Sunday, February 26, 2012

Is Love the Meaning of Life?

No, it’s not, contrary to the sentimental meme. Reading or hearing the sappier assurances that all you need is love triggers my gag reflex. For example, as quoted in Chris Hedges’ recent article, "Acts of Love," even the existential psychologist Viktor Frankl rhapsodizes “that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire,” that “the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart” is that “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” Luckily, Chris Hedges' defense of the meme is slightly more readable, so I'll summarize and discuss his article to elucidate why love is not our highest good after all, contrary to popular opinion.

Chris Hedges on Love

Hedges summarizes his view of why love is so great:
Love, the deepest human commitment, the force that defies empirical examination and yet is the defining and most glorious element in human life, the love between two people, between children and parents, between friends, between partners, reminds us of why we have been created for our brief sojourns on the planet. Those who cannot love--and I have seen these deformed human beings in the wars and conflicts I covered--are spiritually and emotionally dead. They affirm themselves through destruction, first of others and then, finally, of themselves. Those incapable of love never live.
According to Hedges, love is opposed to loneliness, which is the “most acute form of human suffering.” As he explains, “The isolated human individual can never be fully human. And for those cut off from others, for those alienated from the world around them, the false covenants of race, nationalism, the glorious cause, class and gender compete, with great seduction, against the covenant of love.”

Indeed, Hedges subscribes to Freud’s Manichean interpretation of the evolution of civilization as a conflict between instincts for love and for death and destruction. Neither extreme, though, is ideal. For example, Hedges says, materialistic happiness is a sort of pseudo-love of objects or of fame, which “withers if there is no meaning.” At the opposite end, “to live only for meaning--indifferent to all happiness--makes us fanatic, self-righteous and cold. It leaves us cut off from our own humanity and the humanity of others. We must hope for grace, for our lives to be sustained by moments of meaning and happiness, both equally worthy of human communion.”

Hedges ties this notion of grace to the god of his moderate Christian theology. Indeed, he seems to identify love with “the reality of the eternal,” or of God, which “must be grounded in that which we cannot touch, see or define, in mystery, in a kind of faith in the ultimate worth of compassion, even when the reality of the world around us seems to belittle compassion as futile.” This is the sophisticated, still somewhat obscure way of saying more bluntly, with a variation on the meme that love is the highest good, that God is love.

Continuing with his Manichean theme, Hedges opposes love to hate. According to him, we love due to knowledge of what unites us, namely the universal desire for love. But we’re tempted to hate when we’re distressed by “uncertainty and fear. If you hate others they will soon hate or fear you. They will reject you. Your behavior assures it. And through hate you become sucked into the sham covenants of the nation, the tribe, and you begin to speak in the language of violence, the language of death.” Thus, the dark side of the force, as it were, which attracts lonely or fearful people, leads them to hate, which in turn leads to destructive worship of idols.

By contrast, love is an action that makes a difference in the world for the better: “If our body dies, it is the love that we have lived that will remain--what the religious understand as the soul--as the irreducible essence of life. It is the small, inconspicuous things we do that reveal the pity and beauty and ultimate power and mystery of human existence.” Not only do lovers thus achieve a kind of immortality, but “To survive as a human being is possible only through love.” Love “alone gives us meaning that endures. It alone allows us to embrace and cherish life. Love has the power both to resist in our nature what we know we must resist and to affirm what we know we must affirm.”

Love is No Mystery

I begin my deflation of the hot air balloon that carries the meme aloft on winds of mawkishness, by calling attention to Hedges’ curious notion that love is a “force that defies empirical examination,” and indeed that this force is somehow united with the eternal, irreducible mystery of God. I suspect his motive for saying this is to render his socialism unfalsifiable by hiding its foundation in an unfathomable mystery, thus securing his political beliefs in spite of all the evidence of nature’s palpable inhumanity. Thus, as Hedges quotes the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman as saying, the evil of the Nazi Holocaust was impotent before “immortal,” “unconquerable” Kindness, and history “is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” Hedges was a war correspondent for the New York Times and he seems to defend his sanity against the horrors he witnessed by falling back on an abstract, demythologized version of the Christianity he studied beforehand, when he obtained his Masters of Divinity. Despite the abundant evidence of our beastliness which undermines socialist ideals, Hedges has faith that love wins out in the end or at least that the “covenant of love” that justifies the socialist principle of equal rights can be upheld without embarrassment.

Whatever his motivation, the ploy of hiding the goodness of love along with a god-of-the-gaps fails. Putting aside the broad scientific picture of the universe’s magnificence in which our preoccupation with love falls out as at best parochial, there’s the more specific evidence from neurology that refutes Hedges’ contention that love “defies empirical investigation.” In particular, neurologists now know that various so-called love hormones such as oxytocin cause strong emotional bonds in mammals. So what Hedges must mean when he insists that love is irreducibly mysterious is that altruism makes no sense in evolutionary terms. But even if we lay aside biologists’ theories of altruism, such as the peacock’s tail comparison, the mystery is solved simply by assuming that altruism is a consequence of an adaptation rather than an adaptation itself, that is, a trait that’s indirectly preserved as a result of another trait that was directly selected for its enhancement of our fitness to serve as hosts for our genes. In the same way, while our capacities to produce music or to scientifically study distant galaxies through a telescope may have negligible immediate evolutionary value, such capacities were opened up by our generic high intelligence which is itself naturally selected because of its utility to our genes.

Whether we’re speaking of love for a family member or a life partner, or for a neighbour, nation or species, these benevolent impulses are at a minimum experimental riffs on the basic evolutionary theme, which is that of the human parents’ emotional bonds which are needed to procreate and to care for their helpless infant who carries their genetic legacy. The bonds between human parents and between them and their child aren’t at all mysterious in evolutionary terms, and our ancestors apparently learned that similar bonds can be formed in extended social relationships, giving rise to love of tribe or in much rarer cases of people in general. Thus, even when love causes us to sacrifice ourselves and our genes, as long as the evolutionary utility of the basic emotional bonds and of great intelligence is higher than the costs incurred in the trial-and-error process of putting those traits to work, there’s no evolutionary mystery of love.

Indeed, even were the costs to prove greater, or to take another example, even were our high intelligence to lead ultimately to our extinction through our investigations in the counterproductive area of weapons of mass destruction, there would be no mystery since the forces of natural selection are mindless. Nature has no allegiance to any species and creates them as freely and as indifferently as it creates solar systems and galaxies, often by destroying the earlier results of its work. Our extinction would make room for new forms of biological complexity, just as the death of the dinosaurs made way for the reign of mammals. And even were we to destroy our planet’s capacity to sustain any life at all, there would still be no evolutionary mystery, since the genes aren’t all-powerful, all-knowing gods: their natural process of replicating through the defense mechanism of creating host organisms would simply terminate and Earth might come to resemble something like Mars. On the contrary, the burden of having to believe that love is ineffable falls on the shoulders of even a cryptotheist like Hedges who is left to wonder where God must be hiding, given that God would have left us in a cosmos that’s mostly hostile to life while still commanding us to be vulnerable by loving each other. Once the theistic projections of human self-centeredness are duly trashed if only on the aesthetic ground of being intolerably clichéd, we can face the prospect not just that love is a thoroughly natural phenomenon, but that any such phenomenon comes and goes, serving no transcendent purpose.

No Refuge in Human Nature

Once we dispense, then, with the obfuscating god-of-the-gaps gambit, of conferring phony value to love by hiding that emotion, as it were, in a place that can never be found by a skeptic who can call upon all of nature to cast doubt on love’s glory, we can deal more directly with the question at hand. Hedges argues that love is great because the alternatives are horrible. You can love people or you can wallow in loneliness, hatred, or idolatry and ultimately destroy yourself. Were these the only available paths, Hedges might be entitled to conclude that love is the highest good, assuming that love is better than the more destructive drives he condemns. But he doesn’t show that there are just those two paths and so most of his arguments are vulnerable to the charge that they rest on false dichotomies. I’ll discuss a third path in a moment, which will show that Hedges’s article does indeed propose a series of false choices.

First, though, I want to point out that the underlying disagreement has to do with different views of human nature. Several times Hedges says that the so-called negative alternatives to love cut us off from our humanity, that if you don’t love you’re not “fully human,” or that “To survive as a human being is possible only through love.” There are several problems with this appeal to a human essence. First, the empirical evidence shows that, if anything, our nature is mixed. The clearest way to see this is to look at how the human brain evolved by accruing new layers and modules. Thus, for example, the language-processing and other higher-reasoning functions are implemented by the most recent, outer neural layer called the mammalian cerebral cortex, whereas hormones and other substrates for emotions are secreted by more ancient structures in the limbic system which we share with even more species. Our identity as human beings would depend largely on our neural capacities, and since those capacities happen to conflict with each other, as in the infamous cases of logic’s frequent conflicts with feelings, it begs the question to say that love is more authentic to our nature than, say, reason or anxiety.

Moreover, talk of love as necessary for a full human being raises the question as to whether a full or complete human is better than an incomplete one. We could just as easily say that men have an instinct to rape women and that to be fully male we must, therefore, succumb to that instinct. Finally, there is no human essence in any teleological sense, no transcendent plan we ought to follow. On the contrary, we’re constantly in the process of evolving, and again, if anything, we’re characterized by our control over our evolution and thus over our nature. Instead of being engineered by our genes, for example, we stand at the threshold of being able to engineer them in the pursuit of our personal goals. As the existentialist philosopher Sartre said, for us existence precedes essence, meaning that we’re largely free to choose what we are and ought to be. Any appeal to human essence, then, is lame since it’s easily met with the response that we needn’t choose to be that way.

The Third Way

Now, as I’ve laid out elsewhere, the results of these facts about our nature are that we’re uniquely prone to angst and that we preserve our peace of mind by entertaining fantasies and delusions. (See, for example, Happiness.) Clearly, reciprocated love feels better than loneliness or anxiety, so if you think happiness is the highest good in life, you’ll place a high value on love. I agree with Hedges, though, when he says that happiness is usually opposed to meaning. A simpleminded person might be content with meaningless pleasure, whereas someone with philosophical interests will prefer pleasure that arises from profound activities, which is to say activities that respond well to deep facts. One such fact would be our self-conflicted nature. Refined rather than trivial pleasure, therefore, might be taken in some way of appreciating the absurdity that we each cancel ourselves out. For example, there’s the pleasure of gallows humour, such as the pleasure many people derive from watching the political satires of Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, and there’s what Buddhists and other mystics call the bliss from meditating on the illusoriness of material distinctions. (See Postmodern Religion and Buddhism.)

Contrary to Hedges, however, a philosophical passion for meaningful pursuits doesn’t entail spiritual death and destructiveness, although it should cause the philosopher to suffer. To take the obvious example, a mystic may prefer an ascetic life which allows for maximal attention to the most profound matters. This ascetic may be lonely but will hardly be unspiritual or predatory. What Hedges misses, then, is the difference between what we can call, by way of much simplification, Western and Eastern approaches to ethical questions. Westerners are generally more optimistic, because Western religions, with the exception of present-day Islam, are friendlier to secular enterprises. That is, Judaism and Christianity are largely secularized, the fundamentalist’s oblivious protests against secular civilization notwithstanding, and so most Jews and Christians view history in terms of linear progress and their behaviour indicates that they effectively welcome technoscientific advances. With some exceptions such as Confucianism and exoteric Hinduism, Eastern philosophies are more pessimistic precisely because they’re more mystical. Buddhists, for example, condemn the whole apparent material world for causing suffering, and hold out the hope not of happiness but of peace through detachment and renunciation, which extinguish the ego that’s so cherished by individualistic Westerners.

To come to the main point, then, the glorification of love seems a more Western proclivity, given that love is presumed to be necessary for happiness and that only optimists are inclined to pursue that goal. Easterners are less likely to romanticize love; indeed, they still often have arranged marriages and think of familial relationships in terms of duties. This hardly means that Easterners are more lonely, idolatrous, or self-destructive. What the lovesick Westerner might fail to realize is that a philosophically heroic, ethical, and pleasurable life is possible. This is the third path I have in mind. Instead of performing good deeds as a result of feeling compassion, kindness, or some other optimistic emotion, the humanitarianism of a melancholic philosopher who appreciates the existential or mystical context of human life can be motivated by pity, by ironically antisocial conscientiousness, or even by an aesthetic passion for avoiding clichés. Just because someone is a Scrooge with respect to love doesn’t mean she's cruel, contrary to Dickens’ morality tale. Indeed, constitutionally antisocial folks, such as those suffering from Asperger Syndrome, are likely to compensate for the shallowness of their social emotions with excessive rule-following, which compels them to be scrupulous. (For dramatizations of this, see the Vulcans from Star Trek or Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.) The point is that love is hardly the only source of morality.  

Compare two cases of altruism: on the one hand, a loving, upbeat person rescues a stranger out of compassion or some other tenderhearted sentiment; on the other, a melancholic person rescues a stranger out of pity for everyone’s existential plight, disgust with our haplessness, and distaste for ugly states of affairs. In the first case, the feeling may be based on the optimistic assumption that everyone has human rights, but more fundamentally this feeling is caused directly or indirectly by the genes, as the altruist extends her parental instinct by way of some perceived similarity between the stranger and the altruist’s child or at least her image of what her child would be like. That is, the altruist identifies with the stranger so that her feeling of love compels her to act as though she were rescuing her child. In the second case, the altruist is also guided by feelings, but by pessimistic ones. The result is the same but the two altruists’ characters and philosophical outlooks differ. Which case is superior depends on which philosophy is best.

To think that love is our primary purpose in life is to adopt a very narrow, hopeful, and genetically determined viewpoint. Sure, there are sophisticated justifications of love, such as theological or New Age ones, but these are rationalizations since love is, first and foremost, a hormonal contribution to the proliferation of our genes. A loving person is optimistic in that she affirms the value of human nature--as that nature is given to us prior to philosophical reflection. That affirmation, in turn, is aligned with our genetically determined function. By contrast, a melancholy person is pessimistic in that she devalues that state of human nature; that is, she’s repulsed by our inner conflicts, suffering the alienation and anxiety that are caused not by the genes but by skepticism of social conventions and politically correct delusions. By heroically overcoming the horror of facing the existential truth or by tragically failing to emerge intact from that confrontation, the introvert, philosopher, or mystic thus tends to malfunction as a vessel for microscopic replicators. 

Either way, the question of whether love or a less optimistic basis for morality makes for the best human life turns on a conflict between (1) the pragmatic consequentialist who prizes success above all else, ignoring the value of the means by which the success is achieved, and (2) the existentialist who aesthetically rejects certain such means. A lover doesn’t mind being a tool for the perpetuation of the human species, because she typically subscribes to some delusion that covers up her existential plight. A nonlover rebels against the natural order, preferring what she’d call a higher grade of human being, such as a posthuman or a spiritual, tasteful, authentic, or enlightened person. Optimistic love has no place in the latter's mind, since such an emotion is stamped out by her gloomier responses to a plague of unwelcome truths. When you loathe all our weaknesses, especially our gullibility and our susceptibility to wishful thinking and self-deception; when you harbour absurd, fruitless contempt for the zombie-like mindlessness of natural forces which is the source of most suffering; and when you’re inflicted with alienation and anxiety as the costs of doing philosophical business, you lose the childish innocence needed for love. You become cynical. But if you survive your ruminations, your standards are elevated and you become a mystical insider, an observer of human folly, with godlike detachment, and your suffering is alleviated by schadenfreude. (See Procreate for Ancestors.) 

Is love for people, then, the meaning of life? Perhaps for human cattle, but not for the enlightened ones who instead love knowledge enough to be horrified by the world. The meaning of the philosopher’s life is to rebel: to struggle, to overcome, and to create as a godlike animal. People don’t deserve love; instead, we warrant pity, disgust, fear, or awe. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky says that hell is the inability to love, which is correct in the sense that a misanthrope suffers a lot and is demonic in that she makes a play for God’s throne; that is, she strives to become more than an animal and a slave to natural cycles. Arguably, where Dostoevsky errs, though, is in his Christian apology for our jailer, for his proscription of demigodhood and his conviction that existential insight is immoral and counterproductive. For a Christian, hell is the worst place to be, but for a philosopher, hell in the sense of an illuminated state of mind is an obligatory burden that a more promising beast shoulders, quaking while the fires of angst burn away the chains that bind her to the Cave of Ignorance, so that she might be reborn with a nobler, posthuman character.


  1. I think that your argument (and that of your opponents) fails because of an inadequate definition of love. It appears that you define love in terms of altruism, but altruism is essentially a metaphoric concept, an imaginary state of affairs. Altruism is a logical impossibility when taken in its literal sense. In case you don't understand, altruism is typically defined as fulfilling someone else's desire. But to fulfill that desire, first you have to internalize it, and in so doing, transform it into your own desire. But in doing so, you are no longer fulfilling someone else's desire, but instead your own.

    I think that a more adequate definition of love is Heidegger's concept of sorg, or care or concern. This as I understand it, is the existential need to affirm one's existence by imprinting your individual existence one the world around you. In other words, to make your mark on the world, to make your existence mean something, or in the common parlance, to create a legacy.

    Love, taken in this sense is the meaning of life, or as the scriptures put it, divine. Love then becomes the inspiration for all action, for all purpose in life.

    This of course also has the disturbing tangent that all human acts are acts of love, even those acts we deem as evil. It implies that the Holocaust was an act of love, as is a rapist's catharsis. We may call them misguided acts of love, but still acts of love all the same.

    1. There's a problem here, which is that Heidegger was infamous for giving new and strange meanings to words. That definition of "love" would be one example of this. Of course, if you redefine the word to cover all kinds of concern or care, then love might be a necessary condition of any meaning of life. But what makes Heidegger's definition "adequate"? Adequacy isn't really the issue, because we can redefine words however we like. The phenomena can be carved up in many different ways. The point is that the way most people think of love, it's just a piece of political correctness to speak of love as the ultimate purpose of life.

    2. I just think that you dismiss the power of love too easily. Love is vital to living a meaningful and worthwhile life. Dismissing something so important on the technicality that the folk theory conception of love (love as altruism) is ridiculous if taken literally rather than metaphorically, even though it clearly a metaphor, seems petty and contrived.

      The reason I allude to Heidegger's definition is because I think that it comes closer to a literal definition of love, and that a serious critique of love should use his definition rather than the non-literal definition which you use.

      I agree that the folk theory of love is just a piece of political correctness. But this is trivial because the phenomenon of love as it is actually defined by human practice doesn't correspond with the folk theory. Pointing out the fallacy of Hedges definition of love would be a credible argument, but taking Hedge's farcical definition seriously and then using it to dismiss the value of love seems contrived and incredible.

    3. Well, I'm not going to argue against caring for something. On the contrary, elsewhere I've agreed with Paul Tillich and Emile Durkheim about their concept of religion as including faith in something sacred, or in something of ultimate importance. If we're not concerned about anything, we're in a depressive funk and can't do anything about our existential situation. If you want to call being concerned with something "love," then my article here doesn't apply.

      I agree that love might be needed for happiness, so if you think the meaning/purpose of life is to be happy, you'll think love is needed to fulfill our ultimate purpose. But if we want to talk about the "literal" meaning of "love," we've got to see love in biological terms. (See my article, "Science and the Matrix Metaphor.") Our objective, natural purpose is to fulfill our biological function to procreate, and the genes use love hormones to keep us in line. If this is the meaning of life you have in mind, then indeed love and happiness are crucial.

      By contrast, I think our meaning/purpose is found in an existential rebellion against those natural forces, in the transformation of us from animals into tragic heroes who are cursed with existentially authentic selves. (See "Authenticity and the Cost of Self-Creation.") Happiness and thus love are unseemly to such enlightened individuals.

      So there's an exoteric meaning of life for the masses, determined by biology, and then there's the esoteric meaning chosen by what Jains call ford-makers (reshapers of their mind for spiritual rather than earthly purposes).

    4. (I'm a different anonymous)

      You seem to be treating romantic, sexual, friendly, and familial love as if they were the same thing as Agape (unconditional love). While your essay is very good at disproving the former, ultimately conditional forms of love, it does not really address Agape. I disagree with the idea of them being part of the same thing, as often these types of love directly get in the way of Agape, which I see as actually a very much mystical and philosophical emotion, whose end goal is not reproduction but the end of suffering and misery, the creation of a truly just and equitable society, and the end of robbery, mastery, slavery, divided, lonely self-centeredness and the absurd chasing after control of the world that Western civilization is based on (and will eventually probably lead to its destruction as it over exploits the world).

      I agree that unconditional love is not inexplicable, but I also disagree with your explanation. In my opinion Agape has the clear, and actually very selfish motivation of attempting to heal the destructive, power motivated impulses of others, and devoting oneself to the general well-being of everyone, so that you can separate from the ridiculous power and control obsession of society, and its consequent cycles of success and joy and disappointment and sadness, and become fulfilled and happy because you no longer need anything from anyone, or need to 'accomplish' anything. Life now has a purpose, which you succeeds in simply by trying as hard as you can. By loving everything and everyone as hard as you can, and truly and honestly wishing them the best without any expectation of reciprocation. Agape is the idea that one can be a tragic hero, standing against all of Western civilization, against all of the idols of society, and above the desire for any reality obscuring opiate and enjoy life more than you could have otherwise. With Agape, you can see the universe as it truly is, with open eyes, and love it anyway, not as your child but as a respected equal, a beautiful beloved, and kiss it full on the lips.

      I think that this way of life is superior to both the petty, restricted, conditional love of romance, sexuality, friendship, family, etc., to selfish destructiveness, but also to the sort of pessimistic, rebellious dread mysticism you seem to be describing as the Third Way. I have no desire to be a demigod, I would rather be a humble, compassionate servant, a lover (and I mean lover) of the universe, of Life, and of the experience of existence (although I would be fine with non-existence as well, I just have no specific desire for it). I despise opiates and chasing after control/happiness/etc., but I don't really see the problem with obeying the wishes of hormones and genes as long as I don't disagree with them. Romantic love might be very fun. I could live without it, and it won't solve any of my problems, but I don't see why I should rebel against it just because someone or something told me to enjoy it, as long as it doesn't conflict with my principles.

      A pure rebel who exists solely to counter something they dislike is the slave of their dislike, because all they can do is become its opposite. Better to define what you want independently and then see how it measures up against what exists and counter selectively where you need to than to just oppose all of the regulations of authorities on brute principle.

      So that is a Fourth Way, optimistic, mystic unconditional love. What do you think? Do you think this is just another opiate or not?

    5. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I wrote this article a couple of years ago now and I've since written some more on the subject. I do focus here more on eros than on agape, as you say. And I suppose that when people say that "all you need is love" or that love is the meaning of life, they may be referring to both kinds of love.

      In the Western world, agape has come to mean Christian love for God and for our fellows. I've written a dialogue between a Christian and a misanthrope that you might be interested in reading (link below).

      You speak of agape as a kind of tragic heroism, but this isn't the Christian interpretation. You seem to be combining Eastern and Western ideas. So check out the Buddhism comments under my "Anthropocentrism and Misanthropy" article where you'll find a discussion of whether an enlightened person can feel both emotionally detached and compassionate (link below).

      I'm sure you do have a Fourth Way here. Whether it's better than existential cosmicism (i.e. than the naturalistic pantheism I used to speak of ironically as mystical) is another matter. Different kinds of people will prefer different life options, so some of this is just subjective. But I also think there are some objective philosophical judgments to make and one of them is about naturalism. Is your mysticism naturalistic? Is it consistent with science? Is it atheistic?

      I agree, though, that rebellion isn't made noble just because the rebel opposes some driving force. Sometimes, it might be better to go along with some outer force. But the existential rebellion is motivated by a horrible sense of nature's undeadness, given philosophical naturalism. It's that undeadness that makes for all the tragedy in life. And rebellion is a way of making the best of that tragedy.

    6. Thanks for your thoughts as well. I read the articles and gave them some thought. I disagree with the position of the Christian you were debating because he seems to base everything on absolute moral principle. I find the notion of moral law both ridiculous and alien to human experience, and also very much tied up with ideas about mastery and slavery and hierarchy, all of which I oppose. What I consider best is to see the world with eyes wide open, questioning everything, defining ourselves, and seeking an authentic and honest happiness, rather than the trinket and compensatory, dishonest and partial happiness afforded to us by Western civilization, marketing, organized religion, etc.

      I do not share your idea of the world as fundamentally horrible and alien, rather I think that this concept is an effect of thousands of years of civilization. There is a vaguely defined point, in the upper paleolithic, when humans seem to have first separated themselves from their environment, and invented the concepts of dualism and symbolism. The first evidence of the concepts of subject and object appeared at this time in what seems to be the first visual art, including the venus figurines and the division between man and beast. The world was put into three categories by the neolithic: man, wilderness and domesticated wilderness, which eventually also became the cultural categories and enforced gender roles of masculine, insane and feminine. Before these ideas began, however, there does not appear to have been distinction, and humans were just another insignificant part of the immense and unknowable which can be seen in the cave paintings' obsession with non human animals and astrology, which gradually fades after the neolithic. Many mystic traditions such as the taoists and sufis preserve this idea, as do some anarchist theorists, and to varying extents in some hunter gatherer societies (certainly these societies anthropomorphize nature to a degree, but not nearly to the extent of modern man, for the aborigines for example, there is no distinction between spiritual and secular, and everything is seen as part of an eternal ritual practice, even eating, hunting and dreaming, there is no horror or alienness, because everything, including subject and object, is a dancer in the same dance and embraced, celebrated and loved). The universe is only horrible and alien when we choose to separate ourselves from it and isolate ourselves in our civilized bubble. Only by setting ourselves in opposition, as masters and proprietors of nature, has this image come into being.

      While I think your concept of the infinite creation, destruction and complexification of the universe as a parallel for civilization is interesting and plausible, and would break some of my philosophy if true, it does not explain why man was not always concerned with evolving and complexifying, and why other animals mirror this idea only genetically and not culturally (in that deer or foxes, for instance, do not seem concerned with completely dominating their environment so much as existing within it).

      I see a fundamental difference in that the activity of the universe, if it can even be called such, is in all probability fundamentally neutral and without intention, beyond any human comprehension, whereas the activity of civilization, while illogical and bizarre, has the very clear intent to subjugate, control, use, abuse, and consume everything in its path. If anything is alien to our natures, I would say that it is our own society. Children in my experience are born full of wonder, fearlessness, happiness and desire to learn, and society, not the universe, is the force which constantly and mercilessly crushes their autonomy, their fearlessness, their sense of self worth, their curiosity, and institutes signs and symbols, categories, dualisms, separations, morality, guilt, repression, addiction, etc.

    7. If we devoted all of our energy to each other instead of to ourselves and stopped judging and participating in hierarchy I think the universe would appear a much kinder and more loving place, because our subjective perception of the universe is a reflection of our cultural conditioning, given that the universe, at least to our knowledge, has no objective intention or character. Thus, my revolt and tragic heroism seeks to find a better path than that of civilization and help change the world into something more beautiful despite the fact that I stand against an omnivorous all destroying monster that is thousands of years old, controls almost the entire world and would immediately try to kill me if it thought I posed a threat. My love is for all life, and my heroism stands in its defense. With regard to the universe I see it as neither friend or enemy, but simply another part of the whole, mindless and purposeless, yet beautiful in a way, in its strange but ever logical and continuous functioning, galaxies and snowflakes and quantum effects like some bizarre ritual dance, going on forever, the originator of all life, necessary for any love or hate or pain to exist, and so something like a parent who let their children decide for themselves how to live their lives, devoid of principle or intention.

      My mystical experiences are all tied to united Life though, not the universe in general (I read your article on Darwinism, and am unsure of my position on whether there is a distinction between life and non-life as yet). The mystical experiences I have had are to some extent inexplicable, can result in states of ecstasy continuing for as long as an hour or more, and some have even been intimate and romantic, so that I think of Life as a lover (not only a beloved). This has been so real to me that I am not sure I can honestly say I believe it is just a product of my own mind, although how this is possible I have no idea. I am agnostic, and accept even solipsism as a serious possibility, and certainly I oppose the views of anyone who says they have access to absolute truth or rejects the discoveries of science, and also reject strictly anthropomorphic theism, but my personal and extremely powerful experience of Life as having a networked superconsciousness that I can experience personally and communicate with, and be communicated with intermittently (and have for six years) is hard to just write off as hallucination.

    8. Considering the number of mystical traditions in the world that produce altered states of consciousness, usually tied to the destruction/infinite expansion of the ego, I think that it is real in some way, though how I have no idea. Mysticism is very anti-civilization, and leads directly to rejection of desire for external objects, including sexual lust and the desire for children, so it seems to make reproduction much less likely, which begs the question, which I do not know the answer to, of where it comes from. One possibility is revolt against civilization and its desire for ever more people working and consuming at ever greater rates to feed the Civilized, and now Capitalist/Communist machine, which seems most likely, another unlikely one is that there actually is some networked superconsciousness in Life or the universe which we have not discovered yet. Another unlikely third possibility is both. Because of how closely the anti/post civilized ideal fits in with mysticism, it seems as if there is actually some single 'revelation' or subconscious knowledge which all forms of mysticism reveal, and which for some reason is tied to altered states of consciousness, perhaps for the reason that our unaltered state has been engineered for the purpose of making us not have a problem with the world as it stands, and either chase power and control over the external world, or accept authority based fallacies such as those of organized religion or the Sovereign's rule of law, secular rational fallacies (which at their deepest level are not very different), and reliance on deliberate rejection of truth and dependence on psychological, social or literal opiates, or, in short, to either accept mastery or slavery.

      I'd be very interested in what you think of this, and how you would respond to some of my ideas, as your philosophy is one of the most respectable and interesting I've encountered, and you seem to have a lot of insight and have thought a lot about these things as well. Thanks.

    9. I should clarify that my view of nature doesn't end with saying that nature is horrible and alien. I don't want to keep pointing you to all sorts of other articles I've written, but suffice it to say that I end up seeing the universe in aesthetic terms. I think scientific objectivity overlaps with the aesthetic perspective, so that natural processes can be regarded as artworks even in atheistic terms.

      The horror of nature is only the beginning of enlightenment, as I put it (somewhat grandiosely). We go through this existential shock of atheistic naturalism, which presents nature to us as a monster, as a mindlessly self-organizing, purposeless system. The question is how to make the best of this dark side of the science-centered worldview. My answer has to do with pantheism, aesthetics and the benefits of creativity.

      I used to speak more about mysticism, but I find that that word has supernatural connotations, so it can be misleading.

      As for nature vs society, I agree that society can crush our spirit (as in the great movie Brazil), and that nature can be sublime. We likely agree on the defects of Western values (consumerism, materialism, narcissism, etc). But I see our artificial worlds as having the purpose, at least, of flattering our ego, so that they tend to be more supportive than the natural wilderness. Of course, the natural world sustains us in lots of ways, but those are accidental. There's oxygen in the air that we can breathe, but our planet could just as well be struck by a meteor, for all nature is concerned about us.

      This could be our big disagreement, since you seem more optimistic about nature. I'm not saying that all artificiality is better than anything offered by nature, but I do value intentional creativity as a way of responding to nature's undeadness. Which societies are best is another big question. Certainly, I've criticized Western cultures, including the American and Canadian ones.

      In this blog I try to put my finger on what counts as the ultimate in tragic heroism. You too seem interested in that concept. Do you base your philosophy on some other people's writings?

      If you are interested in reading more (assuming you haven't already read it), you might be interested in what I say about the aesthetic perspective on nature:

      By the way, I also talk about the mythopoeic period in which our ancestors didn't distinguish between subjects and objects, so I agree that rebellion against nature makes sense mainly in the modern, egoistic context. See here for more:

    10. Sorry to take so long to respond, I got distracted by work and schoolwork and just got enough time, desire and insight to think I should respond again.

      I suppose our central disagreement is about nature. Something I find odd though is the way that every part of Western (read: originating in ancient Iraq and Egypt, later Greece) civilization, and especially modern global Euro-Western civilization, leads directly toward the conquest and killing of life in all of its forms, in tandem with enslavement of the wider universe, the ever more encompassiong panopticon of the state and corporations, the ever increasing destructive power of weapons, strip mining, and with Postmodernism (of the Vonnegut-diversity awareness variety), the attempt to kill the uniqueness of every ideology and philosophy, and make everything exactly the same and also useless (or dead). The way all of these things come together is uncanny, and the roots can be seen even in early works of the culture like the Epic of Gilgamesh or the art contemporary to that period and place, as well as less obviously in all of its later art, from Athens and Sparta to Rome, Medieval Catholic Spain, Imperial England and the U.S. It seems as if the ultimate project is complete murder-suicide (like Efilism without the compassion and respect for choice, or at least something close), to judge from the absurd way the culture has engineered the ecological crisis and the levels of hypocrisy which are approaching the infinite as even the ordinary slaves act like they care enough to stop it, but still drive their cars, eat their hamburgers, and go on virtual murder sprees in GTA in their spare time, while Obama talks concernedly about the U.S. being a peaceful country that respects law and order to keep Ferguson protestors from doing anything that might keep them from being used for prison industrial complex cattle or killed by the obviously and explicitly, but definitely not KKK allied police force (not of course, that any of this is new, except perhaps that the scale is ever larger)

      The trouble for me is that nature itself, and life in particular,is creative, and although it may not have a purpose, it certainly does move in strange, absurd patterns (natural selection, galactic formation, the austere beauty of physics process, etc.). Then there are deer, who aren't particularly creative, but love others, tend and defend their young, seem to experience passion and fear, etc. Then there are so called primitive societies, whether hunter gatherers or fairly uncivilized agriculturalists such as Mayan indigenous communities in Guatemala I've met, or the Nigerian Igbo as portrayed in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart before contact with the English. In contrast to all of these, and perhaps least of all to the last, but even in extremely sharp contrast to the Maya and Igbo, there is Western civilization, which, even as its artists in the early 20th century produce artistic, poetic, literary and philosophical creativity on a scale perhaps never seen before, still as a cultural whole is concerned not with creation but with omnidestruction including self-destruction (and it could be argued those creative artists, etc., who nonetheless are and were fairly rare, are inspired by the absurdities, tragedies, nonchalance and hypocrisy of those around them, which is also unprecedented, as well as very often by non Western cultures as much as by Western ones).

      I suppose nature, both living and nonliving, is both monstrous and beautiful, although I stand by what I said earlier about loving it passionately in any case, but in contrast Western civilization has always hated beauty and tried to destroy it in all its forms (while fetishizing it), prefers deathly perfection and averages to the excessive, truly creative or truly extraordinary, and prefers rationality to absurdity, which is about the same thing.

    11. In this context, wouldn't intentional creativity be more similar to natural creativity than to the anticreative and arguably even more cliched West? Since nature is everything which has been absurdly created, doesn't everything primarily antinatural have to be a destructive and ultimately deathly impulse, not a creative one? Granted it would be possible to prefer some part of nature to another aesthetically, and still be creative, which is what much of art is about I think, or even to attempt to create a new and subjectively aesthetically superior universe through virtual reality, although many of the transhumanists lapse into death fantasy, there's an important difference between wanting to end the universe's unknowable chaos and to end this unknowable chaos and create a different unknowable chaos.

      As far as works I've been influenced by, perhaps the most central is Junji Ito's Uzumaki manga, which I consider also one of the greatest horror masterpieces since Lovecraft, if not the greatest. It is the protagonists, Kirie and Shuichi's love (jian ai in japanese was the word I was looking for, agape was used incorrectly) which is a big part of what my philosophy is based on, though I am sometimes unsure if I developed the idea separately first or not. I've also been influenced by Tristan Tzara's Dada Manifesto 1918, Julien Torma's Euphorisms, Alfred Jarry's Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, 'Pataphysician and Ubu Roi, Dostoevsky's Demons (better translated as Possessing Ghosts), and Notes from the Underground, the first few chapters of William H. Mcneil's U.S. navy military history text book The Pursuit of Power, describing the origins of Western civilization, Shaktist Hinduism with its figure of the all-creative void/chaos goddess necessary for the entirely dependent God to form the universe through her power and necessary for Him to create meaning and constriction whereas she had limitless beautiful plethora, Hakim Bey's T.A.Z., some socialist-anarchist ideas (J. Proudhon for instance, or others I've met), ancient Chinese Mohism, Lovecraft of course, and the Gospel of Thomas. I've recently come in contact with the Principia Discordia, which I find amusing, especially the so called curse of greyface. I'm quite a fan of this music video as well which I recently found: The interesting and beautiful (in the feminine sense of a sublime excess and absurdity which refuses to explain or reconcile itself) thing for me is the simultaneity of the total correctness of both the person who more or less attempts suicide and the person who in a spirit of love saves them and offers them their hat and a talk over coffee in respect for them and solidarity. Both should not be able to feel correct, but they both do, and that's what makes the offering of the hat so sublimely beautiful, in addition to the knowledge they will both die later anyway. I think that that is in a sense a sort of tragic heroism, both in the face of civilization represented by war, and nature as well. I think the commentary about the essential sameness of mainstream theistic and mainstream atheistic afterlife predictions is spot on as well and calls them both into question.

    12. Great rants, Nathan, and fascinating points! Regarding the destructiveness of Western societies, I'd say two things. To remake natural systems for the better, those systems must first be destroyed. So our creation of artificial subworlds displaces the larger, natural environment. I've speculated, for example, that our species may be functionally life's executioner, which should make for the environmentalist's worst nightmare.

      However, much of our destructiveness I'd actually attribute to nature, not to original artificiality. Following Lewis Mumford, I speak of the megamachine which I interpret as the default social structure, the human form of the animalistic dominance hierarchy which features predatorial alpha males at the top ruling over the herd of followers and social outsiders. All of the insanity and absurdity that follow are due to the natural process we find throughout the animal kingdom. The difference is that our species is smarter, so we devise schemes for rationalizing and deluding ourselves about our alleged grandiosity.

      By contrast, the artificiality and beauty I have in mind would be virtually supernatural, owing to their novelty/originality. The goal is to create something new that replaces the clichéd natural dynamics, because those dynamics happen also to be horrifically inhuman. We want to live in a world filled with meaning and purpose that serves our higher calling as tragically enlightened beings, whereas without that creative spark, we'd be born to a wilderness that mocks us with its undead semblance of design and artistry.

      We must therefore create an artificial habitat run by actual machines programmed with intended functions. To the extent that our intentions are purely natural (vicious), serving dominance hierarchies and the delusions that reinforce them, our creations won't be original or existentially heroic. Art should begin with an understanding of our existential predicament, which should then inspire forms of ascetic withdrawal and rebellion.

      Would the resulting creations be merely destructive? I doubt it, since they'd be based largely on pity for all creatures in something like the Buddhist sense. I believe certain Buddhist societies have been terrifically savage and genocidal, but that's largely because Buddhists have a penchant for being eliminativists who think the human self is entirely an illusion rather than a complex, emergent phenomenon that can have higher value. Still, I’d like to see Buddhist enlightenment (atheistic knowledge of nature’s all-embracing causality, i.e. undeadness) and detachment combined with artistic genius, with the urge to enchant nature with miraculous artificiality. This wouldn’t make sense, given Buddhist monism which leaves no room for sensible existential rebellion against nature, but that’s where I depart from Buddhism.

      I’ll have to give some of those works you cite as influential a read.

  2. So if love is just hormones, how should we react to an expression of love and/or kindness? How do we deal with the fact that others care deeply for us when their care and our care are just undead biological processes? With pity? disgust? joy? reciprocity? Are you asking us, as Jesus in Luke 14:26, to hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and set out in the heartrendingly ineffably lonely and ever elusive search of an aesthetic ideal? Is that search even humanly possible without going insane?

    1. Very interesting questions. I wouldn't say that love is "just" or "only" hormones or merely biological. Clearly, there are cultural, psychological, and personal or aesthetic layers of interpretation. My point here in stressing the biological basis is to counter Hedges' strategic obscurantism, when he says that love is a great mystery. Romantic love isn't so mysterious at all; it just feels that way when we enter the biochemically altered state of consciousness. In the same way, taking a recreational psychedelic drug makes us see the world in a different way, since it challenges our assumptions and even reboots our ego and our worldview.

      As to the recommendation, I don't claim that asceticism is the only spiritually valid way to go. I merely point to the hurdle of having an aesthetically praiseworthy life if your days are steeped in the animal pair bond and thus in rank cliches. Also, love tends to delude us about the nature of the world; it makes us happy and narrow-minded (antiphilosophical), since the bond directs our attention to our mate and our progeny. Suffering for the horrible truth is the more honourable, artistically/spiritually inspiring path, but it's also the more nakedly tragic one.

      Jesus is said to have said--it's all foolish hearsay--that we should hate those closest to us so that we can make emotional room in ourselves to follow him! I say we should focus on what's pitiful and disgusting in natural life so that we can deal properly with the true god--not some impoverished Jew whose brain would have been frazzled by the desert heat and by the resentment of having his people's land be occupied by Rome, but the set of undead natural forces and materials. Our best relation to God isn't to grovel as if that God were alive, could hear us, or would care one way or the other; instead, it's to be appalled by God's monstrosity, as we would be by any grotesque work of art, and to replace God's zombie body with our brainchildren and microcosms (tragically doomed but far nobler artworks such as our existentially authentic or uplifting cultures, technologies, etc).