Friday, September 12, 2014

Asceticism and the Existential Crisis

Here is the secret history of life: animals evolved as machines produced by genes and proteins, working in concert with undead natural forces and processes such as natural selection. Those machines strive to carry out all the stages of their life cycle, meaning that they grow, eat, fight, mate, reproduce, and die. As species become more varied and competition for resources becomes more complex, animals evolve more sophisticated control centers and social relationships, which partially liberate them from their primitive cycles. For example, mammals learn to play and not just to practice fighting but for the joy of it. More powerful brains were used mostly to analyze opportunities in the outer environment, but eventually awareness and rationality were turned inward, leading in humans to self-creation and to an egoistic awareness of all other things in relation to the self.

Those are preliminary matters of biology and psychology. But the secret is that the difference between animalism and personhood lies in a dreadful enlightenment and a terrifying freedom to choose how to respond to the existential crisis. As reason and consciousness are more and more finely attuned, as humans build up more rigorous conceptions of the facts, and as we learn to objectify instead of just projecting the products of our imagination and indulging in our childlike yearnings, we confront the horror at the root of all things: Being is undead and there is no God but only natural forces, materials, and processes that parody personhood except when they transcend themselves and produce sentient creatures who are then cursed to learn their deeper undead nature. Like the artificial person in science fiction stories who doesn’t realize she’s a robot, but who scratches away at her organic skin, sees a metallic surface in the mirror, and goes mad from discovering the gap between her deluded self-image and the unnerving reality, every authentic person faces an existential crisis culminating in the question of how to live with philosophical illumination. 

This history isn’t progressive. There is no purpose of natural creation; rather, there’s an undead flow towards apocalypse and oblivion at the end of time, at the eventual extinction of beings which will reveal that the world has been inwardly empty all along. Life just happened to evolve and some mammals just happened to inherit the faculties which made them hyperintelligent. These are accidents of evolution, but they have the monumental consequence that through an enlightened soul’s cognitive faculties the cosmic zombie, the natural universe, is equipped to know itself for the monstrosity that it is, whereupon that doomed creature must decide what to do with such accursed knowledge. The noble lie in the West, originating from the plagiarisms in Genesis, is that self-knowledge is a sin, that Eve chose to disobey God and so God punished Adam and Eve because the Lord was afraid of having rivals. All of that is mere personification, which is the projection of comforting images sprouting from the minds of our more na├»ve ancestors. Of course, we weren’t created by any persons other than our biological parents and we don’t choose to be self-aware; instead, we acquire that power in so far as we’re embedded in the decaying plenum of the undead god. Genes and proteins and social relations align so that children tend to learn a language, to rationally process the contents of their conscious awareness, and to be domesticated as dictated by their cultural conventions. That’s our species’ life cycle—except that ours is one in which there’s a rupture that curses us with satanic freedom: we can choose to go back to sleep, to live as animals, forsaking our potential for transcendence, or we can choose how to transcend.

This may surprise you, but most biological humans aren’t persons in the existential, spiritual sense. Psychologically, they have minds or selves as well as a capacity for self-control, compared to nonhuman species. But they’re also antiphilosophical, meaning they don’t undertake the promethean project of inquiring into the objective truth; instead, they succumb to delusions, noble lies, and bodily distractions. These are the beta herds, the human animals that grovel and scramble and otherwise debase themselves for fleeting advantages in our dominance hierarchies, blind to the philosophical significance of their actions and to the universe’s aesthetic status—which is to speak of the horror within all things that leaves intelligent creatures dumbfounded until they devise noble means of coping.