Saturday, September 23, 2017

Why all we do is Art for Sages

What is enlightenment? It’s the transition from being distracted, deluded, or ignorant about the ultimate questions in life, to attaining insight into what is truly happening at each moment. Is such knowledge always beneficial? No, because the existential truth is humiliating and bewildering. The ultimate truth for me intersects with philosophical naturalism, countercultural mysticism (dark pantheism), and existentialism. Those who are fittest to understand the world are thereby hindered from succeeding in conventional terms. Science isn’t enough for that understanding, nor is atheism, nor liberalism, nor pessimism. The ultimate truth as I’ve come to understand it is monstrous and to grasp it is to become a monster. Ultimate knowledge is for sociopathic alphas or for loser omegas whose outsider status gives them objectivity and thus intellectual access to deep patterns, but also the drive to understand the world in the first place, as compensation for their suffering. By contrast, living in contentment is for sheep, for the human mob whose members only barely deserve to be distinguished by their individuality because while their personal development may be illuminating, their inner life is shallow.

The human herd excels by deferring to conventional wisdom about how life should be lived, by creating a family and by working hard or capitalizing on social connections. The herd is emotionally fulfilled but for the most part cognitively impoverished; at least, the more time is devoted to introverted reflection and intellectual exploration, the harder it is to succeed in the popular sense, to take sex, family, or work seriously. This is because instead of enlightening anyone, exoteric wisdom in postindustrial societies is meant to perpetuate the species and the plutocratic social structures. Specifically, family is obviously needed to protect the members of the next generation in their childhood phase, while productivity maximizes the profit that currently flows almost exclusively to the upper ten percent, and especially to the top one percent of the population, in the United States. The affluent class’s neoliberal emphasis on individual liberty, on taking advantage of your freedom by pursuing hobbies to find yourself is likewise a smokescreen protecting the imperative to consume, which fuels this dishonest way of life. Far from helping to find yourself, collecting possessions and experiences renders you all the more empty by comparison, because that lifestyle prevents you from developing the higher-order thoughts which constitute an autonomous self. As for the late-modern professionals and aristocrats who prey on the herd, they don’t subscribe to social conventions: they have extramarital affairs galore and their wealth enables them to retreat to bubble worlds which operate at their beck and call to complement their godlike self-image. They, too, are social outsiders and so are afforded the chance to understand how the real world works, but their power deprives them of the conscience and empathy needed to use their insights wisely.

Cults and Cultures as Escapes from Reality

Let’s consider, then, two other ways of escaping unenlightened herd life, besides becoming a predatory oligarch or a marginalized loser. One is to flee to a guru’s cult. Indeed, off and on for a few years I’ve lurked on the YouTube channel of a young Canadian woman who went from a Star Seed New Ager to a Christian to a devotee of a guru. She lives with him now in an ashram in Bangalore, India. Have a look at this video in which Millennials from Vancouver, Germany, Russia, East Africa, Malaysia and elsewhere attest to the wonders of life with that guru, at “Inner Awakening.” Many of these recruits credit the internet for presenting them with the opportunity to flee the drudgery of postindustrial life. They seem overjoyed and profess to have been granted magical powers by their swami, whom they worship as a living incarnation of God. The temptation to join such a cult is the same as the one that drew the hippies to their communes, which is also the temptation that compels theists to imagine the effortless pleasures of paradise in the afterlife. This is the temptation to hope that somehow rewards are possible even without labour, which requires the audacity to trust in that which is proverbially too good to be true. In the case of Inner Awakening, the initiates pay several thousand dollars and surrender their personal freedom to participate in the nearly month-long starter program in which they effectively consent to be brainwashed as they bow to the authority of a presumed enlightened master who promises to supply them with all the answers they could hope for. Everyone in their new family loves them unconditionally and their guru stands in for a transcendent deity, so they have their heaven on Earth. The peace of liberating themselves from the burden of maintaining their former status in the capitalistic rat race is evidently worth the prices they pay. These outsiders believe they’re enlightened while the critics and everyone else who is unaware of this form of Hinduism are spiritually asleep.

Another option is to embrace the evil of Scientology. Scientology is the ingenious and triumphant worldwide cult founded in 1954 by the American science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. The moral and empirical cases against this cult are perfectly complete. Dozens upon dozens of high-ranking Scientologists, including the leader’s father, have publicly condemned the so-called Church of Scientology, providing detailed accounts of its criminal or antisocial practices. You can watch their testimonies in the film Going Clear or in Leah Remini’s series on A&E. The hidden wisdom of Scientology, which was supposed to be available only to members who’ve spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to attain elite OT status within the organization, have instead been leaked and made available for years on the internet. South Park mocked the sci-fi, theological mashup concocted by Hubbard and involving an alien Xenu and disembodied spirits, passenger planes and a volcano. But Hubbard was in fact ingenious in how he designed his cult to fulfill the late-modern longing for a scientific religion, modernity notwithstanding. Scientology bastardizes old religious ideas but provides them a veneer of coolness and plausibility with its sci-fi scenarios and pseudoscientific treatment of mental health issues. Scientologists want technology not just to amuse them with distracting toys, but to “clear” their minds of sin and suffering. Their “church” replaces Buddhism’s regimen of meditation and asceticism with pseudo-therapeutic E-Meter readings and subservience to a dictator named David Miscavige. Like the Inner Awakening dupes, Scientologists seem happy—until many flee the oppressive cult even at the cost of being barred from seeing their Scientologist family members. The members often grow up in the cult and are then prohibited from learning that their alleged religion is just a business and a con, or else they’ve been brainwashed into rationalizing their decision to keep supporting the “church.” They believe Scientology is a humanitarian enterprise that’s saving the planet, whereas the organization is plainly a fraud from top to bottom.

The exoteric case against these escapes, then, is clear. From the standpoint of secular humanistic norms, these cults are—almost by definition—divorced from reality. In the first case, the radicals are outcasts who don’t want to work for a living, but they escape poverty and homelessness by joining a cult where they find bogus or obscure answers for everything. In the second, they’re suckers who’ve succeeded in secular terms—Scientologists typically have families and access at least to tens of thousands of dollars in credit—but they crave the kind of power and adventure that transhumanists promise, so they’re victimized by a modernist cult. We’re dealing, therefore, with drop-outs who are desperate for a face-saving solution to their lack of belonging in the real world of the global monoculture, or with weirdo seekers who voluntarily marginalize themselves. Either way, their fake spirituality is condemnable on empirical, moral, and legal grounds.

But these exoteric criticisms are themselves superficial, because liberal secular humanism is also an escape from reality. If Inner Awakening and Scientology are cults, that’s only because these two organizations are relatively small, which makes the practice and ideology—that is to say the culture—of secular humanism a religionReligion isn’t the same as theism. A religion is a culture that binds a large population together, because the culture rests mainly on the faith in its fictions that proves the members’ allegiance to the group. So what are the parts of the received wisdom that constitute modern faith? They include neoliberalism (the once-socialist liberal’s rapprochement with capitalism), consumerism (including materialism and hedonism), humanism (meaning the prizing of personal liberties and happiness), naturalism (including atheism), and scientism (prejudice against nonsciences in cognitive matters). These ideological elements manifest themselves in the way of life led by the United States which has swayed, to some extent, all technologically-developed societies. Specifically, the supposedly-realistic global culture is capitalistic, democratic, and thus crypto-plutocratic. The goal is to live well despite the alleged privatization of religion. What’s been privatized instead is the theistic fairytale to make room for the modern creed which determines the policies of the allegedly secular (nonreligious) government. The United States government, for example, is indeed separate from any Christian church, but not from the above elements of the modern faith.

Why do I say there’s any such faith at stake for so-called secularists who take themselves to be living entirely in reality, without the need for the crutch of a religion? I say this because all cultures, including the “modern,” post-Scientific Revolutionary one are normative, and the values and ideals that establish what we consider socially excellent don’t follow from reason. All values that set our ultimate goals are leaps of faith. If you think you can prove, with the hedonist or utilitarian, that everyone ought to strive to be happy in the sense of being content with their situation, you’re mistaken and you’ve likely committed the naturalistic fallacy. Just because most “secularists” actually want to be content doesn’t mean they ought to want that, just as the fact that the masses that professed some religion at any time in history took some ridiculous, godly way of life to be normal doesn’t by itself justify their deranged ambitions. What’s the alternative to happiness as an ultimate ideal? Read the existentialists and find out for yourself; the short answer is that contentment betrays ignorance or delusion, because the ultimate facts are unsettling to anyone with an organic will to live.

The reason modernists declare their freedom from religion is that their culture is paradoxically scientistic. They appreciate that science and philosophy have enabled us to discover many important facts, but they go on to exaggerate the extent to which their culture is likewise rational. To be sure, science and philosophy are as rational as can be expected from primates, but they don’t prove what our ultimate goals should be. This is why Nietzsche’s messenger who bears the news of God’s death rants like a maniac, because this messenger has no idea what to do next. Rationality is about gathering data and using experiments and logic to weed out unreliable interpretations so that we arrive at sound judgments about the facts. Alas, an ideology made up purely of empirical judgments would be lame, to paraphrase Einstein. Even if we knew all the facts, we wouldn’t know what should be done about them, because moral and normative questions aren’t objective. You won’t find goodness itself in nature, no matter how hard you try. Goodness is fictional; we invent that ideal to guide us, because we happen to be relatively autonomous, meaning our brains are largely liberated from biological mechanisms that zombify most other animal species. We’re not robots, because our actions are guided not by reality but by fictions we create precisely to escape from the facts of nature.

The signs of our culture’s basis in irrational faith are all around us. The entire sordid business of consumerism ignores the reality of the incoming ecological catastrophe. Far from being innocent family men and women who have the discipline to work hard for the economic right to their luxuries, we secularists are participating in a holocaust of unimaginable proportions, against the bulk of animal life. We extinguish or enslave most animal species to escape from the reality that’s tolerated by pre-industrial communities. That reality is the wilderness which is indifferent to whether any of us lives or dies. We’re opposed to wild animals, because they don’t serve us like our domesticated slaves and because they remind us that we too are wild animals at heart, in spite of our satanic liberation and the field of cultural fictions—akin to the Matrix—that we mentally inhabit. It takes faith to pretend to be “philosophical naturalists” when we obsessively create and dwell in virtually miraculous artificial domains (languages, cultures, cities) that operate according to emergent ideals found nowhere else in the known universe. It takes faith to pretend that we “secularists” who have access to the internet and who indulge in philosophical speculations are realistic just because of our unsurpassed technology, even though our scientistic prejudices are incoherent and our cultural ideals are nonrational, like all others. And it takes faith and chutzpah for American liberals to bash conservatives and foreigners for being politically incorrect even when the facades of American capitalistic and democratic institutions are crumbling around them, revealing the forbidden dominance hierarchies that have ruled them all along.

To criticize some subculture such as Scientology, then, on the grounds that Scientologists are unrealistic, whereas our culture is in touch with reality is to misunderstand the human enterprise. We’re not bound by reality, and that freedom is what makes us human. We’re uniquely free from reality, from many of the facts of nature as explained by scientists and as generalized by philosophers, and so we’re cursed to be objective and skeptical nomads in the animal kingdom. We’re condemned to create artificial, human-centered worlds which flatter and corrupt us so that we neglect the underlying reality, destroying ourselves and perhaps all living things in the process. Our self-appointed task isn’t to be one with reality, but to create a fiction worthy of our naïve, grandiose self-image. Cultures, then, are the massively successful exercises in flights of fancy, while cults are subcultures (minor ideologies and corresponding practices), meaning that cults differ from cultures only in the quantity of their members, not in their form. Some fictions don’t catch on as well as others, so a cult is a set of ideals which inspires a certain practice for a lesser population than the one whose character is defined by a culture.

Western secular humanism is a culture, a way of life, not just a list of facts that agree with reality, and so this humanism is a nontheistic religion. Just as Christianity initiates its followers by setting the absurdity of the Trinity doctrine before them, to ensure that those who identify as Christians get some dirt on them, as it were, since they’re forced to debase their rationality and submit to the myth’s brute force and the Church’s authority, secular humanism makes no less of a demand. Saying that humanism is secular and thus apart from religion is just as oxymoronic as saying that God is three gods in one. Granted, the religious aspect of modern humanism (as defined by the above elements) isn’t often made explicit, but we know unconsciously that just because the Church no longer imposes a way of life on all Westerners, doesn’t mean we have no science-centered one to replace it; indeed, we sometimes call ours a “civic religion.” And we know also that science and rational arguments by themselves can’t establish any way of life. Assuming we know as well that religions have a social function which doesn’t require theistic beliefs, we must at least dimly perceive that by identifying as “liberals,” as “new atheists,” as “naturalists,” or as anything else that amounts to saying we’re irreligious humanists, we’re proving our loyalty to this group by professing faith in its initiatory absurdity. We secularists thus pass a rite of initiation, and the resulting cognitive dissonance of vowing allegiance to a cause that appears initially as a mystery, to a nonreligious religion, binds us to our fellows because we must overcome that dissonance by internal rationalizations. Once we expend mental labour to justify our group membership to ourselves, we identify all the more closely with that group because now to admit that the group is flawed would be to admit that we ourselves are embarrassing. We mix our labour with the creed and so we stand or fall as one.

To presuppose secular humanism, in saying that this or that cult is detached from reality is equivalent to presupposing Islam, for example, in saying that Hinduism is wrong on the theological facts. These are merely conflicts between different escapes from natural reality, albeit in the first case we have a difference in the scale of the fictions.

Cults and Cultures as Art

Does this analysis lead us to postmodern relativism, to conclude that every belief system is as valid as any other and that all cultural criticisms are offensive shams? No, because there’s an esoteric perspective that allows us both to see what’s really happening and to pronounce meaningful judgments on much of what we do. This is the perspective of someone who agrees to flee from the horrors of nature only after first considering metarational explanations of what we’re all thereby doing. A Scientologist or a new atheist will take the leap of faith in her chosen direction, and can’t afford to engage in metareligious reflections, because above all she wants to join some group and so she’s not about to undermine her allegiance by any such decentering thoughts. But an introverted individual who’s more likely a social outsider and who responds to being ostracized by shunning the groups in turn has no such hesitation. If we happen not to be interested in expanding our personal identity like a cobra, porcupine, or puffer fish, we can think about what’s happening in general when we strive to vindicate our faith in some creed. What’s happening is just what I’ve been saying: the real world isn’t as we’d prefer it to be, so we create new worlds that come closer to living up to our expectations. Instead of being a prison for the mind, as in the science fiction movie The Matrix, a culture or a cult is a refuge from nature, that is from wild life. All ideologies are therefore necessarily fictional to a large extent; otherwise, they would merely represent the horrors of natural reality which we mean to escape, in the first place, by going through the trouble of imagining myths, models, simulations, or normative belief systems that speak more to our preferences than to given reality. The reason even a scientific theory is fictional as it tends to stand is because scientists value simplicity and elegance, and so the theory is built on models that fall short of the unfathomable wholeness of nature by overgeneralizing, by breaking up the whole in our attempt at least to explain the isolated parts. All mental labour is interpretive and imaginative, and those belief systems (unlike science) defined centrally by ideals that tell us what should have been are thus especially counterfactual.

Once we appreciate this context of cultural allegiances, we can see that these flights from reality are all effectively works of art and are thus subject to aesthetic evaluationThe text of Inner Awakening says that Swami Nithyananda is the living incarnation of a Hindu deity and he sheds supernatural abilities which can be picked up by those who are fortunate enough to be in his presence. The text of Scientology says that Scientologists are superhuman heroes who are privy to an ancient secret, and outsiders are dangerous and should be fought to protect the sacred truth. The text of secular humanism says that reason is the agent of progress, and that theism must be overcome because it deprives us of our individual rights to pursue happiness. But the context of all these creeds is that they’re cults or cultures/religions, depending only on their number of adherents; as such, these belief systems require irrational faith in certain ideals to guide the members in their horror-driven escape from the reality of the universe’s prevailing inhumanity; and as such, these ways of life diverge from natural reality, meaning that they add anomalous patterns to underlying nature, namely the fictional narratives (myths, creeds, models) that inspire the members to achieve the ideals they envision in their imagination. Thus, while the texts of those three ideologies entail relatively narrow-minded judgments, typically involving the demonizing of opposing cults or cultures, their sociological and existential context implies a more neutral, aesthetic evaluation.

Our cults and cultures can be judged purely as works of art. This means that in so far as our actions are prescribed by our metanarrative, our very lives likewise have aesthetic value. A painting has style, because the painter expresses her creative vision of that which should have been and which therefore isn’t real, as opposed to slavishly copying what’s actually there. For the same reason, the normative dimension of autonomous life in general can have more or less artistic flair, depending on how well we realize our prized fictions or how deeply we delve into the existential context in choosing our ultimate meanings in the first place. Art succeeds, then, not by relocating the viewer to an alternative universe, as in an escapist fantasy such as an all-consuming roll-playing game, but by temporarily detaching her from the world, by focusing the viewer’s attention on the artwork’s insightful but counterfactual conceptions. This detachment enlightens and inspires the viewer upon her return to the world of the underlying natural facts.

You may be thinking that this broad use of the word “art” renders the word vacuous. There are, of course, bound to be differences between the fine arts, such as painting, sculpture, music, dance, and so on, and art in more general senses. Fine arts are intended to be fictional or entertaining, whereas religions are obviously intended to capture absolute truth. But the hypermodern sage sees through the ruse of that dichotomy. Fine arts are the creations lauded by ordinary folks who presuppose the absolute groundedness of their worldview. By contrast, the sage who’s been compensated with an outsider’s subversive, esoteric perspective sees no such foundational justification and regards the lot of personal endeavours as having, at best, aesthetic value, in light of God’s demise and the breakdown of Enlightenment metanarratives. If you have a look at books on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, you’ll find much disagreement as to how “art” should be defined. The same is true of definitions of “religion,” by the way. This difficulty is a clue that these two phenomena are indeed almost universal in human experience. They’re elementary, defining features of most of what we do as persons. Thus, according to a dictionary, “art” can mean “the creation of works of beauty or other special significance.” The word can also mean “imaginative skill as applied to representations of the natural world or figments of the imagination.” Both definitions apply to ideologies and to the normative practices that entail them, to worldviews comprised of ideas, including metaphors which necessarily fail to encode all aspects of that which they’re supposed to represent, and which therefore are always technically fictions in that their inadequacy creates a gap filled by the imagination.

Assuming the forgoing broad sense of “art” is philosophically useful, is there anything we do that wouldn’t count as art? Yes, none of our reflexive, hardwired or otherwise automated animal responses to stimuli would be worthy of an aesthetic assessment in this sense, because it wouldn’t proceed from an autonomous standpoint, nor would it spring even from an unconscious dread of nature. There is an even broader, pantheistic account of art and aesthetics which would indeed apply to natural creations as well as artificial ones, as I’ve explained elsewhere, but that needn’t concern us here. My point is just that the conventional kind of art is limited by the presumption that culture in general has deeper value than anything subject merely to taste, whereas those on the outskirts of society typically aren’t inclined to give culture such a benefit of the doubt. When doubts go all the way down, aesthetic value is the only value left.

The Aesthetic Merits of Cults and Secular Humanism

Let’s pronounce aesthetic judgment, then, on the three belief systems in question. Briefly, while Inner Awakening may succeed as a work of virtual reality, the cult fails as an artistic fantasy (as an ideological and behavioural departure from natural facts that’s meant to enlighten and enrich someone’s life in reality). This is because the cult has an overriding economic rather than an artistic purpose that spoils the endeavour from a sage’s perspective, I would imagine. The cult brainwashes its members, effectively kidnapping them to enrich primarily the swami. Just as capitalism destroys itself by producing monopolies, this sort of cult is typically short-lived because it monopolizes the cult’s benefits until the members become disillusioned. To be sure, for a long while the members may be ecstatic in serving their guru, as they are in the above YouTube video, but their suspension of disbelief is unstable and largely accidental, because their ideology doesn’t confront natural reality as the first step in its departure from that reality.

For the cult to work as a coherent whole, the guru would have to teach his members how cults work, how the promise of magical abilities is a con meant to steal their money, and how the most divine persons who have always served as models of gods are just the charismatic sociopaths who tend to enjoy concentrated, corrupting power in our social hierarchies. Then the members would have to voluntarily submit to this guru’s cult, perhaps to experience what it’s like to be a cult member, before eventually shedding the guru’s creed and returning to their prior belief system. Of course, this would defeat the purpose of forming an exploitative cult for the leader’s disproportionate benefit. So aesthetically, the cult fails to uplift the dispassionate viewer because of its muddled intentions. The guru must be hypocritical for his organization to function as a predatory scheme, since he must pretend to be interested in certain religious ideas even while privately he’s committed to more mundane practices, such as pursuing his base preoccupation with collecting luxury goods or finding a young romantic partner. Moreover, the cult fails on grounds of originality, since apparently this guru merely repackages some ideas from Hinduism, and the practice of preying on the masses with shameless demagoguery is itself a cliché.

The cult of Scientology is more original and illuminating than Inner Awakening, because although Hubbard also repackaged older ideas, he combined the very languages of theistic religion, technoscience, secular humanism, and science fiction. Scientology is thus an original synthesis that has the potential to enlighten all late-modernists who search for myths worthy of our faith even after ascendant reason has tended to discredit metanarratives. Alas, Scientology fails because it too is an incoherent fraud that brainwashes instead of enlightens. Recall my definition of “enlightenment”: “the transition from being distracted, deluded, or ignorant about the ultimate questions in life, to attaining insight into what is truly happening at each moment.” To gain that insight, you first need to understand natural reality. To understand nature is to understand why Scientology’s promised superpowers are preposterous, why its therapeutic methods are pseudoscientific and naturally ineffective in the long-term, and why the cult is essentially a fraud. A fraudulent way of life is still a work of art, but it’s sure to be uninspiring because of its incoherence and instability. For example, Hubbard adapted his creativity as a novelist to the task of adding waves of new materials for his followers to immerse themselves in, and when he died the new leader had to continue that practice or risk losing members. But since David Miscavige evidently lacks an artistic vision, his ideological development of his “church” has been ham-handed, not to mention tyrannical, according to the ex-Scientologists. Miscavige declared once that the older procedures were flawed because those church texts had incorrect punctuation, and so Scientologists would have to buy a new line of books and redo their stages of Scientologist growth.

Clearly, what is esoterically just an artwork will fail in aesthetic terms if that work is secretly intended to function not as noble culture or religion, but as a con for financial rather than philosophical or personal gain. The hypocrisy at the root of such cons will transfer to the ideologies, rendering them incoherent or ad hoc, and will infect also the practice, since the members will be brainwashed and otherwise hidden away from reality instead of equipped with a vision for overcoming nature. Secular humanism, then, has the great advantage that it idolizes reason. This is why this way of life is so monumentally powerful and why it developed from a Renaissance cult into the modern religion. Capitalism and democracy don’t ignore natural facts, but incorporate them, as in the role of animal selfishness in the former and the pride of self-ownership in the latter. Secular humanism is no escapist fantasy. The ideologies of neoliberalism, naturalism, and even scientism are largely realistic, and indeed naturalism is the most realistic philosophical model we presently have. A way of life based on these ideas, then, will commit the secular humanist to confronting the real world, which is so in line with the exoteric criticism of theistic cults.

The critical aesthetic question for this naturalistic faith, though, is whether its ideals continue to inspire or whether, instead, its way of life is fraudulent on a larger scale, and so its myths are likewise bound to be incoherent and its practice self-destructive. Perhaps secular humanism pays too much attention to nature, so that nature’s indifference is imitated by the corresponding way of life. Whatever the philosophical justifications of them may be, capitalism and democracy allow certain corrosive, natural processes to take hold of society: unchecked capitalism produces monopolies, and the concentrated power generates sociopathic power elites, resulting in an inhuman dominance hierarchy (including a minority of alphas and a majority of betas and omegas); democracy empowers demagogues, such as the guru or L. Ron Hubbard, to brainwash the masses, detaching them entirely from reality so that they are no longer fit to govern themselves or their society by voting. Consumerism likewise infantilizes rather than enlightens. Thinking of experience as a game of consuming this or that product may be pleasing, but the practice is as self-defeating as capitalism and democracy, because of our weakness for becoming addicted to pleasures that eventually lose their meaning.

But the point isn’t just that secular humanism may ultimately fail on pragmatic grounds, that its ideals may not be so realistic after all. All ideals are unrealistic; otherwise, they would be instrumental goals that are so many steps in the unfolding of a cognitive mechanism. They would be inchoate facts rather than values, merely requiring the coming together of certain conditions for the goal to materialize in its eventual fulfillment. No, the ideals at issue here are stipulated as being fanciful and utopian. This is why we’re able to heed them only with faith, because they express our freedom to imagine supernatural alternatives. As Yuval Harari points out in Homo Deus, the secular humanist’s ultimate goals aren’t just to earn a profit or to have some meager influence on the composition of an elected government. Instead, science-centered culture is implicitly transhumanistic, so the ideal is to turn higher primates into gods. For example, we might have to discover a means of transferring consciousness into a computer. Even if that science-fictional scenario or the others involving nanomachines, biotech, and the like proved realizable, so that some humans could attain real immortality, there would remain the faith that this outcome would redound to our species’ glory, that these gods would act wisely rather than disgracing themselves. But again, the aesthetic criticism isn’t that secular humanism has dubious ideals; rather, it’s that secular humanists may be losing confidence in them, that indeed the closer we come to realizing them with technoscientific progress, the more we take them for granted instead of being inspired by them or appreciating the significance of having such fantasies. Partly, this might be because naturalists are taught to be skeptical, and we can overdo skepticism so that we become disenchanted with life in general and see not even artistic value in the modern enterprise. And partly it’s because, as I said, the myths of secular humanism are belied by the sad reality of American society, of the supposed standard bearer of this culture.

One last matter before I conclude is to specify a culture that would excel in aesthetic terms. In general, such a culture should be coherent, so its members should be relatively free of self-deception, which means they should be more or less existentially authentic as naturalists who recognize the horror of the real world and who understand the range of our responses to that horror. Moreover, the culture should avoid the grossest clichés in its management, especially clichés that debase its members. Currently, there are intriguing possibilities of excellence in Russia and China. Russia in particular has gone through monarchy, communism, and democracy in the span of just a century. All of those regimes collapsed, making Russians highly realistic and pessimistic about politics. Putin’s humiliation of the United States, by his apparent capture of the American president is an artistic triumph that will be celebrated by minstrels for ages to come. The question is whether Russians can summon a vision of Eastern global leadership in the approaching post-American period. Crucial to this might be the flavour of Eastern Christianity, which isn’t as grotesquely compromised as the Western variety. The challenge would be to naturalize that religion, to enable Russians to pursue ideals that don’t embarrass them.

I began by asking whether the philosophical knowledge of the context of all our activities is always beneficial. The truth is monstrous: our cherished belief systems and heroic deeds are esoterically akin to paintings hung on walls, to songs that fade on the radio, to plays that occupy the stage and are applauded or reviled but that have no deeper meaning than that. We create ourselves and our cults and cultures to escape from nature’s monstrous impersonality, and those who don’t belong anywhere are poised to strip away the self-serving justifications of our strategies for dealing with that monstrosity. These sages-in-training detach themselves from social conventions and lifestyles and in that view from nowhere are left with the perception of us all as hapless, inadvertent artists. We seek wisdom from our fictions because we were once wise enough, at least, to have been disgusted by what we found in nature, once we removed our blinders. Even the universe’s undeniable majesty is revolting, because it’s pointless and it humiliates us, reducing even our greatest artistic achievements to frantic sideshows that divert us from accepting the world as it really is.  


  1. "My point is just that the conventional kind of art is limited by the presumption that culture in general has deeper value than any being subject merely to taste, whereas those on the outskirts of society typically aren’t inclined to give culture such a benefit of the doubt. When doubts go all the way down, aesthetic value is the only value left."

    This is probably true, and for that reason very likely to be denied and destined to remain a minority position, an esoteric insight, because if this were to be accepted (or even understood) by society at large, that society would be revealed in all its foundationlessness and would likely collapse into madness and violence - into the state of nature, if you will. Of course, there is a sort of madness and violence at work in keeping the Nightmare at bay, too - a fact we repress just as readily as we repress the Nightmare itself (i.e. the horrors of nature). But most of us seem to prefer the madness of civilization to the madness of nature - or at least we have been taught to/that we do so.

    It seems that a "healthy" culture has to take itself for granted as embodying a sort of higher truth (whatever this means) and to take it as a matter of course that its central values somehow constitute Supreme Values™, not just to regard itself as one possible aesthetic experience among others, even if, from the point of view of the hypermodern sage, it is precisely that. The secular humanists are not aware of their own faithfulness to the shadow of the God they claim to have done away with.

    On a more abstract level, any pattern that seeks persistence (and this seems to be the only game in town) will do what it can to ensure its survival and proliferation. Sometimes this entails sacrificing part of itself in order to adapt to new circumstances, but sacrifice too much, flip too many bits, and the pattern can no longer be recognized as the same pattern. A culture (pattern) that regarded cults (competing patterns) as providing equally legitimate alternatives to mainstream beliefs and practices would be jeopardizing its own chances of success, which might explain why we're liable to shun cults irrespective of their aesthetic merits or lack thereof (just like cult members need to shun those who still display some loyalty toward the Mainstream - the Mainstream that on the one hand constitutes a competing pattern, but on the other hand functions as the Other or the Background in relation to which the cult can exist as a recognizable pattern. Similarly, we seem predisposed to shun behavior that deviates from the norm (of the culture we belong to) regardless of any aesthetic qualities associated with the behavior - it is enough that they deviate. In other words, it doesn't matter if dogs taste great - _we_ don't eat them. And maybe incestuous relations can be very arousing and contribute to an aesthetic appreciation of the fundamental weirdness of reality, or whatever - but we Don't Do That Kind Of Thing. The fact that everything isn't permitted just goes to show that God still haunts us in all his undead glory.

    1. Certainly, most people prefer the madness of civilization to the madness of any countercultural movement that tells it like it is. That must be because society determines what's normal and what's insane, so most people don't regard themselves as crazy for doing whatever it takes to fit in with the mob. Indeed, there is sanity in compromising to promote your welfare at the expense of others, even if that should contribute to the downfall of us all, because our mental capacity isn't geared towards caring much about the long-term costs.

      It is indeed Spengler's view which intrigues me, that the character of each society is defined by certain ideals which fade over time as the society corrupts itself and loses sight of what inspired its founders.

      I'd distinguish between our animal side and our distinctly human side. Our anomalous creativity isn't shared with other species, so when we act as people, which is rarer than we might think, we don't merely follow some instinctive cognitive mechanism, as in social dominance behaviour, us versus them, etc.

      In any case, the aesthetic view of all that we do isn't meant for everyone. I see it as a hint of a posthuman vision of reality. Most people would much prefer to be happy than enlightened. To be enlightened is to understand that life is absurd, or at least that aesthetic values are all that are compatible with nature as it really is.