehumanization of the majority may be a necessarily evil stage in the natural development of the transhuman, but to worship gods you need a myth that has emotional resonance, and it’s hard to sing the praises of capitalistic oligarchs even if they do work towards our apotheosis.

Where does asceticism fit into this worldview? I’ve said that renunciation of certain natural processes makes for a noble revolt against the undead god’s mindless disintegrations. This is the mystic’s venerable kind of authenticity. The Gnostic idea is that nature is a pit of despair rather our true home, and that we should psychologically detach ourselves from nature, to appreciate that we truly belong nowhere that’s comprehensible, which is the transcendent state of nirvana. I don’t go in for this particular kind of mysticism. I do think we’re doomed to be homeless, since Reason evicts us from most of the fantasy worlds we build for ourselves. Even in the futuristic, pantheistic and naturalistic religion I’m contemplating, there’s an existential spirit of revolt. But I don’t think consciousness is ontologically primary. I’m open to the possibility that there was once a transcendent being that we can idolize by personifying it, as long as we concede, with Philipp Mainlander, that such a being is best thought of as having been corrupted by his isolation and so having killed himself in “creating” the natural universe. But the major god that’s obviously manifest in all creative acts is the undead, self-creating god of nature itself. Ironically, the undead god would undo its decay through the transhuman force of nature.

Still, even without the full Eastern mystical backdrop, renunciation (of pop culture, sex, politically correct conventions, theistic delusions, feel-good myths) helps to immunize us in dark times and to preserve our creative spirit. In decadent, anesthetizing cultures, we may be wise to unplug from the matrix, and this entails some degree of detachment. Naturally, I’m not saying we should all live as hermits. Indeed, a hermit wouldn’t be privy to advances in modern science and so couldn’t fully participate in the supreme religion that will hopefully arrive. Nevertheless, any detachment is better than none, even if we merely stop and remind ourselves--while in the throes of sex, voting for a pathological liar, or watching an inane movie that’s dominating the box office--that we shouldn’t identify with such a degrading activity. When we prove weak-willed and submit to one cultural indignity or another, we should at least mock ourselves in the back of our mind, contrasting the vain, pompous mammals we are at our worst with the sublime, all-powerful and all-knowing posthuman force of nature that our consciousness, freedom and rationality could unleash upon God’s undying corpse.


  1. I will return to this blog (not finished reading) but I thought that existentialism is only one possible reply to existential nihilism, or the thesis that life lacks intrinsic meaning.

    The several possible replies are as follows:

    reject the thesis, and then conceive of the meaning of life. (theism)
    Accept the thesis, and complain that it is horrible (pessimism)
    Accept the thesis, and revel in it (nihilism)
    Abstain from accepting or rejecting it, by admitting that the meaning of life is unknowable, or ineffable. Because there aren't any metaphysical or psychological consolations that aren't trivial, because all we have are our own understandings.

    Then again, as an absurdist, one rebels against the absurd and establish her lucidity in the middle of what negates it. The absurdist exalts herself before what will crush her. In her freedom and passion, revolt comes together in lucidity. No solution is possible - then again, perhaps no solution is necessary.

    1. Of course you're right, there's more than one possible response. This article is about the ideal one, from my viewpoint. I'm still thinking about nihilism and I plan to write something specifically on Emil Cioran's version.

      What you say about the absurdist exalting before what will crush her reminds me of the cultist characters in H.P. Lovecraft's stories, the sort of mad worshipers of the inhuman forces/gods, like the way Silver Surfer should have been as the servant of Galactus. Now that I think of it, maybe that's worth a comparison: the calm, cool Silver Surfer vs the deranged Lovecraftian cultist. I suppose the difference is between brooding, Buddhist Stoicism and a kind of gallows humour, or zest for the absurd, like the fool in King's Lear who knows everything but goes insane from the knowledge.

      Sorry, I'm thinking out loud here. But I like it when I get ideas for articles, from engaging with reader's comments. So thanks for your thoughts!

    2. Emil Cioran, excellent choice. If you have the time, please check my paper on him i wrote a couple of years ago:

      The silver surfer as a great absurdist hero is an excellent choice: perhaps this was far more pronounced as a Herald of Galactus, forced to choose worlds with life to destruction to serve an implacable force of cosmos. Kirby/Lee probably weren't conscious of the absurdist elements, and didn't really play it up in their run, though.

      I've finished reading the blog. It was a refreshing take of existentialism beyond the standard interpretation, although I wonder if you went with a caricature that resembles Sartre's version from his Existentialism and Humanism book, instead of a more well-rounded version that accepted certain deterministic elements in existential ontology.