Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Pragmatism and Pantheism: a Match made in Nature

I begin with the zeitgeist, with where our species is at in the early twenty-first century. Philosophical questions can be more or less responsible, depending on the extent to which they grapple with the background assumptions of the prevailing culture. Thousands of years ago, theocracy of one form or another amounted to the conventional wisdom. An empire governed the land and dictated the official myths, although underground folklore flourished in villages due to the lack of mass education. Today, though, we still live in the Age of Reason that began several centuries ago in Europe, in that science and technology are now the chief sources of human power. The respectable thinker today must therefore grapple with ideas that arise out of this “modern” milieu, and so we should begin with the naturalistic dismissal of miracle claims and of traditional religious myths. We start our philosophical questioning by deferring, to some extent, to scientists and engineers who have largely created the postindustrial world we take for granted.

From Naturalism to Pragmatism

Naturalism entails pragmatism in that one of the core assumptions of the myths that should be dismissed is anthropocentrism. Humility should be the most celebrated virtue, although technological progress and capitalistic self-centeredness are more likely to infantilize us. As we learn in High School science or philosophy classes, Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin removed us from our presumed central position in the universe, by showing literally that Earth isn’t geometrically central, that our planet revolves around one of trillions of stars and that we evolved along with all the other species that crawl, swim or fly. Once we absorb that humiliating lesson, we can no longer in good conscience take at face value foundational knowledge claims. In short, we enter the postmodern phase of hyperskepticism. In particular, we should doubt not just obsolete religious traditions, but the hang-over dogma of the correspondence theory of truth.

As the British say, we fancy that when we know something we’re in possession of an absolutely adequate re-presentation of the fact. If I know that the daytime sky is blue, my belief is supposed to agree with the fact. But that’s a dogma that’s every bit as silly as theism. Whether it’s implemented in a brain state or in a written or spoken statement, my “representation” of the blue sky is nothing of the sort. “The sky is blue” presents again the factual properties of the daytime sky just as much as a xylophone embodies a weed whacker. Granted, anything can carry information about something else in that if you read the tea leaves with enough of a detective’s ingenuity, you can learn useful tidbits about a cause from its effect. So if a brand of weed whackers happens to be manufactured by a company that also sells xylophones, the one might indirectly tell us something about the other. Likewise, having seen daytime skies many times and having retained memories of those experiences, the sky has a causal impact on my thoughts. Playing the role of detective, I can infer that the sky has such and such properties, based on the traces the sky leaves in my brain. But that doesn’t mean those traces are objectively adequate to the entirety of the facts, that my thoughts or statements about the sky capture the essence of what the sky is so that the latter is present once again in the representation. On the contrary, my folk conceptions are parochial and even a scientific explanation of the sky’s colour is all-too human for having the ulterior motive of instrumentalism. Scientific theories are formulated to empower our species at nature’s expense, the goal being to learn enough about natural causality for us to pacify the universe’s inhumanity. Our concepts carve up the world into digestible morsels, but just because we can’t fathom the sky in its noumenal aspect or understand what the sky is in relation to everything else in the universe doesn’t mean there’s no such inhuman fact that mocks the claim that our knowledge is empirically adequate.

So we should be pragmatic about human knowledge, because the Scientific Revolution should have taught us all to be humble and skeptical. This pragmatism means we should recognize that as far as we can tell, knowledge is part of an animalistic process: knowledge comes in the form of a map or model that’s used to achieve some goal. This is why scientism should be dismissed along with exoteric religions, because the possibility of nonscientific (noninstrumentalist or non-power-driven) goals makes for the possibility of nonscientific knowledge, given a pragmatic interpretation of knowledge. To say that knowledge is just a tool in the fulfillment of some goal needn’t then be taken as a betrayal of pragmatism, since the pragmatic picture of knowledge would likewise be just a tool. We needn’t presuppose a realist view of what it means to say so and so is real. As long as we remain humble, we can be tentative even in our philosophical generalizations, and so although language may push us to affirm what we propose to be true, we should remind ourselves that all our beliefs and statements are likely wildly biased descriptions.

Indeed, as the philosopher Kant showed, by definition any description will be prejudiced in the sense of being gratuitously motivated, because a description must be processed to be understood, in which case the description becomes something very different from what it’s supposed to represent. We call statements biased if they interject too much of the speaker’s personal baggage into the topic at hand to be candidates for objective knowledge. But if all statements reflect some human purpose, they’re at least partly reflective of that interest, and our interests typically have nothing to do with what we’re talking about if we’re talking about some objective fact. As we can put it only negatively, the essential reality of every such fact is that it doesn’t need us and is what it is as part of the world-without-us (of the world as it would have been if no intelligent species had ever evolved). If I’m talking about the sky’s blue colour, the sky is of course indifferent to our attempt to control nature by understanding its processes on the basis of our five senses and mammalian powers of reasoning.

From Naturalism to Pantheistic Mysticism

But the pragmatist doesn’t have the last word on naturalism or on our technoscientific zeitgeist. If we restrict our intellectual efforts to pragmatism, we end up with something like Richard Rorty’s submission to conventional wisdom. After all, since the pragmatist’s ideal is utility, and fitting into some norm or conforming to a standard is eminently more useful than being an alienated outcast, the pragmatist should defer to her culture. Thus, Rorty defended the liberal values of an American academic, calling for Western liberal “solidarity” as opposed to foundational metanarratives. Moreover, the pragmatist should have little trouble conceding the point of Pascal’s wager and surrendering her critical faculties for the sake of her happiness. Thus, her pragmatic naturalism may ironically compel her to abandon that philosophy in exchange for some religion that’s more socially useful.

In any case, while pragmatism is the best way of making sense of knowledge in naturalistic terms, we needn’t be taken hostage by the zeitgeist. That is, we needn’t take science or technology to be central to everything we do or say, and so we needn’t conceive of thoughts solely as instruments. As I said, there are nonscientific goals in life. In particular, there’s an aesthetic perspective which follows ironically from scientific objectivity. When we think objectively, our rational awareness detaches from our personal concerns and we take up the perspective of the world-without-us, as it were. From that impersonal, no-man’s-land view of nature, we readily come to regard all phenomena as works of art that have aesthetic value. After all, nature is constantly creating, sustaining or destroying forms. Thus, just as the pragmatic naturalist can be led to premodern theism, by way of a Machiavellian calculation, so too she can be led to a form of mysticism. Spinoza’s pantheistic vision of everything’s right place in natural substance was an early form of this mysticism. Schopenhauer and horror authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti take this naturalistic mysticism in more pessimistic directions.

The secular humanist likes to dismiss mysticism as woo or as obscure or feel-good gibberish in the service of some con to defraud the ill-informed public. And indeed there’s no shortage of such cons. But as all scientists and mathematicians who call for aesthetic standards of theoretical excellence appreciate, the sober instrumentalist, too, will inevitably confront the aesthetic dimension, just by her glorification of objectivity. Again, from the objective stance, we ignore our personality and our life-driven concerns as much as our humility and curiosity will allow, and the inhuman world will present itself to us in all its pointlessness and uselessness. Utility is subjective in that creatures want to be happy and so they search for means to that end. Although with enough ingenuity we can make use of anything, the usefulness of this or of that reflects only how some creature wants to use that thing. If your instrumental intention takes no account of the material’s objective properties, you’ll likely fail in your endeavour of turning the thing into a cog in your scheme, but usefulness itself is in the eye of the beholder. So when you bracket your concerns as the beholder, and you perceive the world paradoxically as a childish adult, being both na├»ve and informed, curious and modest, you let nature’s alien creativity wash over you. If at that point you have some modicum of intellectual integrity and some creative spark, you should feel a combination of pantheistic awe and horror. The universe will seem sublime and majestic, but also obscene and nightmarish.

The authentic religion for a naturalist or for anyone who’s reckoned with the spirit of our time would seem to call for a blasphemous, satanic faith in nature’s divinity. If natural creativity is the highest, most godlike power, there being no supernatural creator of nature, we natural beings that create artificial worlds in rebellion against the inhuman wilderness must be divine too. To see nature as the primary deity is to trust in irony and absurdity as the final words or as the seals on our coffin. This pantheism commits us to worshipping a monster. We become the tragic heroes who are disgusted by how the gods (natural forces) mock our humanity with their indifference. We rise above nature, using reason and our zeal for cooperating on massive humanistic projects to break the chains that held us to the lowly animal’s life cycle. While we’re not yet immortal, we’re clearly unlike the other imprisoned animals in our having seized control of the prison.

Combining Pragmatism and Pantheism

How, though, does pragmatism sit with this cosmicist, pantheistic mysticism? One thing the pragmatist and the pantheist should have in common is fear. The pragmatist calculates utilities and seeks to reengineer circumstances because the given world is imperfect and dangerous. Likewise, a vision of nature as a haunted museum of pointless, living-dead art should appall the mystic. Mind you, this leaves aside the leftist, hippie version of pantheism, according to which nature is beautiful and soothing as a mother figure. This feel-good, back-to-nature sentiment has been coopted by the business world, because the hippies who sold out their socialist principles were only ever consumers in the making. This is because they viewed nature not objectively but out of self-love. Nature had to reassure them that their laid-back lifestyle and psychedelic hunches weren’t reckless diversions from their revolutionary purpose of smiting the corporate overlords. Now that the hippies have been mostly replaced by yuppies, such as by the herd of Oprah Winfrey’s middleclass wannabes, New Age pantheism is just a flavour of consumerism. This celebration of nature is based on worship of the self, as is made plain from the “secret law of attraction,” which is that we get whatever we desire. Their version of nature is infantile in its animistic promise that helpful spirits and a divine, life-affirming power are omnipresent.

By contrast, cosmicist pantheism can begin, as I said, with objectivity, with detachment from the ego and thus with genuine humility. The easiest way to humble yourself is to realize that the world at large should terrify and disgust you. At any rate, healthy scientific curiosity will do the trick, since the depersonalizing aesthetic vision is next-door to objectivity. However you arrive at your humiliation, whether it’s through Job-like suffering or the practice of scientific skepticism, detachment, and alienation, once you’ve learned to take up the view from nowhere, from which your personal preoccupations seem strange and ridiculous, you likewise can’t help but dismiss the consumer’s culture of narcissism even when that culture is dressed-up as a New Age religion.

But to return to the point, doesn’t that horrific vision of nature’s aesthetic properties amount to knowledge of the universe’s noumenal, existential status, and doesn’t that conflict with the pragmatic conviction that all knowledge claims are tentative? My answer is that the aesthetic vision of nature amounts at best to negative theology and thus provides not knowledge but a religious experience that ought to turn us into existential warriors. Mystical knowledge would require an adequate concept of the entirety of nature rather than just the sense that you can strip away your presuppositions and ulterior motives when perceiving any particular thing. Just because we can acquire the sense that the universe is haunted by a nonexistent god, because of nature’s living-dead creativity, or just because we can choose to be alienated from any part of the world through objective detachment doesn’t mean we can identify the universe as a whole.

Knowledge, then, is a practical matter of achieving some goal, because our concepts are tools or otherwise motivated simplifications, but there’s also an eminently impractical mode of perceiving nature, one which casts us out of the world and gives us a taste of life’s absurdity. Theoretically, negative theology could have practical applications. For example, the alienated pantheist could sublimate her horror by producing cosmicist or existentialist art. Moreover, the experience of the world as horrific should impact our character and force us to grapple with the paradox of ethics. Still, the applications of this religious experience are unclear and indirect, whereas the complication in pragmatic knowledge is just that our best laid plans can have unintended consequences. Knowledge as the use of some map or model to achieve your goal by modifying the world is explicitly practical (goal-oriented), whereas there’s no obvious use of the objective mystical experience of nature as living-dead art. On the contrary, that experience informs us that all our goals are ultimately futile. The task of living with both naturalistic pragmatism and with respectable, postmodern pantheism is to approximate the type of posthuman, godlike creature that can dream up tragically-heroic aims in a fundamentally meaningless world.

4 comments:

  1. beautiful. a must read fr any and all new age snake oil peddlers everywhere :)

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  2. There's an interesting book on that topic that I'm waiting to read--as in: it's sitting in one of the piles of books in my room. It's called, Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, by Gary Lachman.

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  3. Enlightening as always.I found this rant in particular to be well representative of your entire philosophy. I have been following your blog for a number of years now, and i can say you have been the greatest influencer in terms of my philosophical thinking. Personality when reading your rants i find myself with two conflicting emotions. The first is an appreciation of your insight and the amount philosophical inquiry necessity to formulate such views. And second,anxiety and depression. Not so much from the cosmic 'bleakness' that deprives from your philosophy, but rather,a sense that i may never be able to generate such wisdom you seemly so regularly formulate. Of course i understand that there is the element of experience, as yourself have been practicing philosophy for decades now i imagine. Yet, i can't but feel almost alienated by the depth of your thinking. I have this sense that i will never have the means to ultimately understand and provide any worth while philosophy, as my intelligence or genes will not permit me to achieve this higher order thinking. My attitude is similar to what once Socrates said, ''an examined life is worth living''. Now i will by no mean take that attitude to the same degree of Socrates, there is nonetheless a real sense of liberty that may be found in having ability to philosophize in a matter such as yourself.

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    1. Well, thanks...I think. However, you should be in competition only with yourself, not with others, in attempting to understand the world. Your goal should be to understand the world in a way that makes sense to you. The more you read in philosophy and religion, and also the more heart-to-heart discussions you have with fellow travelers, the deeper your thinking will be.

      I recall having an all-night discussion on Leo Strauss, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the neocons with a Kierkegaard student while at a philosophy conference in Liverpool. And I had plenty of other such exchanges while at graduate school. There's something to the old Greek view that philosophy should be done orally, in person, not by reading dusty old texts. Having an engaging philosophical conversation in person (preferably over beer) can do wonders in helping you formulate your views.

      I did indeed have to go through the wringer in studying philosophy, to be able to spout my philosophy now at will. Anyone can read books and learn to write, but I wonder whether everyone is made to master philosophy. What I mean is that philosophy may not be good for everyone's health. Maybe you could learn to express your ideas through some type of art or some other hobby. Otherwise, if you want to be able to think philosophically, you'll have to read and write lots of philosophy to build up your familiarity with various positions.

      I believe Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and I wonder whether the converse holds true. Perhaps no life is entirely worth living, but the unexamined life (of the beta class of normies, if you like) has the lowest value. As long as we ponder the greatest questions and come to our answers, whether through philosophy, art, or some other way in our personal life, I think we'll have done our best with what we've been given.

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