Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Stultified by Reason: the Vision of Heartless Nature

Art by Jim Kazanjian
It’s often said that the scientific way of thinking is counterintuitive. Worse, the mathematical analysis of nature is alien and incomprehensible to those of us who haven’t mastered that language or who aren’t in the habit of thinking within the bounds of an austere standard of precision. Scientific knowledge is hard to acquire not just because there have been so many discoveries in the last several centuries, that delving into even a fraction of modern knowledge overloads the human memory capacity. On top of that and more importantly, the math-centered form of scientific thinking is estranged from the heuristics that make up our innate logic that’s responsible for our intuitive, snap decisions. Those genetically-preprogrammed cognitive rules give us a head-start in the harsh business of surviving but also blind us to the nature of cosmic reality. Our on-board techniques for coming to grips with the world are suitable for reading each other’s minds and climbing social ladders, as well as for interpreting useful terrestrial rhythms such as the cycles of night and day and the four seasons, but not for fathoming chaos, quantum mechanics, or dimensions beyond space and time. Early modern scientists made a heroic effort, based in part on the antisocial leanings of geniuses like Isaac Newton, to develop an inhuman method equal to the task of modeling the remote universe that’s perfectly indifferent to the emergence of life.

We fall in love with each other, losing ourselves in emotional bonds to the point that we risk being blackmailed as we strip off our clothes and carry out sex acts that are banned in public spaces to preserve our presumed dignity. That’s the extent of our preference for the familiar social world. How alien, then, must be any form of cognition that encompasses the ocean beyond the puddle that we call home! How alienated from our native feelings and biases must we become even to entertain the antihuman thought that the entire saga of our historical comings and goings is peripheral to universal reality! And what madness must we court to study the undead shuffling of natural processes, to deprive ourselves of the comfort of trotting out our myopic metaphors that are so many gauche shout-outs to our brothers and sisters in the ‘hood of humanity!

Anthropocentrism: the Myth for Human Happiness

Anthropocentrism is our original sin. It begins with the clueless egoism burning in the tiny heart of every child, passing into the fragile pride of each toddler who’s indignant whenever he or she is told “No.” We all enter the wide world unable even to form the conception that anything could be other than ourselves. Everything from Mother’s milk to Mother herself and the toys we play with are thought of as parts of our craving. We demand this or that and we receive it as a matter of parental necessity or else we throw a tantrum. In effect, as children we perceive every event as being miraculous, because we don’t separate cause and effect in our imagination: everything happens in the orbit of our self-centered expectations. Even after we pass the trials of teen disenchantment, when puberty compels us to long for the Other, in a morass of lusts and other hormonal intoxications, when we grow into independent adults, we still rely on those childish habits of thought. We carry our self-centeredness with us in the theistic delusions of our exoteric religions, when we live with the knowledge of our certain death by spellbinding each other in our collective hypnosis, daydreaming that physical death is illusory because the spirit lives on for eternity in the House of the Lord. With our cities’ light pollution that blots out the far-flung heavens, we facilitate the illusion that the world revolves around us, as though by enveloping ourselves at night in those electric screens we were telling each other, “Keep moving, keep consuming; there’s nothing to see here”—no infinite void all around terra firma, for example, which likely surpasses even scientific understanding so that all our preconceptions about the worth of what we’re doing would eventually be laughed off as so many naive fairytales if only they could be remembered across the generations. Instead, the vain, wishful narratives that contextualize our lives, in which we’re invariably the starring attractions, will pass into obscurity, nullified by the outer void after the curtain call on our species and on our epoch. 

But those examples are just some usual suspects of our inborn self-centeredness. In fact, the very happiness which psychiatrists call the goal of normal human functioning depends on a kind of tenuous stability, called sanity, which is impossible as long as we occupy the view from nowhere that allows the world’s impersonality to seep into our consciousness. Objectivity, the understanding of something as having no subjective qualities is a paradoxical perspective that depersonalizes the knower and the known together, rendering her robotic and functionally amoral. It’s akin to the aesthetic stance in which we ignore our personal preoccupations and allow something’s givenness to wash over us so that our reaction to it flows from our unconscious side and helps reveal our authentic self. Unless we actively suppress our inclinations and thought routines, and think logically which is to say universally, objectively, and thus inhumanly, such as when we carry out some scientific or technical analysis to get at the facts by interpreting the data with minimal regard for our preferences on the matter, we’re playing the animal game of thinking or acting out of self-interest; we’re attempting to succeed according to some conception that, at best, merely rationalizes the pointless flow of genes.

You might be thinking that the insanity of being wholly out of touch with reality would be useless for evolutionary purposes, since some knowledge of facts is necessary to our survival and procreation. But the knowledge that suffices for evolutionary success has nothing to do with objectivity. The “facts” you need to know to avoid falling down a cliff or to help you identify a potential mate aren’t universal or fundamental. When we behave as genetically-driven higher primates, we don’t describe the world as an indifferent deity would or even as would an extraterrestrial intelligence in the midst of conducting an experiment on us. Instead, we think of the world pragmatically, interpreting things in terms of their instrumental relevance, or their being “ready-to-hand,” as Heidegger put it. We view the cliff not in terms of its geological composition but as a danger, and we construe the potential mate not as an individual in his or her own right, but as the object of our desire, as something to be won over to complete us as though that person were put on earth to make us happy, as we’re wont to romanticize. The innate ways of thinking that are evolutionarily most useful generate only practical conceptions that are one and all anthropocentric.

By contrast, the inhuman knowledge that issues from objectivity is likely detrimental to the genes, at least in the long run, because it threatens all life with extinction. In fact, objective knowledge of reality is as accidental and anomalous as the emergence of life. Certainly, technoscientific know-how and industrial manufacturing have extinguished most of the wild animal species that have been unfortunate enough to have been thrown up by their genes in the Anthropocene. And we have the power now to slaughter each other in a world war the effects of which would be measured in megadeaths, thanks to the inventions of nuclear and biological weapons. Only the anthropocentric presumptions at the base of the myths of liberal humanism make the use of such weapons taboo. A purely rational, objective people could easily resort to such weapons of mass destruction, since they wouldn’t labour under the feel-good sentiment that humans have special rights in the animal kingdom. This means that we currently survive in spite of the fearsome power flowing from objectivity, because we’re seldom ruthlessly detached and logical and we eagerly succumb to the childlike, magical thinking that makes us happy. Again, unless we resist our natural tilt towards self-glorification, our everyday conceptions presuppose that humans are central to the universe, that the world owes us a fulfilling life. So-called normal human functioning is thus categorically (as opposed to instrumentally) irrational, not because we’re ignorant of the means to achieve our personal goals, but because those goals themselves stem from an embarrassingly-false picture of the world in which we each truly matter.

The Horror at the End of Objectivity

Still, anthropocentric normality in both its secular and religious guises passes for sanity, because a deeper madness awaits those who override conventional wisdom and attempt to see the world as it really is. Witness the stock character of the mad scientist such as Victor Frankenstein, Emmett Brown from Back to the Future, Professor Farnsworth from Futurama, and numerous others from movies, television, and comic books. The prototypical wise person was the shaman who ingested psychedelic substances to shock himself out of his profane, pedestrian worldview to formulate more fundamental truths. That rough form of antihumanity would just as often mislead with projections of subjectivity in the form of so-called gods and other spirits, as it would enlighten by decentering the self. Next, there were magicians and occultists, saints and mystics who professed to prove that mundane, consensus reality is itself a trick, by performing or experiencing miracles made possible by a glorious, hidden realm. To those forerunners could be added priests and other bureaucratic officials of organized religions who merely speak of such miracles, attributing them to greater spirits. In all such cases, the proof of wisdom was a bout of religious ecstasy or the faith needed to believe in a promise of such ecstasy in the afterlife. Then those occult figures morphed into the one-dimensional scientist. Again, Newton is the link between them, although his esoteric side is less well-known than his narrowly scientific one.

Notice, though, that the madness that ought to accompany scientific understanding, which is credited still in the pop cultural caricature of the mad scientist, became politically risky as scientists found themselves at the center of world-spanning industrial enterprises. No one wants to entertain the suspicion that the serious businesses that elevate our material living standards are powered by the ravings of madmen. Sure, we’re titillated by anecdotal confirmations that therapists and physicians are disproportionately narcissistic, such as when we’re faced with the bizarre character of Ben Carson in his brief starring role in the American political spectacle. The popular comedy show The Big Bang Theory pictures young scientists and engineers as only harmlessly mad, owing to their arrested development. In any case, scientists and engineers have learned to hide their quirks and to compartmentalize their modern, secular form of ecstasy which is best characterized in terms of such existential burdens as angst, dread, and an all-encompassing sense of the absurd and the tragic.

One technique for erecting such mental barriers is scientism, the prejudice against philosophy, artistic interpretation, and the search for meaning in general. If all such interpretations in the humanities departments are just woo, meaning frivolous opinions unwarranted by logic or strict adherence to the evidence, the latter virtues being the mainstays of scientists and engineers, then the madness of envisioning the world as composed entirely of objects, having no purpose or intelligent design or any prospect for divine rescue from annihilation, is of course postponed. After all, the mad scientist doesn’t merely pursue evil schemes of world domination, but is driven to them by a mental break from traditions of morality and religion, of family and community which are the bedrocks of sanity for the anthropocentric masses. In turn, those traditions are subjective articles of faith and value, and so the act of leaving them behind is no mere mathematical calculation, but a comparable leap of faith, albeit one into an inhuman way of life. Indeed, neither the “sanity” of anthropocentric ignorance nor the insanity of cosmicist awe is a matter of strict rationality. No one proves that humans are central to all beings or that the contrary scenario is dire for our social conventions: logic and observation take us only so far, but they don’t justify our ideals, goals, or stubborn convictions. Thus, the faith-based insistence that the philosophical or religious search for meaning doesn’t matter because it’s not scientific is an attempt to preserve the scientist’s or the engineer’s peace of mind, despite that individual’s having no recourse to happy anthropocentrism or to world-weary nihilism. The scientismist can’t be content with the former because she knows too much about nature, and she can’t fall into existential depression because that would be bad for business. So she maintains the conventional happiness she shares with the unknowing folk, even while she employs and often prizes the objective outlook, and she does this under the cover of some halfway house of denial.

Interestingly, while the embarrassment of common anthropocentric conceits is foreshadowed by the crazed self-centeredness of children, the limit case of inhuman objectivity is the subcriminal psychopath’s amorality, which is stereotyped by the mad scientist. Children best display the arrogance of presuming that we’re each a crown jewel of natural creation. Likewise, the predators who usually dominate our social systems, owing to the latters’ tendency to become corrupting, are the quintessential outsiders burned by their embrace of the antihumanist’s objective worldview. You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that the rules that bind society are arbitrary and anomalous compared to nature’s evident impersonality, and you don’t have to understand the mathematical formulas that zombify our endeavours to feel alienated from the herds of frail, childish lemmings that need mental crutches to feel happy. To be sure, the psychopath is a monumental egotist, but his selfishness isn’t based on a conviction that the world cares whether he lives or dies; instead, it’s a reaction against knowing that the world is fundamentally a cold and indifferent place. The psychopath doesn’t care about society, because he embodies nature’s indifference; thus, all that remains to drive his activities is the genetic preoccupation with his individual survival. This amoral avatar of nature’s heartlessness doesn’t feel that he deserves to rule the world, because he has no feelings to take the leap of faith that could generate that or any other value judgment. Whereas children haven’t yet developed powers of reasoning and thus can only feel their unparalleled worth, the supervillains who manage our most powerful institutions have only the capacity for objective calculations, and so their amorality represents nature’s cold-blooded regularity. The genius who’s forced into madness, who makes a Faustian bargain for knowledge and pays for that curiosity with a soul-destroying vision, takes a tragic route to an antisocial endpoint. But that endpoint is found also by the psychopath who reaches that plateau from another direction: the scientist only learns about nature’s inhumanity, while the psychopath lives it.   

What, though, do we see with objectivity? What does the world look like when we understand we’re not integral to its development? Of course, the details of scientific theories supply the full answer. But for an analogy, recall your days in school as a teenager, when the boundaries between cliques and castes were stark. Were you one of the popular kids who participated in extracurricular activities, who had many rich, healthy, physically attractive friends, who did well enough in schoolwork to gain the status and knowledge for a successful career, but not so well that you were ostracized as a nerd? Or were you one of the freaks? Were you an unpopular outsider who resented being picked last in sports or in dating and who rebelled against the whole social order for teens, by ridiculing the unfairness and superficiality of that order’s recipe for success? Were you so obsessed with learning, that puberty passed you by like a silly, irrelevant ad on TV? The popular kids never feel alienated because their identities and deeds delimit the holy ground that’s untouchable by the flawed lower classes. You can’t feel like an outsider if no matter what you do, most everyone else wishes they could have done it, because you incarnate the community’s ideal. The popular kids are inescapably insiders because they can’t step outside themselves and everyone else wants to be them. By contrast, short of some miraculous transformation, the outsiders can’t be cool because they can only long to be perfect.

But weirdos and losers have an inside track on understanding the objective status of the human adventure. If you can recall sitting at home while the popular kids enjoyed the prom, if you lusted after one of the beautiful people whom you could no sooner touch than you could survive an impact with an ethereal angel, or if you longed to have the privileged life of one of the cool kids, congratulations! You have an affinity for knowing what it’s like to be outside the world’s orbit. Like the noble deeds of our high schools’ upper echelons, the universe proceeds with its phases and amplifications, with its complexifications and peregrinations which happen regardless of our lack of consent or our absence. Like the voyeuristic outsider who steals glances at the revered little aristocrats as they stroll down the hallways, we can peer into nature’s depths to glimpse a fraction of what’s been happening long before our emergence and of what will continue to transpire for unimaginable ages after we’ve fizzled out of existence. We’re all freaks as far as nature is concerned. To understand that objectivity is the root of cosmic horror is to realize that our show isn’t the whole of the universal one, and that what we do—whether in our public or our private lives—doesn’t even adequately represent what nature does at large. All our striving to learn and progress, to live well and to pass on our knowledge to the next generation amounts to a side show that’s far removed from the drama unfolding on the main stage. We have to read the tea leaves of images transmitted by telescopes to discern the barest outline of the incomprehensible complexity of what’s occurring on trillions of other, preposterously distant worlds. And we can detect only the remotest aftereffects of what’s happening in fundamental reality, such as what may be the vibrations of one-dimensional strings that give rise to particles, but that are much smaller than a person compared to a person’s size in relation to a galaxy. (If a person occupies the 100 meter order of magnitude, the Milky Way is 1021 meters, while the subatomic length shrinks to 10-35 meters.)

“So what?” you might be thinking. “We have our stage and the rest of the universe has its colossal platform. So be it!” But the abyss between insiders and outsiders does negatively impact the latter. In the case of teenagers, the issue is largely that the losers are jealous of the winners, because some teens are better than others according to conventional standards. By contrast, the cosmic show isn’t exactly better than the human one, although we could compare them by saying, for example, that natural forces are much more creative and destructive than are living things. However, that sort of normative judgment has no place in the objective conception of our place in the world. Objectively, what we have is a vast difference in scale between the intergalactic course of events and the blip that will be coextensive with all of human history. Being on the vanishingly smaller side of that value-neutral comparison, we’re still positioned as voyeuristic freaks in relation to the universe. And if we set aside their understandable jealousy, the teenaged underclass still can offer us insight into the horror at the end of objectivity. The unpopular kids are often so much worse than the popular ones that their difference becomes a division between types rather than just degrees. The two classes are alienated from each other, since they live in different worlds. What would it have been like to make out with the prettiest girl or the hottest boy in school? The shunned losers can only dream of it, but the contents of those dreams will be pitifully irrelevant, deriving as they do from Hollywood fables. Unless they somehow switch their social status, losers can’t know what it’s like to live as a winner. They can watch John Hughes films and other romantic comedies, but those scenes are obviously staged. The loser can’t know what it’s like really to be desired by a god or goddess, for example, because the gods and goddesses cavort on Mount Olympus which is inaccessible to mere mortals.

That difference in worlds which is bridged mainly by the negative estimation that you’ll likely be on only one or the other side calls into question everything that’s dear to you if you find yourself to be a disadvantaged nobody in school rather than a cool kid with an edge in life. Next to the rich, beautiful, popular teens, the opposite ones are nonentities. Thus, they’re mocked and bullied so that they learn their position at the bottom of the pecking order. While the teachers spout feel-good lessons of equality, merely by mouthing empty words, the children learn through much more memorable experiences that winners are unequal to losers. The unpopular kids know they’re conventionally inferior, but they sense also that their inferiority is absolute and that to persist in the shadow of the greater beings they must distract themselves with pathetic fantasies. Jealousy is only the beginning of an existential dread of having gods and goddesses in your sight to confirm your metaphysical lowliness. Likewise, we know the universe is so much larger than our world that it’s no longer even meaningful to suggest that we occupy a central or a pivotal role in nature. There’s so much else that’s out there, that our smallness becomes a constant embarrassment because we tend to cope with our objective status by telling tall tales such as the panoply of anthropocentric myths. Just as the unpopular kids have movies that caricature the higher realm, and just as they take voyeuristic glances to taunt themselves with evidence of their insignificance, we generally have the capacity for objective, impersonal reflection on the fact that our world is as though it were nothing. Our ability to objectify doesn’t make us adequate to the universe, doesn’t make us less puny. Instead, our science is like the spycam installed in a lady’s toilet or in a hotel room by some dejected pervert caught in a downward spiral of self-loathing: instead of exciting him in some sustainable fashion, the illicit images—like all pornographic navel-gazing—further establish his worthlessness. The more you’re reduced to spying on others as they enjoy what you crave, the more you must wonder whether that practice demeans you even more than the act of having sex for money demeans the porn stars. With our understanding, then, that the world is fundamentally physical and impersonal, we learn just enough to appreciate that we too are inherently vain, gullible, feeble creatures, and we begin to question the wisdom of our rational enlightenment.

Coda for Aristocrats

For the illustrious alphas who may be reading this and who grew up as privileged, esteemed kids in school, I should qualify my remarks on the analogy between the teenager’s dominance hierarchy and the abyss between nature and the alienated rational observer. While the popular kids are indeed typically superior in various ways to the uncool ones, those advantages are short-lived or fraught with peril. Privileged teens become spoiled and weak, and power over others degrades the dominator (as well as the dominated). So we should expect the inner life of a full-fledged aristocrat to be as vacuous as a stone’s. The rich kid’s upbringing in elite institutions won’t refine her feelings or deepen her character so much as it will establish a sophisticated façade to cover for the psychopathy which accompanies her rise to power. We idolize the power elites even when they have the coarseness of a wild animal, as in the case of Donald Trump. We might as well anthropomorphize the moon. 

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