Sunday, June 24, 2018

Morality and the Enlightened Psychopath

Does philosophical enlightenment make us moral? Does knowing the deepest truth require that we have an ethical character, or does that knowledge foster empathy, compassion, a sense of moral duty? Can a depraved person, instead, perfectly understand the nature of reality?

Plato famously maintained that goodness, truth, justice, and beauty are aspects of the same thing so that they go together, but that’s because his worldview was anthropocentric: he projected human ideals onto what he claimed was an eternal, abstract reality underlying the multitude of material “copies” in ever-changing nature. Plato reified human consciousness, arguing, in effect, that because our ideals unify our inner, mental world, these ideals must be central to beings in general. In the West, this was the paradigmatic philosophical rendition of the religious conceit that because we clever creatures presently rule the earth, the universe must be run by comparable divine beings. The human-centered outlook passed for wisdom for many thousands of years, but is no longer respectable in civilized societies. This is why theism or New Thought sentimentality has to be propped up by right-wing bullying or decline in educational standards, or by liberal democratic sanctification of personal liberties in private spaces or politically correct deference to feminine intuitions. Late-modern enlightenment has nothing to do with God, which again raises the Nietzschean question whether we should expect those with the best understanding to be morally superior to the antiphilosophical masses. Indeed, Nietzsche thought that morality itself is the slave’s invention that’s meant to beguile the amoral rulers who are typically too busy and sophisticated to fall for the delusions needed to sustain egalitarianism, justice, or other such feel-good notions.

Neither Plato nor Nietzsche was entirely correct about the relation between knowledge and morality, in my view. Enlightenment for us late-modernists is the availability of a form of neutrality that foreshadows what presumably will be the standard outlook of the transhumanists who surpass us. If the apparent dearth of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe doesn’t signify that intelligent species typically destroy themselves, post-humans will have godlike knowledge and power from their technoscientific mastery. To be enlightened now, after science’s undermining of all traditional forms of anthropocentrism, is to understand that the most profound truth is bound to be horrific—not beautiful, just, or good. Moreover, those who have more than a mere philosophical hint of this cosmicist sensibility, who will scrutinize the shocking truth as they use technology to control nature at all levels, will of course be corrupted by that power. To put it that way, however, is to presuppose a moral framework, whereas the point now is that morality needn’t be ontologically fundamental. Posthumans will be in touch with ground-level reality; they will be technologically unified with nature, whereas the masses had wished to be one with a divine parent. To be fully awakened is thus to grow past the need for childish defenses or preferences for clichéd fictions, or else it’s to be pushed by capitalistic forces to embrace doom by way of conversion to a posthuman state of apparent amorality.

A hint of what full enlightenment would be like is the mental condition known as psychopathy and in particular the inability to feel compassion. Nature likewise doesn’t care about anyone, but natural processes do unfold as calculations according to natural laws, just as the psychopath schemes and manipulates. We want to say that nature isn’t evil but that the psychopath is selfish. Yet the psychopath has no fully-developed self to be biased towards, just as there’s no one dictating natural processes. The psychopath seems evil only in the social context, when we presuppose standards that mean nothing to nature. Whereas normal adults have to struggle to be objective, to overcome their ego to see the real state of things, the psychopath is born with the advantage of having no genuine social interests. Of course, this advantage functions as a curse in society, and so the psychopath typically self-destructs. If, however, the task of casting off naïve delusions due to love of knowledge is to understand what the world is really like regardless of how we wayward creatures wish it to be, the psychopath’s mental emptiness is a predisposition to achieving the trance of samadhi. To be sure, the psychopath doesn’t meditate to reach this state of being fully attuned to the present moment, but because the psychopath lacks a superego, he has fewer mental obstacles to overcome to appreciate what’s actually happening. To the extent that the psychopath objectifies everyone, treating us as things or even as pieces in a game for his amusement, the psychopath views us as nature would, were nature to be personified.

What are things, then, from this enlightened perspective? We’re as the sciences describe us, but even if anyone could comprehend all the sciences, that person wouldn’t thereby understand the world. Understanding the sciences requires a philosophical interpretation, a speculation that puts the theories together to give some direction to life. While rational enlightenment isn’t hampered by outdated theological speculations, some philosophy will inform an awakened person’s worldview. The philosophy that survives science-centered skepticism is some combination of pantheism and aestheticism. Nature becomes divine, since it creates itself right in front of us and it does so everywhere and for all time, and natural events thus take on mere aesthetic values, there being no other guiding intentions besides those that live only in our blatant fantasies and delusions. The way of life that makes most sense for the philosophical naturalist is to attempt to reconcile ourselves with the mere aesthetic normative status of everything that exists.

This is what we see when we’re most objective and neutral: we adopt the aesthetic stance of ignoring our personal preferences, to appreciate the minute details of what’s transpiring in the present moment; we experience the world as though it were a gigantic art gallery—except that we too become art objects or natural and artificial creations. We can overcome ourselves to learn the appalling truth that the self is an “illusion,” as the Eastern philosophical religions put it, that the self is only a temporary construct like everything else in the flux of natural goings and comings. If the self is transitory and cosmically insignificant, theism must be a delusion since God’s self would likewise be a plaything of natural forces. When Hinduism enthrones some ultimate Self that supposedly underlies egoistic consciousness, this looks like a concession to theistic presumptions or perhaps even like the influence of the psychopathic egoism that would have guided the antisocial spiritualists who authored the Upanishads. After all, a psychopath can lose himself in self-entitled rationalizations, in which case instead of using his objectivity to enlighten himself, the antisocial creature becomes a twisted proxy for genetic compulsions.

Art by Neriak
What, then, of morality for the existential aesthete, that is, for the one who sees through societal charades to the absurd, natural artistry responsible for all things? Clearly, if the psychopath approximates the transhuman, morality can’t be essential to rational enlightenment. But this isn’t to say that morality is incompatible with enlightenment. As I said, some philosophical, normative interpretation will be indispensible to understanding the universe, since to calculate or to control doesn’t amount to enlightenment; otherwise, nature generally would be fully awakened. Enlightenment is the condemnation of inferior ideas in favour of superior ones, out of the conviction that ideas are needed to guide life. The mind’s illumination by insights thus carries a trace of anthropocentrism in that the illumination is supposed to be a form of understanding, in which case the individual must stand apart from the world with a philosophical purpose. A nihilist might have memorized some pages from a science textbook, but, again, if she hasn’t unified the data with some normative interpretation, she hasn’t understood anything. At best, she’s pointlessly uttered symbols that “correspond with” the facts. As dictated by philosophical naturalism, however, that semantic correspondence reduces to pragmatism, in which case the truth of the nihilist’s pessimism amounts to science’s capacity to control nature with applications of theories. This instrumentalism contradicts nihilism, which is to say that the search for knowledge is value-laden. The only question is what values the most knowing individual can be expected to have.

While a transhuman could easily be psychotic, rather like the stereotypical crazed artist—hence science fiction’s tendency to demonize super-intelligent aliens—freedom from delusion, as a result of the aesthetic perspective on all situations could also inspire an inhuman form of benevolence. The transhuman who’s abandoned the clichéd fictions of mass religion for science-centered philosophy and withdrawal from self-centered (anti-aesthetic) games would be well-positioned to pity all creatures and even to be overcome by sadness for their plight. This is roughly the Buddhist line of argument. What the Buddhist adds to the neutrality of scientific observation is the moral conviction that suffering is bad and the instrumental one that suffering can be ended. Still, there’s a tension here since while you’re in the aesthetic trance, the ego dissolves and all human-centered values seem quaint. The only values that remain are aesthetic and quasi-artistic. Suffering becomes, then, so much material for aesthetic appreciation, just like the stuff of any other work of art. Moreover, the fully enlightened “person” who lacks even the genetic prejudices and unphilosophical, intuitive faculties that cloud her purified judgment—who is thus trans- or posthuman—wouldn’t be able to feel pity or compassion in our sense, since she wouldn’t be a social creature. Her technology would make her self-sufficient and so she wouldn’t be compelled to seek assistance or companionship.

However, if she is virtually all-knowing, she would have to know that unenlightened creatures are missing out on the greatest works of art, since they insist on fooling themselves with theistic, egoistic, nationalistic, or other pretenses. Much as we’re inclined to share our favourite music, poem, or novel with a friend or even a stranger, the posthuman could be expected to do the same, not because the posthuman cares about lower creatures, but for art’s sake, to honour the art’s magnificence. Even an unenlightened individual might feel that her favourite cultural products should be shared, because doing so would spread the Word; we want others to enjoy the same experience the art’s gifted us with. This is why philosophers often can’t help themselves but attempt to “corrupt the youth,” as ancient Athens said about Socrates; we spread the Word despite suspecting that enlightenment is more a curse than a gift, that the end of philosophy as represented by the transhuman would indeed doom us—much as the Buddha or saint seems like an unenviable, alien being. These awakened ones have inner peace but at the cost of their humanity. Thus, the Buddhist slogan, “If you see Buddha on the road, kill him,” takes on new meaning in light of this transhuman connection. The life of someone who transcends human or creaturely concerns will seem to us indistinguishable from death. In any case, in so far as the enlightened person loves nature for its art, she might be driven to enlighten others, to share the mystical experience. That would entail freeing us from our more unsustainable pastimes, which could benefit us, but the secret aesthetic implications of philosophical objectivity would also be corrupting, as I said, so the moral aspect of enlightenment is complicated. The human herd is reduced to praying that its gods don’t enact some such nightmare as the Texas chainsaw massacre.


  1. You might like this.

  2. Ben, would you say that your Omegas and psychopaths are one and the same?

    Is it possible to become a psychopath by studying nature/philosophy? Science as The Necronomicon.

    1. I've address their relation in a few places on this blog. No, I don't think they're one and the same, but they come to a similar place from different directions, as it were. Both are alienated from society, which gives them a chance at uncompromising objectivity, and that in turn produces anxiety in the face of our horrific existential condition. Omegas are social losers, and while some psychopaths lose out because of their mental illness, others such as Donald Trump and various other political leaders and CEOs dominate in virtue of their shamelessness and Machiavellian lack of compassion. Omegas are more likely to do something spiritually uplifting with their alienation (if they don't become homeless and kill themselves in the process), such as becoming an artist or a philosopher. Psychopaths are more likely to become predators.

      Where their similarities come to the fore is in their relation to the majority of people, roughly speaking, to the betas, followers, or middle class. What we have generally is a herd mentality and then two different outsider perspectives, one from the loser who's still cursed with a conscience and perhaps even with oversensitivity to suffering (the omega), and the other from the predator or parasite who seeks to exploit the herd's weaknesses. It's a little like the Jedi and the Sith. Here's what I wrote in an earlier article:

      "Still, outcasts and leaders are similar in that they’re both detached from the herd. Individuals may be excluded from society because of their personality, their mental or financial condition, or just because of their physical appearance. Once removed, outcasts can succumb to or make the best of their predicament. And leaders are forced to live apart from mass society because the masses inevitably grow to hate and fear those that exploit and dominate them. After all, it’s quite impossible to become a multi-millionaire or billionaire, or more generally to occupy the highest social class, without perpetrating a range of immoral acts against your competitors. Moreover, no great fortune has ever been earned, according to any sensible metric, since as powerful as it is, a single human brain can’t change the world on a sufficiently large scale to justify such a vast difference in income. While people have, of course, greatly overhauled the world, we’ve done so collectively so that the sadistic rulers have needed the slaves that operate the megamachine. Thus, great wealth is always theft and so all such wealth is an outrage. Everyone knows this, so the leaders must hide themselves away in their private worlds for fear of a socialistic or anarchistic uprising. But the leaders are glad for that segregation, since they’re disgusted by the comparative weakness of the betas that wish to follow their lead. Yet where the leaders go, into their august boardrooms and private jets, McMansions, and secret societies, the lowly classes, as such, can’t follow."

      I did write something about the stereotype of the mad scientist who does indeed become psychopathic from studying nature. Maybe in Jaspers' terms of the "cyphers of transcendence," we are supposed to learn from nature how or why to be disgusted and horrified, not just awed in the politically correct, New Age, feel-good manner.