Saturday, March 8, 2014

Anthropocentrism and Misanthropy

Here's my new YouTube video, called Anthropocentrism and Misanthropy. Yes, it's kind of a mouth full.

Below the video you'll find some notes I used to prepare for the video.


Anthropocentrism: core embarrassment of theism, the most basic, untenable aspect; i.e. injecting human nature into the answers to our ultimate questions, typically by personifying the First Cause, that which completes all explanation; this is no longer tenable after the modern period and especially after the Scientific Revolution; there were ancient checks on animism and anthropocentrism such as Greek or Indian skepticism as well as the mystical traditions in the great religions and an appreciation of natural cycles (in Egyptian and Chinese cultures, etc) which decentralizes us, but that decentralization/humiliation (bringing us down to Earth) is made intellectually necessary after modern technoscience, which shows us the alien/inhuman scope of the natural universe; vestige of anthropocentrism in psychologism and metaphysical idealism, as in mentalist interpretations of quantum mechanics, but QM already has an alien logic, so any consciousness/observation which is fundamental isn’t given a commonsense meaning

Q: Does atheism avoid the trap of anthropocentrism? A: Not necessarily, since secular humanists make human nature central, replacing God with people as the measure of all things; values become subjective, we become the center of our artificial worlds which technoscience produces, and humanists regard this as progressive; so while we’re no longer crucial to all of nature or to the First Cause, we’re still ultimately important for the humanist in so far as we merit human rights and establish all normative values; we become metaphysically dependent on impersonal forces and systems, given the humanist’s naturalism, but we nevertheless become central to our worldviews, if not to the world itself, given the humanist’s optimism; human interests and values predominate in liberal humanistic atheism, by definition of “humanism”; e.g. in the humanities we study ourselves (history, anthropology, psychology, etc) to fulfill the ancient obligation to know ourselves and thus to be wise

Q: What, then, is the opposite of anthropocentrism? A: cynicism, misanthropy or radical skepticism which doubts not just various statements of fact, but which holds our interests and values in contempt; pessimism and abhorrence for our traditions and ideals and dreams

Thus, naivety due to historical inexperience, unfamiliarity with nature’s undeadness/impersonality/amorality/alienness, and narrowness of prehistoric perspective due to lack of communications technology (tribal, village perspective, verging on solipsism)
Excess memories and knowledge

Freudian Metaphor of childhood vs adult tendencies (there are exceptions, but based on the above fact):

innocence and childlike mental projection out of exaltation in our creative powers without appreciating the divergence between the factual and imaginary worlds (mythopoeia; childlike perspective)
Self-doubt due to accumulation of failures; learning the impersonal facts which alienates us since we unconsciously prefer to be childlike; thus, sublimation of creative, anthropocentric instincts in art, sports, games, secular myths (Hollywood; fantasy, horror science fiction, and romance novels)

This metaphor makes both ancient and modern perspectives polar opposites in an organic, Spenglerian process; thus, another possible answer to the question about what we become when we grow out of anthropocentrism is emotional neutrality, as in Buddhist detachment: seeing the organic, historical development and having no self-centered preferences; then the distinction becomes one of making personal choices versus being one with the impersonal whole of nature; i.e. extinction of personal self


  1. This is more or less exactly why I stopped being a humanist. I read an interview with Lars von Trier in which he argued humanism is no more realistic than deism and even though he didn't use these words, it is entirely what he meant. In his perspective, that is cause for despair; I don't believe that is inherent, but can be misanthropic in practice.

    It is a struggle to reconcile Buddhist understanding with misanthropic urges. I agree with Plato's perspective, from Wikipedia, "In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates defines the misanthrope in relation to his fellow man: "Misanthropy develops when without art one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable...and when it happens to someone often...he ends up...hating everyone.""

    Buddhism's focus on compassion and detachment is to focus on letting go of expectation while recognizing the pain of existence as universal. That starts with acceptance of self and then transcends, like you said, into dissolution of self.

  2. My problem with Buddhism is that compassion seems gratuitous once we renounce the ego. The ego may be the cause of selfishness, so a Buddhist should learn not to act on her selfish impulses. But what's the natural cause of compassion once we start training ourselves to be Buddhist? This is why I suspect there's a supernatural or teleological component of Buddhism that conflicts with modern naturalism. Once we extinguish the egoistic self and are emotionally detached from outcomes, why would we care whether people live or die? Why would creation be better than destruction? Why help people rather than hurt them?

    It's interesting to compare Stoicism with Buddhism on this point. Stoics also give up on preferring one outcome or another, because they think the world is a deterministic machine, but they nevertheless have the ideal of inner peace, which they think they can achieve by limiting their desires to what they can control (the inner rather than the outer world). Ultimately, I think ancient Stoics justified that ideal in a pragmatic way, since inner peace was useful on the battlefield where it was hard to stop the horror unfolding all around you. So what justifies the Buddhist ideals of compassion and inner peace? Is it epistemic, since nirvana is simply what you're left with when you've seen through all of the illusions?

  3. Buddhism is tricky because it isn't metaphysical. It's immaterial whether it is supernatural or naturalistic, and the interpretations are identical.

    Karma can be a supernatural force or simply probabilistic reciprocity. Reincarnation could be of the direct soul or merely yourself as archetype.

    Someone asked the Dalai Lama what Buddhism would do if science invalidates a core belief and he said that's impossible because Buddhism deals only with the path to liberate the mind. One of the core principles of liberation is complete acceptance of truth, so Buddhism must change its metaphors as science discovers new things, but it remains the same.

    I think it's important to note that Buddhism isn't against death, it's for compassion. Death is inherent in life and a product of ignorance, which most life is. The compassion also extends to all nature, not just sentient beings. Plants and even inanimate objects are seen as deserving of compassion for their role in things.

    As to why compassion and creation are preferable, that's pretty simple. Hurting someone is enforcing your will on them and thus is ego enforcing. Destruction is taking away potential and how beings can interact with it, so again it is ego enforcing. In contrast, caring about others and creating things (that they take on a life of their own) puts the focus away from yourself as long as you don't have pride in it. They are ego destroying.

    Something that I think is very subtle is the difference between detachment and indifference. I just read this parable: "King Virudhaka declared war against the Buddha’s own clan, the Shakyas, and marched against them. The Buddha stood in his way three times. Each time King Virudhaka dismounted, paid his respects, remounted and retreated, but he kept coming back every day. By the fourth day, the Buddha did not stand in his way, and the Sakyas were defeated."

    The interpretation is that the Buddha gave the King the opportunity for reflection and to break the karmic cycle, but was detached about his failure to convince the King otherwise.

    Similarly, when I saw the Dalai Lama he commented about global warming (and other environmental issues) and said it wasn't a problem, it was just karmic. If we did not change then we'd cease to be, thus no problem. Then he laughed for what was probably a full minute. Then he said it wouldn't be very wise to commit suicide, so he hoped we chose otherwise.

    1. Thanks for these explanations, Mikkel. I'm not sure about a couple of your statements, though. I agree that the Buddha himself wasn't interested in metaphysical questions and that Buddhism as a whole is focused on the psychological task of freeing the mind, which means that this religion/philosophy is much less speculative than the monotheistic religions. But Buddhist techniques can still have metaphysical implications, as I think many Buddhist students realize which is why they keep asking their teachers metaphysical questions. The teachers become exasperated because they interpret the longing for ultimate truth to be a product of ego and ignorance. All we need is the Buddha's path to liberation, they think.

      But notice what you say about about Buddhism and truth: "One of the core principles of liberation is complete acceptance of truth, so Buddhism must change its metaphors as science discovers new things, but it remains the same." Now, a Buddhist will respect scientific truth more than the religious, speculative kind, because she favours direct experience and observation. The Buddhist is skeptical about reason as a source of rationalization and ego-protection. Nevertheless, as physicists have recently realized, observation is limited in its cognitive role. To understand what we observe, we have to think about it, formulate hypotheses and evaluate them partly by applying normative, aesthetic, or other a priori criteria. Thus, theoretical physicists deal with mathematical reasoning rather than just with observations, to understand the full cosmological truth.

      Philosophy is part of that search for ultimate truth. So I don't think Buddhism can afford to ignore metaphysical questions, nor can any skeptic. Indeed, I believe the Buddha is said to have broken down at times and addressed some of his students' metaphysical concerns.

      Regarding compassion, I still don't think it's so simple. I agree that we tend to destroy things out of ego, but even here the scientific view of how nature creates is that natural processes are destructively creative. (This point comes out in Hinduism, I think.) The most striking example of this is natural selection, which creates the great variety of species only by killing them all in turn, to try out each mutation as the environmental conditions warrant.

      Indeed, compassion isn't necessarily creative. This is the criticism of communism, that it led to stagnation whereas the destructive, individualistic American economy is actually more innovative.

      But I see you saying that compassion has pragmatic value in Buddhism, that Buddhists are compassionate as a means to becoming less egoistic themselves. Is that right?

    2. Well Agnosticism is a form of metaphysics. Perhaps the only truly justifiable form. I also find it has the most power when wielded by a skilled practitioner, because it can morph into different tools to accomplish the task at hand.

      Buddhism uses metaphysics for its aim, but that doesn't mean it has metaphysics. One thing that is clear about its history is the embrace of using what is useful and discarding the rest. That of course changes for each individual and circumstance.

      Once again, your definition of compassion is a western liberal one that is caught up in guilt and therefore static behavior. As I alluded to above, there is a huge difference between compassion and death. I think the western liberal idea comes from anthropocentrism and that we are "better" than nature (and of course, there are people more "privileged" than other people) so that anything we do that harms anything is therefore bad.

      But being alive means you must kill by definition. There are of course people that rationalize this by deciding they won't eat animals, but a) Buddha very clearly counts plant life in his pronouncement and b) the act of cultivation and civilization destroys so much habitat that it creates as much harm as that which directly comes from eating an animal.

      Buddhism does not shy away from accepting the Shiva cycle, it merely says to be compassionate towards the beings affected by your actions. Think of shark attack victims who love the ocean. There is no animosity towards the shark because they have compassion towards its condition and recognize they are in its domain. It's only people that do not love the ocean who fear and seek revenge.

      It is similarly possible to live like the shark in that you cause pain and suffering through the act of living, but you can have compassion towards your victims and seek to live within the cycle instead of controlling it.

      As this link points out, Buddha was not a pacifist (, on the contrary, he deemed it the responsibility of a king to have an army. It is not moralistically wrong to kill, it is just that it helps perpetuate the karmic cycle. However, it also provides the opportunity for reflection through compassion.

      "Soldier is one who thrives for peace within because he is one who realizes the pain of his own wounds. He is one who sees the bloody destruction of war, the dead, the suffering etc. Hence his desire to bring peace to himself as well as to the others by ending the war as soon as possible. He not only suffers during the war but even after the war. The painful memories of the battles he fought linger in him making his aspire for true and lasting peace within and without. Hence the common phenomenon of transformation of brutal kings having an insatiable desire to conquer to incomparable and exemplary righteous kings such as Drarmasoka king of Mourian dynasty of India."

      Also, when it comes to Communism, you should learn more about its the origins of the movement and how it was pushed in a very ancient Greek way. It sought to use engineering to provide basic necessities and combined with universal liberal arts education, would foster Arete. Many of the early proponents argued that this would create a new culture that prized creativity in a way no other nation had. In order for it to work however, society had to be completely rational.

      Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. Adam Curtis has a documentary about it

      State Communism is the opposite of compassion in that it denies individuality and sees people are mere components of a machine. It drove completely absurd and insane behavior, leading to a state of Absurdistan ( in which even the basics of life were completely impenetrable to the citizens.

    3. I agree with the principle that being alive means you must kill, even if it's only plants. As the Tool song says, "Life feeds on life." I'm trying to get at a deeper issue with Buddhism, though. An enlightened, detached person seems to me beyond moral judgments, so I don't see how that person would be especially motivated towards anything like compassion.

      You say we can show compassion even though we're resigned to live within natural systems. We can be like compassionate sharks even as we kill and perpetuate the karmic cycle, as all living beings must. The ultimate objective is moksha, freedom from rebirth in those cycles. But until then, Buddhists must settle for something rather like Stoicism: Buddhists change mainly their inner state so they can be at peace with the horror of nature. They can kill living things and not feel guilt or shame, because they're enlightened; that is, they understand there's no such thing as individual animals, but only the whole causal web, the dependent arising of any event on a variety of conditions.

      It's that cognitive aspect of Buddhism that seems to me to conflict with the moral one and also with the psychological one. I don't see how someone who understands that individual substances (egos, minds, souls) are illusions ought to believe that helping rather than hurting such parts of the whole of reality is best or even how the enlightened person would likely be pushed towards altruism in the first place. If animals or plants are nothing at all, from the perspective of nirvana, why not kill them? What difference does their pain make if there's nothing really to feel it?

      Buddhists are opposed to suffering itself, of course. But why? Suffering is part of the whole. It plays a natural function. If you have no ego and don't care about the outcome of your actions, because you understand that most of what unenlightened people talk about is unreal, why would you think that pleasure is better than pain? This is a question that Scott Bakker could ask as well, since he thinks that naturalism implies nihilism, or at least the superficiality of all normative distinctions.

    4. So if the view that pain is bad is itself egoistic, and pain is merely part of the causal network like everything else, from the enlightened God's-eye view which sees everything in its interconnectedness, Buddhism is indeed a raft you sail on only until you can discard it once you reach the destination. The destination is a cognitive one: it's a perspective that compasses everything's unity. That perspective entails an emotional purification, a loss of partiality to yourself. Given that enlightened standpoint, it seems to me a bland sort of anticlimax to think that a Buddha figure would be particularly compassionate. What would such a person care about? What would motivate her? Her eyes would be set on the whole of nature and not even cosmologists or astrophysicists know what that whole is. Given that she's not omniscient, she wouldn't know what the whole is either, but she'd feel that everything is nothing but a part of some whole. So why would she still care so much about eliminating people's suffering?

      It must be that nirvana comes with bliss, so again the logic is utilitarian: it’s just axiomatic that pleasure is better than pain. But how is that axiom not egoistic? It’s the ego that feels one or the other. The enlightened person has no ego, so her pleasure and pain are just disconnected neural events that come and go, depending on the conditions. Why prefer one to the other, when both are equally part of the whole deterministic system? If we say with the Vedanta Hindu that ultimate bliss is felt only by Atman, by the God inside us, we’re back to supernaturalism.

      Another possibility is that the ego isn’t unreal, after all. Ignorant people create egos by means of their ignorance, since ignorance too has that causal role to play. This would be my view. Egos are constructed just as our outer artificial worlds are, and these creations have advantages and disadvantages. These psychological and social levels emerge in nature and it’s just a semantic trick to call them illusory rather than real. In short, the Buddhist seems to fail to appreciate the creative power of causal relations, of dependent arising. The Buddhist is too reductionistic, like Scott Bakker, and this is a metaphysical rather than an ethical or psychological matter.

    5. I think these are issues Buddhism struggles with on the same level that Christians have to struggle with "if God is all loving and powerful how come bad things happen?"

      I think fundamentally Buddhism is both amoral and nihilistic. It does not judge about outcomes or believe there is any fundamental purpose to life, but is merely a meditation on how to accept what is, like stoicism.

      In my categorization
      Taoism: zero inherent supernaturalism (although the stories have superhumans) and completely nihilistic and amoral. There are no judgements at all except "what works"

      Buddhism: naturalistic or supernatural depending on how literal reincarnation and karma are. Amoral and nihilistic about outcome but prescriptive about how to find contentment

      Hinduism: supernatural, (power based) moralistic and quasi-nihilistic. Closest to western religion except founded on circular time and gods are still a part of instead of separate from the system. Only the Brahman is outside of naturalistic cycles, but it is impersonal and non-sentient. Everything else is a projection of Brahman's essence.

      Confucianism: not metaphysical but highly moralistic in terms of cultural judgement.

      All of these things get mixed up to create who knows how many flavors of eastern thought. You can have primarily Buddhist messages with Hindu gods flying around encouraging people to be good Confucists. Or a lot of people argue only from traditional Confucianism but then point to Buddhism when asked for backup. Etc.

      So, I feel cautious about saying what "Buddhism" thinks, particularly since I am not even a part of it in any formal way.

      But that said, I think there are fundamental assumptions in your questions that explain why it doesn't make sense.

      First of all, enlightenment is not knowledge, it is a state of being. I was listening to Alan Watts recently and he talked about how every single person has experienced enlightenment at points, it's just that a bodhisattva has reached enlightenment as their core essence and wish to spread its lessons.

      There is a saying, "If you meet the Buddha, kill him" meaning that if you believe you have achieved enlightenment then you will lose it instantly since you'll go back to being proud. So, it is not a stage you reach and then discard what got you there because it is not a perspective. It is a Way (which is what Tao literally means).

      Similarly, an enlightened person will have no concern for knowing what the whole is because they accept it is impossible to know. On the contrary, they profess ignorance about most things. It is similar to travelling. Most people want to know where they are going and how they will get there and learn the tools to make it so. Other people have no idea where they are going or how they will get there but learn the tools to safely take advantage of whatever presents itself.

      It is also a misconception that nirvana is bliss. It is more accurate to say peace or contentment because you are no longer bound to delusion.

      Which gets to the idea of suffering or pleasure. In the Buddhist terms, these are existential terms, not sensory. Dukkha can exist as physical pain that creates existential angst, but more often is used to refer to the angst and unsatisfactory nature itself. Skilfully hunting down an animal for sustenance and using it to the fullest is not causing suffering in comparison to keeping an animal in the zoo or raising it intensively, for those actions deprive it of its nature and cause emotional angst.

      There is a criticism that this view can lead to sociopathic and even genocidal logic, which is definitely a possibility. Buddhism doesn't particularly have restraints on what is acceptable other than those imposed by the self and karma.

    6. The last comment for now is that most strains of Buddhism and Taoism do not believe anything is literally unreal. The Buddha explicitly validates a lot of structures that perpetuate the karmic cycle because they are necessary for the continuation of the populace that is not on the path to enlightenment. There are some radical Buddhists (and particularly Taoists) that claim that everything is illusion so nothing matters [the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were particularly a sore point around this]. However, this is definitely not the main view. The main view is more akin to saying that solid objects are illusionary because it is almost entirely empty space and the higher truth is that of energy fields created by fundamental particles. That doesn't invalidate macroscopic physics in any way. Indeed, it is only through macroscopic inspection that we were led to the standard model, just as enlightenment can only occur through experiencing dukkha from normal life.

    7. Thanks again for these clarifications, Mikkel. I think you're right about enlightenment not being a matter of knowledge in the Eastern traditions, whereas in the West enlightenment is indeed a cognitive matter. And of course you're right that there are many varieties of Buddhism.

      When you say that Buddhism is "Amoral and nihilistic about outcome but prescriptive about how to find contentment," I wonder whether Buddhists might offer only instrumental imperatives when it comes to finding contentment. They could easily stay true to their nihilism and amorality and say only that IF you want relief from dukkha, here's the Buddhist way which works.

      Instead, my impression is that Buddhists sugarcoat the amorality and nihilism, possibly for Straussian or Platonic reasons having to do with the social need for noble lies. The comforting fiction is that there's nothing to fear about enlightened Buddhists since they're compassionate, whereas I see nothing to stop them from being sociopathic. In fact, Buddhism may well amount to a kind of learned sociopathy. Not all sociopaths are dangerous, but not all are compassionate either. This is the subject that really interests me about Buddhism.

      As to what Buddhists regard as illusory, the relevant point is the doctrine of anatta. If there's no such thing as the self, how can there be any reason for compassion? Compassion towards what, a bunch of impersonal matter?

    8. Well I don't see any evidence that Buddhists as a whole live the truth of their teaching any more than other ideologies. The East is hardly a compassionate utopia and is filled with superstition, sexism, racism and egoism even amongst so called Buddhists. One time I had dinner with a Thai brother and sister and she started blaming Buddhism for a lot of Thai sexism, which was funny because the brother adamantly said it wasn't sexist -- then she listed a litany of customs and he got embarrassed that he'd never noticed before.

      As for enlightened Buddhism I agree that it is a type of sociopathy. Alan Watts talks about the Buddhist foundations of the samurai and how Zen spread throughout Japan in a very sociopathic way. The difference between it and Western sociopathy is that it advocates sociopathy in a contextual instead of individualistic sense. The samurai may be sociopathic but it is to uphold an idea of harmonious society within a rigorous caste system.

      The criticism that Buddhism has been easily exploited by emperors to justify their reign is quite true -- of course what hasn't been?

      After many years of cajoling by my partner I finally got around to reading Atlas Shrugged and discovered it is far from what its apologists (including Rand herself) claim. Instead, I found it has a very strong Buddhist quality in that each individual lived their true selves as part of a greater whole and particularly within the utopia, they had simple pleasures and actions. From a rather socipathic mindset, they were actually contributing to the flow of all and the book is about the frustration of society not allowing this.

      Of course the novel is also filled with nature hatred and attachment that causes the characters much angst. I'm not quite done but it doesn't seem that they'll ever get to the phase where they develop compassion . To me compassion arises because we are all stuck in the cosmic play. Even if we are all part of a whole, it is hard to recognize this.

    9. Here is someone who has devised what he calls Dark Buddhism. It takes the teachings of Zen and marries it with Objectivism to create self oriented mindfulness. It directly attempts to answer your question.

    10. Thanks again for these comments, Mikkel. I'm working up to writing something on sociopathy as it's found mostly in Western elites. But I hadn't considered a connection between libertarianism and Buddhism. Also, the connection Bushido and Buddhist sociopathy is interesting. I remember reading about a concept in Bushido, about how war is won before it's ever fought, because it's won in the mind, and the ideal is to be like a block of wood so that you're absolutely free from fear, in which case you terrify your enemies.

      What fascinates me are the myths we tell to rationalize the sociopathy of our leaders and heroes. So in the West you have libertarianism and the ideal of individual freedom, which I compare elsewhere to Satanism. And in Buddhism you have this talk of enlightenment and inner peace and (somehow) compassion. I can see how compassion might follow from pity, but it's hard for me to see how someone who's enlightened in the Buddhist sense would feel pity, either.

      The sociopathy article I'm thinking of writing will pick up on what I said awhile back about the difference between the collaborative, Platonic perspective of the philosopher and the more cynical one of the social engineer. Philosophers care about meaning, whereas political and business operators care only about causality and cultural syntax (so they can bend the rules to achieve their goals). Buddhists and sociopaths fit into the latter, whereas the myth is that they're heroic or spiritual.