Sunday, September 1, 2013

Brassier’s Nihilism and the Creation of Meaning

Ray Brassier is associated with the speculative realist movement in continental philosophy, the movement being a reaction against what Meillassoux calls “correlationism,” in After Finitude. Kant was an Enlightenment philosopher who found a way of condemning dogmatic, anti-scientific thinking while leaving room for philosophy and for religious faith. He did this by making the relation between mind and the rest of the world foundational in his worldview. For the Kantian, mind and world are interdependent: the world we perceive is preconditioned by our ways of understanding it, that is, by the innate cognitive faculties we bring to bear, and in so far as the mind is this cognitive system, it requires input from something outside itself, obtained by the senses. On this transcendental basis, Kant could say that all knowledge, whether empirical or necessary, has objective (universal) and subjective aspects. Science deals with the real world, but only in so far as things in themselves are humanized, as it were, and philosophy deals with the epistemic grounds of that humanization. Meanwhile, religion and morality are preserved, because they have to do with the world as it is prior to our mental processing of it, and reason must be agnostic about that hidden dimension of all things.

Speculative realists think the subjective aspect of this Kantian compromise between science and religion has been disastrous for continental philosophy, beginning with Hegel and continuing with Husserl, Heidegger and the postmodern relativists and antirealists whom many think now give philosophy a bad name. The realist denies that the relation between mind and world is fundamental; instead, the world of objects that science explains is at the base of everything and minds must answer to that world. We know the things in themselves, not just shadows we project onto them due to our methods of understanding. Now, it’s hard to see how philosophy remains relevant, given this realism about objective things in-themselves. In short, there seems no need for speculation (in “speculative realism”) if everything is objective and scientists and mathematicians have their hands full investigating the nature of all objects, including ourselves or at least our bodies, social systems, and everything else that can be objectified.

Meaning versus Truth

Well, Brassier ends his book, Nihil Unbound, by saying that philosophy ought to be “the organon of extinction” (“organon” means an instrument of thought). What Brassier does, you see, is draw out the nihilistic implications of this realism about objects, which is to say more broadly, this philosophical naturalism. In an interview in which he summarizes his view, Brassier says he’s a nihilist because meaning (purpose or value) is opposed to truth and he sides with truth. The more we know, the more meaning seems unreal. By contrast, he says, Nietzsche saves meaning by denying there’s any truth. When people claim to know the facts, they’re only trying to empower themselves, says Nietzsche. Truth claims are manipulations of people with words. Thus, after the death of God, it’s up to us to cherry pick the fictions that serve us best for psychological, ethical, or aesthetic reasons.

You might think it’s obvious that Nietzsche’s antirealism about truth is incoherent, since he presupposes his truths about the prevalence of power games, about God’s nonexistence, and so on. But Nietzsche’s view is subtler than this would suggest. He called himself a perspectivist; he adopts different ways of looking at an issue, without committing to belief in any truth. Moreover, he’s a great literary stylist and aphorist, not a systematic thinker, so I think his writings were intended as quasi-fictions, not as straightforward theories. Thus, when he talks about power, manliness, and so on, his remarks should be read as hypothetical. Nietzsche creates fictional worlds and explores their implications, rather than trying to confirm his writings correspond to reality. In short, Nietzsche is interested more in the existential or ethical coherence of a modern or postmodern perspective than in the empirical or necessary truth of his propositions.

In any case, Brassier implies that Nietzsche isn’t sufficiently serious about science. Science is not just one among many perspectives, leaving us free to pick another that better suits our purpose. Science tells us the facts that obtain in the real world of objects. And that world is absolutely meaningless. In this regard, Brassier agrees with Lovecraft’s cosmicism: nature is perfectly indifferent to us and there’s no trace of us anywhere beyond our planet, so our anthropocentric metaphors are of no avail. Certainly, theism is obviously false in light of the objective nature of reality. After all, what is a world of objects? It’s physical, decomposable into mindlessly-ordered mechanisms, and in the case of our corner of the universe, it’s doomed to extinction. Even if nature is unified, in the sense that objects are caught up in interdependent processes, as indeed many physicists believe, we are limited creatures that come and go, just as our species will perish, as will all life left on Earth when our sun explodes. Brassier puts this latter point paradoxically, by saying that we should live as if this extinction had already happened—and indeed, had happened even before terrestrial life began. His point, I take it, is the fatalistic one that because our extinction is naturally inevitable, we ought to think of ourselves in terms of how nature treats us: we are nothing now because we’re sure to become nothing.

None of the other quadrillions upon quadrillions of objects in the universe cares about us, so neither should we care about ourselves or each other. Likewise, none of these other objects has a purpose, so neither does human life. In short, because reality is made up of objects, as science shows, there are no subjects; that is, there are no people, nor spirits, souls, or anything else that lives up to our humanizing self-image. We seem to be rational, conscious, and autonomous, but science shows we’re not really so—at least, not in the way we usually think; our selfhood is illusory, as Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory says, and to preserve that illusion along with our self-respect, we create a world fit for subjects, full of more flattering illusions like purposes and rights and ideals. That social world is unreal, implies Brassier, and philosophy shouldn’t be in the business of feeding such delusions of subjectivity. Only lifeless objects are real, because science presents us only with objects, with material, finite and contingent things, and science alone tells us the truth. Philosophy’s task, then, is to help reconcile us with horrible reality, to help us live as the nihilists we ought to be.

Another way of framing this prescription of nihilism in terms of extinction is to think of living things not as having any vital, supernatural core, but as being undead, as being robots that simulate what we think of as higher dimensions but that are actually objects enslaved to natural law. To say that we’re already extinct, then, is to say that science presents us with the shocking truth, in effect, that we’re more like zombies than like human beings, given the ordinary folk’s conception of the latter. There never was any life in the universe, if by “life” we’re thinking of something the ending of which would be in any way wrong, such as tragic, inhumane or sinful. The universe is devoid of life in that sense, because everything is fundamentally meaningless; metaphysically, we’re one with rocks, which is to say that we matter no more than they do. Nihilism, then, is the realization that, contrary to Dawkins, science really does unweave the rainbow in that science disenchants nature, exorcising all traces of subjectivity from measurable, manipulable, knowable objects. Nihilism is the philosophy needed for living with intellectual integrity as one of the walking dead.

Critique of Nihilism

There are a few lines of criticism of this nihilism which you might be pondering. First, we can question whether science really does show that only objects exist and thus that meaning is unreal. For one thing, science isn’t equivalent to physics. There’s also psychology and the social sciences, and thus the possibility of emergent levels of nature. So we needn’t think of science as always reductionistic; indeed, chaos theory seems to show that the universe consists largely not of decomposable mechanisms, with causal relations neatly holding together parts of whole systems, but of dynamic, entangled systems which, like quantum ones, are unpredictably changed by the very attempt to disentangle them through measurement or some other intervention. As I explain elsewhere, objectivity isn’t the same as letting the world speak for itself; the world is shy, as it were, objectivity requires that we trot out methods to incite nature to reveal herself piecemeal, and those methods leave our fingerprints on what we’re studying so that we have to backtrack to sever our contribution.

But I don’t think this response takes us so far in this context. If reason inevitably objectifies, whatever’s rationally understood will appear at best to be undead, classified, quantified, manipulated, dissected, and disenchanted material things. Exapted reason is our faculty for figuring out how things work and when we have that useful information, we have the option of thinking instrumentally about what we thereby understand; moreover, because we’re greedy and bent on survival at all costs, we jump at the chance to ignore questions of the thing’s worth, given that with reason we’re poised to be masters over the objects of our inquiry. Perhaps we oversimplify when we say that science hands us the facts, since the facts are, as Kant said, partly constructed by our cognitive methods. Still, Brassier’s point would then be that even if we should be transcendental rather than naïve realists, reason indirectly tells us the objective truth and that truth is opposed to any enchantment of the world through thoughts of its meaning. (Transcendental realism would say that reason shows us directly the facts produced by an interaction between reason’s methods and the object of inquiry, and on that basis allows us indirectly to figure out what the mind-independent facts should be.) Reason finds no meaning in the world, whether that’s because the real world is indifferent and worthless or because reason objectifies and thus zombifies whatever it touches.

Still, this point about science’s focus as an objectifying instrument makes more plausible another objection, which is that science is capable of uncovering only part of reality, leaving the possibility that a normative aspect of things is beyond reason’s purview. Saying otherwise would be a scientistic overstretch, since not even reason in general, let alone science, needs to encompass everything there is in the world. Science might be like the proverbial hammer that inspires its user to think of everything as nails. Whether (1) the world can’t speak for itself, because we always employ interfaces to intermediate between us and the object of inquiry, and thus nature’s objectivity or undeadness is partly constructed or merely apparent in more or less the Kantian way, or (2) Brassier’s realism is correct and science does present us directly with the facts, those rationally-obtained facts may be only part of what the world has to offer. Reason may be a limited tool, so just because there’s no meaning in the truth that’s rationally discovered doesn’t entail nihilism—unless we’re willing to defend that extra scientistic or rationalistic step of assuming that human reason can comprehend all of existence. This optimism about our cognitive powers would be opposed to cosmicist pessimism, to the assumption that much of the world is alien to us because we’re puny creatures that must therefore suffer from a lack of self-esteem, to say the least.

In any case, how does Brassier think of rational truth? After all, yet another objection presents itself at this point: if there’s such a thing as the semantic property of truth, why aren’t there also the normative and aesthetic properties of rightness, purpose, and beauty? In his interview, Brassier addresses a similar objection when he says,
Some might object that there is a latent contradiction between my denial of the metaphysical reality of narrative order in nature and my appeal to a narrative of cognitive progress in intellectual history. But there is no contradiction: it is perfectly possible to track explanatory progress in the conceptual realm without invoking some dubious metaphysical narrative about the ineluctable forward march of Spirit. I think Robert Brandom’s reconstructive reading of Hegel does just this—it frees the normative ideal of explanatory progress from its metaphysical, and ultimately mythological, inflation into the universal history of Spirit.
I think Brassier may be right that not all normative evaluations need be grandiose, but this seems beside the point. The point is that if science entails nihilism, because the objective truth is that nature is bereft, how can there be room for any normative talk of progress at all, grandiose and mythological or otherwise? Indeed, any notion of cognitive progress requires purpose and thus meaning! The purpose would be to know how the world works and the contention would be that through trial and error or a competition of ideas, we’re steadily achieving that goal. True, this purpose would be merely ours, which would make it subjective (mind-dependent), but that needn’t also make it unreal. So the very science which Brassier uses to bludgeon the naïve folk who cling to their archaic delusions seems to show us there’s at least one enchantment left in our bag of tricks: hope for cognitive progress which science seems to fulfill.

But I think Brassier has a better response, found at the end of Nihil Unbound:
Thus, if everything is dead already, this is not only because extinction disables those possibilities which were taken to be constitutive of life and existence, but also because the will to know is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction, and strives to become equal to the trauma of the in-itself whose trace it bears. In becoming equal to it, philosophy achieves a binding of extinction, through which the will to know is finally rendered commensurate with the in-itself. This binding coincides with the objectification of thinking understood as the adequation without correspondence between the objective reality of extinction and the subjective knowledge of the trauma to which it gives rise. It is this adequation that constitutes the truth of extinction. (239, my emphases)
Here we find a causal theory of truth. Brassier is saying, I think, that being a fact is a matter of causing us to feel a kind of trauma that matches the nothingness at the heart of anything in the world. The world is desolate and so a statement is true if it matches a thing’s deadness (objectivity) by way of the statement’s liability to cause the requisite suffering in the speaker! As I say elsewhere, reason is accursed, because reason’s bound to make us suffer by showing us a world that likely differs from how we’d prefer it to be. This strikes me as a naturalistic theory of truth, since truth becomes a sort of wound produced by the world’s assault on our senses and sensibilities. However, this theory also seems to make rational truth subjective in a way that undermines Brassier’s nihilism. Realistic truth becomes the world’s sorrowful impact on us, but that depends on the mindset we bring to bear. If we don’t happen to be charmed by the old enchantments of theism, the promise of immortality, and the like, the world might impact us differently, which means we might not suffer in response to the scientific facts and so we needn’t feel the urgency of nihilism.

Still, Brassier can say that in so far as we’re rational, we will feel the trauma of knowing the world’s undead nature. Far from being a cold instrument of calculation, reason becomes a dawning realization of nature’s horrible inhumanity. As Brassier says in the interview, “I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition.” The progress, though, must be just the furtherance of a natural process, namely the decay produced by the wound that a monstrous world inflicts on a hapless creature. When we think about the world logically or empirically, we detach from our hopes and dreams and from our irrational commitment to any feel-good narrative, and so we’re bound to feel alienated from our irrational side and from the world that forces this ordeal on us. Brassier seems to be saying that reason isn’t just the act of measurement or of experimentation, but the aftershock that ought to be felt by anyone who enters this rational frame of mind. Nihilism is just a name for the inner desolation left when we soberly acknowledge that the world can be explained without our anthropomorphic bells and whistles, that those who best understand the physical nature of things, in fact, are experts precisely in (temporarily) divesting themselves of their humanity, of engaging the world like unfeeling machines, handling exotic mathematical formulas that baffle the nakedly biased and emotional hoi palloi.

Objective and Subjective Truth

Now, however, I think the telling weakness of this nihilism shows itself, at last. If this is how to make sense of Brassier’s nihilism, I think he’s open to the charge that objective truth, which is actually a devastating effect on our mind, needn’t be the only cognitively-relevant effect produced by an interaction between nature and us. Follow it through: we have the capacity for rational detachment and so we’re drawn to the world’s physicality, to its undeadness, objectivity, and thingness, and that rational engagement with the world properly ends in nihilism, which is crestfallenness, awareness that our rational judgments damage us, that, to reverse the metaphor that’s often attributed to Francis Bacon, when we think critically, we’re being raped by nature. Far from mastering the world, thanks to logic and science, we’re bowing our heads and being stabbed in the gut with each act of our rational detachment. We’re consigned to nihilism, to the humiliating prospect of being left to lick our wounds and rue what happens naturally when the world is beheld by reason. Just as some women who are raped prefer to forget the event because the abuse and the objectification are too painful to contemplate, so too even some rational people fail to come to grips with the root of their ennui.

But now notice that we can imagine a parallel process as follows. We have nonrational capabilities as well, such as our aesthetic taste and the perfectibility of the emotional side of our character, which distinguish virtue from vice. Suppose, then, we enter not the rational frame of mind, but an emotional one based on character, experience, taste, and culture. In that case, when the world’s physicality strikes us, we needn’t suffer the rational person’s dread of nature’s hollowness, because now an altogether different natural interaction occurs: we fill that hollowness with meaning. As I lay out elsewhere, we transform dead facts into value-laden symbols, replacing the wilderness with a cultural world of ideas and with a concrete, artificial environment that embodies them. When I say, then, that we fill the nothingness with meaning, this isn’t an idle figure of speech. On the contrary, this is clearly a process that’s just as real as the existential trauma suffered by someone undergoing prolonged objectivity (dehumanization). The artificial worlds we build that are filled with embodiments of our myths and ideals (think of advertisements, architecture, sports events, political rituals, and even just the myriad uses of language) are real and they’re clearly different from the pre-existent, merely physical and wholly undead wilderness. Here, then, we have another clash which leaves behind not trauma but a literal enchantment, a bestowal of meaning upon the void, a vitalization of zombie nature. Brassier might call the meanings that make up culture “illusory” or “subjective,” but because these meanings are naturally produced by a parallel process of interaction between the world and some mental capacity, that belittling of meaning and normativity would strike me as arbitrary. The effects of the two interactions between mind and world are equally real.

Are we left, then, with Nietzsche’s relativism and antirealism or with Cartesian dualism, according to which we have two opposing worldviews which are (very roughly) the rational and emotional ones? Well, I do think there are two perspectives here and I agree with Brassier that rationality by itself leads to nihilism, disenchantment, angst, and so forth. Reason is accursed. But I don’t think the two perspectives are incommensurable so that the choice between them must be arbitrary. On the contrary, the perspectives are themselves naturally interrelated. We can speak of objective and subjective truth. The former is the trauma of learning that nature is fundamentally physical, that in itself, prior to our transformation of it, the universe is a harsh, mostly barren wasteland that’s doomed to destruction. By contrast, subjective truth is the feeling of rightness that results when instead of keeling over in horror after the world’s physicality slaps us in the face, we creatively undo that loathsome undeadness and surround ourselves with a more palatable version of the world that’s full of concrete vessels of purpose and ideality. So subjective truth is a salve for the trauma of objective truth, even as objective truth is a check on the vices of irrationality brought on by a wholesale escape into our fantasy worlds. The fact is we must live with both inclinations and we should avoid their opposite pitfalls. We should avoid scientism and nihilism, on the one hand, and delusion and irresponsible faith, on the other.

If nihilism is the view that the universe is absolutely meaningless, nihilism is false because there is plenty of meaning on our planet. That meaning is real although it’s also mind-dependent. But Brassier is in no position to condemn everything that’s mind-dependent, because rational truth is likewise dependent on the rational creature that suffers the trauma of knowing the otherness of much of what’s known. There would be facts with no organic life, but no truth since while truth isn’t a ghostly semantic relation, for Brassier, truth is the result of an interaction between mind and world, a trauma caused by an assault. Still, granting this, Brassier might say that most of the universe, namely the part untouched by organic life, is absolutely meaningless. And that recognition should lead us to question the meanings we produce, which in turn leads to nihilism, to skepticism about all meanings.

In response to this, I think Brassier’s extinction argument can likewise be paralleled. Brassier says we should think of organisms as if they were already extinct, since their extinction is inevitable and the killer, as it were, is already glaring at them with murder in its heart. Now, we could just as easily project our minds forward and imagine a different future, one in which intelligent life throughout the universe eventually transforms much of the wilderness, much as we’ve done on Earth. Perhaps some species will achieve godhood status in the transhuman scenario, thanks to the very progress in technoscience which Brassier assumes, in which case the sky’s the limit when we ponder the future ratio between meaningless physicality and meaningful artificiality. Maybe most of the universe will be colonized and somehow the tragic end of all things will be averted so that heaven will be technologically realized. Most of this is highly speculative, of course, but even if we grant that all life will eventually go extinct, it seems unlikely that in the billions of years remaining, the production of meaning through the cultural transformation of natural into artificial habitats will be confined to a handful of planets and then only for split seconds of galactic time. Some species might find means of viable interstellar travel and spread meanings and subjective truths, enchanting nature with the fairy dusts of their language and their creative use of technology. Taking into account how our technology has changed radically over just a few centuries, who knows what far future technology will construct? At least, there’s this unknown potential for creatures to spread meaning according to their subjective truths, and this further counters the absoluteness of Brassier’s nihilism. Thus, just as we can imagine ourselves as already being lifeless, because our star will explode, so too we can imagine much of the universe as already being invested with cultural meaning, because of the plausibility of assuming that such meaning will actually be created in time.


  1. Hey Ben, can you enlighten me about why there is fixation on the end state of things? Brassier says we are already extinct because we will become it some day, and you say we can hold out hope that life will spread universally some day -- yet what about now?

    I have an opinion about this, particularly how it relates to transhumanism, but want to read your reasoning first.

    1. I don't know if Brassier's fixated on eschatology. He takes this meditation on extinction from Lyotard. In fact, most of his book builds on the writings of other philosophers. Brassier selects ideas that are conducive to exploring and defending a kind of nihilism.

      As to why I speculate here about the far future, it's simply to parody Brassier's extinction argument. And I use the word "argument" charitably in this case. Honestly, I saw little reason to read the bulk of Nihhil Unbound, because its style is largely as I feared. For a number of reasons that I can think of, Brassier chooses to overcomplicate matters, to write godawful sentences of the stereotypical postmodern variety, especially when engaging with other texts in detail. Luckily, I suspect the details of his interpretations of Lyotard, Nietzsche, and the others are irrelevant to his overall case, if only because the details of those primary texts are more poetical than analytic or theoretical.

      If you're asking, though, whether a number of my writings here are fixated on the end of things, I think it's a matter of seeing the whole pattern for aesthetic purposes. A myth is a narrative which tells a story and thus posits a beginning, a middle, and an end. I see metaphysics as serving the role of myths for scientistic or rationalistic folks who like to think of themselves as ultrarational. And the end of nature might suggest a tragic metaphysics/myth, such as my version of monotheism which is based on Philipp Mainlander's ideas (God created the world as the means of killing himself).

      Also, I am indeed curious about transhumanism, science fiction, and the relationship between biology and technology. Is this a fixation? I don't know, because I talk about a great many things on this blog.

    2. Yeah my eyes glazed over at the excerpts.

      "A myth is a narrative which tells a story and thus posits a beginning, a middle, and an end."

      Indeed, while people argue about how rational people are (can be) I merely comment that everyone is addicted to narrative.

      You say that you are doing it for aesthetic purposes, so perhaps you're not ruled by the same impulses, but I strongly believe that much of the fixation generally is caused by fear of death. It seems that people always want the world to end and believe it'll happen in their lifetimes, almost like if they can admit they're going to die then it better be with everyone else at the same time [although of course many end of days scenarios have instant transporting up to heaven].

      What's interesting about transhumanism is that it has adopted the belief that immortality is possible and even inevitable, thus destroying one part of the end days fixation. However, this is now coming out in other ways: sure we can live billions of years, but can we survive the end of the universe?

      As this one commenter states, "On those rare occasions when I permit myself to ponder my mortality (if I don't think about it my death won't happen right?) I give this a lot of thought. I "plan" to live forever, but forever isn't really forever because the Universe will eventually end. Unless..."

      Egoism and narrative obsession combine to create armageddon in order to escape nothingness.

      And if people are too honest to realize they can escape, they demand nothingness for everyone.

    3. I agree the fear of death is relevant here, and I talk about related points in "The Meaning of Death." In particular, I talk about eternal life as deathly rather than lively, as a kind of hell rather than heaven.

      I do think we're obsessed with narratives. There's a theorist whose names escapes me, who says we're not just a tool-using species, but more specifically a story-telling one. Stories are fundamental to culture and we need culture as our matrix of illusions, to allow us to be happy despite our accursed high intelligence which threatens us with nihilism.

      I suppose the Zen Buddhist would say both reason and conventional aesthetics have to go, because they're part of unreality (maya). We need some sort of quantum or dream logic or mystical sense of nondual reality. Narratives and rational explanations alike only codify our confusions.

      But stories can be artistically powerful; they have an enchanting, mesmerizing effect. Just look at the mass media's power to indoctrinate, to spread memes and to frame events according to elite narratives. One of the main goals of this blog is to search for narratives that would be worthy of an unembarrassing naturalistic religion, a religion that promotes existential authenticity.

    4. I am of the opinion that contextual narratives are reality. Unreality occurs when ignorant of transcendental context.

      This article does an excellent job of describing what we have discussed over the last few weeks, and plays into this view.

      As it states, "This is what a cell is about. A cell,” he said, clasping some amberjack, “is a machine for turning experience into biology."

      And experience of course is largely based on narrative, which it goes on to expound about. This is why mechanistic explanations of biology are bound to fail and I think are a huge waste of resources.

      Since purpose literally creates biological reality, then it makes sense to me that we should focus on purpose first and biology within the context of purpose.

    5. Coming from the Continental tradition I can assure you that Ray's readings are top notch. He's writing for an Continentally trained crowd, but it's his ability to extract and analytically interpret continental arguments (and vice versa) that's a big part of the reason he's been so influential. Rhetorical differences aside, there's many parallels between the tradition, and personally, I find the depersonalized rhetorical conceit you find in the analytic tradition to be at least as problematic as what I like to call the 'High Continental Gothic' tone. You wax toward this rhetorical pole quite regularly yourself, Ben!

    6. I agree that the analytic style of philosophy has its drawbacks. Indeed, I think there's an ultrarational pretense that metaphysical issues can be decided with logic and evidence, whereas I think the answers are more like narratives (myths) and works of art. So I agree also that the tone of my blog is often more like that of prose-poetic Continental philosophy. However, I'm up-front about the fact that I'm offering philosophical rants, not academic arguments. My graduate philosophy work was strictly in the analytic tradition.

      As for Brassier, I'm sure you're right that his readings are generally top-notch, although from what I read of his interpretation of Nietzsche, I still maintain that he overcomplicates matters. (I just think the other writings he's interpreting are likely also overcomplicated. But I could be wrong because I haven't read them.) His explanation of how Nietzsche overcomes nihilism makes it seem like this is an issue in engineering where absolute precision is crucial or the whole thing doesn't work. Sorry, but Nietzsche wasn't a systematic thinker. Mind you, I suppose it's better to err on the side of precision than on the opposite side.

      What annoys me isn't just the style of much postmodern writing. It's the pretentiousness that seems to go along with it. It's one thing to acknowledge that rhetoric has its place in art and social games, but it's another to hide the mundaneness of your views behind smokescreens.

      In fact, I think there's a rather telling contrast between your use of technical terms in your philosophical/cog sci writings and Brassier's in his interpretations of other philosophical texts. Brassier seems to be following Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, and others who resort to bombastic jargon. I'm fine with such jargon for the sake of art (poetry), but I think such writers should mix their poetry with some plain-speaking, since I don't think postmodern theories are as counterintuitive as, say, quantum mechanics. Postmodern theories should translate smoothly into ordinary language.

      One reason why a writer wouldn't try to translate is because he's a charlatan. Brassier's interview, in which he summarizes his view of nihilism without any of the jargon, shows that he's not a charlatan, at least. But that makes the style of his book more annoying for me.

    7. Style is in the ear of the beholder, for sure. There without a doubt alot of chicanery hidden behind Continental excesses, which is one of the things that makes Ray such a standout. I obviously agree with mixing it up as well: I think it makes it that much more convincing.

      I also entirely agree with you about Nietzsche: he has no one view, and is far more interested in exploring conceptual possibilities than homing in on any mythical esoteric target. If I remember correctly, Brassier's reading in NU arises from the canonical po-mo interpretation of Nietzsche as putting all his eggs in the performative basket (rather than staking out the aporetic space between performance and representation, power and truth).

    8. Yeah, there are all of these sophisticated logical maneuvers Brassier sees in Nietzsche's overcoming of nihilism. He says Nietzsche tries to show that nihilism is logically contradictory or something like that. I think Nietzsche had numerous criticisms of nihilism, but the upshot is surely that it's the living, breathing will to power that's supposed to overcome Schopenhaurer's sort of depression. It's like the artist's leap of inspiration. We've got to create our values even with the shadow of nihilism hanging over us; that is, those of us who are mentally strong rather than sickly *will* do so in our bid for power.

      That's why I got out of Nietzsche, anyway. Maybe Brassier and the rest are onto some fascinating details in Nietzsche's discussion or maybe they're just talking out of their ass. It's one or the other, I'm afraid.

    9. Well Ray's specific critique as I remember it boils down to the irrationality of Nietzsche's affirmation, that it amount's to basically shouting 'Fuck it!' to the infinite and patting yourself on the back afterward. The suicide of reason in the ressurection of life. It's actually a nonanswer, an abdication if you like, in inferential terms. But in narrative terms it makes for one hell of a great yarn... The great, bootstrapping, existential hero.

      For pragmatic naturalists like Rorty this isn't a bad or unworkable thing at all, I suspect, but I forget his take on Nietzsche.

    10. This is interesting, because I believe many postmodernists think their irrationalism is more scientifically respectable than the analytic philosopher's rationalism, and this can be traced to the likes of Nietzsche and Hume. If cognitive science shows that we're animals and that we're not as rational as we think, why should we expect philosophical questions to have only rational answers? Nietzsche emphasizes some nonrational mental faculties, such as the will and aesthetic taste. But analytic philosophers think we should solve philosophical problems as if they were quasi-scientific. In this respect, analytic philosophy may be close to a kind of theology whose business is the propagation of noble lies, while the methods and attitudes of the postmodern irrationalists may be more in line with the scientific image.

    11. "If cognitive science shows that we're animals and that we're not as rational as we think"

      Yes, I was reading some of the modern philosophers' (analytic and continental) takes and seeing that the common theme was to "prove" that one thought or another was more or less likely based on internal logic; a tradition that goes all the way back to the create of western philosophy. The reviews were talking about how much of Kantian thought had been "proved invalid" because people created thought experiments that were against some of Kantian ontology and no philosopher could poke holes in it.

      To me this is a laughable take on the human condition and it occurred to me: could formal philosophy be largely disconnected from the masses because it only appeals to a couple of very rare personality types, the Myers-Briggs NTers?

      From this hypothesis, I looked at the language and statements and realized that it had many hallmarks of NT thought. Of course since NTs only make up less than 10% of the populace, western philosophy's take on the human condition would be rather limited.

      Although I'm an INTP, I've always been pragmatic and external oriented, so views that don't lead to direct motivation for behavior have never been very appealing.

      In my line of work, I've always wanted to find a pure mathematical genius to help, but it is exceedingly hard to find one that is pragmatic. A friend turned me onto one of the top guys at our university and I informally interviewed him, immediately seeing how he could be amazing.

      At the end I asked, "Let's suppose you come up with a theory that is pure and beautiful and seems perfect, but then when we start plugging in our data we discover we need to make heuristics that fudge over aspects to handle different use cases. How would you feel?" He looked like I had suggested genocide and replied that he would be devastated.

      I actually think many aspects of post-modernism are terrible because they are hyperlogical to the point of treating thought systems like they are pure mathematics. That is where the "science is just another belief system" can arise.

      I have watched several interviews with luminaries of the 20th century and when asked about the most important thing in life, they always respond with the same thing: be kind. Bertrand Russell said that this maxim was greater than any philosophy or knowledge he could conceive of. Vonnegut said that any story based in something other than kindness is destined for tragedy, while the simplest daily task based in kindness was divine. Huxley looked for kindness as metaphysical truth. The Dalai Lama says it is the core of every religion.

      And then of course I've explained why I think "science" shows that many things are functionally irrational.

      Perhaps many philosophers are asking the wrong questions.

    12. I think you're onto something here. In so far as philosophy is the love of knowledge, it's not hard to see why philosophers would have a rationalistic temperament. I'd go a step further and say that because reason is accursed, philosophers are more likely to be social outsiders. I'm sure there are extroverted philosophers, including some famous ones, but the act of philosophizing marginalizes you from society, because philosophy is about always being skeptical, always questioning everything. The paradigmatic case of this was that of Socrates, who was executed by the state. This is why philosophy is unpopular: it's not just that people with rationalistic personalities are hard to get along with; it's that philosophy (reason) subverts politically correct myths that make people happy.

    13. You are right that pure philosophy subverts myths/power structures, but so does science, socioeconomics, art and religion. Countless more have been executed for utilizing those methods than pure esoteric philosophy.

      I do not deny philosophy's power in providing a framework of questioning and skepticism, nor its ability to be foundational in purpose in other disciplines. I merely am suggesting that the approach seems too deep and narrow, ignoring fundamental aspects of humanity.

      By far the most powerful writer I have ever read concerning this issue is MLK. I highly encourage you to read this essay and see how his worldview is a combination of rationality and grace; existentialism merged with spirituality and a personal God. Several chapters of his autobiography expound on these connections and his personal struggles. Many of the most interesting personal points are about the nature of MLK's faith and the transformation from God as metaphysical philosophy to omnipresent grace revealed through daily struggle.

      While I don't anticipate ever experiencing a personal God, MLK's deftness in revealing and respecting the totality of the human condition creates a synthesis beyond compare; present company excepted of course.

    14. If you enjoyed Pilgrimage to Nonviolence, his Letter From Birmingham Jail is an excellent bookend that repeatedly makes parallelisms between Socrates/rationalism and (word isn't directly used but it's what he's referring to) satyagraha/justice.

    15. Thanks for the links. I read MLK's essay on his intellectual development. Yes, it's quite interesting, although I think his talk of a personal God at the end is anticlimactic. It's interesting that he studied existentialism, but I think his remark that the theologian can "use" existentialism is telling. MLK reminds me of Unamuno. These are realistic Christians who see the pitfalls of extreme rationalism and irrationalism (faith), but who nonetheless disappoint by accepting their culture's received wisdom. Frankly, it's their taste in art that bothers me.

      I like MLK's statement that "Reason, devoid of the purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations." But the question is what faith we should adopt. Here I think something like a taste for originality should be a criterion. MLK's religion simply bores me. I suppose he might have embraced it on pragmatic grounds, to ensure the success of his pacifist project in a Christian nation. In that case, his talk of a personal God would be a matter of pandering; he'd be primarily a salesman, a politician, or some sort of system manager. That too wouldn't be so inspiring. And what's become of his legacy? Obama's in office, but the US is as oligarchic and militaristic as ever, and Obama's a whopping disappointment for liberals.

      I agree that science, economics, art, and religion *can* also subvert conventional wisdom, although currently economics is highly politicized in the US, and postmodern art is largely irrelevant or likewise captured by power elites in the form of corporate advertizing. Again, theoretically, Christians should be opposing the American systems left, right, and center, but their religion too is utterly, grotesquely compromised and has been for centuries. Finally, as Scott Bakker and I agree, scientific naturalism does indeed have many unwelcome implications, but science also forms part of the political apparatus (think of the pharmaceutical, military, and even financial industries).

      There's such a thing as popular philosophy (e.g. the Philosophy of Simpsons/South Park/Twilight movies books, etc), but let's face it: "popular philosophy" is an oxymoron. Philosophy is relatively unpopular, because whatever dumbed-down, exoteric form it takes, that form isn't terribly useful. I suppose its most useful form is the happiness/self-help movement, but this takes place mostly in psychological rather than philosophical circles. Philosophy itself is largely unpopular because it's useless for the purpose of cynically maintaining an unenlightened social order. That's why philosophy is for the decadent elites and the outsiders who've escaped from the matrix.

    16. Is the purpose of RWUG personal satisfactory explanation or objective?

    17. I'm not sure I understand the question. The blog's main purpose is for me to find some peace of mind by working through the options for a viable philosophy/religion. It will also be a way to spread the word about my novels, the first one of which will go on sale soon.

      If you're asking whether I aim to be objective here, my main goal is to produce my best writing, and often that means that I try to channel my muse, to go into a trance and write from an intuitive, gut level. I think that makes for a relatively entertaining blog. These aren't dry philosophical articles I'm writing here, but philosophical rants; some are more philosophical than others and some are more rant-like. But I've also already done a lot of rational work forming the basis for my worldview, in my graduate philosophy years. And I still try to use reason and science to rein in my verbal art.

      I wonder what triggered this question, though, Mikkel. Did I say something that strikes you as particularly subjective?

    18. Well "for me to find some peace of mind by working through the options for a viable philosophy/religion [for me]." That is a fine and worthy goal.

      However, I need to keep the [for me] part in mind while reading your replies.

      Personally, I have a very hard time with being "someone" rather than an avatar of different perspectives. It's like my girlfriend says, "People think I don't really seem to care or be empathetic, but the problem is that I'm too empathetic."

      By that she means we read/listen to people and then evaluate from their experience first and foremost, judging on a few universal criteria. I guess they could be enumerated as: critical thinking (able to listen to reason/data and separate wheat from chaff quantitatively and qualitatively), compassion, dynamicism (change as the world changes) and transferrability (can it be taught to others).

      In my experience, only a few people display these traits; I'd say around 5%. I've found that the percentage seems consistent regardless of socioeconomic class or metaphysical beliefs, and that these 5% of people are able to get along and understand each other better than they can with the other 95% of their demographic peers.

      In that spirit, I would reckon that MLK is in the pantheon of humanity and it is a shame that he was killed so young. If he had lived long enough to see the popularization of scientific humanism and work with people like Sagan, then we would have a much different world.

      Which is to say that the pillars of meaning are based on beauty, love and curiosity. In your quest to find viability through beauty, studying the greats that have highlighted it primarily through love and curiosity will be of great benefit.

      Here is a speech by MLK that addresses your points about oligarchy, and how he recognized it would destroy all sense of justice and racial progress, leading to mass militarization.

      "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered...

      This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing -- embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate -- ultimate reality"

    19. I agree that MLK's speeches are worth studying. I didn't mean to dismiss everything he's written, or anything like that. I've also argued for pacifism, although not yet on this blog.

      I just feel that his stuff about a personal God doesn't sit well with the intellectual aspect of his writings or with all the studying he's done. It feels a little forced to me, like he's pandering. I know that there are plenty of intellectuals who are theists. It's just that I can't be sure whether MLK was going for the truth in his speeches or whether he had political motives.

      And his stuff here about love as the supreme unifying principle of life--that too seems to me little more than a cliche (maybe it became one largely because of his influence). I've got an article on this blog on whether love is the meaning of life, and I just find this to be a meme, not a profound truth.

      I don't even think this is the ultimate teaching of the major religions. The main point of Judaism, for example, is that God is absolutely transcendent, although his will is worked out in nature especially through his pact with a particular tribe of people. There's nothing there about universal love. Judaism is a tribal religion. Christianity makes the pact universal, but adds the concept of hell. I'm having a fascinating email exchange with an expert on Theravada Buddhism, and he pointed out that, far from being motivated by compassion, many enlightened Buddhists are inclined to starve themselves to death, to complete their escape from the horrors of being embodied in the food chain. The esoteric circles of the main religions tend to preach asceticism and withdrawal, not superheroic, politically-engaged compassion. So MLK might be cherry picking from religions for political purposes (like all politicians).

      Anyway, I think I should write on MLK. Are there other philosophical speeches of his that you know of? Or are they all philosophical?

    20. Good question! I have not come across speeches that are explicitly philosophical, but all his speeches contain many philosophical references. The more specific his target (his autobiography being the most) the more explicitly he writes, although his very widespread speeches (such as I Have a Dream) are very thematic within both secular and religious philosophy/imagery.

      "far from being motivated by compassion, many enlightened Buddhists are inclined to starve themselves to death, to complete their escape from the horrors of being embodied in the food chain"

      Isn't this extreme compassion, where they cannot bring themselves to harm any other form of life? I actually rib vegetarians/vegans about this sometimes because there are many convincing (and increasing) observations that plants 'feel pain' but we just don't appreciate it because we aren't chemically oriented.

      I read your essay on love and feel that you sometimes conflate love as emotion and love as philosophy. Love as philosophy is ultimately spiritual and is focused on nurturing creation; whereas your aestheticism could be seen as calculated creation. You mention Sartre and the love that Hedges/MLK/etc are talking about fits in with that perfectly. Indeed, MLK explicitly saw Love existentially after reading Sartre.

      Similarly, M. Scott Peck, "His perspective on love (in The Road Less Traveled) is that love is not a feeling, it is an activity and an investment. He defines love as, 'The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth.'"

      So my point in bringing all this up is that I've learned that not everything is a debate or has a right answer, often times dialogue and understanding are supreme. Above you write, "We have nonrational capabilities as well, such as our aesthetic taste and the perfectibility of the emotional side of our character, which distinguish virtue from vice. Suppose, then, we enter not the rational frame of mind, but an emotional one based on character, experience, taste, and culture. In that case, when the world’s physicality strikes us, we needn’t suffer the rational person’s dread of nature’s hollowness, because now an altogether different natural interaction occurs: we fill that hollowness with meaning." This is true, and yet you leave out Love, the most powerful muse (in all its forms) in humanity?

      And so I say about MLK, judge his words not from detached rationalism or even whether they move you specifically, but as experiential understanding of Love as a Path. The aesthetic beauty and amount of life he helped nurture -- from his direct lyricism to the highlights and horrors of the civil rights struggle -- is extraordinary.

      If you are empathetic and accept the precepts, then see where it leads, I think you may be quite surprised. And for me, this is completely necessary for actual Truth, particularly because it is the most practical path for the vast majority of people based on their personality type and cultural influences.

    21. I suppose suicide could be interpreted as extreme compassion,, since that sage prevents himself from harming anyone. But it could just as easily be interpreted as extreme selfishness, since the sage also prevents himself from helping anyone. So that's a wash.

      I agree that "love" is used in various ways, going back to the difference between the Greek words "eros" and "agape," for example. MLK likely talked a lot about brotherly love. I'm more interested in the emotional kind and in fact I think "brotherly love" now sounds archaic. There are movies in which comrades in arms say, "I love you, man," but this registers as awkward, because the romantic notion of love dominates sex-obsessed Western culture. Sex is used in ads to make money, so the ancient notion of love between mere friends or comrades sounds rather gay in the South Parkian sense ("gay," meaning lamely sentimental). This is only a linguistic point I'm trying to make. I agree there's such a thing as camaraderie. I just think it's lame to use "love" now to refer to it, just as it's awkward now to speak of a happy person as being gay or of a strange event as being queer. Those words have taken on new meanings, so the old meanings become archaic.

      This lameness becomes especially irritating to me when Christianity gets in on the act, when Christians talk of love as a metaphysical or spiritual force. I'd prefer to speak of nature's creativity, of complexification, evolution, and the emergence of novel properties. That's what's really going on and it's awesome (but note how that latter word has also acquired a new meaning). Natural forces come together and build systems that come and go in great processes of transformation, as do populations clash to transform society. To personify this nowadays by calling it some metaphysical process in which Love comes into the world is to speak in a very cliched way.

      This point can actually be tested. If you write a poem with the word "love" in it and send it to a good poetry critique website, your poem will be annihilated in the reviews. "Love" is just a very stale, overused word to use. The word means everything and nothing.

      Anyway, I will look more into MLK's speeches, with a view to writing something about them. Thanks again for the links.

  2. I kind of liked this article, but the ending just disappointed me. I don't see the point of interstellar travel. I prefer all life to come to an end as soon as possible in order to end this pointless existence.

    1. You sound a little like a nihilist, Ardegas. In this article I meant to give nihilism its due (too much reason leads to objectification, dehumanization, and nihlism, and so reason is accursed), while arguing for the creation of meaning and thus against Brassier's kind of nihilism. As far as I can tell, if you don't like the argument at the end, about the future state of life and the expansion of meaning, you shouldn't care much for Brassier's extinction argument for nihilism. They sink or swim together.

      What's the point of interstellar travel? Well, assuming the technological issues could be resolved (we'd need an antigravity or fusion drive or something like that), there are lots of things we could do: most importantly, we could ensure the survival of our species, as Hawking says, by not confining us to just one planet which we could mess up. Also, we could satisfy our curiosity, like in Star Trek. Finally, we could fulfill what I call our existential obligation to rebel against the pointlessness of the physical world, by giving it meaning with our culture and artificial transformations of nature.

      You say we should "end this pointless existence." What I'm saying is that we constantly do so, not with suicide, but by changing the wilderness into an artificial habitat that's not pointless but filled with meaning. I explain this more in "Technoscience, Existentialism, and the Fact-Value Dichotomy." I agree that prehumanized nature seems pointless, according to reason, but I see culture and technological applications of knowledge as undoing that pointlessness. We physically make the world a tolerable place in which to live, because we don't want to feel existentially homeless and alienated in the mindlessly-produced wilderness.

    2. Before I begin, nice work.
      Who else is doing work with this kind of meaning creation?
      I find the thought rather difficult to refute, because of the plethora of ways one could describe meaning. Even minute aesthetic things can be meaningful.

      On a side note, I find the survival of our species argument for interstellar travel left a little wanting. Certainly we could manage sustainability on our own planet, if this was the ultimate good.
      This is a bit odd, but you took such time to lay out your views, it must be a good day for intellectual exercise.
      I wrote a poem, that I don't think is particularly or ideologically challenging compared to how we think of Space, it's the curiosity argument just put in a different way.

      'When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
      heard him through a streaming service,
      on my playstation.
      I got to see pictures I could never see,
      and more ideas than would be realized in my lifetime.
      So heart pounding in my chest
      I took out, much like Walt,
      to look at the stars.
      I would've had to been a few more
      miles from my house
      to see them more nicely.
      So instead I walked with a full moon,
      and dreamt more vaguely of space.
      We know more about the stars now,
      and I wonder, if our vague longing
      is for the stars to know more about us.
      Like how you don't realize something about yourself
      until someone else points it out.'

    3. Thanks! I don't think I said it would likely be our species that would survive and spread meaning from star to star. I was talking about life in general throughout the universe. The more life there is, the higher the probability that some species somewhere and at some time will reach a transhuman phase, becoming godlike in its knowledge and power.

      And thanks for sharing your poem. I'm trying my hand at haiku on my twitter page.

    4. I wouldn't describe myself as a nihilist, but I sympathize with Brassier's views, as described here. It's true that we constantly project meaning into the inanimate world. In reference to this I like this quote by Thomas Ligotti: "In depression, all that once seemed beautiful, or even startling and dreadful, is nothing to you. The image of a cloud-crossed moon is not in itself a purveyor of anything mysterious or mystical; it is only an ensemble of objects represented to us by our optical apparatus and perhaps processed as a memory." We project meaning just by perceiving. I'm not so much troubled by the huge lifeless extensions of the Universe, but by the inner existential struggle. Why work, why toil under the sun, why suffer, if in the end we're never satisfied, we might as well end the game early. I don't find appealing any Star Trek fantasy, that's a good show, but life is not a fiction. Real life is mundane, real life has no storyline. Day to day work is not as inspiring.

    5. You're right that depression can be as bad as ordinary rational objectification, or even worse. I haven't yet written on suicide, but I tend to have two reactions to this point about suicide as the obvious response to a life of suffering. First, everything can be mocked and so a person's sense of humour can be developed to find a form of pleasure even in suffering. We can see the dark humour in the absurdity of life. This ties into the second point, which is that, whereas you say real life has no storyline, we can project narratives onto anything as well. We can interpret life as full of characters caught in routines and playing roles, and that's partly why we can see humour in everything, because life can be interpreted as a tragicomedy. This is the point of that Comedian character in the comic book and movie The Watchmen.

      Ligotti's book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, is great. I've got his big book of short stories too, but I've only read the early ones as of yet. The writing's always original, but I wish he'd focus more on character, drama, and dialogue.

  3. Wow this is good. I really don't have anything intelligent to say other than this is perhaps one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time.

    1. Thanks very much. I hope you'll check out some of my related writings that I link to in this article on nihilism, such as "Technoscience, Existentialism, and the Fact-Value Dichotomy." Or have a look at the Map of the Rants:

  4. I think you misunderstands what nihilism is. It's not necessarily the position that there is no meaning if meaning is understood as a subjective feeling of meaning that a being feels, but simply that there is no inherent meaning, and that such feelings of meaning do not hold any inherent objective truth, other than that they exist. Off course, this is a criticism of Brassier’s branch of nihilism, which i agree is inconsistent.
    I would in particular criticize this line

    "we fill that hollowness with meaning. As I lay out elsewhere, we transform dead facts into value-laden symbols, replacing the wilderness with a cultural world of ideas and with a concrete, artificial environment that embodies them. When I say, then, that we fill the nothingness with meaning, this isn’t an idle figure of speech. On the contrary, this is clearly a process that’s just as real as the existential trauma suffered by someone undergoing prolonged objectivity (dehumanization). The artificial worlds we build that are filled with embodiments of our myths and ideals (think of advertisements, architecture, sports events, political rituals, and even just the myriad uses of language) are real and they’re clearly different from the pre-existent, merely physical and wholly undead wilderness. Here, then, we have another clash which leaves behind not trauma but a literal enchantment, a bestowal of meaning upon the void, a vitalization of zombie nature."

    I really do not see why objects ascribed a subjective meaning are inherently different from objects not ascribed a subjective meaning. I do not see what fundamentally separates for example a sports event (the physical manifestation, not the abstract concept) ascribed a subjective meaning from for example a rock or an atom not ascribed such a meaning. With things like for example language, which is an abstract concept putting the different sounds and signals produces by humans into order, or the abstract idea of a sports event, the fundamental difference is off course that it does not exist as an objective object, but is purely an abstract idea devised by the human mind. While these abstract concepts are off course real, and exist objectively, i do not see how they change anything about the fundamental nature of the universe

    1. Brassier's nihilism isn't just the view that there's no inherent or objective meaning; it's that meaning is unreal, because only meaningless material things and physical processes exist, according to science. He'd have to grant the illusory appearance of cultural meanings and thus downplay them, because they're subjective and scientific theories eliminate or reduce them to meaningless underlying processes.

      Is a rock inherently different from, say, a paperweight? They're both physically heavy objects, but they're usually found in different locations. Prehumanized, natural rocks are in the ground, whereas paperweights have a habit of being located on artifacts called desks, holding stacks of paper in place. (This example is dated, of course, after the internet, but I'm working with the comparison to rocks.) So all artifacts can be given a physical description, but the work done by artifacts is quite different from that done by natural objects. This gives rise to emergent psychological and social laws and patterns, which explain why we see paperweights on desks and not, say, in our pockets or buried underground.

      Inherent or intrinsic qualities have to do with what things are made of, but the world also consists of relations, interactions, and the work done by things. We won't find meaning by opening up artifacts and looking for hidden *things* inside them. In so far as meaning is subjective, it's a feeling, like Brassier's perception of truth as trauma; meaning is a sense of rightness and comfort from living in an artificial, humanized, and enchanted world that replaces the natural wildnerness.

      Nihilism isn't our destiny; rather, nihilism, the rational perception of nature's emptiness, spurs us to undo that fact, to relieve us of having to live with that horror, and so we get to work and reshape the world in our image. We're gods that enchant the recreated world.

  5. "By contrast, he says, Nietzsche saves meaning by denying there’s any truth. When people claim to know the facts, they’re only trying to empower themselves, says Nietzsche." I suppose I could hit someone in the head, with a hammer, and when they scream tell me it hurt, I will tell then it was their imagination. When they protest, and insist that it hurt, I will respond by saying they are trying to empower themselves and manipulate me with words.

    1. Maybe it hurts their head because they're weak and they need to learn how to manage their pain. ;) A strong, powerful person might be skilled at hiding his pain or he might have bodyguards to prevent someone from walking up and hitting him in the head. So it's weak and poor people who likely suffer more than the rich. Either way, pain is subjective in that it's a content of consciousness.

      As for the scientific explanation of the mechanisms of pain, Nietzsche would have to agree with the postmodern social constructivist (or rather the latter agrees with him), that it's all a matter of deferring to authority, power relations between nations, pragmatic technoscientific power over nature, and so on. Foucault elaborates on this "knowledge is power" idea.

    2. Is it true, that there are no truths?

  6. One could make the argument, that those who refuse to condemn life, as something better not to have, are the real weaklings. Perhaps they can't make that leap, without becoming morbidly depressed.

    1. I'm not sure "condemn" is the right word here. Brassier couldn't say the deadness of all material things is bad, without projecting meaning onto the objects. When we look at life and everything else rationally, we're like Buddhists who detach from their emotions, in which case things just appear as they are, ultimately for no rhyme or reason. As Brassier says, nature is indifferent to the life it creates, but we can condemn that indifference only if we prefer an alternative scenario, and that preference would require ideals, goals, and feelings, all of which would be outside reason's purview.

      The same goes for this antinatalist idea that life is "better not to have." That requires a preference and a value judgment. But once you're granting a negative meaning to life, you're no longer entertaining nihilism in Brassier's sense. And when there's negative meaning, there's the potential for positive meaning as well.

      I think the more authentic emotional reaction to science-centered nihilism is Lovecraftian, cosmicist horror. Not fear of evil monsters or aliens, but disgust with nature as an undead monster whose indifference can be compared to the transcendent intelligence of a higher form of life that destroys or toys with lower forms at will. There's horror in the thought that not even the gods can stop the abuse because the gods (natural forces) are part of the problem; indeed, they're the abusers, except that our suffering isn't a case of abuse, because we have no inalienable rights, just as we grant none to the insects that get in our way.


  7. Philosophy carries weight to the extent it is actionable.
    If it is not made real through action, it is little more than idle masturbation.

    This Brassier guy probably has a wife and kids, a family, friends he cares about. His relationships with them mean a lot to him.
    When driving to his job(presumably at a university) he probably tries not to cut people off out of some sense of civic duty.
    He probably tries to avoid a car wreck on the way there because he cares about his life and sees value in the lives of others. In no way does he regard them as inanimate.
    He shows up at his job because he cares about social esteem, money, and simply has a sense of duty(a subjective thing that doesn't exist.)
    He writes books using words like "ineluctable" to impress people, flatter his ego, and get laid.

    Every step of the way, his actual universe in no way resembles the lifeless cosmos he likes to write long-winded tracts about.

    At the end of the day, he maybe even laughs at all the suckers who made him famous in his community by actually taking him seriously as he gets ready to fuck his wife, (a former groupie student of his).

    Every second of that day he is fundamentally, a liar and a hypocrite denying meaning, purpose, sacredness, and even divinity that if he really examined himself he would find he actually does deeply believe in, and which springs into existence by his very nature and by that of the very universe itself.

    1. Well, I do think there's a lot of phoniness in postmodern philosophy. There's some phoniness in analytic philosophy too, but when you eliminate science and logic as standards of thinking, you give charlatans a lot of room to maneuver.

      I believe Brassier went on after publishing this book on nihilism to criticize it because it lacks a reductive theory of meaning. So his point isn't exactly that there's no such thing as meaning in the universe, but that meaning is a human creation and that the natural world is fundamentally meaningless. In other words, meaning isn't ontologically real, but is only apparent, illusory, epiphenomenal, or something like that.

    2. Hmm, that sounds like a fancy of way of saying "It's something people make up." If people made it up, there is indeed no such thing. It is a ficition..unless he supposes that ideas are real things, though they are not empirically observable or measurable.

      This falls into the same trap as other atheist/post-modern approaches to meaning and morality.

      If the world is fundamentally meaningless, it's meaningless, no ifs ands or buts, not even if humans choose to delude themselves.
      They are after all part of the natural world.

      If he believes in a fundamental separation between humanity and the rest of nature, that's very much one of those Christian beliefs that was adopted by the original, Christian enlightenment founders.
      One of many Christian elements that atheists/postmodernists have to borrow from to have any beliefs, values, or meaning at all.

      So the challenge then is to find ways to perceive the world logically without destroying it and having to rely on willful self delusion.
      As you know, it's something I've thought about at length.

    3. Actually, I don't think subjective truth amounts to just made up stuff that doesn't exist. For one thing, the fictions and delusions themselves exist as stories that can impact society, as in the case of religion, for example. For another, as I hint in this article but elaborate on through the links below, the fictions are ironically realized by technology, so that the fictions act as something like blueprints or inspirational possibilities we try to actualize in concrete, natural terms. This is what I mean by the technological re-enchantment of nature.

      So I agree that nature is fundamentally meaningless, as Brassier says, but here the emphasis is on "fundamentally." Meaning (purpose, ideality, value) nevertheless evolve within nature and we're instrumental in that development. By objectifying nature in our best explanations, we transduce the meaningless facts into the purposive artifacts we create as we apply that empirical knowledge.

      I agree also that the natural-artificial distinction can be construed as a piece of Cartesian or theistic dualism, but I don't see anything supernatural in my account of how technologies serve as vehicles of ideality which flatter our delusional or premature image of ourselves as being gods. Technology is making us gods, so our myths and values merely get ahead of ourselves.


  8. I'm a little late to this,but i thought I'd post anyway.But don't you sometimes think that there is real burden to create meaning in an otherwise meaning less world? does it not feel a bit silly to impose meaning on objects, to in way conform everything around us to patterns, isn't this the source of all human misery, i mean it's a fallout of an attempt to create meaning and preserve it.Does not everything around us stem from, for the lack of better term,our boredom, that fact that there is almost this sort of yearning on an almost biological level to account for our existence.Isn't this cause for pessimism and therefore sorrow? like ligotti puts it ' malignantly useless'. There very well may be meaning, but all this has resulted in this sort of rudderless amoebic entity that you refer to as "we".
    - Nikhil

    1. I've written a number of other articles on why I think we create meaning. I doubt it's just a matter of relieving us of our boredom. There are biological and thus natural reasons for our transformation of our environment. As I see it, there's evolution and complexification throughout the universe, so nature's working through us to create yet more in the way of transcendence.

      You know, I always found that repeated phrase from Ligotti's book, "malignantly useless," off-putting for being poorly chosen. "Malignant" means ill-will or dangerous. Ligotti calls us all malignantly useless. But although we may be dangerous, how are we useless? Is the only way for something to have a use is for it have an ever-lasting effect, in which case we'd be useless because we can't permanently change things? Obviously we do have many uses, including the purposes we assign to ourselves, not to mention our evolutionary purpose. So while I got much out of reading Conspiracy Against the Human Race, I always found that phrase to be a bit of a misfire.

  9. I know this is old, but great write up. I just recently was reading Brassier and found it interesting, but failed to see his dialectic and loved your critique of it -- it really highlighted the issues. I don't understand why he made that move: "Nothing is meaningful, therefore, carry out an enlightenment project." Like you said, there must be some kind of meaning in doing that.

    I think reductionist accounts that try and explain meaning away are missing the mark. To paraphrase Rollo May, he said that any time you try and give an explanatory reductionist account of a phenomenon, you end up missing part of what was trying to be captured in the first place.

    Trying to explain away meaning is just playing mental gymnastics. There may not be any cosmic meaning to my existence (I'm not 100% sure, but I feel safe saying there isn't), but that doesn't mean that I don't deem my life as having any meaning. And plenty of other people have meaning and find meaning as well.

    1. The key question here is whether the subjective meaning we project onto ourselves and our activities is up to the task of sustaining civilization, due to the absence of objective meaning. I tackle this issue in my aesthetic take on moral value. See, for example, "Life as Art" and the other articles in the Ethics section of the Map of the Rants. In a nutshell, I think aesthetic values of beauty and ugliness can be objective. The problem is that nature is objectively monstrous.

  10. Thanks Sir,

    I began reading one or two of your pieces just now and enjoyed them immensely. I usually comment tersely caustically relative to my beliefs in God or contrasting them to what I know of about other authors and their writings. It would not be to circumscribe fixate or belittle your mutivalence arguments.

    Here is one on this piece!

    Neo-Jungian and still clings to a shred of ``science-fiction`` like abstruse metaphysical hope but a hope still!

  11. Hello Benjamin and Happy New Year!

    I have just found this intriguing Critique of Nihilism about Ray Brassier "objectivism "and want to add one more critique, if not already adressed by you and other commentors.
    Since B. is most interested in science and ontology , I would like to know if he adressed the hard problem of consciousness .

    Starting from his argument that science is objective about the facts/ontology, I reject his claim on the basis that science is incomplete and it is not yet a fully descriptions of facts, ontology and the existence(not to say that it will not ever come to this point).
    If I would take the stance to debunk his "objective" meaning using QM only about the "deadness of nature",we found that in MWI of QM life objects along with inanimate ones are already there in many other universes and this is a growing interpretation supported by Sean Caroll and many other(my favourite is Copenhagen ortodox interpretation).

    Along with transhumanists approach to life extension and space conquering plus consciousness , may be the "free will" we sure can debunk his argument that only deadliness nature can have meaning but above categories of nature not
    For my life meaning, I take science as a tool to navigate in life, instrumental for consciousness and life entertainment with cultural and technological progress and curios to see where it leads us. Certainly, it inform us about the an-organic matter and death too, but that is not the full picture I will argue on.

    Looking from time lap perspective, who says that meaning should be eternal anyway:) as he implies in his arguments.

    Is he willing to "walk the talk" since his philosophy implies suicide or is another charade and phoniness implicit in his self refuting nihilism?:)

    Sure, we can put arguments onwards but my few cents on your blog and looking forward for more intriguing posts !

  12. Hi Benjamin

    It it Brassier statement that:
    "I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition."
    a concession for a subject like us to understand meaning as a spatial temporal snippet("as a regional or bounded phenomenon") in the grand scheme of univers indiference and likely extinction?
    How do understand his statement ?

    1. It's been a while since I looked at Brassier, so I'm not sure how he'd respond. His argument is more metaphysical, I think, so I don't know if he'd take much notice of specific developments in physics. And I'd have to know the context of that statement of his to decipher its meaning. He writes in a pretentious, Continental-philosophical style, which means he unnecessarily complicates things. So the confusion could be due to his wording.