Monday, March 3, 2014

Artificiality: The Miracle Hiding in Plain Sight

What is the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, and how does that relationship compare to the one between the natural and the artificial? I argue that philosophical naturalism is consistent with the distinction between nature-as-wilderness and the artificial microcosms we create, and that that distinction has religious, albeit atheistic implications.

Naturalism and Dualism

Philosophical naturalism is the generalization that everything is natural rather than supernatural. Science determines what’s natural, so this philosophy amounts to saying that natural laws are universal, that there are no real miracles in the sense of events that scientists couldn’t possibly explain. The metaphysical generalization that all events themselves are intrinsically natural quickly runs into pragmatic and epistemological issues. Scientists assume that the universe is a united whole ordered by natural laws, but they do so for pragmatic reasons. They think there’s no point in being defeatist, in presuming that some event is miraculous and beyond our comprehension—especially since most previous doubts about the all-encompassing scope of scientific methods of inquiry have proved wrong, which is to say that scientists have explained more and more of the universe by assuming that the same natural laws apply everywhere. Scientists are practical about this, because they’re not so interested in the philosophical issue of naturalism in the first place. To them, naturalism is their business, not a matter for idle speculation.

The question of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural also has an epistemic component, having to do with the limits of our cognitive capacities. Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that sufficiently advanced technology will seem magical nicely illustrates this epistemic point. We can assume that the universe is an ordered whole, a cosmos in the strict sense, but we may not be clever enough to explain how all of the parts hang together, in which case the metaphysical generalization is faith-based or speculative. Indeed, there are obvious naturalistic reasons to doubt that the exapted rational powers of primates like us could comprehend everything the universe can become or can do. Just because science has progressed for a few centuries doesn’t mean science has no limits. In fact, even if science comes to explain everything we encounter, science may still be limited, because science can have unknown unknowns. Indeed, the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that this isn’t just idle defeatism, since physicists themselves may have to posit an infinite number of universes determined by different sets of laws. Those other universes will be unknown in that we can have no direct contact with them. Moreover, this means that natural laws aren’t universal after all, which leaves ontological room for unnatural realms (for universes different from ours), although not for miracles in the sense of supernatural interventions in our natural universe.

Descartes applied the theistic solution to the problem of whether anything is supernatural, by positing mental substances alongside physical ones. Thus, we might say that fundamentally there are two kinds of things so that scientific methods might work only for one of them. This is metaphysical dualism, which philosophical naturalists reject. The naturalist says that minds are natural, not supernatural, and that cognitive scientists (including neurobiologists and psychologists) can explain mental phenomena. Dualists, meanwhile, redefine the supernatural substance to push it further and further outside of the increasing subject matter of science, by burying it in consciousness, for example. This is the god-of-the-gaps gambit of holding on to less and less reasonable beliefs, by moving the goalposts. According to dualists, scientists can explain the brain but not the conscious states that run on the brain in something like the way that computer programs run on the computer’s hardware. Mysterians are epistemic dualists and they say that consciousness itself is unnatural in that scientists will never satisfactorily explain the first-personal, subjective essence of consciousness, since scientific methods work only when scientists observe things objectively, from a third-personal standpoint.

But even if consciousness were unnatural, this would leave the mystery of how something unnatural could interact with nature. Recent dualists talk about emergent properties, about nature’s building more and more complex layers so that each layer has different patterns that call for explanation in terms of an indispensible set of special laws. This sort of weaker dualist concedes, though, that the fundamental level is physical, not mental, which allows this dualist to call herself a metaphysical naturalist even as she holds to an epistemic kind of dualism, since she says that different parts of nature will have to be explained in different, nonreducible terms.

Metaphysics as Myth for Ultrarationalists

Such are some of the compromises that philosophers have proposed to reconcile scientists’ amazing success in explaining the world in natural terms, with the intuition that scientific methods nevertheless have limits, that personhood isn’t subject to such explanation. In any case, I’m relatively uninterested in the metaphysical question of whether everything is natural. This is because I have a deflationary view of metaphysics. I think that modern metaphysical theses are scientistic substitutes for myths that appeal to modernists and postmodernists who like to think they’re so intellectually advanced that they needn’t ground their worldview in mere faith-based narratives. With the exception of much of the US, which has been infantilized by its mass media, technologically-advanced civilizations tend to rigidly distinguish faith from reason and to idolize those who seem perfectly rational. Thus, we prefer objective-sounding philosophical memes instead of transparently-fictional narratives. We think we can begin the search for knowledge rationally, by basing our beliefs on the evidence and by following logical rules of inference, but that’s only because we presuppose our nonrational, scientistic convictions.

For example, we presuppose the ideal of ultrarationality, even though the last century has supplied us with many reasons to think that rationality isn’t the solution to all our problems. WWI was eminently rational: the alliances were fulfilled to the letter and the war of attrition took into account mainly the quantities of materiel rather than the horror of what the soldiers were doing. Also, the technologies and economic systems that are threatening the ecosystem are supported by science and mathematical reasoning. But there are prior, normative questions about how to choose our collective goals. At best, reason tells us the facts, not the rightness of our ultimate values and purposes. What’s needed in addition to raw intelligence is an inspiring sort of character that uses reason in virtuous ways. The nobler, more enlightened, and tragically heroic modernists should see the question of the ground of our beliefs as having an aesthetic answer, which means that we should evaluate our deepest philosophical or religious beliefs by treating them as fictions. This is an esoteric perspective, which is suitable mostly to introverted, creative, artistic folks who can appreciate the need for stories even though their inside-information about how stories are created and told makes it harder for them to suspend their disbelief and lose themselves in a story as if the story were something other than fictional.

Granted, metaphysical naturalism doesn’t sound at all like a traditional myth. What they have in common, though, is that they’re overgeneralizations that satisfy our craving for ultimate, absolute answers. For skeptical modern secularists who can’t take traditional myths seriously, because they’ve adopted the science-centered ideal of ultrarationality, metaphysical speculations serve the same role as anthropocentric metaphors and fairytales. Of course, the ancient myths weren’t intended to be treated as protoscientific theories of the bare facts, since there was rarely any such conception of the facts; instead, myths were phenomenological expressions of how the world seemed from the perspective of those who were proud of their culture. For the most part, postmodernists are no longer proud of modernity and so our naturalistic speculations express our declining faith only indirectly, through the scientistic runaround. Ultrarationalists like to think we’ve evolved past the primitive need for irrational faith and so in place of the myths that would make plain the psychological and social implications of our disenchantment with the world, we intellectual elites pretend that we take as fundamental just the rational, science-centered generalizations which leave out the subjective, teleological, and normative aspects of experience. As for the majority of secularists, who are unfamiliar with philosophy or with science, they’re free to assimilate the myths purveyed by popular culture, and those myths will serve various economic or political agendas.   

Artificiality and the Miraculous

In any case, I prefer to think of the difference between the natural and the supernatural in terms of the distinction between the wild and the artificial. The metaphysical and epistemological meanings of “natural” are given above, in terms of natural laws, scientific methods, and so on. But there’s another meaning of “natural,” one that identifies nature with the pristine wilderness, with that part of the world that isn’t intelligently designed or engineered. Nature in this second sense consists of everything that’s jungle-like. This isn’t to say that trees grow everywhere, even in outer space; I’m speaking of the jungle in phenomenological terms, not geological ones. The point is that most of the universe is literally untouched by anything with the sensation of touch and is thus wild in the sense of being what I call undead. Most of the universe mindlessly creates itself through evolution and complexification and that fact is responsible for what we call natural evil, meaning the world’s indifference to our preferences. This evil emerges in the ever-present luck factor in our lives, in the fact that death and extinction are indispensible to organic evolution, and in the curse of reason which sets knowledge at odds with happiness.

Undead nature is opposed by the realm of the artificial, by the microcosms created by the animals that manage to take some control over themselves and their environment. Artifacts are those parts of the world that are indeed intelligently formed and chosen. For example, our cities stand apart from the wilderness in that whereas the wilderness operates according to undead natural laws and thus isn’t attuned to our ideals, cities work according to social regulations that respect our welfare, since we design our artifacts to function in intended ways, and so since we care about ourselves, our artificial worlds serve us. Thus, while Copernicus established that we’re not central to the wilderness or to nature in the naturalist’s metaphysical sense, he didn’t show that we’re insignificant in every world. There are evidently worlds within worlds, and the more intelligent and self-centered creatures seem to create worlds to cater to their desires precisely because those creatures are meaningless and forlorn in the wider world.

As to how the natural-supernatural distinction sits with the natural-artificial one, I think you could embrace the latter sort of dualism and be either a philosophical (metaphysical or epistemic) naturalist or a supernaturalist. If you’re a naturalist, you can still posit that nature is effectively an undead god in that the universe mindlessly creates itself. Thus, you can think that nonliving processes eventually became living ones and that these in turn produced the artificial worlds within the broader, wholly undead and wild one. The natural transition from nonlife to life is still poorly understood, but a naturalist can speak generally of emergent properties, self-organizing systems, and transformations through evolution and complexification. As for the supernaturalist, she can surmise that our power of creating artificial worlds derives from our similarity to the divine creator of nature. The dichotomy between the natural wilderness and artificiality is thus neutral with regard to the deeper question of whether everything is metaphysically or epistemically natural. Personally, I prefer the naturalistic philosophy, but I’m happy to entertain the theistic solution as long as we take care to update the theistic myths so that they have a chance of cohering with the postmodern zeitgeist. Philipp Mainlander’s theology does this admirably, by concluding that God is literally dead as a result of suicide. By contrast, the traditional anthropocentric myths are now just embarrassingly anachronistic; certainly, they’ve lost their aesthetic power, having long since become unbearable clich├ęs.

But what’s intriguing here is the comparison of the supernatural with the artificial. Suppose we adopt the naturalistic worldview so that we accept David Hume’s inductive reasoning against the likelihood of miracles. That is to say, we prefer to turn to even the unlikeliest naturalistic explanation of any event, as opposed to resorting to a supernatural pseudo-explanation, because we put our trust in naturalistic, pragmatic principles. Nevertheless, the anomalousness of artificiality in the greater cosmic wilderness is obvious. Even if there’s life elsewhere in the universe, because life necessarily emerges under certain conditions, the abyss between nonlife and life—and especially between the undead wilderness and the sentient creature who is godlike at the center of her artificial world—is unlike the gap between any other natural orders. Subatomic processes coalesce into molecules which in turn form nebulas and stars and galaxies, and so on, and those are of course profound transformations. But however destructive black holes or supernovas may be, there’s no process that negates nature so assuredly as the creation of artificial worlds that replace the wilderness. We’re confined to one planet, unless we figure out how to travel faster than light, but we can still postulate the special law of nature that, all things being equal (i.e. abstracting from that planetary confinement which may or may not be permanent), sentient creatures tend to transform their natural, wild environment into a more preferable, artificial one.

The reason why the emergence of artificiality counts as a negation is that artifacts are assigned functions by minds so that they work as intended, and minds are at least unconsciously resentful about the natural world’s undeadness. We creators and users of our actually anthropocentric worlds—of our languages, cultures, games, cities, nations, infrastructures, and machines—aren’t just surprises in the natural order so that our behaviour can’t be reductively explained in impersonal terms. No, we set ourselves in implacable opposition to all parts of the universe that aren’t controlled by us, that don’t flatter our godlike self-image and “function properly” as opposed to just happening as a matter of brute, unintended fact. In this respect, crafty, self-centered creatures are like viruses—yet with the power to rebuild not just other animals, but the nonliving parts of the world. We are undoers of natural creation, but our Satanism is transformative rather than destructive or nihilistic. We’re bent on reconstructing what natural forces have wrought, including our bodies.

Thus, the dualism between nature-as-wilderness and the artificial microcosm is about a transformation that happens by way of hostility. This means that although our creative powers aren’t necessarily miraculous in the metaphysical or epistemic ways, those powers do have religious significance. Indeed, the old creation myths should be read not so much as anthropocentric projections onto the alien unknown, but as oblique references to what we ourselves do and as premonitions of what we would eventually accomplish: the intelligent design and creation of worlds. We are the gods we’ve been dreaming of and our deeds are the miraculous interventions in the wilderness of undead events. Actions that produce artifacts are supernatural in that they oppose and thus transcend nature-as-wilderness. Theistic myths thus work like science fiction stories that speak directly of protagonists in a distant future, to indirectly comment on what’s happening at present. The ancient pantheons and religious creeds are effectively tools to help us understand our relative divinity in the lifeless universe. Of course, those tools also lead us astray and we lose the forest for the trees; that is, we vulgarize the theologies, literalizing the metaphors instead of seeing them as artworks that celebrate our uniqueness as intelligent creators.

It’s well known that sometimes we become so familiar with what’s right in front of us that we eventually fail to appreciate its importance. For thousands of years we’ve imagined heavens and hells, transcendent realms of supernatural deities, while all along we’ve been busy transcending nature-as-wilderness and adding an artificial domain to the cosmos. To preserve our morality but also our hope that nature will be perfected in an end time, we’ve pretended that we’re merely part of the natural order and that we must grovel before the true gods. But if anything will finally bring nature in line with some idea of the Good, it will be creatures like us. We have always been the wonder-workers. We marvel at nature’s creativity but we’re also repelled by it, because natural forces and systems are robotic and zombielike, and thus they’re amoral and neutral in their treatment of their most precious developments, the sentient creatures. We are hardly saints, mind you, and we may even destroy all life because of our arrogance and narrow-mindedness. But we have the potential to fulfill certain ideals whereas undead nature has none—except indirectly, through beings like us.

And so this is how naturalists should think of miracles. We shouldn’t sneer at religions because we’re beholden to an ultrarational ideal that is itself quite faith-based. That lack of self-awareness on our part is unseemly and almost as embarrassing as the theist’s treatment of her theological fictions as scientific statements of cold, hard fact. Instead, we should reconstruct the old dualisms in terms of the divide between the wilderness and the artificial worlds we create. Again, we are the godlike beings we’ve always had a sneaking suspicion might exist somewhere. Therefore, we should wonder not just at our relative divinity and at the anomalies of our creative acts, but at the undead cosmos that might just be destined to undo itself through the wisdom of the sentient beings that dwell within it.


  1. What a well written blog, one that particularly stands out among well written blogs, with equal amounts of profound depth and original thought.
    That said, I wonder if this new distinction between the wilderness and the artificial helps recoup some of the benefits of that lost mythos from our modern discourse. Karen Armstrong distinguished between two modes of speech or thought: mythos and logos. Mythos had to deal with existential problems like death and suffering, while Logos was about ready at hand things, techniques and tools for practical living. Both modes were complementary but neither could fulfill the requirements of the other.
    Armstrong argues that since modernity, after the Age of Reason, Logos grew dominant to the point that we no longer could refer to Mythos to deal with existential questions or problems. Therefore, we could no longer apprehend religion except through the lens of Logos, and that resulted in a fundamentalist attitude of the 20th century among many major religions.
    My question is, whether this new distinction of Wild and Artifice can move us from the dogma of Logos and help us with a Neo-myth, like the Undead God or any other Chthuluian deities?

    1. Thanks! I think Armstrong's distinction there is very similar to what I'm talking about. We can say it's a matter of seeing everything in terms of Logos or we can talk about scientism and the ideal of ultra-rationality. That's the same point being made.

      So the question is whether Logos or ultra-rationality allows for the wilderness-artificiality distinction. As I say, I think this distinction is neutral with regard to metaphysical naturalism or supernaturalism, so the two are consistent.

      There will be disagreement, though, about the deflationary view of metaphysics and the aesthetic view of philosophical beliefs as fictions. But that aesthetic stuff is tangential to the wilderness-artificial dichotomy. I was just explaining why I'm personally more interested in that dichotomy than in the metaphysical or epistemic one between the natural and the supernatural.

      The point is that we don't have to get wrapped up in a convoluted academic discussion about scientific laws and burdens of proof to see the monumental transformation of the wilderness into the artificial worlds. This a matter of history and anthropology, not just philosophy. But the question is how this obvious transformation should be philosophically or indeed religiously interpreted.

    2. Thanks, Benjamin Cain, but I apologize for not making my question clear:
      I was thinking about the lost “mythos” from our collective consciousness, and whether your new distinction between Wild and Artifice could be a step towards recovering that lost source of discourse.
      If mythos used to present a coherent narrative that did provide a comfortable account for our existential place in the cosmos, and this is absent today, then how can the new distinction rehabilitate us from the “hyper-rational” discourse or dominance of Logos?

      A future mythology without regression from today or exacerbating our decadence?

    3. These are certainly fascinating questions and a lot of my writings here are devoted to figuring this out. I've read some of Armstrong's book, but I don't recall exactly how she explains mythos. I've talked about the ancient worldview in terms of mythopoeia (links below) and I've also speculated that modern infantilization of the masses may make for a return to the mythopoeic mindset.

      I don't think the wilderness-artificiality distinction alone has this sort of effect. It's how we transcend our animal side and what we build that matters. Whatever environment we engineer, that's the new world to which we must adapt to survive. We effectively infantilize ourselves when we surround ourselves with machines that cater to our whims and exacerbate our decadence. That child-likeness makes for a version of the innocent mythopoeic trance in which our ancient ancestors freely projected mentality onto undead nature. I make the stronger point, too, that we modernists may actually be vindicating the mythopoeic premonitions, by making ourselves godlike through technoscience.

      You might be interested in these articles where I pursue these themes:

  2. Does the existence of this underground ant city make the distinction between natural and artificial arbitrary?

    1. This is a good question. As amazing as that ant city is, complexity alone doesn't make for artificiality. Undead natural processes are quite efficient at building up complex structures. Take snowflakes, for example. What you need for artificiality are autonomy and culture, which make for a particular kind of transformation, namely intentional opposition.

      Do the ants intentionally transform their environment, because they have some self-control and awareness of their ideals for how their environment should be improved? Or are ants entirely undead, like the forces that produce the intricate structures of a snowflake? That's what I'd want to know.

  3. What troubles me most about technology re-enchanting the world into an anthropocentric space is the people who "plan" this artificial landscape. I know society is a product of complex emergence, but what if the powers that be turn the world into a nightmare, one that is even worse than the current undead God that we live in? What I'm saying is that conscious malevolence is worse than cosmic indifference. We humans could create an artificial hell.

    1. I certainly agree. I've read a number of science fictional dystopian possibilities. There's no going back, though. Lewis Mumford points out that without language, we're in no man's land, because we then lack the capacity for transcendence and we've already lost our more primitive, animalistic survival instincts. Language makes us virus-like in that we're forced in the direction of cultural transcendence. As Jacques Ellul put it, we've bet everything on technology (i.e. on artificiality) and we're pot-committed, as it were.