Thursday, February 20, 2014

Morality, Living Art, and the Undead Muse

Moderns who are heirs to the science-centered way of looking at the world sometimes find themselves wringing their hands about the lack of morality without God. Nietzsche feared that after the masses came to lose the need for God, modern societies would become nihilistic. More recently, liberal New Atheists assure agnostics and moderate theists that there’s no such threat, that we can just lay aside the irrational beliefs in God, divine revelation, and miracles and get on with enjoying our life. Christian apologists like William Lane Craig argue that morality logically depends on theistic beliefs: atheists can be moral, but their goodness will be irrational and gratuitous, as far as their philosophical assumptions are concerned. Were there no God, as Dostoevsky said, everything would be permitted, so we would be smart to care more about ourselves than others and to pursue our narrow self-interest even at other people’s expense, because we’d live for only a handful of decades, with no reason to worry about our eternal condition in an afterlife.

Atheistic Morality as a Farce

However any of those lines of argument turns out, those who have passed through the Age of Reason without covering their eyes and ears and backlashing against the naturalistic worldview, and who therefore think that traditional monotheism is now anachronistic, do have a serious problem fitting morality into their way of living. There’s no need to consider the more abstruse philosophical arguments that line up on either side of the issue, because it suffices to recognize one indubitable fact. When people could take for granted that a personal God or divine pantheon exists, because beliefs were generally driven by a naïve anthropocentrism that was unchecked by the systematically impersonal scientific methods of investigation, the human concern with morality had metaphysical standing. After all, the universe then was God’s kingdom and everything was artificial and regulated by God’s intentions, just as we assign purposes to nearly everything we create. After the rise of modern scientific naturalism, the default view is that the universe isn’t artificial or governed by anyone; at the metaphysical level, natural “laws” have replaced teleological functions or divine moral commandments. This means that as scientists view the world, even the talk of natural “processes” or “mechanisms” determined by natural “laws” is tainted by metaphors that bear traces of the obsolete, personifying model of the ultimate stuff of reality. Natural events just happen. In the most general, metaphysical terms, there is no good or bad in nature. As long as nature is no one’s kingdom or artifact, but is instead a thoroughly impersonal domain that’s evolving and complexifying for no reason, our concern with right and wrong is anomalous and without metaphysical justification.

A short way of saying this is to say that atheistic morality is subjective rather than objective. An atheist may be inclined to be nice to strangers, but were such a person to feel morally bound to be nice, that would be a matter of emotion, instinct, or taste which could just as well go the other way. A nice atheist could be retrained to be selfish and cruel, and the atheist can give no grand reason why one sort of character is better than another. All the nice atheist could say in her defense is that she feels niceness is better than cruelty or that niceness is more useful to her under some set of circumstances. Morality becomes an arbitrary matter of taste or else a changeable psychological mechanism or a tool with more or less utility.

In the atheist’s big picture, morality means nothing because everything is fundamentally physical and impersonal. Morality is part of the pointless evolution of life, with no deeper grounding in the nature of the universe, whereas a monotheist is assured that our thoughts of right and wrong have the greatest possible importance. God put those thoughts there and by fulfilling some divine moral purpose, the whole universe redounds to God’s majesty. Indeed, theism implies that there are no accidents, that everything happens for an ultimate, absolute reason, and that our preoccupation with personal and social goods indicates that we belong to the world in the same way as children who feel at home in their loving parents’ house. All of that is dubious, at best, in the modern age. Instead of feeling pride in our way of life, we’re left with the existential fear that our moral inclinations are absurd, that we either know too much about the world’s godlessness, in which case we come to feel alienated from everything including ourselves, or we distract ourselves with daydreams to play out our years as clowns pretending to be happy.

For sociopolitical reasons, many atheistic naturalists want to downplay these unpleasant implications. Atheists in the US and UK are on missions to defeat dangerous Christian and Muslim extremists and to make the world safe for secular humanism. So if only for strategic reasons, the last thing many atheists want is for their worldview to be linked to this kind of dark existentialism—as it was once linked to communism in the US. Moreover, some of these atheists are convinced that they should have no trouble being happy, because the existential worries are overblown. Again, though, whatever compromises atheistic naturalists might devise to justify their typically liberal values, there’s no gainsaying the difference between theistic and naturalistic metaphysics: morality is much more secure in the former than in the latter.

As long as we think of the laws of right and wrong as chosen by some mind, as we choose our society’s laws to civilize us and regulate our behaviour, morality will be superfluous for the atheistic naturalist. Liberal values, for example, will be merely politically correct, borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition, or derived from our evolved social instincts. In any case, we could just as well choose a new set of social laws to govern our interactions, which is what it means to say that morality is subjective. By contrast, natural laws are unavoidable because they’re objective, which is to say that they’re chosen by no one but forced on all physical things, including sentient creatures like us. Morality must then be a kind of game. You could choose to play baseball or switch to hockey; likewise, you could choose to be kind or switch to being belligerent. Of course, our character stands in the way of instantaneous changes in our behaviour, should we choose to play some new moral game, but the fact that someone has been trained to think highly of an ideal doesn’t make that ideal right. Even if our character traits become so ingrained that we can’t apply a new morality, the point is that in the naturalistic worldview, morality is up to us. Were we to choose to teach our children the opposite of the Golden Rule, they would grow up to make more sociopathic moves, having learned that they’re obliged to lie and scheme and overpower each other. And the universe would proceed along its inhuman course, wholly indifferent to our new preferences.

Moral Deeds as Inspiring Works of Art

All of which should induce a sense of existential vertigo, but this isn’t the final word on morality for the disenchanted modernist. Morality can be construed as an aesthetic phenomenon. Moral right can be thought of as a kind of beauty, badness as a kind of ugliness. When we judge our actions right or wrong, we’re exercising artistic taste, because everything we do becomes a work of art. The chief advantage of this way of thinking of morality is that it gives rightness and wrongness unassailable foundations in naturalistic ontology. Precisely because the universe isn’t created by a mind, from the science-centered perspective, nature itself must be the ultimate creator. Natural forces create and reshape matter, evolving new and more complex forms. Human morality is therefore at home in nature, after all, as long as morality is interpreted as part of a creative process. Our moral aspirations guide the development of our kind, shaping us as individuals and collectives. The conscience is like the muse that whispers into the artist’s ear, inspiring her to surpass her previous artistic efforts. And so we create ourselves and our societies, imitating the mindless systems that work all around us.

All organic processes double nature’s fundamental creativity in this way, as organisms erect boundaries around their inner worlds so that their bodies might be free to evolve along the biological and social paths, and even to reshape their environments with their traits or with tools they construct to put more ingenious plans into effect. Human creators are especially aware, rational, flexible, and audacious, but the point is that there’s this continuity from nature’s impersonal transformations to living things’ internally-directed ones. The atheist does affirm that nature is fundamentally physical and impersonal, so it turns out that minds aren’t needed to create wonders. And if morality is a tool we use for our creative purposes, moralists needn’t feel so alienated from the world, after all, because they’re in good company; in fact, the universe would consist of so many art studios and museums, now showcasing the new products and later clearing their walls for new works.

Does nature’s evident creativity really amount to artistry, though, so that human art standards apply, say, to physical or chemical processes? Not exactly. Human artists have minds and the natural systems in the rest of the universe don’t, so there’s at best an analogy here—but the comparison is stronger than it might seem at first glance. Most of the artifacts we construct have functions that we assign to them, but artworks are exceptional in often having the brute uselessness that purely physical events seem to have. The artist creates because she feels compelled to do so and regardless of whether the work pleases anyone, the work stands as a creative expression. The universe feels nothing, but it nevertheless creates new phases of itself as it’s compelled to by natural forces. Modern art is thought to be especially pointless in this respect: the modern artist merely explores some artistic medium without any ulterior motive. Likewise, matter, space, and energy seem to mindlessly explore their possibilities, perhaps even realizing them all in the megaverse, bringing into being a vast multitude of configurations from the subatomic level to the galactic and universal ones. Indeed, this similarity between natural creativity and modern art may not be a coincidence, since the scientific discovery of nature’s fundamental impersonality impacted Western cultures at large.

Still, we say artworks are good or bad, while it makes less sense to speak of a good or bad atom, asteroid, or star. This is because our art has value that derives from our minds and modernists are led to think there’s no mind behind natural as opposed to artificial creativity. So a physical event isn’t identical to the creation of art; the two are only similar. But that’s enough to overcome the atheist’s anxiety that human life is utterly anomalous and absurd in the grand scheme. On the contrary, we’re merely more complex kinds of creators than the impersonal systems that have been working for billions of years throughout the cosmos. We have minds and we put our reason, imagination, emotions, memories, and artistic vision to use when deciding not just what to paint or write or sing, but how to live and how society should be structured. Most of us are mediocre artists while a few are geniuses, and the natural elements and forces are proto-artists whose works are nevertheless far more sublime than anything we could hope to achieve.

But there’s more to the comparison. In fact, the very feature of atheistic naturalism that threatens to subvert society by negating our moral principles, without which civilized life seems impossible, has an aesthetic aspect. Naturalism, the modern philosophy that jeopardizes morality, is science-centered, and scientists are quintessentially objective. Objectivity is our ability to see things as they are in themselves rather than as how they seem merely to creatures like us. Modern objectivity is precisely what leads to existential angst, because when we look at something objectively we give up the human-centered perspective and so entertain the thought that what we’re looking at is entirely indifferent towards us; objects are just the things that carry on as they were, being forced by natural law to behave as they do, regardless of our preferences. All of nature is objective in this respect, and so nothing we feel or do matters to the world—as we understand when we’re in an objective frame of mind.

And yet scientific objectivity is very similar to the aesthetic perspective. Paintings, songs, novels, and dances may have various uses, but as long as we’re evaluating them from an instrumental point of view, reflecting on the utility of their results, we’re not thinking of them as artworks. Indeed, an artwork is an art object, in that the art must be viewed as something that’s uselessly complete in itself. Only when viewed without any interest on our part, when the object is perceived as a microcosm or a sort of independent world that would carry on without the viewer, does the object seem beautiful or ugly, and only then might we have that intimation of the object’s sublimity, of its transcending everything else because of its self-sufficiency.

So although there’s no artist at the root of nature, anything in nature can be aesthetically interpreted and indeed that artistic appreciation of nature’s impersonal works requires something like scientific objectivity. Thus, the very aspect of modernity that seems to threaten morality ironically presents us with the makings of a naturalized account of moral right and wrong. Morality is a kind of artistic excellence. Originality, then, should be a chief virtue, derivativeness a sign of moral mediocrity. This means that the actions that best distinguish us as members of our species have the highest moral worth, while those that blur the line between our species and the others are morally unbecoming. In other words, the more common and thus animalistic our behaviour, the less its moral worth. Evil, in this case, is hideousness on account of some action’s egregious betrayal of our creative potential, such as a subhuman action that flows directly from some primitive neural circuit without being screened by the person’s more complex cognitive systems.

For example, our species is distinguished by our mentality, which is to say our ability to solve our problems with abstract symbols as opposed to relying just on our physical bodies. Thus, when someone loses his temper and kills a person for angering him, that’s an evil act not because it violates any divine law, but because it’s artistically unworthy; the regressive loss of temper represents a failure to fulfill our creative potential. Again, in so far as delusions blind us to the truth, a delusory action puts us on all fours with the more ignorant and narrow-minded animal species, which makes the action immoral on account of its unseemliness for us. In short, immorality becomes a measure of dehumanization, while morality is artistic excellence, a commitment to live well by acting so as to compel others’ aesthetic appreciation of how our life choices work literally as artworks.  

Now, artistic beauty is very different from the sexual kind. Indeed, factual beauty or handsomeness is a matter of the facial features’ averageness and thus of their unoriginality. When we contemplate a beautiful face for sexual purposes, we’re thinking of its utility and thus not of its artistic merit. In so far as every human face is unique and different from those of other animals, all human faces have roughly the same aesthetic worth as mainly genetic creations. We may turn our faces into more distinguished works of art by applying makeup or resorting to plastic surgery, but should we do so for clichéd, subhuman purposes, we may spoil the millions of years of organic work that’s led to our bone structure and arrangement of facial muscles and skin cells.

But isn’t art a matter of arbitrary taste? The definition of postmodern art is indeed up for grabs, but this is because the link between scientific objectivity and the aesthetic attitude may be seeping into our popular cultures, even as those cultures distort our perception of that link. We’re suddenly able to interpret anything in the world as an art object, just by following the scientist’s lead, and that shocks us with the suspicion that art must be a trivial enterprise since there’s so much of it. If mindless nature can produce works of art, surely any person can. Meanwhile, some recent artworks of dubious apparent value sell for millions of dollars, so art must be a fraud fit for pretentious elites who are fools for parting with their money. All of this may be so, but it’s irrelevant to the fact that moral right and wrong can be metaphysically justified by the very naturalistic picture that turns everything into impersonal objects and so supposedly undermines our confidence in morality. Even if there are no divine commandments, there’s evidently natural creativity, and morality is one tool we employ to create ourselves and our social organizations, to distinguish us as self-sufficient microcosms that stand apart for our originality and thus for our aesthetic glory.

So while the comparison of moral deeds with artworks may seem to trivialize rather than secure the former, since traditional art now lacks gravitas, this is because the full implications of atheistic naturalism haven’t yet sunk in. Postmodern art often fails to speak to the masses, because the art world is currently backlashing against the capitalistic infantilization of those same masses and lurching in the opposite direction, as it were, heading into pretentious obscurantism, liberal snobbery, and a retreat to scholastic self-flattery. The scientific message makes all of this a comedy, because the natural facts should be humbling and horrifying us, before moving us to tragically heroic heights of creativity. The problem, then, is that our postmodern artists are decadent: the mass-produced, corporate art world has infantilized us with a flurry of dehumanizing ads and so our traditional artists are reacting to the modern worldview’s dark side in childish ways, with little vision of how to make the best of our existential situation.  

Objectivity as our Curse and Salvation

Existential philosophers have long said that modernity is Faustian, that modernists have effectively sold their soul for superficial control of the planet. Science has told us the truth of nature and technology has empowered us to do almost whatever we want. But it’s hard to decide what we want when our mental energy is drained by the horror of knowing that just beyond the horizons of our artificial world that substitutes for the wilderness, the undead god’s mechanisms and processes carry on to no humane end. No one other than us cares what we want, and that sobering fact makes it hard for us to want anything at all. Thus, transnational corporations decide for us, persuading us to seek happiness through endless consumption, which infantilizes us in the bargain. And morality becomes as hollow as postmodern art in the face of the grim fundamental facts of modern naturalism: the real world is impersonal, personhood being a transitory blossoming of undead creativity that will be eventually replaced by something alien and monstrous, from our self-centered viewpoint. All seems lost, then.

But never underestimate the undead god’s capacity for ironic reversals of fortune! With a gestalt switch of attitude, the gong that rings out our death knells sounds instead like a call to arms against nature’s indifference. The world is full of proto-artists and our artistry is superior not because of any greater magnificence of our works, since we can hardly create galaxies or universes, but because our works can be aimed at the monstrosity of those uncannily self-contained, natural systems. Our works include our lives as we’re guided by normative principles. The undead god is our muse, except that she inspires us by providing a model of what not to be. Instead of degrading ourselves with animalistic or infantile regressions, we should face the dreadful truth and overcome it with a glad heart, knowing that objectivity is both our curse and our salvation. We can see things as impersonal objects, but that very capacity presents the world to us also as virtual art and that revelation bestows on us our noblest role. We’re creators, too—only, we create with a vengeance.


  1. First you say art is about selfless contemplation, and then you want to use art to avenge against blind natural forces. Looks like a contradiction to me. Or is it the case that to avenge natural forces is useless?

    1. Well, avenging ourselves against nature is at best tragically heroic, as I say. It's useless in that nature doesn't care either way. But the pragmatist's standard of utility isn't appropriate when judging a life path at the existential level. We're not counting beans here. We're considering how to salvage our dignity, given natural life's absurdity. My answer is that we become godlike beings that create microcosms to irrationally spite nature's more monstrous, inhumane creativity.

      I'm not sure where I say that art is for "selfless contemplation." I don't think I say that in this article or in "Life is Art." Are you talking about the link between objectivity and the aesthetic perspective which sees everything as art?

    2. I'm not sure where I say that art is for "selfless contemplation."

      You don't use those words, but the idea is there, I think:


      Paintings, songs, novels, and dances may have various uses, but as long as we’re evaluating them from an instrumental point of view, reflecting on the utility of their results, we’re not thinking of them as artworks. Indeed, an artwork is an art object, in that the art must be viewed as something that’s uselessly complete in itself.

      But in your view art is useful indeed, to deal with existential angst. It has a purpose to fulfill.

    3. Yes, I think our art has an existentially beneficial effect, but the effect is best achieved when the artists don't think in instrumental terms. This is the difference between commercial and fine art. Advertisers have no contact with a muse and they're just painting by numbers, as it were.

      But if we're talking about art appreciation rather than creation, then I think the aesthetic value is lost when we think about the art's utility or purpose. We have to look at the thing objectively and see it as being complete in itself, as opposed to seeing it as a means to an end. That's sort of like "selfless contemplation," yes. This is the aesthetic attitude.

      So art in the broad sense, meaning everything artificial that we do, performs its functions of giving us a sense of the sublime and of reshaping the wilderness to our benefit, but to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of art, we have to ignore its utility and lose our self in contemplating the art object's more fundamental uselessness.

      You see, even our artificial worlds are metaphysically natural and thus part of the undead god, and so our victories over nature are at best tragically heroic. Nature wins in the end, which means our purposes will be for naught. When we treat something as an art object, we appreciate its undeadness and its inhuman completeness and uselessness to us, and so we have a hint of the undeadness in everything.

  2. The nature/human dichotomy doesn't work for me. Humans ARE nature, world, material processes. Literally 100%. Just as brain is 100% body. You can say nature can't choose, whereas humans can, but humans are becoming in the same basic way, albeit with greater complexity. A human self is simply the epicenter of a particular kind of world system. A very complex kind that uses abstractions as part of its becoming process. The difference between humans and everything else is not that world just does what it does randomly whereas we exercise control and do things for reasons, it's that we are at the epicenter of a particular bit of world as its happening. We are world of a particular kind at a particular location. And because we are there, we can steer world's unfolding a bit. Not as much as most people think, but a decent amount.

    If you said that we're the first bit of world that watches itself and gives a certain kind of uniquely human damn, I could get on board with that. We can be responsible for creating new world, sure. Defeating world, though? Every human victory is a world victory, isn't it? Everything we do is co-opted, just as it's happening.

    1. I plan to write soon on this very question, because it's come up a lot in the comments on my recent articles. There are two distinctions to keep in mind: the metaphysical one between natural and supernatural, and the higher-level, emergent one between natural and artificial. I mean to affirm both that we're perfectly natural in the metaphysical sense and that we're unnatural in the sense of being anomalous creators of artificiality (microcosms, culture, autonomous actions, objective knowledge, etc) in the second sense. There's a lot to say here, though, so I hope you'll check out that article. I'll likely write this up not in my next article (on theism and celebrity) but in the one after that.

  3. The argument here implies that only the theistic west and middle east has ever had morality. You are obviously dedicated to theism, but the claim that it is necessary for morality is borderline racist.