Saturday, July 14, 2018

Theologian John Haught on Nature’s “Story”

In The New Cosmic Story, theologian John Haught argues that Big History, the genre of history that purports to tell the story of the whole universe, has been flawed because it’s left out the inside story, an account of what exists and of how things seem subjectively, “from the inside.” Instead, driven by scientific reductionism which Haught calls “archaeonomy,” these historians include only physical events in their stories, as seen “from the outside”: the Big Bang led to galaxy formation which led to the formation of planets, and so on. Big History includes the evolution of life, but mainly from an objective standpoint. What isn’t taken seriously in this history is the development of subjectivity that culminates in religious awakenings such as the one that Karl Jaspers dubbed the Axial Age. Judging from standard cosmology, for example, the universe doesn’t contain any such thing as qualia or the property of interior life. At best, consciousness, subjectivity, and what Haught calls the dawning of the sense of “rightness” are explained away as illusions. According to the sense of rightness, of what should be but perhaps isn’t, the universe is incomplete since it fails to live up to our ideals. Science-centered grand history treats unfinished nature as though it were complete, whereas nature includes the subjective capacities to discern that nature isn’t entirely right, in which case materialistic history must likewise be deficient.

Indeed, the notion of “Big History” seems oxymoronic, since a science-centered (value-neutral and reductionistic) account of everything would be something like an explanation in the field of cosmology or physics, not a story. Properly speaking, history pertains only to people, which raises the question whether a “history of rocks” or a “history of the universe” would amount to a series of anthropomorphisms. Haught, though, speaks of the “narrative coherence” of events throughout the universe, since the universe includes a beginning, middle, and end, and so there is indeed supposed to be a story of the universe. To speak of such a universal narrative would seem to beg the question of theism, just as speaking of the intelligent design not just of life but of stars and planets would imply a designer. Given that theism is foolish, what exactly could a nonfictional story be and what would a story of the universe look like?

Suppose a history of rocks, for example, is only a description of how rocks came to be. This description would list the sequence of events that led to the formation of various kinds of rocks. Would this description amount to a story? A mighty boring one, perhaps—and not just because geology may not widely appeal as a subject matter. An objective representation of all the events that developed some phenomenon wouldn’t be much of a story because even a nonfictional story is supposed to have a point, as in a lesson or some other meaning. The primary definition of “story” is “a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader” (my emphasis, from Stories aren’t just told by people; people are the intended audience—and this means people in the full sense, not a denuded form of us that conforms to the conceit of hyperrationality. A story’s audience consists of persons who want to be entertained or informed, on the assumption that such pastimes are worthwhile, so that the story can’t be a neutral, impersonal representation of facts that has no practical implications; in other words, a story can’t be exactly like the natural facts. Assuming that’s so, Haught’s thesis that Big History leaves out the sense of rightness is analytic: histories are stories and stories are normative, so of course Big History can’t explain away idealism and morality without nullifying itself as the special kind of description a history is supposed to be.

In any case, we might tell the story of rocks, but this would require that rocks have a purpose so that the story would at least imply a lesson. That purpose would have to be assigned to rocks by some conscious being, since rocks can’t decide what they should be or what they’re supposed to be doing. Yet the notion that rocks have a purpose means that rocks can fail or succeed at achieving it, which is absurd. Even were there such a thing as a proto-rock that evolves into rocks according to some supernatural plan for the universe, the proto-rock couldn’t be said to fail in so far as it isn't yet a rock; instead, the designer would have failed to devise a means of creating rocks without the benefit of intermediate stages. At best, a rock can succeed or fail when the natural object is used as a tool, in which case the rock is no longer a rock, but, for instance, a projectile.

So rocks can’t tell their story, there’s no God to reveal an unquestionable account of everything, and when we tell our stories, we turn the world into an artificial extension of us. The world in-itself, which Eugene Thacker calls well the world-without-us, isn’t obviously subject to narrative interpretation, and this was roughly Kant’s point in distinguishing between noumena and phenomena. We aren’t interested in the raw facts since they don’t care about us; we talk not about the facts themselves, but of informative or entertaining impressions the facts have on us. Even our definitions simplify the facts, noumena or how things would be if intelligent life never existed; the essences or properties we think of as most objective humanize the world even in science, to some extent, because of our instrumental zeal for using empirical knowledge to empower our species at nature’s expense. And when scientific accounts are indifferent, they hardly qualify as stories. To record what the noumenal facts are is to depersonalize yourself, to become like the inhuman world. As Nietzsche famously wrote, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” The title of Haught’s book, then, “The New Cosmic Story,” is oxymoronic. Even H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicist tales only hint at the inhuman truths and have cautionary lessons as opposed to being as bleakly indifferent and objective as the world-without-us.  

Certainly, the notion that occupying the temporal dimension or that having a beginning, middle, and end makes for narrative coherence is misleading. Time is a necessary but insufficient condition of being a story’s subject matter. Without time, nothing would happen, and we’re interested only in the significance of what happens. However, in so far as things only happen for no reason or with no practical implications, there is perhaps a development but as yet no narrative. Science tells of how nature evolves, and in so far as we, too, are part of that change, we’re objects, not subjects, since the value of nature isn’t scientifically demonstrated. We spin stories and assign purposes, thereby transforming nature into the artificial spheres of our activity, and the sources of those transformations are subjects, not objects. To explain the conversion of impersonal facts into value-laden artifacts, you need to posit reason, autonomy, consciousness, normativity, society, and culture.

Haught wants to say, though, that the scientific account of nature is limited precisely because it leaves out that subjectivity and rightness. Indeed, science isn’t all there is to say, contrary to scientism, but this doesn’t mean the scientific story is incomplete. There’s no such story. The notion of “Big History” is a confusion that serves the marketing purpose of selling popular science books and lectures. There’s only the Big Development or the Big Putrefaction of the Wandering Zombie We All Inhabit. That’s because theism is childish and the old Greek notion of the “cosmos” is likewise outdated (as even Luc Ferry ends up admitting at the end of his book on the relevance of the Hellenic worldview). Nature as the cosmos is supposed to be an ordered world teetering on the edge of chaos, and our role (as in Zoroastrianism, too) is to aid the gods in keeping the chaos monsters at bay—because we presume order is better than chaos. Much as Plato replaced gods with the Good, which allowed him to posit formal purposes and ideals implicit in every natural event, Haught says materialistic science ignores the arrival of rightness.

The question, then, is how deep this rightness goes. For Plato, rightness is more fundamental than the material facts with which our senses present us; the data we observe are mere disordered copies of ultimate reality, and it’s our reason, not our sensory apparatus that reconstructs the Truth. The real world isn’t the one we observe, since that world is illusory or meaningless until it’s interpreted from a subjective standpoint. The world we can understand, then, is necessarily full of value. Kant’s insight, though, was that Plato’s rationalist teleology is itself an illusion, that we project meaning and order onto noumenal nature (such as onto subatomic reality, as we’d now say) instead of discovering the world’s goodness as a brute fact. Just try to conceive of the world’s goodness without also thinking that the world thereby has value to someone—such as to the philosopher who escapes the cave, as in Plato’s allegory. Even the mystic who experiences the ego as an illusion identifies objective reality with a divine subject (Brahman with Atman). (Buddhists don’t, but their nirvana presupposes the goodness of the absence of suffering, and so I offer them this koan: How could the defeat of suffering be good or otherwise worth pursuing if there’s no one to experience the benefits of tranquility?)

The goodness of the natural order, then, is subjective, not objective. Nature-as-cosmos is for us only the world’s potential to be rendered fully artificial, as we instrumentalists lick our lips at the prospect of venturing into the wilderness and kicking its metaphorical ass with technoscience, with no divine police force to stop us. Nature is “unfinished” only in that we long for the wilderness to become artificial, to stop reminding us of God’s evident absence. We prefer natural order to chaos, because the one is obviously more useful to us than the other; indeed, we approve of the spatiotemporal order because it’s a precondition of personal life, and we enjoy ourselves.  

Perhaps the closest we can get to telling the world’s story is to follow Lovecraft into the cosmicist subgenre of horror. The trick is to feint at faithfully representing every dry, impersonal detail of natural facts as they’d appear in something like the Necronomicon, only to pull back and relate how the knowledge of such facts would terrify or sadden us. The task is to keep in mind both the phenomenon and the noumenon, to recognize that what matters to us doesn’t reciprocate our concerns or validate our way of life. The world-as-story is an extension of us, and we don’t matter to the world as it would be without us or as it will be for an eternity when we’re extinct. The stories we tell flatter us more than the world. We pretend with Big History that we’ve cracked some cosmic code and learned of the unfolding of ultimate events, but that unfolding isn’t yet any kind of story. To identify nature’s objective development with a narrative structure is to presuppose theism, which is silly. And if the world has an objective value, it’s the aesthetic one of disgusting intellectual elites with nature’s deeper pointlessness.


  1. Life is boring and you are just finding ways to stimulate your mind with these rants that noone cares much about except you. Discuss

    1. Life isn't boring. If you find life boring, there's a chance that it's just you who are boring. I write philosophy to satisfy me, not to please others. I don't have time to spread the word about this blog, but it doesn't surprise me that my blog isn't popular or widely appealing, given its content. Popularity isn't a good indication of high quality, since the best judges of quality are usually in the minority, and the majority are naturally mediocre.

    2. excellent, ben, you da man. keep on writing. i wish, being a round omega, i wasn't living so far below the poverty level, so i can buy your books, but alas life for omegas is hard... your blog is awesome as far as philosophy goes, but judging from how much i enjoy your yt videos i think it would be great if you can give a public presentation(s) about your research at some meetup or another here in to such as for example

    3. Thanks! That's an interesting idea. I'd meant to try to spread the word more through YouTube, but my job now's giving me less time to write, let alone to make videos.

      I'll look into that club. I used to lecture when I was a TA in graduate college. I wonder whether the talks given in that club are more technical, though, as in conventional analytic or continental philosophy. I've sort of put that stuff behind me. Certainly, rigorous argumentation is important, but it can hide the truth as much as reveal it. That's where I've come to agree with the existentialists. Still, I can tailor my blog's articles to suit different forums...