Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dark Naturalism and Sartrean Freedom

On the basis of his once popular lecture and short book, “Existentialism as a Humanism,” in which he attempted to define “existentialism” as the thesis that our existence precedes our essence, Sartre has been effectively related to Heidegger as A.J. Ayer was to Carnap. Heidegger and Carnap wrote dry, highly technical works in laying out forms of existentialism and logical empiricism, respectively, while Sartre and Ayer popularized the movements by bringing them down to earth with some simpler, introductory texts. But Sartre also wrote Being and Nothingness, a tome that’s as systematic, monumental, and difficult as Heidegger’s Being and Time, so that analogy is imperfect at best.

In any case, I want to consider here where Sartre’s early philosophy stands in relation to cosmicism (dark, unpleasant naturalism), to science-based, philosophical horror. Can and should some of Sartre’s insights be naturalized for the sake of adding to an unflinching philosophy of natural life?

Some Elements of Being and Nothingness

Sartre derives his early ontology, psychology, and ethics from Husserl’s principle that intentionality is central to consciousness. Intentionality is being meaningfully directed towards something else, as in a thought’s being about a chair. Sartre uses the phenomenological method of building his analysis on how things intuitively seem in ordinary experience, but he proceeds from that starting point of intentionality to some very different conclusions than Heidegger’s. Heidegger’s ontotheology of Being relieves the weary, alienated existentialist who yearns for a deeper sense of belonging than what’s available in the “fallen,” instrumental world of our pet projects. As in Gnosticism, Heidegger’s version of transcendent Being, the metaphysical ground of all particular beings gallops in to rescue us from the automatism of materialistic culture, awarding the authentic individual a heroic portion of angst as he or she realizes our true, temporal nature, which should put death at the forefront of our thoughts. The authentic individual is alienated from the illusions of the fallen world which mask our tragic nature, from the conventional world in which we identify with our social roles. But once she grasps the truth that she can identify with Being, with the fundamental whatness of things that distinguishes them from nothingness, her human suffering is dignified by her understanding that its part of a nobler story than the kitsch and propaganda of the Machiavellian, materialistic culture.

By contrast, Sartre’s philosophy is antifoundational: for Sartre, life is absurd and tragic and there’s no hope for salvation. If consciousness is always directed away from itself towards something else, the attempt to consciously know the self is futile, since each conscious state is necessarily about something else. Whereas unconscious things are solid and self-identical, complete and candid, as it were, in revealing themselves, consciousness is translucent, relational, and shifty. The ontological mode of mindless objects like chairs or rocks is that they’re “in-itself,” meaning that they are just what they would appear to be if a conscious observer of them weren’t bound by a partial perspective and could take their entirety in at a glance; even if things which exist in themselves have a hidden dimension, such as at the chemical or quantum levels, they nevertheless exist as what you find at those levels. A conscious being, however, has no such plain, stable nature, but is condemned to search desperately to find itself by creating itself in various life projects. The self, then, lives for itself, since there’s nothing in the self by way of a given nature. Indeed, whereas Heidegger identifies perfected human nature with Being, Sartre says we’re essentially nothing. Hence, the title of his major book: Being and Nothingness.

Consciousness has a negative inner nature because of its intentional aspect. By always being about other things in each mental state or moment, consciousness negates itself. It’s as though consciousness generally were like a self-effacing person who for years doesn’t want to stand out in a crowd, spends every waking minute pondering how she might put others first, and consequently doesn’t build up any distinctive personality—until it dawns on her that she’s internally empty and so she endeavours to find herself by taking up gardening or stamp-collecting. Consciousness negates itself but it also negates the world with the nothingness inherent in partial perspectives and in the imagining of counterfactual scenarios. Despite the fact that a rock can be only what it is, since it has no freedom to be otherwise, we never perceive the whole rock, since we see it only from a certain angle, as I already indicated. Conscious experience thus negates the rock’s being by presenting us with an incomplete image. And we can even imagine what the world would have been like had the rock never existed at all.

From this negativity of our inner nature, Sartre infers that our key attribute is our freedom, and this becomes central to Sartre’s philosophy. Our inner emptiness as conscious beings is a blessing in disguise, since we’re divorced from the world of things that are enslaved to their given nature; our mental negation of them distances us from those things and thus liberates us. Sartre concedes that our freedom isn’t absolute in that we have what he calls some “facticity,” some preconditions of our choices which we don’t establish. In particular, because an individual is never identical with herself, in that she always negates or slides away from herself, due to her devious relationality or translucency, as it were, the self has a temporal structure, much as Heidegger said. And so the self’s past builds up the limits of her freedom, since her past actions can no longer be changed. The future, though, is open and so Sartre calls the self’s freedom “transcendence,” meaning our inescapable opportunity to redefine ourselves to some extent (within the limits of our facticity or our concrete past and other circumstances).

Nevertheless, our freedom is terrifying, according to Sartre, because it brings to light our inner nothingness, our lack of a given personal identity or of any foundation on which to rest and to set aside our burden of responsibility for what we choose to make of ourselves. We’re always tempted, then, to escape from our freedom into the existential form of self-deception that Sartre calls “bad faith.” Sartre’s account of inauthenticity is similar to Heidegger’s, since our most prevalent kind of ruse is to objectify ourselves, to lose ourselves in our social role, for example, and to ignore our underlying freedom and responsibility. Sartre adds another kind of inauthenticity, which is to attempt to be an absolutely free for-itself, as opposed to an unfree in-itself or object. This would be the deluded sort of fellow who thinks he can become an astronaut even though he’s not proficient in math or science or he’s too old to apply for training.

In any case, authentic persons live with the instability of their nature, with the tension between their facticity and transcendence, their fixed partial limits and their open-endedness. Still, this ethically superior sort of person is at best an antihero, since there’s no final victory and no escape from life’s absurdity. Both inauthentic and authentic persons search for identity within life projects, but authentic persons understand the existential stakes: instead of pretending we can surrender the burden of our free nature, by taking our roles for granted, we can self-consciously create ourselves and take responsibility for everything we do. This would be easier were it not for the absurdity that we’re nonentities attempting to be not just something but everything. For Sartre says that our ideal purpose is to be the self-contradictory unity of the “in-itself-for-itself,” that is, God, consciousness with a perfected, fixed and objective identity. God in that sense is impossible and so all our life projects are for naught; our personal and professional games and obligations fail to satisfy, because the life of any conscious being is doomed from the start. This isn’t just because we’re finite and so we may lack the time to complete the tasks we set for us; the absurdity, rather, is the quixotic attempt of an inner emptiness to be true to that condition while simultaneously attempting to fill itself. There’s a theistic cliché of the soul’s having a God-shaped hole, a craving for God. Sartre agrees there’s some such yearning, but he denies the possibility of salvation. The best we can accomplish is to struggle, resigning ourselves to the ultimate futility of our efforts as in the myth of Sisyphus.

Consciousness and Freedom

Sartre’s view of freedom may seem egalitarian in that he implies that wherever there’s consciousness, there’s freedom. Thus, contrary to Nietzsche, for example, there shouldn’t be classes or grades of humans, since there’s no fundamental difference in the inner worth of the herd and of enlightened self-creators. Sartre’s distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic selves doesn’t establish class differences, since he contends that the temptation to submit to bad faith is ever-present, and that even authenticity is no magnificent accomplishment that provides an escape from absurdity. If freedom is based on the intentional structure of consciousness, the elitist notion of the vulgar and hopeless herd would seem to be groundless. For Sartre, we all equally have powerful freedom as long as we’re conscious, because it’s consciousness that rips us from the world of mindless objects, that alienates us from the in-itself and hurls us on the futile quest to find an ultimate resting place. Instead, we’re condemned to transcend our every plateau of transcendence, or at least to recognize that we’re always free, to some extent, to do so, in which case we’re liable to sabotage each life project with the threat of another one.

But does consciousness alone make us free? Here we have to distinguish between two kinds of freedom, spontaneity and autonomy. Sartrean freedom is just indeterministic spontaneity, our potential to break out of every cage. Freedom in his sense is comparable to the quantum power of violating the expectation of locality, of zigging left when the particle could just as well have zagged right. If we’re internally empty, in that consciousness is a power of negation, of not being a given, completed object, we’re not entirely bound as robots by anything, including our finite bodies and history. We can always transcend or negate what we take for granted; we can be spontaneous. This kind of freedom differs from autonomy or self-control, from the freedom to override our animal reflexes perhaps, but only to achieve a more fixed sense of self that allows us to rationally work out a life plan, to pursue goals that we choose for ourselves. These two concepts of freedom have in common the idea of choices originating from a self, as opposed to descending from a causal sequence that extends beyond the self. But Sartrean spontaneity leaves the self as a black box or a void, whereas autonomy requires something like an ego, a self of higher-order thinking, character traits, commitments, and the like that enable the self to conquer the world in its name.

The spontaneous self is like the flighty, fickle person who isn’t bound to any fixed character; she can change her mind at any moment, because as Sartre says, she regards herself as empty and so she goes with the flow. The autonomous self is like the king whose sovereignty over the land amounts to his recreation of the environment in his image; this sovereignty ends in the creation of a kingdom as his extended self, but it begins with his creation of a higher self, of a person who has control over his animal inclinations. The first kind of freedom is unpredictable due to groundlessness, whereas the second kind posits levels of causality. The point of spontaneity is the separation of the self from all causality, making the self a kind of magic top hat out of which almost anything might emerge. The point of autonomy is that the self transcends the order of animal slaves and reaches indeed a godlike form of control. Whereas animals are governed by the natural world, the autonomous self governs its (lower) self to create an artificial world.   

These two kinds of freedom, however, may not be mutually exclusive; at least, both are possible factors at different stages or moments in life. We may require autonomy to manage our life projects, but spontaneity to jump ship from one project to the next. The two kinds of freedom would thus be analogous to what the positivists called the internal and external questions formed within and between worldviews, respectively, or to what Thomas Kuhn popularized as normal and revolutionary science. Certain puzzles arise from the assumptions of a worldview, but the challenge posed by a revolutionary problem due to anomalous data may compel the theorist to leave behind that paradigm and to devise a new conceptual framework. Replace the worldview with the ego or with the self whose control stems from its command of a conceptual scheme, and you have the function of autonomy. Should the need arise for a drastic recreation of that self, the need for the freedom of carefree spontaneity or of a leap of faith would come to the fore. And Nietzschean elitism might be based on the fact that certain social classes don’t have the discipline or courage to achieve the power of autonomy but remain mired in animal concerns.

However, Sartre would maintain that autonomy is in bad faith. It’s not a question of “needing” to create the self; rather, we’re always spontaneous in virtue of the mere fact that we’re conscious or internally empty. If you attempt to naturalize the self by positing evolutionary constraints, for example, as opposed to assuming that the self is a blank slate, Sartre would interpret that evolutionary account as being about our facticity. The phenomenological perspective is supposed to reveal that consciousness is unnatural, meaning that it’s not scientifically explainable. And indeed, it’s no accident that religions and philosophies have been attracted to metaphysical dualism, since dualism makes sense of the intuition that consciousness doesn’t seem like any object we find in the natural world; the self is supposed to be an immaterial, transparent spirit that does, after all, resemble nothingness, that is, no-thingness, an X that’s unlike any physical, sensible thing.

But Sartre would go further in attributing the identification with the ego as a form of bad faith. The ego would be just another life project, except this one would be primarily psychological rather than social. Like the Buddhist, Sartre would denigrate the clutching at the ego as futile and wrongheaded. The self that’s formed from higher-order thoughts and character traits, which distinguish us as individual, personal minds, exerting executive control over our more programmed capacities is illusory if we mistake this self for the basis of our salvation. According to the Buddhist, identifying with the ego or the mind is bound to disappoint, since this self isn’t as independent as we might wish it to be. And Sartre would stress that underlying that self is the negativity of consciousness. Indeed, the distinction between the Sartrean self as nothing-based freedom, and what Oswald Spengler might call the Faustian self, the rational, autonomous individual that’s idolized in secular Western culture looks like the ancient distinction between spirit and mind. The spirit is just consciousness, which is a mysterious emptiness or antimatter, and the mind is the self-determining ego, the set of higher, largely rational brain functions that supply us with our personality.

And again like the Buddhist, Sartre is insisting that we be prepared to give up on our self-as-mind. Our true nature for Buddhists is the emptiness or oneness of all things, which indeed we can find by reflecting on consciousness through meditation. For Sartre, we’re defined by the structure of consciousness which demotes any mental or social construction, including our personal self. Thus, the mere intentional aspect of consciousness doesn’t suffice for personhood, nor does spontaneity or indeterministic freedom. A magic top hat isn’t yet a person just because it can be unpredictable. What Sartre would attribute to our facticity—our mind, character, and autonomy via higher-order thinking—are what individuate us as persons. The Buddhist is up-front about recommending that we detach from our desires and cease to identify with our mind or to attempt to be a person in the first place. Personhood, the craving for independent life, is the source of suffering and that which must be eliminated, says the Buddhist. Sartrean consciousness is like nirvana, the absence of personal selfhood in exchange for a sense of oneness with the field of interdependent natural events. Yet he recommends not withdrawal from the world, but the clownish wrestling with deficient life projects. If the autonomous mind or the personal self is just a ploy to deceive ourselves, a pretense that we’re not internally empty after all, Sartre’s ethics of spontaneity might trump Western individualism.

Absurdity, Progress, and Godhood

To help answer whether that’s so, we should consider Sartrean freedom in light of what he calls the absurdity of our fundamental life project, the attempt to be God. After all, as Yuval Harari points out in Homo Deus, it’s surely no accident that progress for the Enlightenment is measured by the extent to which the power of technoscience manages to turn people into gods. Recall that the gods are modeled on human aristocrats and tyrants, and so the hallmark of divinity is control over a lower order of being, as in a king’s sovereignty over the peasants in his kingdom. And don’t the technological applications of science grant us control over more and more of the realm of natural processes, potentially making us immortal, thanks to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and the computational theory of mind? One question, then, is whether that apotheosis is hubristic or otherwise foolish and doomed to fail. Modern humanists will point to social advances due to our rediscovery, after the European Dark Age, that although God doesn’t seem inclined to rescue us, we can solve our problems thanks precisely to the natural power of human mentality.

That power is a form of slavery, from the Sartrean perspective, since at best it’s complementary to spontaneity. But historically and from the evolutionary standpoint, autonomy is our liberator. Indeed, much of the negativity of consciousness emerged from that prior liberation: we can imagine counterfactual situations and devise intelligent plans because of the freestanding, global workspace of higher-order thought. Indeed, the conscious states that enable us to be spontaneous, as opposed to the kinds of programming that bind us to our biological life cycle are formed by the linguistic aspect of such thoughts. We think in words. In any case, we exercised autonomy not just over our animal nature but over the wilderness, creating artificial habitats that magnify our power by incorporating the purposes and values we project into our external symbols and tools.    

Sartre will say that this naturalistic explanation of consciousness is itself in bad faith. But this only pits phenomenology and intuition against biology and philosophical naturalism. Is consciousness a miraculous black box or is it a function of the brain-mind? Perhaps more importantly, from a pragmatic viewpoint, are we more likely to do well in life if we strive to make our philosophy coherent with science or if we insist on a god of the gaps, on a mystery that science can never explain? Does the Sartrean absurdity of life follow from his fatal privileging of intuition in his phenomenological analysis? If our distant ancestors had slavishly deferred to how the world seems to them intuitively, we never would have progressed or even evolved into modern humans capable of artistic expressions such as Being and Nothingness.

The charitable way of negotiating these ideas is to say that both the naturalistic and the Sartrean self-conceptions have their uses. We should treat them both as models or simplifications of the total truth, in which case we can reformulate the conceptions as we attempt to interpret either model from the other’s perspective or to construct a third, hybrid model that subsumes them. So the upshot of Sartre’s early philosophy is his antifoundationalism: life is an absurd struggle with our inner emptiness, giving rise to a series of self-transformations because of the inescapability of our freedom-as-spontaneity. I’ve already suggested in the last section how these insights might be incorporated in a naturalistic framework. Spontaneity is the concern that at any moment we might need to resort to a revolution in our way of thinking, but because as animals we’re practical and attach ourselves to our conceptions for the sake of our survival, we opt for a revolution only as a last resort.

The Buddhist says we should strive to be something other than a self or a mind if we want to end our suffering, and Sartre says this naturalistic pragmatism depends on self-deception and is thus unethical. The cosmicist (dark naturalist) answers the Buddhist thusly: the most reliable way of ending suffering is by increasing our empirical knowledge and the extent of our technological control over nature. If that kind of progress only replaces one set of desires with another and thus fails to eliminate all suffering, perhaps some suffering is needed to learn how to improve on ourselves and on the world around us. Buddhism is supposed to be a short-cut to heaven on earth, but inner peace would leave nature’s monstrosity unaltered. The Buddhist learns how to make peace with the horrors of entropy, black holes, and bloodthirsty natural selection by adopting nature’s amorality. Whether there’s more honour in withdrawing from the struggle than in fighting against nature’s indifference is hardly obvious. Ironically, this Buddhist progress of renouncing commitment to the ego and thus to the pragmatic basis of technoscience may be more selfish even than Western individualism, since the latter holds out the option of humane interventions in nature as opposed to letting nature be. It’s not even clear that individualism is more destructive than full-blown asceticism, since humanistic control over nature could safeguard life, whereas if we withdraw from the struggle against the wilderness, nature would be free to evolve further tyrannies and bloodlettings.   

As for the cosmicist answer to Sartre on this point, there needn’t be any such self-deception since, as I said, the pragmatist can incorporate both models, both naturalism and existentialism so as not to fall afoul of either’s standard. After all, if we go full-force into Sartrean therapy and prize spontaneity above autonomy, we give short shrift to the mindframe that drives technoscientific progress. In that case, the naturalist is free to charge the Sartrean with failing to stand on the side of historical progress, with zigzagging all over the place in a haphazard selection of life goals instead of taking as read the larger, evolutionary story of life’s struggle. By taking as sacrosanct the intuitions that speak to the phenomenologist, the Sartrean fails according to our rational, epistemic obligation to go where the evidence leads. To wit, cognitive science supplies the evidence of an alternative kind of freedom, one that’s evidently been crucial to the development of our species and thus to the structure of our consciousness and of Sartrean spontaneity.

Now again, if naturalism were an excuse to treat each other like objects, as in the Frankfurt School’s criticism of consumer society, for example, then indeed Sartre may have a point about the pragmatist’s self-deception. In reducing philosophies to “models,” the naturalist may be privileging “facticity” or the world of the “in-itself,” in which case pragmatism might be a rationalization of our failure to take personal responsibility for our choices. And indeed, the naturalist is liable to objectify everyone in the search of transhuman godhood, since divinity would be equated with dominance and our power would derive from technological enhancements of our bodies, not so much from any need for wisdom in using that power. This indicates that something like Sartre’s version of authenticity likewise needs to be reformulated to provide us with a sobering reminder that people (things that are for themselves) aren’t just objects, contrary to overly reductionistic versions of naturalism. Indeed, there’s a ready place for such authenticity, since the pragmatist is likely condemned to going back and forth between models, in which case she has to suffer their imperfect coherence, that is, the incompleteness of even our best worldview. Instead of needing to reconcile our concrete limitations with our spontaneity, we’re left with having to reconcile naturalism with Sartre’s existentialism, and in either case we’re unlikely to fully succeed. So the existential struggle and absurdity remain.

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