Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sexual Bliss and the Anguish of Enlightenment

Why in the first half of the twentieth century were women’s ankles considered sexy in the United States? Why are breasts considered intimate parts in industrialized places but not in poorer ones where breasts are thought of in more utilitarian terms? Why in conservative societies, such as those in the Middle East, are women’s whole bodies, including their wrists and hair, considered indecent if publicly exposed? Why is public nudity taboo in Canada and the US, but less so in Europe?

The answer must begin with the fact that whereas biology determines the sexual practices of animals, psychology and culture are factors in human sexuality. Specifically, no human body part is inherently sexy, not even the genitals which have primarily sexual functions as far as biologists are concerned; for example, nudity in the locker room or in a life drawing class or on the operating table isn’t so sexually arousing. Social context matters: the historical evidence indicates that under certain conditions, the tantalizing concealment of any body part can cause sexual arousal in a brain in which the imagination rather than just the sex hormone dictates sex appeal. In a prudish culture, visually-oriented men must make do with limited offerings, and so American men in the 1930s imagined ways in which the ankles of long-dress-wearing women could be thought of as sexy. Likewise, bored Middle Eastern men might rhapsodize about women’s hair curls and eyelashes, which are the sole body parts that some Islamist dictatorships permit to be publicly exposed. Most male body parts have the tedious evolutionary function of being muscular to make the man an effective protector, and so women starved for some novelty in their sexual diet imagine that beards can be sexy. Just as the long dress which covers the legs and ankles allows the woman to choose how high to raise the garment, creating an air of mystery and of being so near and yet so far from the promised land, as it were, the beard can obscure lantern jaws which are symbols of strength and stability, and the facial hair tantalizes as the man chooses to shave and to allow the hairs to grow to varying lengths.

Evolutionary psychologists are certainly right to point out that the underlying mechanisms of arousal have biological, reproductive functions, but culture isn’t an impotent byproduct of genes and hormones. We rewire our brains by modifying the environments to which we must adapt to survive, and our artificial environments are energized by ideologies, including those that determine the purpose of the tools, machines, and other artifacts we rely on throughout civilized life. Thus, whereas the mechanism of female arousal may originate from the woman’s desire to have her clitoris stimulated by a penis, for the evolutionary reason that sexual pleasure facilitates the transmitting of genes by sexual reproduction, that desire has evidently been exapted after what Yuval Harari calls the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions. Thus, women can be turned on by the way a beard makes the man seem withdrawn or wayward and in need of mothering and instruction. The biological mechanisms are repurposed to achieve cultural, often idealistic or fantastic goals. Sex acquires meanings that have little to do with that which is paramount from the gene’s eye view. In particular, sexual ecstasy is comparable to the religious kind, which in turn is akin to the experience of existential horror, to the revelation of that which transcends and so humiliates not just our comprehension but our standing as entities.

The Revelation of Sex

The degree of lust and of the giddiness of being on the threshold of sexual contact may be inversely proportional to the degree of familiarity with the partner’s body or with sex in general. The more sex you have, the less earth-shattering it becomes over the years, unless your sex drive is low or your expectations are curbed by cultural conventions. This is one reason that adultery is commonplace among able-bodied individuals who have options: to renew the height of ecstasy enjoyed when sex in general or with a particular partner was novel. Sex for virgins is typically overwhelming because they haven’t yet solved the mysteries of sex. Unfamiliarity with the other’s body parts or with the sex acts that are generally kept secret accounts for why even ankles, wrists, calves, beards, or hair can be deemed sexy even though those parts are irrelevant from the genetic standpoint. In hunter-gatherer tribes, for example, breasts have no sex appeal because they’re constantly exposed and so their men’s imagination isn’t fired by the fantasy of what they would look or feel like were they revealed. They’re exposed because the tribes are consumed with the purpose of surviving in harsh, perhaps exceptionally humid natural lands and have no time for luxuries such as fashion. By contrast in the individualistic West, fashion is an art form and we individuate ourselves by showing off our possessions, thereby forgetting about the fleshy bodies toiling to maintain so many artificialities. Indeed, as Morris Berman argues in Coming to Our Senses, we in the West are virtually disembodied; we live in our heads and in a noosphere of abstractions—until, that is, in all infantile innocence we find ourselves drawn back to that which is hidden by the products of our labour, to the shapes, sounds, and tastes of each other’s flesh. 

This lack of public familiarity is a precondition for assigning breasts an intimate status such that their public exposure might be judged indecent. Men or lesbians in industrialized societies long to spy or to feel women’s breasts only if those sensations remind us that reality can be hidden. Presumably, lesbians are less aroused by the opportunity to gawk at another woman’s breasts, because they’re familiar with their own, and the same should be true for gay men regarding their degree of pleasure taken from an experience with another man’s genitals. Token newness must suffice, because unfamiliarity with the type of flesh is out of the question for homosexual individuals. In any event, the limit case of sexual lust is felt by one who has no direct knowledge of the other’s body parts but whose fantasies have been inspired by enticing indirect knowledge, such as pornographic representations, tall tales in the schoolyard, or partial revelations in the form of sexy clothing. 

Like people, animals have mating competitions so that the fulfillment of climax for them lies at the end of some rituals they must complete, but unlike domesticated people’s, animal bodies aren’t selectively hidden from the world. Animals don’t know or care that they’re naked, whereas we don our fig leafs to recover our dignity in light of our self-awareness and our greater understanding. The experience of being a person is that of having our virtually supernatural (anomalous) mind confined to a natural, animal body. When we understand that absurdity, we fear what calamities might be visited upon us in such a godless universe, and so we sweep the evidence under the carpet, as it were, concealing our nakedness so that we can pretend to be the disembodied gods we worship. Our sex instinct remains as an animal calling, at least for most of us, but that instinct is bound up with our understanding and our imagination, because our minds are godlike. Thus, mating between people isn’t just a degrading competition, as it is for the animals that are puppets driven by their genes rather than by egoistic interests to understand their place in the world and to rectify their position by altering that world. In addition to the foolish, ethically dubious dances we perform to attract a mate, we set up an existentially symbolic dynamic in which the heaven of sexual ecstasy, the ego’s dissolution in intimacy with a partner, and thus the paradoxical experience of disembodiment achieved in a bout of unreserved objectification happen only when we unmask ourselves by removing our clothing and the accompanying pretenses of civility.

The Anticlimax of Enlightenment

Reality, too, is hidden from us, not just because we’re small creatures that aren’t in direct contact with the whole of time or space, but because our cognitive tools humanize the world, putting comforting metaphors and preoccupations between us and what Eugene Thacker calls the horror of the world-without-us. In Thacker’s analysis, the world-for-us is how it appears to us at the height of our naivetĂ©, when we don’t appreciate that our anthropomorphisms are self-serving projections as well as practically-necessary lies. The world-in-itself is the world in its essence without anything extraneous left behind by the process of coming to know the world’s nature. This is the Kantian noumenon which isn’t entirely conceivable, since every act of knowing, including the scientific or mathematical kind, leaves behind artifacts on that which is known. The world-without-us is perceived by the cognitive trick of imagining the objective world-in-itself as though it were inhabited by someone else who is suitably indifferent to or ignorant of us. For example, we can follow H.P. Lovecraft and imagine that our planet is really a playground for monstrous, slumbering deities who will eventually awaken and annihilate us and everything we stand for as so many extraneous growths. The world-without-us is how the world-in-itself would seem without the presence of humanity, if that world could nevertheless be experienced by someone else. After we’re extinct like any other species and all traces of our civilizations are lost, only the world-without-us will remain, the world as it’s always really been despite the lies we presently tell ourselves to avoid confronting the fact that we’re all fundamentally homeless. The last person standing after the zombie apocalypse, for example, would behold the party that continues after most of us have left the club, the cycles that proceed having always had nothing essentially to do with any of us.

The horror of the world-without-us, which is really just a debilitating glimpse of the impersonality of the world-in-itself, is obscured by the fig leaf of the world-for-us. In our religious fictions which we call myths, we imagine heroic mortals ascending to the abode of the gods. Moses climbed remote Mount Sinai where the world-in-itself was revealed to him in the form of a supernatural bush that burns without being consumed by the flame. The world’s essence which transcends our feeble, often parochial conceptions can present itself in miracles, according to old stories which are exoterically read as being about divine breakthroughs into nature by the personified Beyond; of course, that theistic interpretation is the mere conservative one that reinforces our vanity which we need to function in the unheroic, animal fashion. We’d like to think that we’re one with the world’s essence and that nature is fundamentally alive and even knowing and moral like us; that way, we wouldn’t be existentially homeless, after all, and horror wouldn’t be our most authentic experience, the deepest appreciation of reality. So Jews imagined not just the paradoxical burning bush, but a voice that spoke to Moses from the transcendent world-in-itself. Likewise, after Jesus’s baptism, “heaven was opened,” a dove descended, and Jesus heard a voice telling him that God loves him. Esoterically, all religious myths are horror stories, as cosmicism must replace theism for those who love knowledge more than themselves and the convenience of their station. We can have an intimation of the world-in-itself, but only with the accompanying dread that that world was, will be, and is fundamentally now the world-without-us. Stripped of our reassuring delusions, the burning bush is voiceless or if it speaks, it speaks in a language we can’t translate so that we’re frustrated eavesdroppers or fifth wheels. The dove that descends from the clouds only vacates its bowels on Jesus’s head and the skies are silent when he’s executed as a result of a hideous, Kafkaesque mistake about his identity.

There is, then, an analogy between human sexuality and philosophical revelation. First there are the tantalizing clues that something longed for is hidden; if only you could entice this other creature to shed its outerwear, you could have sex, build a partnership, and establish private grounds for intimacy. Sex feels rapturous as though we were swept off to a transcendent plane, even if that’s only because we must first degrade ourselves as we strip off our clothes, hide ourselves from public glare, and pretend that we deserve a private space that shouldn’t be regulated by ethical rules of conduct. We “transcend” civility, by acting as animals, going backward rather than forward, as it were, but we nevertheless experience bliss in that state of undress just as we feel love and contentment when we’re emotionally intimate in our private life with our partner. With regard to sex, we shrug off the yoke of civility and thus much of the world-for-us, and are rewarded with waves of pleasure followed by orgasm, by a fleeting moment of joy.

Similarly, with regard to cognition we lift the veil of ignorance as we learn the embarrassing epistemic status of our cherished metaphors and myths. We discover that our best knowledge of the world-in-itself succeeds only by its wholesale objectification and demythologization, leaving us disenchanted with nature. What bubbles up then is revelatory horror and giddiness at the suspicion that we’re satanically free—at least during those brief occasions when we take up Spinoza’s eternal perspective, or God’s-eye-view, and appreciate everything’s place in the world-without-us. Reality is revealed to us when we depersonalize it and ourselves, but instead of finding utilitarian pleasure, as in the case of the orgasm that binds a pair of mates together and encourages them to reproduce, the intrepid philosopher is rewarded with incendiary, satanic insight. Religious revelation ought to be apocalyptic indeed, since for the enlightened individual, that revelation of the world-in-itself destroys the world-for-us. In reality, we’re all horrifically free—free of gods that don’t exist, free of homes that are nullified by their transience, free of social codes that we negate whenever we revert to our animal fixations. We’re as free and as aimless as the void we represent when we grasp the world’s objectivity and its necessary indifference to us. Nature seems to unfold with much regularity and thus by way of restrictions rather than freedom, but that seems so only from our pathetically-limited perspective. In quantum reality or at the level of the megaverse, everything happens all at once and on a virtual whim, with no intermediate mechanisms or local transactions whatsoever, not to mention for no reason and with no plan in view. Particles pop into existence just because—like our entire universe, in a timeless state of being. And when we understand those sobering facts, however imperfectly that may be; when we learn that “humanity” in the normative, progressive and vain sense is a joke, we become as monstrous as the world that thereby “speaks” through our mystical or indirect representations of it. Terror, angst, sorrow, or madness is the fruit of those cognitive loins. The orgasm of philosophical insight is the glee of insanity or the queer relief of the omega outcast who is alienated from the grotesqueries of mass society; those existential pains are stages of mourning for the loss of the world-for-us. What mentality emerges from our oneness with the depersonalized world-in-itself, by means of our contemplating the horrors of the world-without-us can hardly be described in polite company.

Fathoming the Alienness of the World-Without-Us

But let’s investigate with the aid of a science fictional thought experiment. Imagine that you’ve gone where no one else has been. Moreover, you’re at where no one else will be because no one else can reach there. Suppose, for example, you’re Ant Man, as in the movie, who shrinks to the subatomic scale and is condemned to drift there for eternity unless he can puzzle his way out. Or perhaps you’re one of the scientists in the movie Sunshine, who penetrate the sun’s corona. Or you’re in a spaceship that’s travelled faster than light, leaving you alone on a planet in another galaxy. Astronauts are known to experience a deflating sense of life’s worthlessness when they return to Earth and when they’re permitted to leave aside the politically-correct blather they’re forced to emit to encourage society’s support of space exploration. The world must seem fragile and lost from orbit, but the astronaut is also largely alienated from that world; only the commitment to carry out the scheduled tasks provides a lifeline and prevents the astronaut from slipping into a miasmic depression due to such a confrontation with nature’s inhumanity. However, alone and in a vast and unchartered wilderness, say, the explorer would also feel childlike glee, the rebel’s freedom of being unburdened by social conventions. The Starship Voyager is sent to the other side of the galaxy and the crew wrestles with whether Starfleet’s code of conduct applies to their predicament. Of course, the Captain believes that that code is their lifeline, their one chance of retaining their humanity. The crew members must carry out their duties and struggle to return home; otherwise, horror would dawn upon them as they’d realize that in light of the fact that the galaxy is evidently so large to allow for such estrangement from the bulk of humanity, their jobs at Starfleet have always been farcically insignificant.

Imagine, though, you’re alone on an alien moon, the star around which Earth orbits nowhere in the night sky, your lightship a wreck on the moon’s surface. Before you fall and rise stone formations never glimpsed by anyone. Your scientific training equips you with concepts to objectify your surroundings, to quantify the mighty craters and mountains, and even to begin to use them to your benefit. But you have the nagging feeling that the moon’s existential significance surpasses such understanding and utility. With the trappings of culture and civility so far away, with your family, friends, and coworkers nowhere to comfort or to preoccupy you, and confronted by the alien vista, you muse that you must have been reborn because the world-for-us has vanished for you. There is no us on that moon, only you, and you haven’t the creativity or the fortitude to create a new web of conventions, a fresh host of fictions to obscure nature’s alienness. The horrifying implications of the objective world’s impersonality overpower you in your alienation, and you’re treated to a revelation of the world-without-us. What are you in that monstrous world that flexes its causality with no goal or remorse? What are you but part of it and nothing more, as the illusions and hypocrisies of civilized life fade to irrelevance? As on Mount Sinai, the remoteness of your location makes the ground on which you tread holy, but there's no reassuring voice from beyond, just the enveloping silence of the outer reaches. Now you realize that the heavenly bliss promised by the world’s religions was only ever a misleading metaphor; that as we’re united with the inhuman essence of reality, true liberation from our social roles is baneful; that God is a fiction we project onto nature to turn the wilderness into an encouraging mirror image of ourselves, and that the reality of Being is best captured in the experience of horror.

You’ll appreciate that sex, too, must always have been an allegorical pantomime signifying the pilgrim’s “progress” from theistic and other conventional delusions to cosmic awe at the pseudo-audacity of the universe that was never made for us. You smile as you grasp why the dictatorial (monotheistic) religions always posited that sex is sinful, because the cosmicist wonder which sex facilitates competes with the bogus payoff of the politically-motivated religious scriptures. The end of sex isn’t transformation into a spiritual body that lives forever with God in heaven, but a fleeting, drug-induced (hormonal) pleasure that’s nevertheless the ultimate goal of most human activities, and that’s achieved only after the suspension of all cultural niceties. As the blinders of the world-for-us are removed and the enthralled individuals degrade themselves in sessions of sexual foolishness, the climax of so much absurdity can only be as anticlimactic as the naturally-understood orgasm. There is no eternal bliss in heaven, because quantum timelessness has no personal attributes. There is world-ending revelation, but it’s nothing to boast about, let alone something that vindicates the troops of evangelists who knock on doors to spread the “good news.” The greatest heroes of cognition aren’t the scientists who formulate objective models of natural processes, but the philosophers hiding under rocks who make the best of the wider, destructive implications of those models. The satanic heroes earn the hell of their wisdom. When, lost in their sexual throes and convulsions, somewhere on a “home” planet to which these heroes can never return, the masses cry out, “Oh, God! Oh, God!” they effectively and absurdly praise themselves as the sources of the theistic metaphor. They believe they’re thanking ultimate reality for sustaining such joy, but that reality is deaf and dumb, and the noblest sexual joy quickly turns to despair.


  1. >Astronauts are known to experience a deflating sense of life’s worthlessness when they return to Earth and when they’re permitted to leave aside the politically-correct blather they’re forced to emit to encourage society’s support of space exploration.


    1. Well, I think it's common knowledge that spaceflight has psychological effects on the astronauts. In pop culture, you see this trope in the Mission to Mars movie (the Gary Sinise character), The Astronaut's Wife (Johnny Depp), The Big Bang Theory TV show, and so on. But of course it’s more complicated that my sentence above would indicate. Political correctness is only the first factor that came to my head and I didn’t want to dwell on the issue.

      Prompted by your request for sources, though, I remembered another factor discussed in David Noble's book The Religion of Technology (Chapter 9: The Ascent of the Saints: Space Exploration), where he points out that NASA astronauts are drawn from the air force, and the US military as a whole is infected by a grotesque Christian cult. Thus, whatever the effects of being in orbit or on the moon, the Christians will interpret them positively to preserve their faith, assuming their faith is strong enough in the first place. They may instead resort to alcohol to maintain the charade of their worldview. For this reason, we should expect a difference between the reports of NASA astronauts and Russian or Chinese cosmonauts, and indeed that's the case, as shown in the first link below:

      "Asthenization, a syndrome that includes fatigue, irritability, emotional lability, attention and concentration difficulties, and appetite and sleep problems, has been reported to commonly occur in cosmonauts by Russian flight surgeons. It has been observed to evolve in clearly defined stages. It is conceptualized as an adjustment reaction to being in space that is different from neurasthenia, a related neurotic condition seen on Earth.

      "The validity of asthenization has been questioned by some in the West, in part because classical neurasthenia is not currently recognized in the American psychiatric nomenclature, whereas the illness is accepted in Russia and China."

    2. Now, asthenization "is suspected to be a psychosomatic effect of the result of overachieving astronauts no longer having a goal after becoming astronauts, or potentially a neurological effect of microgravity." But I’d assume this condition may also be related to the Overview Effect, which is most relevant to the above article. "The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from orbit or from the lunar surface.

      "It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, 'hanging in the void', shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this 'pale blue dot' becomes both obvious and imperative."

      Here's one report of this effect, from astronaut Robert Garan:

      "As I approached the top of this arc, it was as if time stood still, and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness. But as I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.

      "In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn't help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don't have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.

      "Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I've come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible."

      Do you see the positive spin on this existential reckoning? Garan goes from sadness and pity for all humans stuck on Earth to a utilitarian imperative to help unify the species, given the irrelevance of our political divisions. But this is very sloppy thinking, and I'd attribute it, as I said, to a Christian background in the US or to the astronaut’s crass interest in selling space exploration. It's obviously not just national boundaries that disappear from space. So do the billions of individual humans! So do religions and cultures and cities and everything else we care about except the natural planet. From there it's just a hop, skip, and a jump to cosmicism. For example, if politics becomes irrelevant from outer space, shouldn’t human morality also be vain and parochial?

    3. Thanks for the detailed reply, as always. A common theme in cosmicist literature seems to be that humanity's insignificance in space and time somehow renders life meaningless and absurd. I'm curious if you've ever read Thomas Nagel's "The Absurd" for a possible counterargument?

    4. I did read Nagel’s discussion of absurdity in his book The View from Nowhere. It’s well worth reading, and his way of speaking of objectivity influenced my worldview, but here I think he fails to distinguish between objective and subjective meaning, and objective and subjective absurdity (meaninglessness). He says human life is absurd because we can step back from our life projects and think of them impersonally, from the transcendental “view from nowhere” or from the perspective of eternity (Spinoza). In other words, we can be objective about ourselves even though we must relapse into our subjective, self-interested perspective. So absurdity is due to a clash between two perspectives.

      The problem with this diagnosis of absurdity is that Nagel misses the point that objectivity puts us in touch with the facts. So absurdity winds up being about a conflict between the real world and us, after all.

      When existentialists say life is absurd, they don’t deny that we can give life subjective meaning. As Nagel says, justification can come to an end within life by a finite chain of reasoning. If I have a headache, I can take an aspirin and no more justification of my action need be given. But this is subjective, instrumental justification. If I want the pain to end, taking a pill will achieve that goal. This raises the question of how to justify the goal in the first place. Maybe pain is good rather than bad.

      And as Nagel says, we can step back from our desires and see how their grounds are contingent (accidental, arbitrary, etc). But this was the question all along: our life is objectively absurd, given naturalism, because there’s no God, because matter and natural forces are indifferent to our desires and throw up our life’s circumstances by laws of chance that make a mockery of our pretensions. That implication of naturalism isn’t about a conflict between perspectives; it’s about a conflict between the natural facts of the world’s godlessness and our irrational, animal preferences.

      Nagel betrays his conventionality when he speaks of how “we” must get on with our lives after we’re done being objective--even as he realizes toward the end that asceticism is an option. His audience, of course, consists of the analytic philosophers who task themselves with apologizing for middle class intuitions. As Sellars put it, philosophers need to reconcile the scientific with the manifest (folk psychological) images of the world. Nietzsche and Camus are more radical than that, so Nagel gives them short shrift, but that’s largely a political matter.

      Nagel also reverses himself when he dismisses the cosmological arguments in the first section, and then eventually realizes that those arguments are “metaphors for the backward step,” that is, for objectivity. All that means is that Nagel, the analytic philosopher, misconstrued literary devices as analytic, logical arguments, by way of turning them into strawmen ones that could be all-too easily dismissed.

      In short, I think this is a classic case of the analytic philosopher missing the forest for the trees.

      By the way, I took a stab at this topic here:

  2. Interesting take on nihilism.

    1. Once again, a frustrating, logic-chopping read, although I thank you for bringing it to my attention. The article conflates realism with objectivity. As Kahane, the author says, “I’ll use ‘antirealism’ to refer to metaethical views—cognitivist and noncognitivist—that deny the existence of objective evaluative facts and properties while still holding that some things matter.” Thus Kahane can say, “But many realists (and perhaps some error theorists) defend the claim that that evaluative and practical normative discourse has robustly realist commitments quite generally. [What a godawful sentence that was, by the way.] They argue that even prudential requirements are strongly objective,” as if “realist” were synonymous with “objective.”

      Realism is best thought of as the view that there’s something relevant and interesting beyond our conceptual schemes. So realism is a kind of externalism. If we’re realistic about numbers, for examples, we’re saying that numbers exist outside language and concepts, such as in Platonic heaven. And if we’re realistic about morality, we’re saying right and wrong exist outside of our feelings, willpower, laws, and so on. In linguistic terms, we’re saying moral statements are made true or false by something outside of anything to do with people. There are moral facts out there in the world and they may predate us. That’s the heart of realism. By contrast, objectivity is an epistemic matter; it’s a way of discovering truths, a stance we take towards some question. In particular, if we’re being objective about morality, we’re not getting emotional about it but are attending just to certain facts.

      Kahane argues that nihilism amounts to the claim that there are no values whatsoever, and therefore nihilism can have no bad consequences, such as the implication that we ought to despair in the face of it, since nihilism implies there’s no badness or obligations of any kind. Thus, nihilism has no normative consequences and we can safely ignore it and go on with our lives. Only belief in nihilism makes a normative difference. But this is a strawman and a red herring. Once again, the analytic philosopher comes to the rescue of middle class intuitions.

      First of all, “belief in nihilism” is redundant. Nihilism is an “ism” term, an ideology, which entails belief. What Kahane wants to say is that it’s the acceptance of the fact that there are no values that can be damaging. But on Kahane’s strawman account of nihilism, acceptance of anything is likewise incoherent, given nihilism, because we don’t affirm something unless we think we’re thereby doing well. For example, if we think nihilism is true and we accept that fact, we have those beliefs because we think we ought to believe what’s true since that sort of belief is best for us. None of that makes sense, given Kahane’s blanket notion of nihilism.

      Anyway, there’s no one I’m aware of who’s a nihilist in Kahan’s sense, namely someone who says vaguely “nothing matters” or “there are no real values anywhere whatsoever.” Certainly, that wasn’t Nietzsche’s view. Nietzsche was focused on the conflict between science and conventional, Christian morality. He thought Western civilization was heading towards catastrophe, because science is showing that OUR TRADITIONAL values are embarrassing and obsolete. Thus, he called for a revaluation so that our values might be noble and in line with science, not sickly by permitting us to run from the harsh truth. That revaluation requires willpower, an aesthetic, creative vision and so on. So Nietzsche was an antirealist about value in that he thought there’s no external source of traditional, theistic values, since there’s no God, and he was a subjectivist too in that he thought values are created not via reason but via an act of personal conviction.

    2. Interestingly, the analytic philosopher tends to get the function of moral language all wrong, because he doesn’t bring history or anthropology to bear. Traditional morality is obviously utterly dependent on theism. God is the guarantor of moral values. God is external to us but isn’t a mere object. So must we be realistic or objective about traditional values? Traditionalists are realists in that they think there are facts of morality that have to do with God’s nature, but they don’t think moral facts are entirely objective. We come to know what to value by having faith in God, which transcends reason and the objective stance.

      Moreover, to ask for a factual basis of values, in the sense of looking for grounds in the impersonal state of nature, is to invite us to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Grounding values in God gets around the naturalistic fallacy, since God is supposed to be a person. But in that case the traditionalist wouldn’t be an absolute externalist, since although the truth of certain values would be independent of US, they wouldn’t be independent of all persons. There’s the dilemma: if moral realism requires that morality be based on something impersonal (external to all persons), it’s hard to see how we’d avoid committing the naturalistic fallacy. Otherwise, we’d have to be antirealists and so the traditionalist would lose her moral absolutism (e.g. God could change his mind, as he allegedly did from Judaism to Christianity.)

      In any case, the problem, of course, is that there’s no God but we’re slow to catch on to God’s demise. So we think we can retain our LIBERAL values even though science is showing that those particular, secular or traditional values are groundless. Again, that was Nietzsche’s point. And notice that Kahane’s analytic discussion doesn’t build on that sort of historical context.

      Mackie says that normative discourse requires that there be facts that make our evaluative statements true or false, but there are no such facts. But this is likewise ahistorical. The problem is more specifically that we’re beholden to certain values that we inherit in part from our language and from our religious traditions, but who says words have to retain their old meanings? Wittgenstein showed how language uses develop.

      And values can exist in nature as emergent phenomena. The realism-antirealism split is much too clumsy in this context. Should we be realists about chairs, raccoons, planets, and everything else of which we have sense experience? All of those things emerge from a totally different order of being, from the quantum realm. So why can’t values, not to mention consciousness and freedom likewise emerge? Why can’t we create values, including moral and aesthetic ones, just as we create artifacts that come to add to the universe’s furniture? Obviously we can and we have done so.

    3. Where does nihilism fit in? It depends how the word’s defined. If you want the absolutist kind that Kahane assumes, good luck with that; it’s a waste of time. For example, Kahane’s pragmatic Pascalian wager against nihilism simply begs the question against that kind of nihilism, by presupposing practical values such as prudence. So what’s the point of that section, beyond the academic need to pad the article or to show off?

      I think it’s worthwhile to realize that from the objective, scientific view from nowhere, there are no facts alone that make some values better than others. Were there no living things in the universe, there would be no values, no morality, and no normative truths; at best, there would be the potential of such things. But once creatures evolve, you have interactions between them and the world. Some things disgust us, others please us. That’s the start of normative evaluation. Still, when we look at everything including ourselves, from nature’s impersonal viewpoint, as it were, we see the absurdity of our conventional reactions. We see how we’re being played and how our schemes of resistance are doomed. *****We see that there really are no values, in that the implicitly antinatural (emergent) values created by living things are ultimately inconsequential; normatively-neutral nature will swamp them all.***** That’s the most useful way of framing the issue of nihilism, as far as I’m concerned. No strawmen necessary.

    4. This reply reminds me of a short public access film made by Jack Kevorkian, where he says some similar things regarding value.

    5. Yeah, there's some cosmicism in the third part of that Kevorkian talk. Kant made the same point some centuries ago, based on the potential for infinite modes of perception.

      There's also some lingering scientism and God-Complex in Kevorkian's pragmatic American dismissal of highfalutin reason and his trust in commonsense. Normally those biases, built up by the memory-intensive process of acquiring scientific knowledge, lead to crackpot notions, as the scientist believes he can conquer any nonscientific cognitive field, such as philosophy or religion, all by himself. Actual study of philosophy, though, develops the virtue of humility rather than the vice of such arrogance, because the most general truths are subversive.

  3. V and K here, the anonymous couple. We were wondering if you read the Temptation of St. Anthony? The life of a hermit, the scientific revelations, and the animal nature of humanity are all discussed at length, with some amusing reactions by the Saint.

    1. V and K, do you mean the book by Flaubert? No, I haven't read it. I've got a lot of books on my plate at the moment, but the book sounds interesting. Flaubert's life itself was interesting. He was an artist with words, and a hermit.

      It's also interesting how readers recommend books to me that reinforce my blog's worldview, largely telling me what I already know. You can get stuck in a rut that way. I'd like to find materials that can challenge and stretch my worldview. Any other recommendations along those lines?

    2. Not sure how much of what we recommend would disagree with you, but we will post things that have had an impact on us recently (last four years or so) that are decidedly NOT like your stuff.

      V recommends Diaspora by Greg Egan. It's about quite a few things, but mostly deals with posthumans and the threats/opportunities they encounter in the wider Universe. Much friendlier look at what humanity could eventually get to, even if it is a little too crystal-towers-and-togas for V's tastes. The other suggestion covers the animal and the disgusting.

      For sex, Clive Barker's horror stuff is probably the best. Even disregarding the Hellbound Heart, there is a great deal about the body there, according to V, and how it relates to civilization and individual. There are glimpses of a less divided, more (horrifyingly) cheerful human nature to be seen.

      As for K, she claims to have nothing to share, since she does not read many books in her spare time, being a fan of articles and short stories, instead. She mostly reads a great deal of LessWrong and the Rationalist Diaspora. According to her, the best of that would be Slate Star Codex, a blog about rationality, religion (in a positive light), and science (at times separating it from the faith in science's omnipotence).

    3. Thanks, V and K. I read Diaspora some years ago. One scene in particular stuck with me: the one where it turns out some aliens were creating art across multiple universes. That's the aesthetic rebellion against nature.

      I've got a book of short stories by Barker. I started reading The Great and Secret Show maybe 15 years ago, but didn't get through it.

      I also read articles on the internet; they take away time I could be reading books. I'm sure I used to read more books than I do now, after the internet.