Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Varieties of Mysticism

Mysticism is the doctrine that the hidden wisdom of monistic theology, according to which all souls are united with God, can be proved by direct experience of that unity, through meditation or an altered state of consciousness. If we define “God” loosely, to cover the pantheism that identifies God with nature’s impersonal creativity, we see that atheistic mysticism is possible; indeed, Buddhism is another kind of atheistic mysticism. But besides the difference between theistic and atheistic mystics, there’s that between what I’ll call optimistic and pessimistic ones. The former promises a happy ending for all, while the latter laments the fact that our time on the stage of life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and that our grand finale is ignominious extinction along with the clueless animal species. I’ll explore here the ramifications of this latter distinction.
Optimistic Mystics

Mystics claim to have secret knowledge of the world’s unity. Buddhists, for example, say that everything is interdependent and thus united, from an enlightened perspective, whereas without that perspective, everything appears independent and that illusory disunity is the overall cause of suffering. When we recognize that what seems a highly heterogeneous world is actually united by causal and logical relations, for example, we no longer draw absolute distinctions between the self and the rest of the world, or between selves. Those apparent differences are mere illusions, and when the mystic replaces that naive perception with an experience of reality’s oneness, she feels bliss instead of disappointment, alienation, or the many other forms of suffering.

In practice, though, optimistic mysticism takes two forms, depending on whether the oneness of reality is identified with the individual ego or with the underlying state of the unconscious. In the former case, mystical monism becomes a kind of obnoxious solipsism, such as we find in feel-good, materialistic New Age ideologies. Oprah Winfrey’s cult, for example, based as it is on the alleged spiritual law of attraction, according to which we get what we most want (because our desires are like magnets that attract what complements them), is individualistic in the Western, American sense. In this comedic mysticism, reality consists of the infantile ego and its toys, all else being illusory nuisances. So the chief virtue is Ayn Randian selfishness and this pseudo-spirituality becomes propaganda in the service of the beastly economic competition that naturally produces oligarchy.

An Eastern (Hindu or Buddhist) mystic would contend that “materialistic mysticism” is an oxymoron, that individualistic, solipsistic gurus are charlatans who pander to people’s spiritual inclinations, to hawk their books and other paraphernalia, and that true mysticism, based on an actual experience of the world’s unity, leads to the opposite lifestyle of asceticism. According to this more traditional variety, the ego is an illusion, meaning not that our mind or personhood doesn’t exist but that it’s not what it seems; in particular, no person is a self-sufficient, Randian superhero. Thus, to feed the appetite for self-enrichment or self-aggrandizement is to betray a lack of mystical wisdom, and materialistic mysticism is doubly comedic since the last laugh is on the spiritual capitalist for being a fraud. Far from rationalizing infantile selfishness, the mystic should be detached from her instincts and desires for her private welfare, since those (genetically-determined and often culturally-conditioned) mental states trap the unwary into an unenlightened state of awareness. Moreover, a true mystic is altruistic, helping others escape the suffering produced by their ignorance. The reason for this selflessness is that the mystic regards all people as metaphysically one, so that just as we wouldn’t normally wish to harm ourselves or any part of our body, we shouldn’t wish to see other people suffer.

I want to emphasize the main mystical argument against existential angst and the tragic perspective on life. Again, the argument assumes radical monism, the oneness of everything through the interdependence of all forms. According to this argument, angst is a form of suffering produced by ignorance of that unity; that is, the sufferer is misled by the apparent difference between the self and the rest of the world, which can cause loneliness, alienation, and fear. Far from ending with our biological death or even with the likely extinction of our species, we’re all one with the underlying flow of natural forces which evolves more and more illusory stages, levels, and other patterns within itself.

Pessimistic Mystics

What, then, is pessimistic mysticism? Whereas a spiritual optimist says the values that best correspond to metaphysical reality are love, peace, and so forth, the pessimist says that the hidden wisdom calls for melancholy. Instead of cheerfully loving your neighbor as yourself or prophesying the ultimate vindication of human values, the pessimistic mystic shuts herself off from the world that doesn't live up to her wistful ideals.

We should be careful not to overstate the difference between the two types. Spiritual optimists must concede two points: first, all can be one only metaphysically, which allows for the many rational distinctions between illusory appearances; second, as an empirical fact, enlightenment is rare, so that most people are trapped by ignorance and suffering. The optimist replies that reason isn’t as trustworthy as direct experience, and the pessimist agrees, affirming that reason is a curse that brings us sorrowful knowledge of what the mystic calls the merely apparent world. But the pessimist reminds the optimist that, according to the second concession, even mystics are seldom fully enlightened, which means that hardly anyone is liberated from our instincts and culture which drive us into the world of rationally-distinguishable illusions. For example, even the mystic has a sexual instinct which causes him or her to distinguish between men and women. An enlightened person overcomes the force of that instinct, which in turn requires detachment from sex-obsessed cultures.

The point, though, is that if full, permanent enlightenment is very rare, so that even spiritual optimists have only fleeting experiences of our metaphysical unity before those optimists are plunged once again into the profane mode in which everything seems to be a tragic multiplicity, even the optimist must concede that a mystic should grieve for the majority whose delusions lead them to fail, to debase themselves, and to suffer. The optimist can reply that what happens at the naïve level of consciousness, at which the world seems a multiplicity, is insignificant compared to what happens at the deeper level, which is that those differences dissolve. This fatalism is tantamount to saying, though, that suffering doesn’t matter because it’s unreal in the first place, which raises the question of why anyone should be motivated to seek to escape that suffering through enlightenment.

No, mysticism in general assumes that enlightenment is better than the naivety which causes suffering, and that bliss is better than the disappointments caused by foolishly selfish grasping after hallucinations in the matrix. But again, this means that even the optimist must concede that most waking hours lived by intelligent creatures are tragic and absurd, meaning that they’re full of pointless suffering and that they don’t lead to enlightenment (since most people die unenlightened, meaning that their consciousness is never fully attuned to metaphysical reality). The optimist’s final rejoinder, as I see it, is that reincarnation ensures that everyone will eventually be so enlightened, so we have a happy ending after all. This, though, is a retreat from the mystic’s empiricist criterion, which is that direct experience is more reliable than abstract reasoning; reincarnation is a dubious theological doctrine that must compete with scientific theories.  

Should we be optimistic at least about those few who are fully enlightened or who enjoy moments of freedom from ignorance and suffering? Not in a way that brings any comfort to the majority with their profane delusions. Enlightenment means complete detachment from the personality, character, and intellect with which we instinctively and emotionally identify. A liberated mystic doesn’t identify with anything that the majority cares about, including the individual’s fate, cultural distractions, social networks, or political or work-related obligations. As I say in Buddhism, this is a paradoxical sort of happy ending for the mystic that looks a lot like epic failure. In Hinduism, preparation for moksha is supposed to be the priority for the forest dweller who shuns society only after that dweller has run a household, contributed to society, and thus succeeded in profane terms. This is like the rock star who parties nightly with scores of women, pickling his liver with alcohol until finally in his old age, when he can no longer afford such decadence, he sees the light, becomes a born-again Christian and preaches asceticism as the ultimate ideal. The logic, I take it, is that you won’t appreciate asceticism until you’ve exhausted your wrongheaded cravings for worldly things. But there’s still the appearance here of hypocrisy: this all seems too convenient for the mystic, since she gets to enjoy the benefits of foolishness, only to cheaply repent on her death bed. Moreover, her spiritual rebirth can’t be perfectly tested, since she can’t take back her previous life of relative luxury. Of course, this hypocrisy is irrelevant from the enlightened perspective, since it applies only to the individual’s merit which is of no consequence in the greater scheme.

In any case, I raise this case of the elderly ascetic’s double standard to illustrate that while profane success is trivialized from the enlightened perspective, the feeling is surely mutual: a life of poverty and renunciation of worldly pleasures is a paradigmatic failure, from the unenlightened viewpoint. So enlightenment isn’t exactly a cause for celebration. Enlightenment is what Schopenhauer calls the denial of the will to life, meaning the devaluation of everything we’re naturally selected and culturally pressured to prize; this enlightenment isn’t the freedom to do what you want or to enjoy an eternity of pleasure in heaven, but is instead the end of the personal self and the replacing of it with nothing at all, that is, with a state of nirvana. Here, freedom means escape from the world’s seductions, as opposed to the libertarian’s egoistic, infantile freedom to pursue your cravings with no impediments. The upshot is that there’s something tragic even about enlightenment itself, the latter being the mystic’s ultimate good. Not only must the mystic’s success look like failure to society at large, but the mystic’s so-called bliss or spiritual pleasure is entirely negative: the liberated mystic feels the peace that comes from having no concerns or responsibilities at all, no ties to the apparent world which cause stress. Spiritual bliss or peace of mind, which depends on an enlightened view of our metaphysical situation, is what it feels like to lose everything that can be categorized.

The Horror of Mysticism

Let’s return, finally, to the main objection to pessimistic mysticism, that there can be no such thing since pessimism requires the limited, egoistic perspective and thus ignorance about everything’s oneness. I think it’s true that standard existential angst, horror, and rebelliousness require the distinction between the personal self and the world that’s indifferent to that self. Thus, if mysticism has no room for that distinction, existential mysticism makes no sense. As I said, however, the optimist’s monism does include that distinction and merely reframes it so that instead of having to be preoccupied by the gulf between what we’d prefer and how things really are, the optimist can reassure herself that that distinction is only “illusory” and ultimately overcome by the substantial oneness of all illusions. And as I’ve also said, that ultimate overcoming would happen only for someone who is completely enlightened and thus divorced from all naturally selected and most culturally sanctioned forms of life. The rest of us are forced to identify at least partly with our mind and our personality, and are thus doomed to follow reason to the existential dead end, retreat to some ignoble delusion, or transcend angst by some means other than enlightenment, such as by adhering to some cosmicist religion.

Now, as I’ve discussed in Buddhism, linked above, and in Postmodern Religion, I doubt that the only path to angst is through that Cartesian distinction between the thinking self and the unthinking world. In particular, I question the basis for the enlightened mystic’s bliss. Assuming the mystic’s experience of everything’s oneness is possible, why should this experience necessarily comfort rather than horrify the mystic? Our reaction to that experience should depend on the nature of that underlying oneness. While Lovecraft’s cosmicism needn’t be monistic, his view does illustrate how transcendent wisdom can unsettle the recipient and even render her insane. For one thing, what the mystic should learn is that all the goals we think are justified by our genetic instinct and mainstream cultural indoctrination are woefully narrow-minded and diametrically opposed to what we ought to want. For example, instead of perpetuating nature’s hold on us, by sexually reproducing and thus replenishing the victims of natural forces, we ought to be denying the will to live in all its manifestations. Far from comforting the mystic, her condemnation of the ignorance that generates the entire world of so-called illusions should terrify her, since she’s effectively abandoned most of her humanity, trusting that her altered state of consciousness will elucidate how she ought to act while still in the belly of the beast, that is, while still imprisoned in a body that’s configured to present her with the false world of the matrix.

In any case, there remains the contradiction between wanting to be enlightened, to escape suffering, and learning when enlightened that the instincts to prefer pleasure to pain and to empathize with those who suffer are parts of the world that ought to be abandoned. Presumably, from the enlightened viewpoint, there is no natural empathy, pity, or utilitarian weighing of pleasures against pains; instead, there’s a vision of the world that transcends all of our natural and politically correct expectations. Again, I ask why that vision should reassure rather than horrify. Why, when we discover that our meager personhood counts for nothing, that natural and cultural forces have probably led us astray though we’ve relied on them from our infancy onward; when the mystic’s metaphysical reality must be impersonal and inhumane, to have evolved the disastrous world of illusions (samsara) in the first place--I ask, why be tranquilized by such facts? Why turn then to New Age happy-talk instead of ranting from the rooftops, proclaiming your disgust with that vision? If there is music of the spheres, why should that music sound pleasant to human ears, no matter how enlightened the listening mind?

Of course, the mystic can always say that you’ll never know until you directly experience the unity for yourself. But because any mystical experience must be processed by the human body, and because that body evolved to service the genes as opposed to being intelligently designed in the furtherance of a benevolent agenda, I’m disinclined to give the spiritual optimist the last word on this point. There is, after all, a skeptical interpretation not just of the charlatan’s variety of optimistic spirituality, but of the genuine, mainly Eastern kinds. How do we know the mystic is accurately or even honestly reporting her transcendent experience, when she assures us that that experience is entirely encouraging? Perhaps her optimism is one more delusion to which she resorts to deny the deeper wisdom of cosmic horror. And perhaps ascetic detachment is a sign of existential numbness and shell-shock, after a union with otherness that undermines all human modes of judgment, and thus that must obliterate her feeling of self-worth as an embodied, natural creature. Perhaps the ascetic detaches from natural and social cares not just because they cause her suffering, but because she learns that human nature is disgusting from the mystical viewpoint of eternity. And instead of dealing honestly and creatively with that revelation, she endures a more ambiguous form of suffering, avoiding her natural angst only by practically lobotomizing herself, by means of excessive mental detachment. In this case, pantheistic existential cosmicism, such as the sort I explore in this blog, would be the more authentic metaphysical vision of mysticism, calling at least initially for a melancholic appreciation of the tragedy and absurdity of our natural predicament.


  1. You should see enlightenment as a sort of cosmic relief. Where is relief there is joy, which doesn't contracdice your pessimistic but clear vision of reality. When IT happened, you only let it go. You need nothing. You ARE, not your ordinary self, but ARE. It is a sort of non ordinary state of consciousness (in the sense of Stanislav Grof). I know that all of this may sound new age bubbles (which is should be true) but what i'm trying to say is that our brain can experiment some kind of bliss. I am always been pessimistic-oriented, and i agree with your very pointed analysis, but, you see, my experience with this altered states (I have practiced Buddhism for several years) is that relief bring joy much more than horror. This is the only optimistic chance we have.
    Sorry for my english. Very interesting blog.

    1. Thanks, Massimo. Not only do I think I understand what you're saying, but I agree with it to some extent, at least. On my list of articles to write is one about the psychedelic basis of religion. My own altered states of consciousness have been minimal (just from marijuana), but they've been potent enough to convince me that much greater religious experiences are possible and that they've actually shaped much of human history through our great religions. There's a big metaphysical question here about whether the religious experiences of bliss or of higher entities are real or illusory. I'll consider this in that later article.

      As to how this relates to existential horror, there's a fear that comes from losing your ego when you have one of these altered states of consciousness, and I take it that enlightenment is supposed to be the detachment from your ego so that you no longer feel that fear. But the joy of a mystical experience of everything's oneness seems to me horrifying in its strangeness. The mystic says it's the world of suffering that's illusory, and that deep reality is joyful, but there's still the mystery of how this reality generates that illusory world. Why does suffering (maya, samsara) emerge from joy (God, Brahman, etc)? Why does God play games with himself, hiding from his self-awareness by becoming or creating the material world? There's enough strangeness and latent horror to go around even in Eastern mysticism, as I understand it. In any case, I'm quite interested in Buddhism, and it's hard to respect Western religions when you've got the Eastern ones at hand.

      Thanks for reading.

    2. What do you mean you find it horrifying in its strangeness? What you really want to say it`s that there are all this unanswered questions wich make it false(probably)
      So how can you say that the joy is horrifying? its just like a drug
      And also he is saying that altered states of mind are just a relief from the pain and horror

    3. Well, Stefan, I can speak from my limited experience of altered states of consciousness, which were rather horrifying. I'm aware that many users of psychedelic drugs report having wonderfully peaceful experiences of everything's oneness. Sometimes they also have bad trips, so that sort of experience seems to be a mixed bag, depending largely on our mindset and environment. If we're already afraid or disgusted before we take the drug, the drug will likely exacerbate that attitude. Happiness is based largely on delusion, in my view, so the question is whether these drugs always go along with the delusion and maintain or intensify the happiness, or eventually blast the delusion to pieces to reveal the terrifying truth. Anyway, some altered states may relieve us from our daily suffering, but others traumatize us with their strange revelations.

      As for eastern mystics, what I meant was that what's interpreted as joyful to many mystics would seem horrible to me. Then again, mystics don't trust their worldview and the mystical experience is supposed to wash away concepts and interpretations, leaving only the joy. I suppose, then, the horror would dawn on me only afterward as I'd begin to reflect on the implications of there being so much illusion and delusion despite everything's oneness at the deepest level of reality.

  2. Very interesting post. I'm just wondering though, if you have read Echart Tolle's "A New Earth" (the book that Oprah is holding in the picture you chose)? It actually has nothing to do with "the law of attraction," or whatever that was that Oprah was touting previously. I've read it, and would encourage you to at least look into it. It is basically like Buddhism without the belief system (and what you describe as optimistic mysticism), and I personally think it is written very well. I find it funny because it encourages the abandonment of the ego... and from interviews and things I have seen with Oprah, she literally has one of the biggest egos I have ever seen!! I wonder how it makes sense to her to support Tolle and his book so whole-heartedly.

    1. No, I haven't read that book. I was just searching for a picture of Oprah touting some book. If the book she's holding is relevant to my article, that's just a coincidence. I don't reject all of the books that Oprah likes. She gave a thumbs up to the post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and I like that one. But this raises your question as to why she recommends the books she does, since The Road is quite the downer. There may be economic reasons, since the boost she gives to a book's sales is surely much appreciated by the author and publisher. Or maybe she just has quirky taste. Who knows?

      As for Buddhist anti-egoism, this is antithetical to the whole American way of life, not just to Oprah's egoism. I'll look into Tolle's book, but I've got mixed feelings about what I know of Buddhism.

  3. Yeah look at Tolle's book. I am really curious about what your opinion on it will be. He claims to be essentially summarizing the real message of all popular religious leaders (Jesus, Buddah, etc). Maybe it will aid you in your development of your own religion that you have been working on!

    I also have another question on this article. You say "And instead of dealing honestly and creatively with that revelation, she endures a more ambiguous form of suffering, avoiding her natural angst only by practically lobotomizing herself, by means of excessive mental detachment." Aren't you committing a naturalistic fallacy here? Or... something like that? If angst is natural, as you say, are we to assume it is good? Maybe partial self-lobotomy via the revelation that everything is connected and that we shouldn't worry too much about our individual lives isn't natural, but does that mean it isn't better?

  4. I know I am years behind, but I just found your blogs . . . I am enjoying the hell out of them. Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. I'm glad you like the writings. You might try the PDF eBook installments, which you can find at the top or at the right here.

      As for Abraham, which you ask me about elsewhere, I criticize the Islamic interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac story in a recent article, which you can find here:


  5. Cain,

    First, this link is relevant to my post. If you don't mind: https://www.simonsfoundation.org/quanta/20130917-a-jewel-at-the-heart-of-quantum-physics/

    I've been reading your blog for about two weeks now, and I'm impressed. This might not mean much to you, I just wanted to let you know that your thoughts have had a profound effect on at least one human creature.

    I've been meaning to send you a message with more of my thought on the various subjects you bring up, but I couldn't wait to ask you a question that occurred to me yesterday.

    Assuming what is said in the preceding article is true, that according to current quantum physics, spacetime arises as a property of a vastly more complicated shape. That our universe may well be a reflection of Plato's World of Forms, that we may live in a fractal shape (explaining such things as statistical coincidence and Fibonacci spirals), that samsara did indeed arise from Brahman. And assuming that those examples are metaphors, along with the quantum model, but taking the quantum model as the most acceptable to the current human animal's manifest image. How would this affect your philosophy, if at all?

    What I mean to say is: what if nature's apparent undeadness is only a result of information loss, as Bakker would put it? That we see nature as an undead, monstrous machine only because we are not equipped well enough to understand its totality? Now, I understand that our reality would still practically be the same as before. At least for the moment, as we can't well zip off to some other dimension, let alone comprehend it if we could manage. So I'm not suggesting a total reformulation of your ideas. We are limited and are forced to live within our limitations. But what I'm trying to get at is this: if we are trying to be as rational as possible (however vain that attempt may be) when it comes to our conception of reality, isn't it somewhat silly to assume that we've come to the end-all, be-all of metaphysical descriptions? Isn't opting for the scientist's metaphysics because her mechanics are impeccable a bit dangerous, in that we shut ourselves off to possibilities? I'm not saying abandon science, quite the contrary. I'm asking if relegating science to its current definition of material is not folly.

    I get the inherent dangers of what I'm suggesting as well. We don't want to backslide into anthropocentric forms of belief. But this is not what I'm suggesting. I'm saying that relegating our minds to spacetime-centric beliefs may be just as dangerous if one of our aims is to live in accordance with truth, or at least within a consistent framework that somewhat reflects what we seem to know about existence. To the point, what if there are things about reality, suggested by science, that inform spacetime in ways we can't comprehend yet, if ever? This would be like your evaluation of the Gnostics' Source. Admittedly, still terrifying in that we can't touch it or know it. However it does bring up a potentiality I haven't yet seen you address: the complexity of our reality may be so vast that its apparent undeadness is another facade.

  6. There's more I could go into. But I'll let you digest and respond. I've read a bit of your work, by no means all of it, but I think a fair sampling. So I'd be interested in your direct response to these questions, rather than a "go read this" response, unless warranted. Not to be a dick about it.

    I really love your work. It's helping me ground myself. The scientific image has depressingly powerful explanatory power. I can't ignore many things Bakker says. I've read some Ligotti. Some Metzinger. I'd been a techno-optimist (despite my pre-existing understanding of the stealth oligarchy, as you put it), now you're throwing that into question. I have some questions on that account as well. For example, is it not tragically heroic to try to alleviate the material suffering of billions of human animals through automated production? Even if it is ultimately futile, if the herd is going to continue to be more concerned with the manifest rather than the scientific, isn't this a sort of noble goal? To understand the truth, yet help others within their illusions? Maybe I should just shoot you an email.


    1. Thanks very much. It's always nice to hear from a reader who's getting something out of the articles.

      A clarification about the undeadness metaphor: the metaphor is meant to cover all of nature, which is the world that’s scientifically explained. Higher dimensions of nature could be thought of as undead (zombielike in their mindless creativity) as well, as long as the science that posits them is methodologically naturalistic, which is to say that it’s atheistic and that it objectifies phenomena. Now, Plato’s Forms are themselves supposed to be manifestations of something he called the Good. Whatever the Good is, it’s intrinsically normative and thus not satisfactorily explained in objective terms. Thus, Platonism isn’t naturalistic even if it is atheistic.

      I’m quite open to thinking that space and time are manifestations of a deeper reality. Indeed, I’m even open to supernaturalism and theism, as long as we’re considering esoteric versions of them. For me, though, these metaphysical questions should be understood in aesthetic terms. These are just fictional stories we’re telling at that philosophical, largely artistic level. So I think that if we’re going to be monotheists, we should get into God’s psychology and that leads to a much more pessimistic kind of religion than what you find in monotheism for the masses. My preferred religion would be naturalistic, though, and thus compatible with science. A better way of saying that is to say that a religion that begins with the existential questions should take naturalism as a Nietzschean challenge and so the supreme religion would make the best out of the worst-case ontology for sentient creatures.

      I used to call my sketch of that supreme religion existential cosmicism. Notice that cosmicism makes your point that there may be higher realities that dwarf the one we’re familiar with. The question is whether that perspective should uplift or terrify us. Lovecraft thought that supernaturalism is a terrifying prospect, because we ought to lose all of our self-confidence in relation to a vastly-superior alien or more profound realm. The point is that our values become myopic, just as the ancients’ values were even more laughable since they were based practically on solipsism, on the view that the universe barely extended past our planet.

      As for how the intriguing idea of the amplituhedron affects my philosophy, we should be a little cautious here. As I understand the article, what the physicists have there is a tool for simplifying calculations in quantum mechanics. This tool is connected somehow to Penrose’s twistor theory, and Penrose is a Platonist, I believe. Anyway, the point is that there will be a split between realist and instrumental interpretations of this tool, that is, of this mathematical concept of the higher-order “jewel,” the amplituhedron.

      But suppose it turns out that these higher dimensions exist. Again, unless we’re talking about God, those dimensions will be undead, although I grant you that the decay metaphor may no longer so apt, because spatiotemporal change would be illusory. As the article puts it, change would happen as a result of the higher-dimensional object’s geometric structure, but the object itself would be eternal. Mainlander’s dark theology might still apply: the amplituhedron becomes the spirit which dies in some sense by becoming Plato’s shadow world, the universal corpse that decays in space and time. The question is how to understand the relation between nature and the higher dimensions described by the exotic math. I’m not sure that any philosophical account of that relation would amount to more than a fiction, in which case aesthetic criteria become paramount. The question would be whether the metaphor is compelling as fiction.

    2. Precisely because I see these metaphysical questions as spurs to create art made out of ideas, I’m open to other metaphors besides the undead god one. Recently, I’ve been pondering the hypothesis that the universe is a simulation running on a computer in another universe. Maybe this simulation hypothesis is consistent with the Platonism you’re proposing.

      Plato gave us the cave metaphor which influenced Gnosticism and Christianity. It would seem that nature becomes a fallen world, compared to the higher one, in which case we’re stuck with our delusions that make sense to us because we’re fallen creatures. Gnostics were optimistic, though, since they maintained that we belong to the higher world but have forgotten our true home because we’ve been distracted by nature. I doubt that that sort of view could be formulated without resorting to theism.

      In any case, I suspect that metaphysical naturalism is obsolete, even without the amplituhedron. The multiverse interpretation of QM falsifies that kind of naturalism six ways from Sunday, since all possible universes would be actual. I suppose we’d have to ask ourselves whether something like the amplituhedron is natural or supernatural. Plato divides the shadow world of copies from the original world of Forms, but says that both are encompassed by the Good, so we have a hierarchy rather than a duality. It certainly seems like a higher-dimensional world would be supernatural, but then again the ancients would have said the same about distant galaxies, since they were no part of our familiar world. Modern scientists connected all of the stars and galaxies by positing deeper structures like spacetime and atoms. Scientists are methodologically naturalistic and so they’d posit various structures to connect the lower- and higher-dimensional worlds, in which case they’d naturalize the latter.

      The dichotomy that’s harder to naturalize is the one between the normative and the factual, so the crux would be whether there’s anything intrinsically normative about the higher-order world, making it pretty much a heaven for the Good. Scientific, third-personal objectification is quite unsuitable to making sense of normative concepts, since it ends up changing the topic. Existential philosophy gives us a much better grasp of what’s at stake when we consider normative questions of how things should be (e.g. of which world is better, the lower- or higher-dimensional one).

      Anyway, I’ll have to think more about this, but those are my thoughts for the moment. I should probably write an article on this kind of neo-Platonism. Thanks for sending me the link.

    3. I appreciate the thought you put into your response. To clarify, I'm not tied to a Platonic or neo-Platonic view of the amplituhedron. It seemed like an interesting parallel. But to see that Penrose is a Platonist takes steam out of the apparent wonder of the connection. I don't put much stock in a situation that separates reality in a way that is dualistic, nevermind the ridiculous normative assumptions on Plato's part. As a metaphor, everything existing in connection, or everything being capable of being modeled as a system or a system of nested systems makes much more sense to me.

      What you said briefly about simulated reality piques my interest the most. Last autumn I was big into that stuff. If you end up writing about it, I'd be interested in the reasons for the shifts in your thinking. And if you have written about it, point me in the right direction. I suspect my reasons for finding it interesting in the first place were the results of a lunatic disposition of a drop-out and re-entry, mid-20s, undergrad, philosophy major, introverted, omega. I probably had nothing interesting to say about the thing, but the unreality of the idea was fun. The way it fits in nicely with how we live our lives as flawed models within flawed models. How the outside world is so massively out of reach (the inner world as well).

      I'm also curious as to why you say you used to call your hypothetical religious format existential cosmicism. It looks as though you still hold onto the undeadness of nature (which is one of the most badass metaphors). So if you hold onto undeadness, it would seem that you hold onto cosmicism. Cosmicism to me implies the horror of the potential worst case ontological scenario brought on by accepting the challenge of the explanatory power of naturalism (as you said above). So it doesn't seem like you've dumped that. And you've mentioned aesthetics and the creation of art to still be important to you. I'm wondering what's changed such that the title has changed.

      This is all rambling. I'm working on a shitty paper. Loaded with coffee. Thanks for your patience. And thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm well aware that I'm not near your level when it comes to this stuff, so what you have to offer is immensely appreciated. I can internalize well what you and Bakker say (even when he's being hyper-technical). I just have difficulty spouting back in the same language.

    4. I haven't written yet about the simulation hypothesis. I read this paper that talks about a number of intriguing facts in physics that the hypothesis explains:


      Also, there are many important papers here, most of which I haven't read:


      As for existential cosmicism, no it's just the name that I haven't used in a while, because I find it clunky. I haven't changed my views, although I've been adding a lot to them. Cosmicism, though, is really just the idea that mysterianism has horrible implications. The key point is that our cognitive abilities are limited, compared to what there is to know. When we reflect on those limitations, we begin to feel smaller and less important than we'd like to be. In particular, all of our anthropocentric values become absurd. Lovecraft's pantheon of aliens and gods was meant to represent the aspect of reality that we can never fathom and thus that carries out its agendas, being quite indifferent to us. So yes, the undeadness idea fits in as a way of getting past our anthropocentrism, but there's more to cosmicism than just the undeadness metaphor.

      By the way, I don't think you or anyone else should try to write in someone else's language, as it were. There are a number of writers that have influenced my writing style, so it's good to try to temporarily emulate someone's style, but that's only a means to an end. Our ultimate goal as writers should be to try to find our own language or style, and we do that by practicing a lot. So just be true to your thoughts and don't worry about whether you're not sounding like me or Scott Bakker or anyone else. That's my advice, anyway.

    5. Thanks for the advice man. Despite that you may not have been using "write" literally, I love writing, so I appreciate that statement. It fits in well with what I posted below simultaneously, finding your own metaphysics (myths) to ground yourself in.

      Two more things. How would you say the multiverse idea falsifies metaphysical naturalism? And given that you've written God Decays, any advice for writing fiction?

      Thanks for the links!

    6. Part of why I'm curious about metaphysical naturalism here is that it seems tied in with your system. You reject theism seemingly on naturalistic grounds. Also, if metaphysical naturalism is false, do we hold onto methodological naturalism because it's pragmatic, which you have already said is an empty reason for doing anything? I'm left thinking metaphysical naturalism is this worst-case scenario challenge you've accepted, without fully accepting it as the grounds for existence? This makes a kind of sense, as being human it would be arrogant to say we have the final answer on existence.

  7. Been thinking a bit more about simulations and it fits nicely with how our selves are models made by the brain, how the perceived world is a brain-model of a more complex situation. In a simulation, science would be assessing how the program operates, how it's shaped by the hardware of a computer, without access to the hardware itself. Given that we always represent it's a cool metaphor.

    By the way, I dig what you said elsewhere about metaphysics ultimately being myths for the scientistic or rationalistic mind to chew on. Again, given that we model without direct access, this is a great way to look at it. It frees the individual up to create art based around new myths, rather than having the color sucked out of life by a nihilistic narrative (such narratives seem too easy).

    1. The word "nature" becomes vacuous if it refers to an infinity of different universes, each defined by an incommensurable set of laws--unless the sets aren't incommensurable and there's a set of laws governing the megaverse and determining how universes pop out of it, in which case the unified whole of nature might be the megaverse. We can refer to our universe as nature, instead, but then naturalism wouldn't work in metaphysics, since ontology would have to include all of the other universes, including ones that we regard as supernatural. So if you believe that all possible universes are real, it doesn't seem meaningful to speak of nature as fundamental. In the megaverse, none of the universes is fundamental. Without some deeper, meta-laws governing the megaverse, science comes to an end in explaining what happens only in our universe, and so naturalism, the view that only science tells us what's real, isn't the deepest philosophical position.

      I reject theism for numerous reasons, some of which are aesthetic rather than naturalistic (see Christian Crudities). I don't think I say that pragmatism is empty. On the contrary, I think some version of pragmatism may inform the enlightened, transhuman perspective, the one which sees personhood as an illusion. This keeps coming up in my debate with Scott Bakker. The trick is to characterize pragmatism without presupposing meaning, purpose, or normativity. A more suggestive word for pragmatism might be "instrumentalism" and the key point is that there are no users of the instruments. So everything becomes a means to an end, or a stage in a construction process, but the ends aren't mentally represented because the process is undead (impersonally creative).

      Anyway, I talk about methodological naturalism, because the worst-case scenario is the one laid out by scientific objectification and scientists are methodological naturalists, because they don't care much about metaphysics or philosophy and thus can't be bothered with metaphysical naturalism. Naturalism is their business, not idle speculation, as far as they're concerned.

      By the way, I wonder if you could confine your future comments to as few posts as possible, instead of parceling them out like you did with the above three short posts. I mean that I prefer to see long comments than many short ones, just to avoid unnecessarily knocking out comments from this blog's Recent Comments list.

  8. Hey Ben,
    I was in the process of translating the article in Greek, when I noticed that the first paragraph of "pessimistic mystics" stops mid-sentence at a comma (same thing goes for the PDF version). What's missing there?

  9. I love this blog for its horror and darkness , personally however drift about meaning I go about life by drifting through the parts, my world view is personified by hypocrisy, so I stand both in the pit of hell looking apon lifes horrors and darkness but fly too into the eternal sky and look at the wonders. My view wanders in every direction , splitting into two wherever lay division like a Hydra, wandering the infinite maze , I rejoice in absurdity , critize but love religion , agree with the atheists but cross the chasm anyway , every word for or against I drink, I do not follow one prophet but every single word in the subject of life. I sit in the halls of faith and ignorance , but know and agree it is madness , but still I search for ways on the other side accepting oblivion and a mindless world , I drink from every cup , be it the deepest horror or the brightest star. I purposely deceive myself for entertainment then laugh at my own delusion. I understand the ridiculous absurdity that is God , I know we can't be certain he exists in the eyes of an agnostic and I also beleive in it depending on the topic I'm thinking of, I soar through the ship of mind , building my own worlds irrelevant of their success or failure , engineering not one world view but many and drift among them depending on context, offering my theology to those who beleive and living in reality with those who don't. Creating worldviews from the parts is my art , looking through them and cherishing each one by living in each. I journey through the minds multiverse looking at every world we make and love and hate each one.

    1. That's pretty much what I'd call a postmodern perspective you have there, Logan. It's interesting that you're not saying you're a relativist, though; instead, you suggest your worldview may be based on hypocrisy. I think it's very hard for anyone to live up to his or her highest principles. It's hard to be your authentic self, because we each have different selves or sides of ourselves that are called upon in different situations or settings.

      We always want to think we're the star of our show, like in the animated movie Inside Out, that we're the protagonist of our life's story, and so we don't want to believe we're ever deeply in the wrong. We'll go out of our way to rationalize or confabulate to avoid admitting that we've screwed up big time. So we look on the bright side or find some way to redeem ourselves and retrieve some shred of dignity--even after we confront some stark truths about our existential situation.

      I like how you think of worldviews as artworks, but this raises the question of what the best response to art should be. Rich folks in China and elsewhere "appreciate" art by buying it all up, by possessing it for the sake of making wise investments. The masses altogether ignore fine art that's produced by independent outsiders with vision; instead, the majority in post-industrialized societies fall for corporate propaganda such as the advertisements and low-brow entertainments in pop music, TV and Hollywood. So the best art tends to be either ignored or horded by sociopathic power elites.

      How *should* we relate to art and thus to the natural and artificial worlds-as-art? Should we "cherish" them, as you suggest? It's a big question. I think the crux of an inspiring answer depends on an answer to a related question: how is tragic heroism possible? That is, what virtues are needed to be heroic even when all hope is lost, when the game is obviously rigged and life is proven to be ultimately absurd? What could that kind of heroism even mean?