Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Problem of Evil and the Role of Omega Spirituality

The theological problem of evil or of unnecessary suffering in the world is one of the oldest problems with theistic belief, finding its first logical expression in the West over two thousand years ago, in the Epicurean Paradox. That theological problem is also clearly insoluble, because it’s rooted in the nature of ideals. An ideal is counterfactual, since the point of having an ideal is to improve some actual situation by changing it to more closely resemble the ideal. The monotheistic God is thought of as the highest ideal, as both the ideal subject and object. Whatever we think of as most perfect (if anything), that becomes our divinity. In polytheistic systems, gods represent perfection in their spheres of operation, so that the god of wind is considered to be the primary source of that phenomenon and to have absolute control over it. All such natural powers, together with supernatural ones we can barely imagine such as the power to create the whole universe are combined in the idea of the monotheistic God. But by merely having such an ideal in mind, we condemn our religion to being badly flawed as long as we distinguish that ideal from the present natural reality, since nature must then necessarily be a letdown in comparison. The problem of evil isn’t just about the Nazis or baby animals being eaten in the wild. These are just some obvious examples of the more universal conflict between ideality and reality. We form ideals because we’re unsatisfied with something and we’d like it to better reflect the imagined possibility. But as soon as this conflict arises, so too does the question of why the world isn’t already more ideal. Why does that conflict exist? Why isn’t the world already perfect to obviate the need to imagine God? Why isn’t God all that there is? Why, instead, would God have created an imperfect world? Ideals versus reality: that’s the basis of the problem of evil.

Here’s a particularly chilling example of this problem. A month or so ago in a zoo in eastern China, a mother elephant stepped on her baby. Zookeepers treated the calf’s injuries and returned him to his mother, whereupon she again stomped on him. The zookeepers then permanently separated the two, realizing that the mother was rejecting her baby and indeed trying to kill him. The calf then reportedly cried inconsolably for five hours straight, because he couldn’t bear to be apart from his mother, not understanding that his mother wanted him dead. The story ends happily enough, with the zookeepers adopting the baby elephant, but the facts of the case are still horrifying. Infanticide among animals happens when the parents are held captive in zoos or in sanctuaries, because they lack role models and don’t know how to raise their babies, but baby-killing also happens in the wild. The evolutionary reason is that because the environment in which many animals live is harsh rather than idyllic, a parent faces something like Sophie’s choice: she has more than one baby, using one or more as backups, and as soon as circumstances reveal one to be the strongest, she focuses on raising that one and abandons or kills the others. She kills them either to end their doomed life quickly and mercifully or to make life easier for her favourite offspring, eliminating some competition for the limited resources.

So that’s why this sort of thing happens. But just consider the horror for a moment. After all, the baby elephant is unaware of any of those reasons. He instinctively loves his mother and wouldn’t have time to blame her for stomping him to death, because before he could realize that something is amiss, he’d be dead. In many species, the evolutionary reason for the baby’s unconditional love of its mother is also clear: if the baby can’t care for itself, the baby depends on the mother and the love bond ensures that the baby will stay near its protector and will do as it’s told. What’s so heartbreaking about this incident in the zoo is that something as innocent and pitiful as a baby’s love for its mother should be so inconsequential in light of certain natural necessities. We have a naïve ideal of how family life should be and then we learn that nature includes this sort of twisted family dynamic. Instead of caring for her helpless baby, the mother makes a cold calculation, born out of the sort of pragmatism you seem to need to survive for long in the wild. The environment’s inhospitality grinds down parents that aren’t born with evil intentions; presumably, this mother elephant would prefer not to kill her young, but she knows no other way to fulfill her survival instincts. And all the while, the precious baby elephant is kept in the dark. How many baby elephants, monkeys, pandas, and young members of many other mammalian species have expected their mother to care for them only to be taught a shocking evolutionary lesson, to be beaten to death by the one they most trusted! How many such deaths have gone unrecorded?

What makes this all the sadder is that, in response to the same natural world that sometimes compels parents in the wild to kill their offspring, we suffer pangs of nostalgia because we want to be rid of the hard-won knowledge of nature’s flaws. You only have to be around a normal child for a moment to vicariously experience the bliss of losing yourself in play, of not knowing the difference between the real world and an imaginary one. And yet children painfully learn that lesson soon enough. Infants tend to get whatever they want as soon as they want it, but when they reach the age of two and try to assert their independence, they come smack up against the reality they can’t control, when their parents are forced sometimes to say no to them.

Children vs Reality

I’ve written elsewhere of my nephew. Recently, I visited him and his parents and just minutes after I walked through the door, I realized a crisis was underway. My nephew, whose name is Gabriel, wanted an almond, but his mother (my sister-in-law) insisted that he could have more almonds only if he let her finish cutting his nails. Apparently, he had only one foot to go, but he refused, likely because he feared the nail cutters. So he had a tantrum and he cried inconsolably until his father took him away for a time out. Afterwards, he was allowed to return and his mother asked him what he wanted for supper. He said he wanted almonds. She insisted that he could have almonds only if he let her finish with his nails. And so again the battle was joined. He whined and cried for almonds, his mother stood firm, trying not to spoil her child because she knows the value of teaching him that the world will often say no to you. In the end, he didn’t get his almonds. I asked him what else he might like to eat and he said rice (of all things), because he doesn’t care yet about the food groups. He went to the cupboard and tried to pull out a heavy bag of rice, as if he knew how to cook it. While the rice was cooking, he wanted to play his version of tennis, to take out two wooden spoons from a drawer, give one to his play partner, balance a tennis ball on the end, hurl it awkwardly forward or to the side, and then squeal in delight as he gets to chase the ball and start the process anew. When he hands me the wooden spoon, I like to see how many times I can knock the ball in the air before it touches the floor. Gabriel becomes hyperactive when he sees his game extended in this fashion; he’s just overwhelmed with glee, taking the ball away to have his turn even though he doesn’t even try to emulate this twist on his game, because he lacks the arm strength and the balance.

Alas, no sooner had Gabriel pulled out the spoons while his rice was cooking than he was faced with yet another dire reality: no games until after he’d finished eating. And so Gabriel was forced to endure a waiting game which isn’t nearly so fun to play. Of course, Gabriel doesn’t understand the need for this sort of rule. He just wants to play and have fun no matter what he’s doing. But such training is evidently needed to ensure that he eats his food. He has to learn the lesson of conditionality, of cause and effect. If you want this, you have to do that. But this is far from ideal since most children are taunted, as it were, by the immediate, unconditional gratification they experienced during their infancy. Anyway, Gabriel ate his rice and we played “tennis.” I could go on and on with such stories. I’ve said this before, but perhaps most heartrending is to see how much a child must be soothed so that he’ll go to sleep at night. Everything must be just so: he must have his favourite toys on hand, the night light must be on, his parents must say goodnight in the right way, and so forth and so on. This is the primordial fear of being alone in the dark, which seems related to the instinctive fear of death.

What I’m trying to get at is that the problem of evil isn’t just an annoying philosophical argument for theists; it’s the central tragedy of natural existence and appreciating this tragedy isn’t just a matter of tallying up all of the suffering in the world. Instead, the melancholy few are cursed with appreciating the bittersweetness of all the myriad mini tragedies, the way events fall short of the ideal, innocence is abused, and death at least brings further suffering to an end. The world produces innocent children only to force them to abandon their naivety through confrontations with indifferent, alien reality. We may long to return to a childlike sense of wonder, to the mythopoeic experience of the world’s enchantment, but in biological terms that innocence is only a stage in the development of a more capable creature or society. At the same time, that development is existentially perverse since the knowledge needed to succeed as an adult or as a member of a modern society condemns us to being aware of the problem of evil, that is, of the fact that the world isn’t ideal, which is why we imagine ideals in the first place.

The solution to the problem must be found in a heroic way of life, not just in some sophistical response to the old philosophical question about why the traditional monotheistic God would allow evil to occur. Knowledge of nature’s imperfections is inevitable in the modern context. I speculate elsewhere that high technology might be altering that context, by forming a more congenial, practically supernatural environment that allows us to play at being gods, children, or like our mythopoeic ancestors. But short of reconfiguring all of nature or of disappearing into a fantasy world, the problem of evil will remain.

Postmodern Illuminati

The way I see it, then, we might benefit from a postmodern version of the Illuminati. The original Illuminati was an Enlightenment-era liberal and atheistic secret society, dedicated to eliminating superstitious religion and especially the Catholic Church’s domination of science and philosophy, and to what we’d call feminism. This secret society was modern rather than postmodern, in that its members had faith in rationalist myths about the power and benefits of reason. Now we know that despite technoscience’s obvious power, rationality is as much a curse as a blessing. We know that when we form collectives, the result is never utopia but some form of dominance hierarchy in which the leaders are corrupted by the power they need to run the system. Neutral, unselfish Reason (pure logic or science) has little to do with our life choices or with managing a society. No matter how well-informed our experts are, reason doesn’t tell us which goals to pursue or what to regard as sacred or profane. Science itself has shown us to be peculiar animals that turn themselves into outsiders within nature, thinking of ourselves as alienated supernatural spirits lost in space and time and yearning for a way back to our true home. We take leaps of faith to cope with our existential predicament, and some of these leaps are heroic and aesthetically laudable, while others are degenerative, clichéd, and uninspiring.

There are many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) now, each dedicated to a particular mission, such as feeding children, saving certain animal species, or acting as a watchdog in democracies. But is there an NGO today that focuses on the philosophical problem of how to live in a postmodern society? Would such a group have to act as a secret society? Of course, religions take up normative questions and prescribe ways of life, but the exoteric forms of the traditional ones are for unenlightened folks who don’t suffer the full effects of Reason’s curse. The wisest of us are atheists as a matter of course, but they don’t blindly trust reason or science or the modern institutions of capitalism and democracy. They’re humble, melancholy, and disgusted by most of what they see. But does this mean that the illuminated ones must be antisocial, that they wouldn’t band together either to encourage each other or to help enlighten everyone else? Is global enlightenment even possible, let alone wise?

Those questions interest me, but regardless of the answers, we’re all faced with the problem of evil, with the mismatch between reality and our ideals. Thus we must choose how to solve that problem with our life choices. Most people in modern societies trust in rational institutions like democracy and capitalism or in ancient religions, but the latter aren’t compatible with philosophical naturalism and the former provide cover for the dominance hierarchies that inevitably form, by sanctifying them as the fruits of reason and individual freedom. Is there a third way? Liberal secular humanists have their New Atheist movement, their Skepticons, The Daily Show, and so forth, but where do the Nietzschean atheists go? What of the omegas who occupy the margins of society and use that vantage point to arrive at unsettling philosophical truths? Are they doomed to being isolated and ineffectual or does their insight give them spiritual if not earthly power, which might inspire a way of life that’s fit for our time? 

Nietzsche understood that reason is cursed and that philosophy is subversive, and he wondered whether a creative class might save postmodernists from slave morality and apathy by inspiring us with their art. A think tank or an NGO serving that postmodern spiritual agenda might itself be an inspiring work. Then again, it might become just another corrupt collective. Perhaps the only way to avoid the corrosive effects of politics is to see to your own enlightenment and to be content knowing that fellow outsiders are secretly doing likewise. The outsiders' voices wouldn't be heard, because divided they'd stand and united they'd fall, but their revolts against certain social and biological norms would nonetheless stand as tragic artworks. They would be useless and the matrix of illusions and the happiness machines would continue to control the unenlightened masses, but precisely that contrast would vindicate our species. We came, we saw, some of us were properly horrified and they dealt heroically with that horror.


  1. If you express a bleak outlook of the world, most people won't consider you heroic, but depressive. They may advise to cheer up and think happy thoughts. This heroic attitude you may think you have is only in your mind. This self styled heroism seems problematic to me, it looks like another delusion.

    1. For starters, all emotional states are in the mind, so it's of little use to say "this heroic attitude you may think you have is only in your mind". Where else could it be?

      I don't know what is more delusional, to be honest. We know we live in a cruel world that doesn't give a rat's ass whether we survive or not. That's a given. What Ben usually describes as our existential predicament is a given as well. So, how is one to respond to this? I would argue that thinking happy thoughts in a situation like this is the actual delusion, a delusion that leads to apathy and introversion; not to mention it's a fool's errand since this happiness is ridiculously fragile. In that sense, most people detest a vocal bleak outlook since it ruins their ability to maintain their delusion.

      I get it that "heroism" is a loaded word that brings connotations of an armour-clad warrior slaying a dragon (or in my cultural paradigm a well-muscled, lion-skin-covered Heracles dragging Cerberus out of Hades) but really "heroism" is simply fighting against the odds; winning isn't a prerequisite. In essence "heroism" is engrained in human existence. What is not is realizing it. But this is just the starting point. The real issue is how one is to lead his life once this realization is made.

      What is the "best" way of life for someone who finally decides to see the world for all its magnificent indifference? Yes, if one's answer is merely "prancing about feeling heroic for merely being alive" and basking in one's self-victimization, then this heroic attitude is merely a shielding delusion (dejected pessimism, by itself, rings hollow as well). Channeling the realization and the sentiments it creates into a meaningful life is the real trick. Aaaand the fact I started using normative adjectives it a tell-tale sign of where the discussion needs to head, doesn't it?

    2. Ardegas, I agree my use of "heroic" here is a stretch. It's meant sort of as an irony, calling omegas potential heroes. Clearly, alphas better fit the definition. I'm using physical heroism as a metaphor for the existential or spiritual success in dealing well, aesthetically, with harsh natural facts. This is why I don't quite think I'm recommending that we be depressed. Existential heroism is finding your way out of the depression or nihilism with which philosophical naturalism leaves us.

      Is this heroism a delusion? Shouldn't we just think happier thoughts and be done with it? Well, this is what the happiness machines of consumerist society are for. Of course, it's possible to force yourself to be happier, but this would only change your mind, not the underlying problem, unless your optimism motivates you to fixing that problem. There is no solution to the problem of evil, however, short of making the world match our ideals. So however we choose to live, it's bound to be tragic.

      Here, then, I'd just oppose the popular goal of happiness to the aesthetic goal of originality/creativity. I think happiness is unseemly, under the existential circumstances (the problem of evil, etc). When you hear about the baby elephant that was nearly killed by its mother, don't you feel a little awkward recommending that melancholy folks just try to feel happier about the world? Isn't that a kind of repression? I think sublimation is better than repression. Instead of forgetting about our existential predicament, we should let it inspire us to create great art. Happiness (contentment, pleasure, etc) seems a worthy goal to me only if the person grapples with the harsh facts of life in a creative way. Otherwise, the happiness is liable to be cliched and degrading, like the "happiness" of those imprisoned in the fictional matrix, who are ignorant of their dire reality.

    3. Evan T,

      Thanks for the defense. I agree with what you say, of course. In fact, I don't consider myself depressed. I enjoy the little things. And I've started to add some satire to this blog, to show that my worldview isn't all doom and gloom. But I'd add that happiness needn't be delusional, since there's also an issue of character here. Some people are just more innately jolly than others. There are optimists and pessimists, happy-go-lucky characters and melancholy ones. It wouldn't be a delusion to express your character. A delusion requires self-deception, and a jolly character needn't be just a shield from the natural truth. We can choose to look on the bright side in nearly any situation, because this is just a matter of pattern detection at which we excel. Self-deception and delusion enter the picture, I'd say, when our characters become existentially inauthentic, when we pretend that the disturbing natural facts don't exist, when our choices become unseemly and ugly in the context of the real world (given philosophical naturalism).

      For example, I assume that even a happy person would feel sad were she to hear about the baby elephant. A deluded person, though, would rationalize away the horror in an aesthetically uninspiring manner, resorting to archaic myths, for example, that no longer inspire as great works of fiction.

  2. I'd actually look at it from the outside of that - that evil is essentially cruelty...BUT it has no practical purpose. We dig on cruelty when it serves a practical purpose - I dunno what you think when I say that, but my example is innoculation - you take your child in to be stabbed in the arm with a stiletto. Doctors carve up living people (with lengthy, often painful recovery times). And were so into cruelty that has a practical purpose, perhaps the instinct is to say that's nothing like cruelty?

    What is evil? How does evil come into existance? Perhaps the worship of cruelty with a purpose, where in certain circumstances it's lost any practical purpose. Our love affair with cruelty with a purpose occasionally bears the love child of just plain f'n evil. Cruelty that is in love with itself, for it's own sake.

    In terms of children getting what they want, I often (after years of this) run into my children saying 'Can I have X?' - to which I reply 'It's physically possible to have X'. They are now coming around to saying 'Can I have X, please?' to which I say 'Oh, you are asking for X!'.

    One of the difficulties is that it's utter rubbish that you can't have an almond until you have your nails cut - that is NOT the laws of physics. Children, I hypothesize, might resist so very much, because they are perfectly correct - it's utter rubbish you can't physically get an almond until your nails are cut. It really makes no sense.

    And so I force the issue to the second world - the world of permissions and askings. I honestly have no interest in attempting to teach permissions and askings as if they are the phyics of the universe - and children, that's how they ask, to begin with. With utter literalism - though I admire that in a few ways.

    1. You're right, Callan, that social laws shouldn't be confused with natural ones. I suppose she's training her kids to be prepared for conditionality in the social sphere, although nature certainly is conditional as well.

  3. Surely you are aware that the 'heartbreak' and 'horror' you speak about is only an illusion, fundamentally no different from seeing double when you're woosy or your typical magician's trick?

    What then is the point of your existential avengers? It's not like in the middle ages when people were being persecuted by some religious megacorporation. Humanity's horror and anguish is self-inflicted, and you can't save people from themselves.

    If a person feels horror and anguish, it is likely because they choose to. Trying to force a different choice on people is authentically dubious, if not practically unfeasible.

    1. Choice is an illusion...

    2. I'd agree it's as much an illusion as you'll agree pain is an illusion, anon - preferably while I bring down a hard object upon your hand, rather than this just being an armchair discussion?

      And 'because they choose to'? And you describe me as the one with existential avengers! Oh, were all horrofied or anguished because we chose to be - the human will is absolutely and so totally in chage or everything(tm)! Next you'll say people who are raped just feel raped because they choose to be! It's gunna be awesome, because there are no problems anymore - everything was just a choice on the part of the individual!

    3. Pain is different from emotion, as I am sure you know very well. We only care about the people we choose to care about. I can say for certain that there are many people in the world suffering terribly right this moment whom you don't give a fuck about, because if you did you would at least try and find out about it. But you haven't, so you don't know and don't care either.

      If caring weren't something we could choose, life would simply be impossible. There are simply too many people or things in the world to care about, given our natural human limitations.

      Regarding rape, I think we are thinking of two different definitions of choice. Do rape victims have the freedom to choose whether they are raped or not? obviously no. But can they choose how to react? I think so. I think that human beings are resilient. We can face even the worst imaginable situations and overcome them if we choose to. Understand that denying a rape victim choice is also to deny him or her the power to overcome the terrible thing that happened to him or her. I simply won't believe that people are doomed to suffer whatever terrible situations just happen to befall them.

      So do people have freedom of choice to determine their own fate? No. But do people have the ability to choose what they do about it? Yes.

    4. How someone reacts to a certain situation is determined by their background, by which I mean their experiences, health (physical and psychological), education (in the broadest sense), social support ...ect.
      We can face even the worst imaginable situations, yes, if we are lucky. There is no real choice involved.

      How is pain different from emotion? I don't really see how this should follow from your explaination. Are you trying to argue that when you see a baby you CHOOSE to regard it as cute and when you see a lion while wandering alone in the savannah you CHOOSE to feel fear? Sorry but this would strike me as terribly naive....

    5. I don't understand your argument. You as that we have no free will, but at the same time, you say that human reactions are determined by their background. This is an obvious contradiction.

      Free will is the ability to react to historical causation rather than immediate causation. Rocks don't react to according to their childhood experiences. Human beings do. It is the characteristic of having historical determination that defines free will and sets living beings apart from non living matter.

      Historical determination means that you can see a lion from the comfortable distance afforded by a pair of binoculars while wandering alone in the savannah secure in the knowledge that the game fence between you will keep you safe, or that you can see baby in another droll diaper ad and yawn as you flick the channel over to something more interesting.

    6. Anon, I'm not sure whether you're arguing that the existential emotions are illusions because all conscious states are so or because people had it much worse in premodern times, so melancholy folks now are just whiners. Are you wanting to make both points or perhaps neither?

      As for the first point, what you call an illusion might just as well be called an emergent reality. What's the difference between the two? As for the second, I agree that melancholy modernists have many luxuries that premodernists lacked. Notice, though, that as far back as Aristotle, philosophy has been reserved for well-off elites. Aristotle said that philosophy is divine, since gods would have all their necessities taken care of, so they could spend their time indulging their imagination and pondering possibilities. Those who have to work for a living have no time for idle speculation.

      What this means is that those who seem the most spoiled are also the most cursed and the least likely to be genuinely happy. Those who think a lot tend to discover some unpleasant truths. In the Middle Ages, most people in Europe had to work very hard, so they didn't fall into the philosophical trap. The monks and other intellectual elites locked themselves away in monasteries so they wouldn't infect the masses with their knowledge that the literalistic Christian creed is for children.

      In any case, I don't think modern elites choose to feel anguish. It may look like a choice because their philosophy is a luxury and thus they may take to it at first on a whim. But what they learn through philosophy (roughly speaking: naturalism) forces horror on them. It's a matter of cause and effect, as Brassier says regarding science and nihilism (see my article on his view).

    7. Anon, please google 'determinism'. That's what I mean. You obviously use some words differently. You will see that there is no contradiction.

      I see that you "chose" to ignore my point in the examples. Let's make it a bit more specific: You are alone in the wildernis after a terrible bus crash. Some vicious monkeys threw poo at the front window and your vehicle raced into a tree. You are the only survivor. All you wanted was a nice little holiday where you could try out your new binoculars, but they broke like the skull of the nice old lady who told you about her daughter getting married in a week. You ask yourself how long it would take for the ambulance to arrive. Suly some helicopter is already on the way after your phone call. When suddenly a big f***ing LION is standing right in front of you and he looks really hungry. Oh and you are naked. Your clothes burn in the accident, you don't even have a stick to defend yourself. Please choose your emotion :-)

    8. Cain:

      My argument relates to your idea of a postmodern illuminati (the 'existential avengers' I spoke of). The original illuminati arose in a time of religious tyranny, and their goal was to undermine its power. Today we have religious freedom, at least for most of the people reading this blog, I believe. Therefore, for the most part, whatever ideological tyranny exists is self-imposed. It is there because people want it that way.

      The idea that people suffer simply because they're ignorant doesn't seem convincing to me. As you say, it doesn't require a lot of brains to adopt a positive outlook on life. If people are in anguish, it's probably because they choose to be, because the ideology which causes them anguish also provides them with the illusion of security (do as you're told and everything will be OK) or superiority (ideological ego-tripping).

      What I could support is a programme of existential investigations, studying our existential predicament and recording the results so that those who choose to escape the rat race have some assistance, as most existentialist currently do. But trying to change society itself seems pointless, since I don't think that society has any desire to change.

      Furthermore, the idea of using existentialism for some social conditioning project kinda perverse if not inauthentic.

      Regarding your view of philosophy, I also disagree. I think that it is life which forces horror onto people. Philosophy provides us with the means to rationalize and reconcile ourselves with the innate horror of life.

      In short, I think that people do choose anguish, because society tells them that if they love society, and hate everything else (including their own existence, which is the ultimate source of their anguish) society will protect them and help them to bully outsiders as a vent for their inner anguish. People then do not suffer anguish so much as willingly embrace it.

    9. Dietl:

      The question of free will and determinism is complicated. In its ontological dimension, there is the question of whether causation is rule-bound, as explained by for instance by most traditional scientific theories as determinable cause >> determinate effect, or whether it is random, as defined for instance by chaos theory.

      If you aren't familiar with chaos theory, let me explain, at least as I understand it (I must warn you though that I'm no authority on it). To take a simple, popular example, imagine you are smoking a cigarette. Observe the patterns the smoke makes as you blow it out. Every time you exhale, the smoke forms a different pattern. In fact, it won't be hard to believe that no two puffs of smoke are exactly identical, ever. In this sense, the phenomenon of blowing smoke is an example of utter randomality. Why? Perhaps it is because there are so many variables at play that the system itself breaks down and the normal laws no longer have effect, or the phenomenon is of such complexity that even if there were rules governing the phenomenon, they are too complex for the limitations of the human mind to fathom. Either way, the phenomenon is random, actually or apparently.

      Now, there is also the epistemic dimension. Epistemically, all of reality is deterministic, because the human mind is deterministic. Our mental architecture is built in way that we see reality as deterministic, even if it isn't the case. For instance, say randomality were the rule, and I give you three apples and somehow you receive four, our minds would still construe the randomality as a deterministic law of 3 = 4. In other words, epistemically everything is deterministic, since even randomality is construed deterministically.

      Now, speaking epistemically, everything is deterministic. What then is free will? Free will is the ability to generate alternative causations through history. If I kick a small rock it moves. Every time I repeat the action, the same thing happens, because the rock is bound to its immediate circumstances. Now, if I kick you, you may move the first time. But the second time, you might break the impact, or stop me from kicking you, or kick me first. What is happening is that you are reacting to a historical cause rather than an immediate cause. This then is free will, as I take it. The ability to select alternate reactions than the immediate reaction to an immediate cause.

      Determinism then doesn't contradict free will. Rather, determinism is a prerequisite for the existence of free will.

      Regarding your other question, of how a person would react in your fictional scenario, ultimately it is a question of how that person's past defines their historical determinism or free will. Take as a case in point the tourists who climbed out of their vehicle to pose for photographs around Mufasa and his family. They had no fear of the lions, at least until they discovered what the circle of life actual meant for them.

      There is no way of saying how all people will react to a situation because free will (i.e. historical determination) is unique to each person.

    10. Anon,

      Thanks for your constructive criticisms.

      I like the name "existential avengers," although it makes a cartoon out of the spiritual heroes/posthumans/ubermenschen. I also like the idea of an existential support program. I suppose my blog is recording the results of my engagement with the facts of our existential predicament.

      I think you're drawing too much from my talk of the Illuminati. For one thing, the end of this article shows that I have second thoughts about the idea, since collectives tend to become corrupt. Also, I don't advocate the underhanded, great-ends-justifying-horrible-means tactics which the Illuminati might have used in the American Revolution and so forth.

      I'm interested more in the question of whether enlightened people should band together or be content with the loneliness that accompanies their omega status (the status of those whose enlightenment is based on insight into nature and society due to detachment and alienation from our instincts and from exoteric myths). I'm not so interested in a grand project of converting the world to some new existential religion. Mind you, I'm interested in whether such a religion will develop (see "Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion"). So my appeal to the Illuminati was meant to be very limited. I was just curious about the example set by that secret society, of an underground collective of enlightened outsiders. If that particular secret society committed evil acts, that might support the principle that groups tend be corrupted by the concentration of power needed to run them.

      Where do I say that people suffer only because they're ignorant? This actually reverses my view. Ignorance (and delusion) go hand in hand with happiness, while knowledge goes with sorrow, angst, and horror. I see your point about the choice of ideologies which may or may not cause suffering. The thing is, though, the ideology in question is philosophical naturalism, which takes on board the findings of science (High Arka would disagree on this point). I don't think worldviews are entirely arbitrary. The rest of the world has a say, too, in what epistemically responsible people believe. Naturalism is forced on rational people, by the facts that are uncovered by experiments and by the other scientific methods. So rational folks suffer not because they choose to entertain unpleasant ideas, but because their way of understanding things presents a horrifying reality to them.

    11. Well, you were the one saying that determinism stands in contradiction to free will being an illusion (which is still false). Now you say "Determinism then doesn't contradict free will" and I agree with this. Determinism just makes free will obsolete. Your example about kicking a rock vs. kicking me (btw I just want to point out here, that I only wanted to frighten you and now you want to kick me ;-)) doesn't really go deep enough. When you kick me the first time I might move, in case I didn't see you trying to do this. But at the second time my brain already registered the threat and acts accordingly. I don't chose to do anything here. It just instincts (among other things) that make me trying to stop you. You ignore the whole chain of events that takes place, when I feel your kick. The signal gets transported to my brain where it gets interpreted and categorised and then my brain generates a reaction. This all happens seconds before I'm even aware that you are attacking me. Afterwards I might have the illusion of having had the choice, but that isn't the case. There are many scientific studies that support this few. You think you are in control over you body, but you are not.

      You write "Free will is the ability to generate alternative causations through history." From an ontological point of view there is the possibility that the world is deterministic or that it's random. If the former is the case then there is no free will because "generate alternative causations" isn't possible. Everything would be rule-bound, even your "decision". Now if the latter is true and randomality, as you call it, is the case then what kind of choice is this? If everything is random, your decision is also random, so what is free will then?

      I don't think that "the epistemic dimension" is relevant here. If we think that there is a free will or not doesn't change the fact, that it exists. If you are trying to argue that free will is something that exists only in the epistemic dimension then I would argue that this stands in conflict with your opinion that "the human mind is deterministic".

      Funny how you still tried to change my little example with the lion, when I already had you there standing naked. The normal reaction to this situation is fear or course. Why would you be given the choice to love the lion or be jealouse of him. This would mean your death. It's programmed into our brains to be scared.
      Or course I'm not saying that there aren't any exceptions, but they can be explained either by conditioning against fear, lack of knowledge, a missfunction of your brain (by which I mean a deviation from the normal functioning human brain).

      There is no way of saying how all people will react to a situation not because free will is unique to each person but because every brain is unique and has been uniquly formed in the course of evolution (in general) and in the course of a lifetime (specifically). But there is still a way of saying how a certain human being reacts to a situation given enough knowledge about this human being. It would be as easy as predicting the reaction of a stone you kicked, just a bit more complex, but no more than multiplying big number is more conplex than doing it with small ones.

    12. @Ben:
      "I'm interested more in the question of whether enlightened people should band together or be content with the loneliness..."
      This made me think about Theodore Sturgeons novel "More than human". I don't know if you are familiar with it, but I think it makes a very interesting point for your question. I would highly recommend it to you.

      What I'm trying to say is that the problem with banding toghether is only corruption. So there only needs to be a part that control the actions of the whole, a kind of safety mechanism. To be specific, there need to be people whose sole purpose is to question the actions that are decided.

    13. I haven't read that book, but I'll check it out.

      I suppose the Occupy Wall Street movement was very concerned about corruption and so they resorted to some peculiar measures to ensure equality (voting by shaking their hands, and so forth). The movement likely succeeded in keeping to its moral principles precisely to the extent that the movement failed to achieve anything and thus remained powerless. Jacobinism in France and communism in Russia and China began as egalitarian but they became corrupt over time because of the power needed to run the societies that embraced those leftist principles. The 1960s hippie counterculture was likewise opposed to top-down control by The Man, but produced numerous cults that followed the familiar power dynamics.

      Of course, there are means of counteracting corrupting forces, such as the rule of law. But like water that flows around all obstacles, nature finds a way to recreate dominance hierarchies no matter how clever we think we are in shielding our societies.

    14. Anon,

      Coming in late, but I think you're confusing exposure as being control. I'm sure if you forced me to see pictures of those people suffering terribly, I would feel terrible - at best, I can control exposure to such a source. But my reaction to it is not really any different than when someone thumps my hand and I feel pain. I only 'control' the pain by controlling exposure.

    15. Dietl:

      I still think that you're misunderstanding me. You say that human beings react according to instincts. Isn't this tantamount to acknowledging that human beings have free will? Aren't we actually talking about the same thing?

      Let's look at what free will means. Will refers to an embodied or internalized stimulus/cause. Surely you do not believe that human instincts are remotely controlled by some kind of evil genius. So, if your agree that instincts are internalized, i.e. built into the hardware of our being, then surely you must agree that they constitute a form of will.

      Furthermore, having internalized causes/stimuli frees us from immediate causation. Unlike a rock, a living being doesn't always have to react to external causes. It can also react to internal causes. In this sense, living beings are free, that is, free from immediate causality.

      In these terms, surely you can see that by having instincts we become free willed beings.

      Regarding your example, I don't agree that I am avoiding the issue. The original premise was that ALL human beings react IDENTICALLY to the same stimulus. Or at least that was what I understood you to mean. So, even though I might react the same as most people to a lion, it isn't relevant. So long as there are some people who don't the premise is defeated.

      I can't think of one situation where everyone will react the same. This then implies that we have free will, that is, an internalized determinism unique to each and every one of us.

    16. Cain:

      I might have misunderstood. To clarify, let me summarize my interpretation of your argument:

      I understood you to be saying that suffering is universal to all mankind, in that the experience of evil causes suffering, and the problem of evil is natural to human existence.

      Then you go on to propose that philosophy provides not a way to restore happiness, but at least a way to reconcile ourselves to this suffering, and furthermore suggest that perhaps philosophers should band together to help humanity alleviate its suffering.

      Provided my interpretation is correct, I have two primary objections.

      Firstly, I object to the implication that suffering is blind and meaningless. I think that we choose in whom or what to invest our concern in (for instance, friends, family, idols, etc.) and in return for that investment, these people or things reward us by making our lives meaningful. Therefore the suffering we experience is simply the cost of leading a meaningful existence. Suffering then is neither blind, nor meaningless.

      Secondly, I have doubts about the idea of some kind of banding together of philosophers. If by banding together you mean exchanging ideas, isn't this what philosophers already typically do, making the proposition meaningless? If, on the other hand, you mean uniting under a shared set of values, won't this devaluate the very individuality and diversity which gives philosophy meaning?

      But these are just my general questions on the topic.

    17. Callan:

      You admit that there is some degree of control regarding exposure, but question that there is control over the reaction to exposure.

      Isn't to control exposure also to control our reaction to exposure? If I control my exposure to a terrible experience by looking the other way or distracting my mind with happy thoughts, aren't I by definition also controlling my reaction?

    18. "You say that human beings react according to instincts. Isn't this tantamount to acknowledging that human beings have free will? Aren't we actually talking about the same thing?"

      I guess my answer to both questions would be 'no'. I think it comes down to what you mean by 'internalized'. In my view, how the human body develops depends on the environment and the genes. So whatever is internalised is part of external causation. How else do you explain where that which you call 'free will' comes from.

      Would you say a robot (from todays standard/in the future) has free will even if it is obviously part of external causation? And if not, why? Where is the difference to a human being?

      "...a living being doesn't always have to react to external causes."

      A living being always reacts to external causes, even if it isn't always aware of this. I guess you know how advertising works.

      "In this sense, living beings are free, that is, free from immediate causality."

      Is being free from immediate causality a sufficient condition for free will? If so, in the Chinese Room example, the room itself has free will.

      Regarding my example, I wasn't talking about ALL human beings. I was talking about a very specific human being, namely you. I wanted you to imagine being in exactly this situation. If you, Anon, would see the lion, what choices would you have? Do you really have one or would you say that you would always react the same in this situation?

    19. Isn't to control exposure also to control our reaction to exposure? If I control my exposure to a terrible experience by looking the other way or distracting my mind with happy thoughts, aren't I by definition also controlling my reaction?
      No and No.

      No more than someone with a nut allergy is controlling their reaction to nuts by not eating nuts. They still have an allergy to nuts, regardless.

    20. Anon,

      You've accurately summarized this article. Of course, everyone suffers to some extent because the world doesn't live up to our ideals. But most people are good at avoiding the existential kind of suffering that gets to the heart of the matter. We all suffer now and again because we happen to stub our toe or we arrive late to an appointment, and so on. These particular disappointments happen to everyone, and we become stressed out or we learn to cope, depending on our temperament.

      But as I say in other articles on this blog, there's a kind of suffering that's fit only for those with esoteric insight into the world's nature. This is what I call the curse of reason and it leads to an existential crisis which requires the creation of myths to overcome it in a dignified way, as Nietzsche said. Some myths (including philosophical speculations) are aesthetically better than others, because they're fictions and should be judged as such (with minimal delusions, contrary to exoteric, literalistic religions or philosophical ideologies).

      I'm not sure I imply that suffering is blind or meaningless. In my response to Brassier's nihilism, for example, I argue that we create meaning by a kind of transduction: with technology, we convert the meaninglessness of the natural wasteland (the undead god, as I call it elsewhere), creating a functional (teleological) environment that better lives up to our anthropocentric fantasies. We thus attempt to overcome the problem of evil, by creating the best of all possible worlds (the technological singularity?).

      As for the League of Existential Avengers, it would have to involve more than just the sharing of ideas. When Sartre was all the rage several decades ago, there were many existentialist clubs and cults. I'm interested more in a worthwhile existential enterprise requiring a collective effort from the enlightened elites. The Illuminati engaged in various conspiracies to unseat those they thought were unfit to hold high office. I'm just wondering what collective action would look like were enlightened folks to leave their monasteries or other outposts in the margins of society and to decide to kick some ass. As I say, though, I suspect the movement would collapse under pressure from the corrupting forces of nature.

      I don't see why philosophy needs diversity. Postmodern philosophy does, but that's a matter of political correctness (multiculturalism, etc). Philosophy (and religion) should be in the business of soothing the soul in response to scientific truth. Then again, philosophical myths can be as diverse as we please when we think of them as artistic works of fiction. All of those myths, though, should be geared to confronting the existential crisis arising from the horrors of naturalism.

    21. Dietl:

      Although the source of the determinism with experience is external, once it is experienced, it becomes internalized. For instance, imagine you climb a stairwell, and you experience that every step is sturdy. Then during an interval, one of the stairs is compromised. You will still assume every stair to be sturdy, because the experience has been internalized, i.e. cut off from its source. If the experience were externalized, you would automatically know when the stair were compromised, because the change in the state of the stair would automatically change your experience of it. But we know that experience is internalized because it is independent of the actual state of the stair.

      Experience originates from external experience, but is immediately internalized, making it independent of its origin. In this way, the determinism becomes internal rather than external, and defines living beings both internally and externally determined. It its the ability to select between external and internal determination that makes us free willed beings.

      Regarding your question regarding the robot, if the robot has the ability to internalize experience and then to react deterministically to it, then the robot has free will. The very definition of a robot seems to me to be a mechanism which replicates free will. If the replication weren't in some way true, the robot wouldn't be a robot, would it?

      Obviously however, this doesn't mean that this instance of free will is exactly the same as that of you or me, in the same way that free will is different for a single celled organism than it is for a human being by virtue of the human being having a far more complex system of internalized determinisms.

      Regarding the example, I believe my answer is appropriate, because if determinism is solely externalized, all human beings would react identically to the same stimulus, provided that all the human beings are biologically similar (no blind people or vegetables please) and reacting to the same stimulus.

      What it all comes down to is the perception that living beings and non-living beings react differently to determinism, by virtue of being different. Surely, you can agree that there are such differences. We can then refer to those differences as free will.

    22. Callan:

      You are using semantics to evade the point. The original argument was not about capacity but response. I didn't say that we don't have the capacity for empathy, but that we choose when to respond that way. The same counts for a nut allergy. Having a nut allergy doesn't doom me to ill health. I can simply choose not to eat nuts.

    23. Cain:

      Philosophy needs diversity because philosophy needs to be relevant and we live in a world without certainty and therefore cannot ever be certain what this relevance will be.

      The very fact that we need to find answers implies that we don't have the answers and thus that we have no way of predicting which questions we need to be asking. Having many different answers then is better than committing to just one.

      For instance, you and I are both existentialists, but at the same time, our philosophies couldn't be more different. For instance, I don't credit your concept of cosmicism. On the contrary, my beliefs run in exactly the opposite direction. I believe that the cosmos is alive, and that it is we who are undead. We are zombies doomed to wander the land of the living with the burden of knowledge that we can never wholly escape our undeath. For me, cosmicism is a source of comfort and inspiration, not of dread and despair. For me, the consolation of philosophy lies in its promise of escape from the human condition of undeath and of immersion in the living cosmos outside ourselves.

      I don't credit scientific truth either, and would view a philosophy of consoling ourselves to lies as perverse.

      Which of us are right? I would like to say that I am, but I can't, and we are better off exploring both alternatives that committing ourselves to only only one.

      Would you be willing to discard your beliefs on some questionable argument that it would be better for humanity? This is ultimately what your existential illuminati amounts to.

    24. I climb a stairwell and experience sturdy steps. The state of the step changes. I still assume that the steps are stury because I haven't seen/hears/felt the change. So far so good.
      But then you write: "[I assume this], because the experience has been internalized, i.e. cut off from its source."
      The source of my experience was in the past. I can't be cut off from it, because it happened no matter how the world changed.
      "Internalising" an experience doesn't make it "independent of its origin". The origin of an experience lies in your past and you can't change that.

      The line between internal and external sources is completely arbitary. If you define 'free will' the way you do at the moment a stone can have free will too.
      Lets say the sun is shining on the stone. It experiences the photons (external source) and internalises them. The particles of the stone gain energy and so the stone warms up. The energy created like this reacts with the environment ect.
      You see it is the same. You have an external source, something happens in the inside and then there is a reaction and no stone reacts in the exact same way because no stone is alike. Some are bigger, some smaller and so on.

      "... if determinism is solely externalized, all human beings would react identically to the same stimulus, provided that all the human beings are biologically similar (no blind people or vegetables please) and reacting to the same stimulus."

      I'm not saying that only external sources determine how a human being reacts but the internal reaction depends on the external experience. Some things are the same for all healthy human beings. If I cut you with a knife, you feel pain. If you take certain drug you will start to hallucinate. If I put a strong enough magnet to your brain, your experiences might change, you might loose control of some of your body part, you might even start to listen to what I say now ;-)

      What is the difference between a living and a non-living being? Is your TV a living being? By your definition it has free will. Is your computer? Your mobile phone? A dice shaker?
      You really need to start to question your definitions of 'living' and 'free will'. They lead to unreasonable conclusions.

    25. Anon,

      I'm intrigued by your critique of existential cosmicism. Do you have a blog or an article summarizing your view? If you could write one up, I'd consider putting it up on my blog and continuing the dialogue in that fashion. This comment section can get a bit cramped and I'd like to read more about your opposite take on cosmicism, philosophy, and so forth. You can send it through the Contact the Ranter part of this blog, between my profile and the RWUG Archive on the right. (Your name and email won't appear on the blog if you send it there and you can keep your anonymity if you like.)

      I agree we're undead in that we're material beings with no spirit or living substance that transcends nature, which nevertheless simulate life and mentality. But your cosmicism would seem to conflict with science and naturalism, so it's not really cosmicism in Lovecraft's sense. That's just a semantic point.

      Regarding philosophy and diversity, I think we differ on whether diversity should be a means or an end. Relativists and antirealists think it should be an end, because they think there's no such thing as objective truth. I think it should be a means to finding final or universal truths, because scientific theories aren't merely subjective and aesthetic standards suffice to distinguish between great and minor artworks.

      Also, there's a difference between lies and fictions. We suspend our disbelief when dealing with a fiction/myth, because we enjoy creations. That's one way we're similar to the creative world all around us: it creates us and we create artificial worlds, like children mimicking their parents.

      I'm not sure what you're saying now about the existential Illuminati.

    26. Dietl:

      I agree completely that the fundamental processes are the same in both historical and immediate causation. But the difference comes in in that the details of how determinism works in each case differ.

      Although how determinism affects a human being and how it affects a rock appears similar on a fundamental level, in terms of forces working on one another and chemical reactions, etc. But the way those systems of interactions are ordered are vastly different. Rocks don't have physiology, they don't have neural networks, they do not have cellular energy sources or the means to convert it into biological behaviour.

      These definitions cannot be inconsistent because they contain no inconsistent categories. This definition of free will cannot be inconsistent with a definition of determinism, because determinism and free will are not mutually exclusive categories. Rather, I've defined free will as a type of determinism and living beings as a type of non-living matter.

      Regarding mechanisms in general, mechanisms in a certain sense are understood as objects which replicate the actions of living beings, as with forms of AI or a dice shaker which replicates the action of the human hand. To the extent that they replicate the actions of living beings, they themselves must become in some limited sense living beings, but only to the extent of that replication.

    27. Perhaps I could at some point post some sort of manifesto, but I don't really have the opportunity right now.

      But to slake some of your curiosity, let me provide you with a basic outline:

      There is no truth or certainty. The conditions required for truth or certainty to exist are impossible to meet. From this follows that all knowledge is mythic/fictional, in other words unliving. We can intuit through experience that we exist in a real or living world, but we cannot ever know that world, because the very nature of consciousness reduces living experience to dead knowledge. In short, even though we sense that the world we live in and we ourselves are alive, we can only sense it as a corpse.

      As such, we are corpses moving through a living world, longing to join the world of the living, but unable to do so because of our essential unlife.

      But at the same time, we are also undead. Experience grants us an intuitive appreciation of life, so that we can never truly console ourselves to death either. Instead, we are both unliving, removed from life, as well as undead, removed from death.

      I see existential philosophy as providing us a means to harmonize our undeath with our unlife, to achieve a kind of authentic balance between our dual conflicting natures, name our love of death and our urge to live.

      Between the two however, I think that our love of death is the stronger. This I think is visible in our love of knowledge and our innate myth-making predilection. This is where I see atheism as vital. Atheism is the preference of experience of life over dead myths. Atheism then is a myth-breaking, iconoclastic philosophy which helps withdraw us from the grave of our own mythic reality and resuscitate our connection to the world of the living.

      The danger however lies in our mythic predisposition, for as soon as one myth dissolves another takes its place. But in that brief moment between one myth and the next, we get to experience life. Atheism then best expresses itself in self-destroying myths, myths which are inherently incomplete, like that of the ouroboros, which continuously destroys itself in same the moment of its creation, or the myth of science which destroys its own certainties as soon as it creates them (as opposed to scientism which opposes any doubt of its certainties).

      This is just a vague general outline of my views as they relate to yours.

    28. I didn't say that your definition were inconsistent. What I was trying to say is that your definition is too broad. It encompasses too many things. If everything is living, what then does it mean to be alive. Being alive would be synonymous with existing.

      "I've defined free will as a type of determinism and living beings as a type of non-living matter."

      I guess you know that these are not the usual definitions of 'free will' and 'living being'. It is your right you use the words as you like but this is bound to create a lot of confusion. Like the following: If determinism is true, there is no choice (by definition). Free will usually means that somehow there is "choice" involved. So the concept of free will and of determinism are usually incompatible. Defining 'free will' as a form of determinism doesn't seem appropriate to me. It's like defining 'atheism' as a form of theology.

      "they themselves must become in some limited sense living beings"

      ...with free will? And thereby with the ability to make a choice?

    29. It is broad, because it is a scalar definition. Scalar definitions do not define by exclusion but by degree of comparison. It says that there are certain features which define 'free will' or 'living', and the more frequent or prominent that feature is, the more the definition applies to it.

      Consider for instance certain features of living organisms, such as stasis and flux. Living organisms have a remarkable ability to maintain their form. A corpse for instance disintegrates within hours of death and is almost almost unrecognizable within a matter of days. Yet while it is alive, it may maintain its form with little change for decades or even centuries. The human hand is not a very tough instrument, but it perseveres for all the years of your life when far tougher instruments slowly corrode and finally fall apart over time. And taking into consideration that that same hand is essentially the same as its ancient forebear millions of years ago when the first hand evolved, this continuity is almost miraculous.

      At the same time, living beings are also characterized by flux. You are a constant expression of energy, of a pumping heart, twitching muscles, and moving limbs. There are few forces which have as great an effect on their environment while expending relatively small amounts of energy. Even while your body is able to maintain such a high degree of stasis, it is constantly in motion and effects vast changes on its surrounding environment. Furthermore, considering that you are a descendant of the first chemical reaction we call life, we are talking about a single relatively small chemical reaction which has managed to continue uninterrupted for several billion years.

      If we take these two speculative criteria as defining life, we will find that it encompasses all existence, but also that it is more definitive of certain phenomena than others. In other words, everything is alive to some extent, but those things we call life forms are far more alive than the rest.

      Is is an atypical definition? In some ways yes, but mainly it is not. Most rigorous definitions of free will I know of do not see free will and determinism as opposing one another. After all, if choice weren't deterministic (i.e. had no cause and effect), choice wouldn't matter. Rather, they distinguish between internal determinisms and external determinism, that is, the 'I' or 'me' as a cause as opposed to something outside of it causing an effect on 'me' or the 'I'.

      This is the traditional definition as I take it. However, if we apply this definition rigorously, we find that free will is not confined to human beings or even living beings (as your example with the rock illustrates). Most will dismiss this observation off hand, but I cannot think of any reason to reject it. Free will then again defines everything that exists to some extent, but applies mostly to living beings to a far greater degree than the rest. Again it is a scalar definition.

      As such I would say that it is a more conventional definition of free will, but one which is applied less conventionally.

    30. That's an interesting metaphysical story, Anon. I'd question, though, your use of "living" and "nonliving." When you call animals and people undead while calling the rest of the world living, you've got to be redefining those words. For one thing, you can't be assuming the biological definition of life (reproduction, homeostasis, metabolism, growth, adaptation, response to stimulus, etc). Also, you can't be relying on a psychological definition, attributing mentality (consciousness, rationality, emotions, personality) to nature. So how would you define "life" and "nonlife"? What is it about animals and people (or is it just people?) that makes us not alive, while solar systems, atoms, asteroids, and so on are all alive?

    31. Cain:

      Sorry, I guess I'm mixing my metaphors, or your metaphor. In my reply to your comment I was simply extending your metaphor of the undead god to my views. Undeath and unlife there refer to metaphysical metaphors. I don't actually believe that non-living matter is more alive than living beings.

      But the idea is certainly intriguing.

      Rather, unlife and undeath simply refer to the distance which consciousness creates between the conscious existent and his or her existence, a distance which places us in in some strange space in between existence and non-existence, a kind of purgatory.

      Think about it for a moment. Does anything you know actually exist? No. We can intuit that there is something like existence, but we can never know it. The only thing we can know are our ideas, and ideas are only non-existent simulacra of reality. We are trapped in a world of simulations, with the knowledge that they are simulations of reality, but a reality we will never know.

    32. Ah, thanks for clarifying, Anon. You were expressing your views in my terms. I think I see what you mean about how we're trapped in a sort of limbo of what Kant called phenomena, which is the field of experience largely constructed by our conceptual schemes and interpretive programs. The idea of life, then, would have to do with unity with nature, whereas abstract knowledge separates and alienates us as well as disenchanting the world. I'll be saying more about this in my article for this Monday, called Decadence and Enlightenment.

    33. You are using semantics to evade the point. The original argument was not about capacity but response. I didn't say that we don't have the capacity for empathy, but that we choose when to respond that way. The same counts for a nut allergy. Having a nut allergy doesn't doom me to ill health. I can simply choose not to eat nuts.

      Funny, I'd say you are using semantics to evade the point.

      Surely you are aware that the 'heartbreak' and 'horror' you speak about is only an illusion, fundamentally no different from seeing double when you're woosy or your typical magician's trick?


      If a person feels horror and anguish, it is likely because they choose to. Trying to force a different choice on people is authentically dubious, if not practically unfeasible.

      Sure, when someones nut allergy goes off, its because they chose for it to go off by choosing to eat nuts.

      It could never be trigged in any other way. Sure.

    34. Heartbreak and horror are different from nut allergies. People enjoy reading or watching horror or heartbreaking stories. We get a kick out of it. I doubt that anyone chooses to experience the effects of a nut allergy.

      Your argument is obviously invalid.

      You compare sympathy with nut allergies, and insist that its a valid comparison. Well, lets take your argument to its absurd conclusions: We live in a world that is full of suffering a misery. In this case, if exposure weren't voluntary, it would be like someone with nut allergies constantly being forced to eat nuts. Life in this case would be miserable if not impossible. Yet clearly you and I are alive and well. Obviously we are not overly burdened by our consciences. Clearly then we can choose when to feel sympathy and when not to.

  4. You've drawn your most powerful examples from the ranks of (1) children trapped inside the neoliberal fantasyland called "Canada," and (2) animals trapped inside the zoo.

    This is a far cry from "the state of nature," or "the way the world should be," or any of those concepts. You're drawing upon examples provided by sick people to prove that the larger world is, itself, sick. That's about as reliable as forming a philosophy based upon living your entire life inside Hannibal Lecter's basement--or Plato's Cave.

    1. Well, you're right, High Arka, I haven't proved empirically that the world is full of evil. (As I say, though, infanticide happens in the wild, not just in the zoo.) In fact, I don't think everything in nature is bad, but I do think everything has an objectively tragic aspect. What I raise in this article is an a priori argument about the nature of ideals: they must differ from reality and that means we're stuck in a place we'd rather not be in. That's the root of the problem of evil, I think, which means we must learn to live with disappointment.

    2. Posit, then, that we were here, doing all the same things as we are now, except that it was our ideal--the highest and best we could aspire to was what we are accomplishing now (say, a world filled with infanticide in the wild, along with other molecular movements that cause this version of you and I to say, "How disappointing!").

      If all the same things happened, but we were undisturbed by and content with them, would that be paradise?

    3. I think you're asking whether Eden could be red in tooth and claw as long as all the animals were sufficiently ignorant about what was happening. So you're distinguishing between two best of all possible worlds, the objective and the subjective one. As for the subjective one, I think the crying baby elephant indicates that animals are sufficiently aware and capable of feeling pain to show that our world isn't in any way the best of all possible ones. Precisely because we're not ignorant, because we're cursed by reason, we can understand all too well the indifferent natural processes that alone are responsible for life. Those processes are destructively creative, because they're undead (they create by transforming and thus destroying earlier incarnations of the undead god, as it were; for example, early species give way to later ones in evolution). Seeing nature in that way horrifies those who are informed by reason (philosophy and science). Those who aren't so well-informed still suffer from the results of the undead god's creative frenzy; it's just that they don't understand why bad things sometimes happen to them.

    4. No-no; you've changed the terms. This one isn't positing a situation in which the world is the same, yet we are "ignorant." Rather, the world is the same except that we enjoy (or are merely content with) the bad examples you describe--say, infanticide or being put to bed too early.

      So, we're not ignorant, in this alternate world. We're fully aware that a dead baby elephant never grows up, but we all (or just a simple- or super-majority of us, if you'd prefer to diametrically "switch" reactions on a ratio you feel matches that of the current world's people, as to how many would disapprove of the crushing of the baby elephant) react to it with pleasure.

      Lamb and the lion--in this world, the lion catches a lamb, and as its neck is crushed, the lamb feels ecstasy and contentment rather than pain and fear. Later, when the lion is old and dying, it feels increasing euphoria instead of stiff joints.

      A world where everything happened as it does now, and people still made oil wars and prisons, but the dying itself was pleasurable instead of painful? Where we all competed for resources because we still enjoyed eating and sex and money a lot, but the lack of those resources caused comparable pleasures, instead of pains?

      If our reactions were switched around that way--if--would it be a better world than this world we have now?

    5. A curious hypothetical! I think there's something similar in Hume's Dialogues on Religion, but I could be mistaken. The thing is, pain clearly has the evolutionary function of warning us about some danger so we can survive long enough to pass on our genes. If animals lose that warning system, life would swiftly come to an end; indeed, we'd all be like moths to a flame, seeking danger because of the greater pleasure we'd feel.

      But what's the point you're wanting to make here about the necessary divergence between ideals and reality? (It's necessary because as soon as you imagine ideals, you've shown you're discontent with reality. If we were entirely content with what's happening in front of us, our imagination would atrophy and we wouldn't bother imagining any counterfactual scenario, let alone one we value more than the facts which thus motivates us to change the facts to suit the ideal.)

    6. Well, this one's curious about whether you'd find such a world "better" or "worse." You're saying instead that it's "impossible," but we accounted for that. Remember, food is still tasty, sex is still pleasurable, and in this world, we have the intelligence to anticipate future food and sex (and dominion over others, accumulation of resources, et cetera). We feel pleasure if we accidentally hit our thumbs with a nail, but, all things considered, we'd probably rather stay on the couch watching TV, instead of getting up, going to the garage, getting out the hammer, and whacking ourselves just for that pleasure-rush. Also, just like people try to avoid rich desserts now, and exercise, we're intellectually aware that killing ourselves--while pleasurable--would lead to a lack of future pleasure, so most of us make the decision to enjoy painful pleasures only very carefully, or when they're thrust upon us by chance.

      The "physical pain" aspect of this alternate world is cute, though the more interesting one is the pleasurable compassion we'd all feel, in this world, at hearing of the crushing of the elephant, or the massacring of an enemy in wartime. Our days in this world would include far more time spent mildly enjoying the misery of others than actively enjoying banging our own thumbs with hammers.

      Same question still--better or worse than this world?

    7. I think it's hard to answer that question, High Arka, because the results would either be the same (lesser pleasures would count as pains and serve as warnings), in which case the difference would be semantic, or the results would differ in which case it's hard to imagine how that other world would work.

      When you ask "better or worse?" I'm reminded of what Jon Stewart said the other day about CNN. I think of this in aesthetic terms, so the question for me would be which world supports the greater fictional narrative as an interpretation of its latent pattern. The best fiction seems to me to require suffering, which is why hell has interested artists more than heaven. If normativity is ultimately an artistic judgment of taste, we have to ask about the function of art. What purpose would art serve in heaven or in some utopia in which suffering is impossible? I see art as a part of existential rebellion against an absurd world. We create art along with the rest of our artificial worlds to distract us from the nightmare of the pre-existing wilderness. I'll say more about this in this Monday's article, Decadence and Enlightenment.

    8. Oh, come now--if you've had enough sex, or just eaten enough different kinds of food, you can understand that variegated pleasures, whether "less" or "more," do not count as pains. Sometimes, a hamburger followed by a milkshake really is better than duck and cherries followed by torte. Simply because in a different mood you might prefer a different "greater" pleasure does not mean that you are suffering by not instead experiencing that different pleasure.

      Have you ever just sat on the couch, eaten some chips, and watched a light but entertaining TV show? Was that suffering? Was it suffering when compared to, oh, being moved to passion by the symphony? Or an orgasm? Or the five minutes after you find out you've just gotten a major bonus at work?

      It's patently ridiculous to say that "lesser pleasures would count as pains," and that shows how thoroughly invested you are in the westernized hierarchies you claim to "rant" against. To a wealthy, selfish, never-satisfied western consumer, trying always to keep up with the Joneses, it does seem natural that you'd burn with pain simply to think that someone else was having "greater pleasure" than you.

      There is a much larger world beyond those hierarchies. Imagine a life, and a world, without castes. The initial reaction of the westerner is to be afraid, and to think, "How could I possibly be valued if I wasn't ranked higher than someone else?" But there is, in fact, nothing to be afraid of. Pleasures are pleasures even without using other people as yardsticks. You fear the loss of caste because you believe everything is relative, yet the objectivity of some aspects of existence is able to save you.

      The latter is also why Heaven could be a place where many people enjoy something, without needing to hurt others, or feel that they're "above" others, to achieve that enjoyment. From some perspectives, learning to understand that possibility is the path to paradise, while being mired in the idea that your enjoyment must come at the expense of others is the mindset that keeps you trapped in Hell.

    9. I agree that lesser pleasures now don't count as pains, but that's because in our world we also have those pains, so we can contrast pains with both lesser and greater pleasures, and either of the latter would generally be preferred to pain. But in your imaginary world in which there are no pains, we wouldn't have that contrast. Instead, the contrast would be between what we'd call lesser and greater pleasures. We in our world wouldn't interpret either as pain, but I was trying to imagine how a denizen of the imaginary world would interpret those lesser pains. Would they count as pains relative to the greater pleasures? Would they serve as perverse warnings that the person is wasting her time and should be pursuing the life-threatening greater pleasures? Who knows? This is a complex thought experiment which doesn't have a single right answer.

      Anyway, I don't see how I've compared one person's pleasures to another person's and have thus presupposed a social hierarchy. My questions about your thought experiment would apply even if only one person occupied the imaginary world, since the comparison is between each person's mental states (one person's lesser pleasures could function as pains relative to that same person's greater pleasures).

      But I'm still not sure what the upshot of this is for my interpretation of the problem of evil. I take it you're saying this problem isn't objective, but is self-imposed by white, rich Westerners. Against that sort of criticism, I'd just repeat my a priori point about the difference between reality and an ideal which is entailed by the ideal's emergence. Are you saying, then, that we can have an ideal which doesn't force us to look at reality as worse by comparison?

    10. We're having quite the dance of relativity, here. You're saying that contrast is necessary for meaning, which is not true. If a person grows up isolated on a tropical island, eating only wild boar meat and drinking from a waterfall, then is suddenly rescued by a French cruise ship and served a piece of chocolate torte prepared by a world-class chef, that person will recognize that the torte is sweet in comparison to roast boar.

      Similarly, though, if your average western child grows up eating processed breakfast cereal with a higher sugar content than chocolate torte, and happens to be sailing on the same cruise ship that rescued the man from the island, and is served the very next piece of torte, the child might experience the same bliss upon enjoying the dessert--even though it represents a step down in actual chemical sweetness from her normal breakfasts (or the pixie stix she gobbles for afternoon tea).

      How can this be? Is it only because they each have other experiences to draw on that they are able to identify the torte as sweet, if from different ends?

      Contrast is an important aspect of experience, but even without contrast, we possess the neurophysical capabilities of sensing and interpreting the nature of the chocolate torte. The same with pain: we can empathize to some degree with a torture scene in a movie even if we’ve never done more than skin our knee in real life. Imagination gives us the capacity, even without experience, to process and interact with reality. We’re able to generate completely new things, rather than merely to synthesize old things and regurgitate them (despite what pop culture tries to establish).

      The social hierarchy you’ve presupposed is that people would seek “greater” pleasures, and not be satisfied with lesser. For example, in our alternate world, if you had an orgasm machine, but someone else owned a 2x orgasm machine, would you spend your evenings plotting to kill him and take his machine, or would you instead spend your evenings inside your orgasm machine? Some people would choose the former, but many others would choose to enjoy what they had.

      You said that the hypothetical pleasure-world would operate like our own because people would still pursue greater pleasures at the expense of lesser. This implies that people are not actually driven by pleasure and desire for survival, but instead by a desire for contrast--domination inside a hierarchy--which is a noxious notion of the colonial powers.

    11. There are two ways you can come at being an “Omega.” One is by saying, “The hierarchy is stupid, and therefore I choose to find independent meaning in my life.” That’s good and healthy. However, saying instead, “The hierarchy is stupid because it figures its winners and losers wrongly; there should still be a hierarchy, but Omegas should be at the top instead of at the bottom, because they understand the fraudulence of our myths and know how to rise above them,” is dangerous and wrong. That is the trap of contrasts built directly into our social code, which will lead you right back into being an Alpha, at the top of the same hierarchy. And in fact, you’ll find that most Alphas were born just that way: they consider themselves rebels who got to the top by cunning outsider thinking, not realizing that they’re really only validating the system by doing exactly what the paradigm was encouraging all along.

      Returning to the hypothetical pleasure-world: the pleasure/pain example shows us that we’re equipped with the tools for improvement. Empathy and pain are hardwired in to encourage us toward the inclusive spread of pleasurable life. (Your best counterargument from an evil perspective is to say, “Well, that’s because we’re encouraged to selfishly survive and preserve our genes at the expense of other organisms.”)

      That argument breaks on empathy, which is why market biologists struggle so hard to justify empathy as only applying to kinship groups, in perverted little 100 Days of Sodom tests where they masturbate under white coats while delivering electric shocks to mice to prove that mice try to stop other mice from being shocked. People naturally, though, are saddened by watching, say, the elephant mother squish her baby. They recognize (rightly) that something there is wrong--with the mother, or the captivity--and are able to feel for the elephant even if no one has ever stepped on them, tried to kill them, or abandoned them before. That reaction, which offers absolutely zero individual survival benefits to a human (a caveman trying to “save” a baby elephant from its mother would be attacked by the elephant, or just waste resources trying to nurture a baby of a different and incompatible species), evidences the interconnectedness of life, and how the world is designed to encourage us to work for others.

      E.g., it’s designed to be a paradise of all for all, and it is our choices, not a natural mandate, that have made things unpleasant. Evil’s champions work hard to tell us that cruel acts prove the cruelty of the world, rather than the cruelty of the actor, and admittedly, there are many such good arguments, when viewed in isolation from the world. But they’re also self-serving arguments. They no more prove that the world is fundamentally flawed than my giving you a red rose and a box of chocolates proves that the world is fundamentally perfect.

    12. High Arka,

      I didn't propose the principle that contrast is *necessary* for meaning. I said only that it's possible a different contrast will produce a different meaning, and as to whether that would actually happen in a different world, it's hard to say because there are many factors involved.

      Assuming the original point of your thought experiment is the one you make toward the end of the second part of your Nov 2 response, beginning with the third-last paragraph, I agree that empathy is strange and that the evolutionary explanation of it is incomplete, at best. I think qualia are just as strange and for the same reason, which is that our species has withdrawn from nature in a way that seems unique in evolutionary terms. We have self-control, we create alternative worlds in our minds and in our societies; we degenerate in moral terms because of our liberation from many natural laws, and we pursue philosophy at the expense of our happiness. Hyperconsciousness and empathy (creativity expressed by actions/life choices governed by mere prescriptions that substitute for natural laws) are features of the free, withdrawn, self-controlling self which is thereby alienated from the wilderness in which everything is more-tightly causally interconnected. More on this in next Monday's article, in which I intend to get to the bottom of the aesthetic aspect of morality and meaning.

      You say 'The social hierarchy you’ve presupposed is that people would seek “greater” pleasures, and not be satisfied with lesser.' Again, this isn't a social point about interpersonal contrast. Even if there was only one inhabitant of this possible world, she might still pursue more intense pleasures if she'd prefer them to her lesser ones.

      There's a non sequitur in the last paragraph of the first part of your Nov 2 response. You say the implication is that those who prefer greater to lesser pleasures are driven by a social desire to dominate, rather than by a survival-based desire for pleasure (and to avoid pain). I don't see how this follows, although again all of these factors might be at work. For example, we have an evolutionary need for sugar, but we overdo it and consume too much when it's available. What's responsible for that obesity problem? Is it evolution which put that blind craving for sugar in us in the first place (when sugar was rare in our ancestral environment) or is it the scheming elites who exploit that desire by filling cheap food with addictive sugar and fats and so on? Clearly, both factors are to blame.

      I agree about the the danger omegas face, that they might secretly desire to rule. This was precisely Nietzsche's point about slave morality and the slave's resentment. Also, we see this in Christianity, when Jesus loses on Earth but wins in the afterlife and in his return to rule in God's kingdom. This is also the point I make at the end of this article on the problem of evil, when I say that an NGO of existential Illuminati might become just another corrupt collective. Social interaction is dangerous because it's subject to the natural forces that corrupt us (Law of Oligarchy, corruption by power's concentration, and dominance hierarchy, including the evolutionary function of instrumental reason which is to help us scheme our way to victory in competitions, and the function of conspicuous consumption, which is to signal our social status).

      I should add that I don’t think the world was "designed to be a paradise of all for all." Here I think we have a conflict between our myths.

  5. Given our existential situation, labels such as "heroism" and "cowardice" are completely illusory. You are trying to assert that there are no objective values while sneaking in descriptors that imply objective values. The reality is that suicide is just as viable of an option as continuing to live and there is nothing to say that one option is better than the other (at least not one resting on philosophical grounds). Like Camus in the "Myth of Sisyphus" you describe a situation in which suicide is warranted but then proclaim that there is something noble and heroic in not committing suicide. I do not imagine Sisyphus to be happy and I care nothing about labels. The only thing left to do is find a good way to facilitate my departure.

    The truth of suicide is that it does not rest on philosophical grounds but on a foundation of pain and anguish. As David Foster Wallace wrote, "The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

    1. I agree with your second paragraph here, which quotes Camus and says that suicide is a reaction to unbearable suffering. This means suicide is a "choice" in the same way that Sophie's choice of having to kill one or the other of her children was a choice. This choice between the lesser of two evils isn't really a choice at all; it's going with flow of horror, because there's no good option and we usually choose what we think of as good.

      But this second paragraph contradicts what you say in the first one, where you say that suicide is a "viable option." An option is whether you want your car to have a sunroof or not. Neither burning to death nor leaping from a burning building is an option, properly speaking. When someone's overwhelmed by suffering, when life is unbearable, given a person's limited ability to cope with pain, then by way of a sort of Newtonian reaction, the person is forced to take her life. Choice has little to do with it.

      You say my worldview implies that suicide is warranted. This isn't so. I say the world is a horrible place. But as the author Matt Cardin has pointed out on his blog, a blog which is included in my list of links above, horror is a facet of the numinous. This is why theists speak of fearing God. God would be a terrible personage to behold, not a loving parent but an absurdly powerful alien that would make us piss our pants for eternity. For that reason, all souls in heaven would need adult's diapers in addition to their wings.

      My point, though, is that horror is close to awe. There's a spiritual way of sublimating suffering and the hyper-awareness of nature's absurdity. This is why my worldview talks a lot about aesthetics and art. We should use our suffering to create great art, to live in fact as art objects. Nature creates us for no good reason and now we must create an artificial world to one-up the undead god and to distract us from the alien wilderness beyond our collective hearth.

      You say that we might as well just kill ourselves instead of doing any of that, that this existential heroism is subjective nonsense. But not all subjectivity is arbitrary. Sometimes we choose things on a whim, but other feelings are very powerful, as in the case of our response to great art. Look at the religious feelings that wash over crowds of true believers who see the pope or some slick televangelist, or the bliss that fills the crowds of girls who watch a Justin Bieber concert. Heroic revolt and renunciation aren't empty just because they're not objective. In any case, as I say in "Humanization and Objectification," so-called objective reasoning isn't entirely free of subjectivity.

      I suppose, though, I should address this question more directly in a separate article: Why don't existential cosmicists just kill themselves? It's a good question and I will take it up in the near future (maybe a week or two).