Monday, September 16, 2013

Nihilism and the Re-enchantment of Nature: A Reply to Scott Bakker

I’d like to thank Scott for his article, Man the Meaning-Faker, in which he analyzes my views and lays out more of his take on Brassier’s way around science-centered nihilism. The more you write on a topic, the more you can benefit from someone else’s formulation of your ideas, so that you can look at them from a different angle. For the most part, Scott has very well represented my viewpoint in his analysis, although there are a few important points that he misses. I’ll concentrate on those, largely by way of elaborating on what I had in mind in my article on Brassier’s nihilism.

Science as a Constraint on Meaning

Scott rightly says that on my view, science constrains meaning. In part at least, irresponsible faith is indeed when we trust in stories that make us vulnerable by merely deluding us. By contrast, science enlightens and empowers us, although as Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice poem illustrates, there’s such a thing as having too much power. Anyway, Scott wonders how science can constrain meaning when the two are incompatible. How, he asks, can science “constrain something it simply cannot cognize as real in any manner we find intuitively recognizable?”

To answer, I have to point out that I wouldn’t say science is the only constraint. Aesthetics (good taste) is another. So what makes some faith irresponsible isn’t necessarily just the falseness of the story; it could also be dereliction of our aesthetic obligation to avoid clichés. Scott observes that there can be a variety of original meanings, including insane or evil ones, so the newness of creations won’t suffice as a worthwhile standard. There’s certainly a big problem here of how to squeeze ethics out of aesthetics, but the relevant point is that I needn’t rely just on science to do the job. Indeed, science would explain both natural and artificial parts of the world as equally meaningless, since science objectifies, dehumanizes, and disenchants. So it’s not science exactly that constrains our creations, but the harsh facts themselves; necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. As the messenger that shows us the world’s physicality and undeadness, science is only indirectly a constraint.

This constraint begins with a yearning: we feel we must regain the comfort level we had in our ancient mythopoeic days, when our ancestors had no objective conception of nature, but perceived everything in the world as flush with personality. Our response to the loss of that childlike sense of wonder is to do away with nature’s undeadness, to transform the facts of the wilderness into artificial environments which literally embody our ideals. We make manifest the so-called manifest image, by creating vessels for our presumed subjectivity, in the form of our artifacts which extend our body and realize the ideal mind as it’s naively conceived, along with our other fantasies. So science and natural facts limit our creation of meaning, in that our artifacts must succeed in keeping up our spirits in light of the threat of nihilism from the modern worldview. Our fictions shouldn’t merely paper over nature’s meaninglessness, since one of their apparent evolutionary purposes is to allow us to live well despite the knowledge that makes for our existential predicament.

Our creations must re-enchant the world; they must show us our worth, by filling in the blank we’re left with when we try to look at ourselves in the mirror of self-awareness. Through introspection, as BBT says, we seem to be no concrete (real) thing, and we rationalize that fact with metacognitive fictions, such as the intuitions of our independence, immateriality, and immortality. But thanks to the relentlessness of modern and postmodern skepticism, the fictions don’t enchant. Still, there’s no arguing with concrete reality, so we create a whole artificial world and we pour our minds into it. The artifacts embody the meaning and purpose we want to find in ourselves. And science constrains this way of reassuring us, by forcing us to adopt sufficiently high aesthetic standards to counter the dire indifference of the natural facts. As threatening as nature’s impersonality is to our psyche, which seeks social relationships in all things (hence the Mythopoeic Age), so too must our artificial transformation of nature be a powerful work of art to overcome that threat.

Heuristics All the Way Down

Scott says, “Science tells us that human cognition is heuristic all the way down.” It strikes me now that this can’t be so and that the reason why is relevant to my point about the meaningfulness of technology. To see this, recall that a heuristic is a dumbed-down algorithm. An algorithm is a rule for achieving some end—but not just any rule; no, an algorithm is an exhaustive step-by-step procedure. In this respect, an algorithm might be compared to an anal-retentive lawyer, someone who follows the letter of the law no matter how inefficient or Kafkaesque the process of getting just the right paperwork and all the necessary signatures, and so forth. Because Mother Nature is frugal, not to mention a zombie (a quasi-machine that simulates intelligent creativity), our brains aren’t supercomputers with the resources to follow all the logical loose-ends of our thoughts; instead, we use shortcuts, like rules of thumb, to save time and energy. I take it this is why cognitive scientists expect to find only heuristics rather than algorithms in our mind.

But notice that we in fact build computers that run on algorithms rather than heuristics, and that we rely on these machines more and more as parts of our extended brain. It seems, then, that human cognition is not heuristic all the way down. We can say that our native, organic mind is heuristic, but then we’re assuming a Cartesian distinction between the inner and outer worlds. I raise this point, though, because it’s an example not just of how we extend ourselves, but of how we extract meaning from the extensions. Alan Turing derived the idea of computation by imagining what it would be like to be a typewriter. What exactly is a mechanical process that can be reduced to a dumb thing’s following of an algorithm? The typewriter was invented to improve people’s lives in certain ways, but implicit in that invention was the idea of a mechanism, which Turing used to invent the algorithmic computer.

To be sure, there are causal relations throughout nature, but they’re not as explicitly mechanical as those in a machine, since a machine is intelligently designed to keep the rest of the world out of its private business, as it were; for example, the typewriter has a shell that keeps dust out of its greased components. By contrast, probabilistic laws have to be divined from our observations of natural processes, since we must imagine, counterfactually, how a process would unfold were all other things equal; that is, we need to imagine what would happen were everything else irrelevant and prevented from having any impact on the system of interest, even though a natural system is hardly ever so isolated. We compensate for that lack of a clear, disentangled mechanism in nature by designing experiments that keep out the parts that don’t interest us, thus isolating the interesting variables, but those experimental settings are themselves artifacts that carry meaning and purpose. Just as Turing used an artificially-streamlined mechanism in his conception of the ultimate extension of the mind (the Turing Machine), so too does the scientist use an experimental setting such as a laboratory as an instrument to achieve the goal of disentangling the world’s systems.

Subjective Truth and Meaning

Scott points out that it begs the question to explain meaning in terms of subjective truth, since the latter is just as questionable as the former, on a mechanistic view of things. As he says, “The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is also the question of whether there is any such thing as ‘subjective truth.’” So my article on Brassier’s nihilism seems to beg the question at that point.

But this isn’t quite right, because in that article I mean to parody Brassier’s account of truth. As I say there, to avoid adding meaning to the world, while taking science seriously, Brassier says that truth isn’t a semantic relation but a causal one. Truth is the trauma caused by the world’s assault on our preferences. We prefer the mythopoeic world that’s filled with vitality, but the truth is that all physical things as such are lifeless. Truth is the dawning of that fact on us. My point about meaning, then, is that two can play that game. Meaning too can be understood in such causal terms. The horror of nature’s undeadness causes us to create a substitute for that world, one in which we prefer to live. Meaning, then, is the humanness of that substitute world, the ideality we see in all our artifacts.

The question is whether there’s anything normative about this artificial meaning, but my point is that it’s easier to see the reality of meaning in artifacts than it is to discern the inner self that’s supposed to correspond to the manifest image. Artifacts are concrete objects that are all around us and that we use all the time. Moreover, there’s some irony here. Scott says, “science was really only ever technically constrained,” since for a long time science couldn’t crack the brain’s enigma. But who would want to bet against scientific progress? Notice, then, that the kind of meaning-creation I’m talking about counts on that progress, since advances in technology flow from our greater understanding of nature. I’m not talking about any supernatural origin of meaning; rather, I’m pointing to the concrete, intelligently-designed vessels of purpose that sit right in front of us and that science itself, the so-called force for nihilism, has made possible. This is why I speak of technoscience.

Certainly, to some extent artifacts can be explained in physical terms, but they also call for a teleological level of explanation. We can try to reduce all of that purpose and ideality to causal relations, but there’s one glaring dynamic that will be left over, I think: the creatures with the most self-awareness and objective knowledge are also far and away the most obsessive creators of artificial worlds which replace their natural habitats. I challenge any strictly mechanistic explanation of that dynamic to rival the existential one that I’ve sketched here: we create artifacts to put the meaning that we don’t find in ourselves, in front of our eyes, to comfort us with the knowledge that we needn’t think of us as imprisoned by an undead wilderness, after all; we needn’t settle for nihilism after science’s disenchantment of the world, since we technologically re-enchant the found world with our extended body.

In any case, to show further how artifacts are normative, I’d turn to the aesthetic appreciation of them, since artifacts are also artworks. Subjective truth derives from an aesthetic sensibility. There’s a lot more to say about this and indeed I’ve just encountered Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological criticism of aesthetics, so I’ll be saying more in a later article.

Nature vs the Subject

Scott says, “So where science conceives the human as organic subsystems within larger environmental systems, the subject-object dyad conceives the human as a subject set over and against a world of objects. It occludes, and therefore problem solves, without the benefit of, the very mechanical systematicity that science has revealed. Small wonder it suffers compatibility issues!”

I think this is right. Science objectifies everything and so dehumanizes ourselves, in which case we become just more quantified systems according to a theory that encompasses trillions of other such systems. But from the subjective viewpoint, we’re special because we’re godlike destroyers of nature as well as creators of a meaningful world that substitutes for the old one. Scott’s saying that this dualism is delusional because we’re attempting to solve problems without the benefit of knowing the objective facts that do away with that dualism. Objectively, that is, physically, we’re not at all godlike since we’re on an equal footing with everything else.

But again, the point I’m trying to make is that subjectivity grows out of our encounter with the horrible objective truth. The incompatibility here is, first of all, an existential crisis: science shows us all the facts, including those of our inhumanity; introspection misleads us to expect that those facts would be life-affirming rather than dismaying; thus, we compensate by avenging ourselves on the natural world, by playing its game just long enough to figure out how its systems operate, so that we can safely play our social, humanizing game in a world we can call a home for subjects rather than mere objects. By my reckoning, there are two incompatibilities here. First, there’s the shock of becoming aware that science disenchants nature. This is Brassier’s trauma of nihilistic truth. Second, there’s the technological response of replacing the disenchanted, undead world with the re-enchanted one consisting of artifacts that are used by subjects.

Are we users really subjects or are we just continuing to delude ourselves? Well, without artifacts, we would indeed be babes in the woods, with just our transparent fantasies to distract us from the world’s strangeness in comparison to the persons we prefer to be. But with the artificial world, our dreams are made tangible and our so-called delusory goals are technologically fulfilled. We live longer and longer, thanks to modern medicine, and perhaps with genetic engineering and other techniques, we’ll make ourselves immortal. We’ve shown at least that our power of reason is immaterial in that it consists of a program that can be implemented by a computer rather than just by an organic brain. So if the natural facts make the manifest image of our subjectivity embarrassing and delusory, perhaps the artificial ones vindicate that image. Maybe we weren’t always as we seemed to ourselves, but the illusion of a free, rational, conscious and worthy self serves as a blueprint that inspires us to make ourselves that sort of being. Thus, transcendentalists can welcome the mechanistic perspective, since they can see subjectivity in Hegelian terms, as an unfolding process. There need be no teleological or metaphysical guarantee here, though, but just the action of the traumatic, nihilistic truth and the existential reaction of the transformation of the meaningless world into its opposite.

It’s this sort of grand pattern that’s easily missed when we think only in mechanistic terms, since then we busy ourselves with dissecting natural systems, looking into how the parts hang together, and thus potentially missing the forest for the trees. The question I’m raising for the nihilist is whether our penchant for creatively re-enchanting our environment is explainable solely in mundane causal terms, with no ontological recourse to an emergence of ideality. We can say that our artifacts serve biological functions, but this doesn’t explain the magnitude of the transformation, especially since our artifacts may ultimately be maladaptive, endangering us rather than increasing our evolutionary fitness. Even if there were an evolutionary explanation, I don’t think it would make the existential one superfluous. The latter one, though, posits meaning (normativity) in addition to natural facts.

Maybe as Scott says, science will show how what seems like normativity is really just a poorly-perceived bit of causality. Alternatively, as I argue elsewhere, science might show how the normative properties emerge as a result of what Scott calls the brain’s blindness to itself. I’m saying here that the creation of artifacts, at least, flows from that blindness, so that the failure of intuitions and introspection to uncover the inner facts of our nature has real-world, systematic consequences, as I outline above. We stumble onto a way of living in spite of the curse of reason: we create a matrix to flatter us so that we can ignore the natural facts and interact mainly with artifacts that literally and intelligently satisfy our interests and thus embody our ideals.


  1. I think we stumble, always have, always will, then foist confabulatory narratives on that stumbling post hoc, which sometimes have the effect of nudging us in different directions, and sometimes not. I fear science will verify something like Blind Brain Theory, and we will have to come to grips with our confabulations AS confabulations. I still don't see your silver lining, how you can agree that meaning is an artifact of neglect, a kind of privative perspective as opposed to an accomplishment, then continue claiming that it is our accomplishment.

    Regarding algorithms and heuristics it's important to note that whether a cognitive mechanism counts as heuristic simply depends upon the problem to be solved. If it ignores information relevant to the solution of a problem to more economically solve that problem we call it heuristic. One can tease apart any heuristic, identify internal functions requiring the transformation of certain inputs into certain outputs and call it 'algorithmic,' simply because all the relevant information is consumed to discharge *that portion* of the heuristic process. In this sense, 'algorithms' marble the heuristic whole without the whole being any less heuristic, which is to say, geared to the solution of finite problem ecologies.

    This of course strands us with the question of how to delineate 'problems' - which might prove fertile ground for your complaints... I dunno.

    1. I agree we should look at our myths/philosophies/worldviews as confabulations. This is easier said than done since it requires a kind of Buddhist detachment, or what I'm trying to think of as an aesthetic one. The exapted belief systems *are* accomplishments if we interpret them as artworks. We creatively put together some raw materials and if the result inspires us as a heroic solution to our existential crisis, and it feels right as opposed to cliched and serving some tawdry oligarchic agenda we can call it a masterpiece. What's the alternative? Nihilism, depression, and suicide? I see wisdom in making the best of a bad situation.

      Of course, my stuff on the aesthetic outlook is a work in progress. I believe you said before that you used to think along these existential lines, but you no longer put much faith in them. So again, does BBT imply nihilism?

      Your last sentence anticipates an objection that came to mind regarding your point about the relativity of heuristics and algorithms. What determines the *relevance* of information to solving a problem? That looks semantic to me. If we're going to be perfectly pragmatic, there needn't be any predetermined or ideal solution, so all information might be relevant, depending on our creativity and willingness to live with different degrees of effectiveness. If it's the nature of the problem that determines the relevance of info, then what indeed are these problems? Are they like niches?

      One thing I learned in philosophy classes is that reductive theories often sneak in the explananda as presuppositions. Of course, you're familiar with this in the naturalistic theories of mental content. But this feeds into the so-called transcendental approach as well. It's not so much that the transcendentalist presupposes normativity and so on; rather, it's that the transcendentalist is skeptical of any attempt to theoretically eliminate such properties and so as a matter of course she gives any reductive theory a thorough going-over, because she expects the worst.

  2. BBT implies nihilism insofar as it explains intentional phenomena in terms of metacognitive neglect: the apparent positivity of meaning is best understood as metacognitive theoretical gear grinding. But just as grinding the gears can still get the car out of the driveway, I agree that *something* is being done.

    I have some old suspicions in this regard: for instance, the perennial failure (gear grinding) of intentional philosophy itself informs the gear grinding that follows, dispelling the 'only game in town effect,' for instance, spurring the metacognitive hunt for variant interpretative strategies. Kant's Copernican turn, his emphasis on the how of cognition, can be read as an effect of all the dogmatic gear-grinding that had gone on before. Perhaps, he said, the time has come to blame the driver!

    Information relevance normatively understood is no more a problem for cognition on BBT than it is for a housefly. Since the relations are mechanical, it's simply a matter of what does what to what how - the way the systems at issue actually operate. But this runs counter to many an intuition, I realize. The thing is, the criterial problem that relevance poses in contemporary debates turns on the need to explain the apparently positive semantic properties of human cognition. Since BBT can explain away these properties, the problem is dissolved, and the question simply becomes an empirical one of discovering what does what to what how. It's one of the big reasons I'm dazzled by the theory, as repugnant as I find it. It literally waltzes through these hoary knots.

    This doesn't mean that some other version of bona-fide intentional question-begging might surface somewhere and bite me on the ass though! Even more, saying that evolutionary theorists use 'design' under erasure is well and fine, but I'm essentially retooling the *whole bloody family* of intentional 'concepts,' which suggests that any number of 'heuristic bugs' likely plague my account. It could that the delineation of problem ecologies is precisely one of these.

  3. Hi Ben,
    The question I’m raising for the nihilist is whether our penchant for creatively re-enchanting our environment is explainable solely in mundane causal terms, with no ontological recourse to an emergence of ideality.

    I think like the aero-dynamic shape of a birds wing has an identifyable process, so too could enchanting have a sociosurvivalist-dynamic process identified in it. But it seems like you want such an identification to confirm enchanting as having a special place, so it's not just there in the universe but you also want it to have a confirmed, definate place in the universe - when really it's still in play/facing darwinistic scrutiny. Ie, it could go extinct.

    1. No, just because something has an ontological status as being real, doesn't mean it's everlasting. The question is whether any part of the manifest image is real rather than illusory, not whether we're really immortal. The theistic aspect of the manifest image is the most extreme, mythical part that I agree is unreal. Notice how much less useful the theistic notion of the self is compared to the stripped-down secular version of the self as an emergent process. The latter helps us predict each others behaviour all the time with our shorthand concepts of the mind, despite our ignorance of how the brain works. It's the difference between property and substance dualism, but both are metaphysical questions.

    2. Okay, well I'd qualify that while a bird does fly, it doesn't really understand aerodynamics. Along those like, the amount of real-ness is going to be thin and amidst something rather like a short sighted person looking at something far away - it's fuzzy and blurry. The fuzzy and blurry do indeed match something. But the short sighted person has taken their fuzzy view (let's say they are stuck in plato's cave and couldn't walk closer) as if it's a concrete and utterly grounded understanding. Ie, it's not fuzzy and blurry - those are halo's and the rounded shapes merging into each other are how it is. Ie, you get two illusions plastered on top of each other. I'd agree at trying to look at where the fuzzy view, if looked at with lenses, actually matches the state of things. But the second illusion, the one of halo's, tends to deny the first set of illusions as not being illusions but utterly clear cut and concrete observations. What I fear with trying to find where the manifest image (once you put your glasses on) matches the real is that the second illusion will be used to deny the existance of the first illusion. But apart from that fear coming to fruition, I can see the value of attempting to determine where the fuzzy actually matches the real (or to what extent it matches the real). And yeah, I had to write a long caveat to get to that agreement, heh! :)

  4. If science destroys your old religion, make science your new religion... I guess it makes a pathetic kind of sense.

  5. Pathetic is much too harsh a word, and I apologize. I do think that human beings have a natural urge toward religion and your desire to see technology as an attempt to return magic to the world is a manisfestation of that urge. Putting dead things together in clever new combinations doesn't really make them any less dead, and once you really see the world as dead I don't think you can go back to Xanth. On the other hand, maybe it is possible that humankind will someday become so powerful that we can actually achieve godhood and make worlds that are genuinely alive.

    1. Well, I agree with Durkheim's view that we instinctively distinguish between sacred and profane, and I agree with Paul Tillich that we have religious faith in whatever we hold to be of ultimate importance. Each worldview requires a leap of faith at some point. If you look at my articles on Scientism, you'll see that I call certain science-centered worldviews religious. And if you look at my recent article on mythopoesis and technology, you'll see that I interpret hyper-technology as an ironic way of fulfilling the mythopoeic dream of an enchanted, panpsychist world. As for whether material things are just dead, see my article "Darwinism and Nature's Undeadness." I interpret natural processes not as living or dead, but as undead, because they're mindless but nonetheless creative and so they simulate that aspect of mentality, which is why we so easily personify them.

  6. Ben, if someone said they wanted to end all life on earth, would you refer to them as a nihilist?

    1. A nihilist says values are unreal, so the nihilist seeks to value nothing. At least, that's what the word should mean. There are all sorts of bastardized definitions, though. I've seen nihilism equated with egoism (selfishness) or with cosmicism (terror or love of death or of the unknown in nature, as in NIN songs, for example). But both selfishness and fear or love entail values.

      Presumably, if someone wanted to destroy all life, that person would regard living things as bad or otherwise as worthy of being destroyed, which would not be nihilistic, strictly speaking. The nihilistic worldview is akin to mysticism, to letting everything be as it is, since there are only facts and nothing is good or bad. According to nihilism, there may be causality and change, but never for the better or for the worse, at least not in reality. Values are only illusory (highly subjective), for the nihilist. But again, if "illusory" or "subjective" have negative connotations, nihilism contradicts itself. These sorts of points kept coming up in my dialogues with Scott Bakker.

    2. I suppose nihilism in philosophy can also mean an extreme form of skepticism, according to which only nothingness is real. Again, this is akin to mysticism.

      According to, a non-technical meaning of the word is indeed "total and absolute destructiveness, especially toward the world at large and including oneself."

      I take it this would be more a vulgar consequence of nihilistic belief, a sort of savage reaction to learning that conventional reality is hallucinatory. Nihilism would be like Ludditism, in that the nihilist would want to destroy all fake reality to reduce everything to nothingness. In that case, I suppose the anti-life fellow could be regarded as a nihilist.