Sunday, July 29, 2012

Defending Existential Cosmicism

In this blog I’ve sought to carve up some sacred cows, including happiness and sex, theism and new atheism, liberalism and conservatism. In their place I recommend a pretty dark worldview, although not a wholly dark one. This worldview is informed by Nietzschean existentialism and by cosmicism as well as philosophical naturalism. The gist of existentialism is that we choose how we confront harsh truths about ourselves and our place in the universe, and that the mainstream choice is to retreat to self-serving delusions. “Cosmicism” is H.P. Lovecraft’s name for the science-inspired suspicion that our values, hopes, and dreams are all pathetic in the grand scheme, that our knowledge of the ultimate truth of how the universe works would deprive us of our sanity. 

Probably the most common objection to my sort of hostility to Western culture takes the form of a stream of personal attacks: existential cosmicists are romantic idealists, often stuck in a juvenile stage of personal development, substituting a suitably dark fantasy for the tauntingly pleasant reality; moreover, the criticism goes, these idealists merely devise an elaborate philosophical rationalization for their personal failures in life, which is to say that existential cosmicists tend to be either losers (poor, unattractive sufferers) or else spoiled whiners, complaining about their anomie instead of seizing their opportunities, participating in society, and not over-thinking everything. 

There are several criticisms here of existential cosmicism (EC), which can be conflated, so I’ll tease them apart and explain them more fully before responding to them.

Opposing Existential Cosmicism

Romanticism: Romanticism was the aesthetic movement that began as a recoiling from such cultural impacts of the Scientific Revolution as utilitarianism, pragmatism, and secular humanism. Instead of thinking of nature purely as quantifiable bits of matter that can be exploited, romantics deified the cosmos, portraying natural forces as worthy of awe, horror, and thus respect. Indeed, the pragmatist who deifies humans--especially for our scientific and engineering capabilities--borrows a theistic conceit which modern science itself has embarrassed, namely the notion that we’re similar to the First Cause, to the Creator of the universe. For the pragmatist whose ultimate value is usefulness, nature is a machine that can be reengineered to suit our purposes, and the more we control natural forces, the more godlike we become. Ironically, the romantic takes more seriously the upshot of modern science, holding up as more sacred the sea of natural forces than the hapless creatures who come and go as waves in that sea.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Horror of the Nothing that might have been

We’re just barely able to conceive of the absence of any particular thing, and this leads to the famous cosmological conundrum, to the Ultimate Question of why there’s anything at all rather than just nothing. This is the question of the ultimate cause of everything, of whether all that we think of as particular things, including atoms, stars, forces, dimensions, natural laws, or capacities for measurement, are brought into being by that which isn’t any such thing. But how could something come from nothing? 

Alternatively, how can we be philosophically satisfied by any rational explanation which holds that there’s only an infinite chain of particular things, so that the explanation of something always presupposes another thing which needs to be similarly explained? The ultimate explanation would presuppose only nothing, but would then need to perform the magic of trick of showing how nothing at all can become something. 

Indeed, such an explanation wouldn’t be rational, let alone scientific, since reason would turn the nothing into something, as it were, presupposing that the state of nothingness is actually some more familiar sort of specific being, like an empty container. This is just because reason evolved as a tool to be used by animals in the world of particular things, enabling us to cope with threats, for example, by drawing distinctions and devising plans of actions. 

However, reason is an accursed, self-destructive instrument, since one rational distinction is between a thing in general and nothing at all, and this forces us to yearn for the ultimate, complete explanation of everything which lacks any presupposition. Again, this explanation couldn’t be rational, and so the Ultimate Question’s actual meaning is that it indirectly gets at the scary possibility that our best, rational ways of thinking are limited compared to what there might be to know. Hence, the proper response to the Question is to feel holy terror, not to puff ourselves up, roll up our sleeves and pretend that we can transcend ourselves instead of treating nonbeing like any old familiar thing and applying standard rational methods to understanding how it works.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Existential Grimness and Cornel West’s Catastrophic Compassion

Cornel West is an existential, Kierkegaardian Christian and progressive. His philosophy is summarized in The Supreme Love and Revolutionary Funk of Dr. Cornel West, Philosopher of the Blues, by Jeff Sharlit. See also West’s short video on “catastrophic love.”As Sharlit says, the “Westian turn” is that West ‘roots himself in what he calls “the night side of American democracy” so he’ll be ready for the dawn. He begins with anger so we can end with love.’ West speaks as a sort of postmodern prophet. However,
“To prophesy,” he [West] writes, “is not to predict an outcome but rather to identify concrete evils.” He’s concerned not with divine revelations but with what he sees as jazzlike improvisation, the radical hope he tempers with the tragic sensibility he takes from the blues. “I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind,” he says, “a jazzman in the world of the ideas”....The blues, West says, is the suffering that’s at the heart of the American story, both tragic and comic, darkly grandiose and absurdly mundane. Jazz is democracy...Jazz--improvisation--is his answer to things as they are, the negation of the status quo and thus the affirmation of another possibility.
For an appreciation of the tragic aspect of life, West recommends the 19th C. Italian poet Leopardi, who saw that the naturalism of Enlightenment philosophy gives rise to what West calls “the paradox of human freedom,” that we must resist oppression even as we acknowledge, as Sharlit puts it, ‘that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire,” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.” ’

Monday, July 2, 2012

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Gods, Undead and Personal

Gods, undead and personal: gods exist but hide in plain sight, so that ironically atheists surpass theists in their respective knowledge of the divine.

If gods are ultimate creative powers, there are two kinds of gods which are obviously real: natural evolution and higher animal consciousness. The former is just the evident power of matter and energy to combine in various forms which interact and develop new forms in time, from molecules to galaxies and perhaps infinite universes. Nature’s creativity gives rise to complex patterns throughout the cosmos, but this prodigious power is impersonal; to be sure, like naïve children we anthropomorphize the sun, the wind, and the rain, but that’s just projection, the over-extension of our personhood onto the inhuman, so that we might mitigate our alienation from nature. Nevertheless, natural forces are divinely creative. Nature is thus neither living nor dead. The natural creator gods, named now by those modern wizards, the physicists, astronomers, biologists, and other scientists, are undead: creative but monstrous, inhuman, terrifyingly other than what we’re most familiar with and best capable of understanding, which is ourselves. 

Consciousness is the living, personal god which creates what the philosopher Kant called the phenomenal world by interpreting experience, beholding everything within a worldview, applying concepts and values, identifying the natural form and thus acquiring power over it. There’s no good reason to think that consciousness is naturally or metaphysically prior to nature; no mind created the universe out of nothing. However, the subjective aspect of everything in nature depends on conscious creatures. The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics calls this aspect the "collapse of the wave function." The point is that were life never to have evolved anywhere, there would still have been stars, planets, atoms, and all the other products of undead gods, but these products would differ from the ways we experience the world, given how our brains happen to process information we receive from our senses. We help create the world we experience, and to that extent we’re all divinely creative.

However, most conscious beings are doubly oppressed rather than reigning in glory. We’re entombed within the decaying body of the undead god, that is, within the natural totality that evolves as a result of the interplay of mindlessly creative forces. Also, most of us are forced to occupy lowly positions in power hierarchies dominated by conscious beings that, unlike so-called Christians, are genuinely twice born and doubly divine. The oligarchs who tend to rule societies conquer nature by understanding their experience within a worldview, but they also conquer their fellow conscious beings, identifying with the undead gods as the oligarchs compete according to social versions of the principles of natural selection. Oligarchs are thus avatars of monstrous nature, their sociopathic depths of vice symbolizing the menacing inhumanity of natural forces which afflict us despite our more modest divinity and limited power over nature.

Dictionary of Micro Rants: Oligarchy

Oligarchy: rule by the most vicious few over the more innocent many; the default way of organizing societies.

There are in practice three kinds of government: naked oligarchies, covert oligarchies, and non-oligarchies which tend to degenerate into oligarchies. The explanation of why this is so has at least three levels, each deeper and broader than the next. At the highest, most apparent level, there is what Robert Michels called in 1911 the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which is that the centralization of power is the most efficient way of organizing large groups. Bureaucracies form as control needs to be specialized and delegated, and as the bureaucracy grows, higher and higher levels of command need to be put into place to avoid a regress to anarchy, whereupon those near the pyramid’s apex tend either to be corrupted by the greater power they acquire or to have been sufficiently vicious in advance to have successfully worked their way to the top of the hierarchy, wining out against cut-throat competitors.

More broadly, the most stable social structure in species whose members live in large groups, including birds, fish, and primates, is the dominance hierarchy in which power is centralized in a minority of alpha males or females who maintain a social order by rigorously enforcing rules of which members enjoy such benefits as privileged access to food or to mates. Oligarchy in human societies is just our form of the dominance hierarchy, which is to say that the underlying structure of our myriad social systems is naturally selected.

Deeper still, the inevitability of oligarchy and the injustice entailed by any such gross inequality have Gnostic flavours, revealing the existential, mythical status of our ultimate position within nature as accursed, imprisoned beings too clever to maintain our peace of mind. The undead god, which is the monstrous power of cosmic creativity, blindly spits up creatures that are instinctively opposed to living alone, only to create a second dead end for these social beings: when they huddle to escape the anguish of loneliness, the majority who are relatively docile place themselves in the clutches of oligarchs.