Saturday, July 28, 2018

Philosophy in the Wasteland

The later, more systematic existentialists often began their analysis with some form of metaphysical dualism, since they wanted to say that people have a special obligation in life, and so people must be fundamentally different from everything else. They spoke, then, of the crucial difference between, on the one hand, being mindless things devoid of purpose or freedom (being “in-itself” or “present-to-hand”), and on the other, being an autonomous creature, a source of value, or a tool caught up in that creature’s field of interests (being “for-itself” or “ready-to-hand”). Existentialism should, however, give way to cosmicism, which raises the question of philosophy’s worth.

From Existentialism to Cosmicism

Existential dualisms are oversimplifications since they ignore the strangeness of matter. A semi-facetious but still better starting point for existentialist purposes would be to posit mindless things, or things in so far as they’re scientifically objectified and explained as beings neither-here-nor-there, or neither this-nor-that, meaning things that occupy a baffling twilight in which they’re neither fully dead nor fully alive. The neither-here-nor-there is a being that acts as though it had some creative purpose, since it has energy or inertia and participates in vast cycles of complexification and evolution, but that does so with no capacity for intention or reason. Most of the universe is neither-here-nor-there in that sense.

Note that the idiom, “That’s neither here nor there” denotes the thing’s irrelevance, its being “beside the point,” where the point is determined by the speaker’s interests. To say, then, that the universe generally is neither here nor there is to say, on one level, that the universe is irrelevant to us, since we prefer the artificial world we create that supplants the wilderness and answers directly to our interests. The existential point is that this idiom is easily flipped, since if the universe is irrelevant to us from our parochial perspectives, so too must we be irrelevant to the universe from the objective, existential perspective which sides with the universe, as it were, having become detached from our personal concerns.  

In any case, what the humanistic dualisms of Heidegger and Sartre, for example, miss is nature’s impersonal but still energetic component. Thus, nature’s metaphysical status isn’t just that it’s like a dumb lump of matter; instead, while most of nature isn’t alive, self-conscious, or rational, nature also isn’t generally inert, uncreative, or chaotic. This strange twilight is what compelled us throughout history to invest nature with personhood, to shut out the more enlightened dualism. We explained natural order and creativity by deifying natural processes. Our naivety was only to be so liberal with the category we’re most familiar with, to assume that since people are alive, self-conscious, and rational, and yet everything else in the world is creative like we are, the rest of the world must be human-like in those other respects. Thus, we imagined that the universe is full of spirits or minds responsible for all the physical activity we experience. Nevertheless, what wasn’t naïve was the experience of nature as an enchanted place. Along with the Romantic critics of the Enlightenment, the sociologist Max Weber spoke of scientific objectification as ridding nature of its magic, in that the more impersonal our stance towards the world, the more we’re able to discard animism or theism in exchange for an instrumental outlook that enables us to dominate natural processes. This has the unintended consequence of depriving life generally of its meaning, because we who idolize science and lust after the benefits of capitalism and technology are liable to objectify each other and ourselves too. Ennui, apathy, and nihilism are the results, which spur the existentialist renewal. 

But my point is that this dynamic was based on a misunderstanding. Scientific objectification of nature was an instrumental gambit, which is to say that nature wasn’t discovered to be absolutely without subjective qualities; instead, thinking of the world as though it were precisely as objective as our impersonal theories and mathematical formulas was a pragmatic strategy of empowering us. Granted, nature is more objective, which is to say less personal than the traditional religions assumed. Nature isn’t fully subjective in the sense that it’s inhabited by a society of spirits or that it adheres to any moral plan. So scientists were justified in setting aside those naïve projections of human mentality onto natural regularities. Yet that advance led us to overlook the universe’s fundamental weirdness. Indeed, our sense of nature’s neither-here-nor-thereness should have been intensified as we killed our human-centered gods in the Nietzschean manner, since at that point we could no longer responsibly credit natural order and creativity as being produced by a supernatural mind. That mindless order and creativity obviously remain, however, and modern science discovered that this strange universe is far deeper and wider than we could have imagined prior to the advances in technology and the revolutions against theocracy in the early-modern West.

Thus, we exchanged one form of blindness for another: the major religions exaggerated nature’s subjectivity at the expense of the objectivity (mindlessness) of material things, while science-centered institutions exaggerated nature’s objectivity at the expense of the strangeness of any self-created order. Nature is neither wholly subjective nor objective, but a bizarre, zombie-like hybrid of living-deadness. Nature’s most fitting symbol might thus be the virus, the metaphysical status of which bewilders biologists since a virus is neither fully alive nor dead. The entire universe in its inorganic causality, in its most objective, brute physicality is virus-like, a colossal zombie shell staring us daily in the face, the putrid ichor streaming from its pores, because we inhabit a speck of its rotting flesh.

What we can deduce from this concept of physical causality as being ontologically neither here nor there is the epistemic principle that ultimate truths generally are bound to be ironic. These truths will shame and embarrass the fully-living creatures that happen to evolve, because these creatures will be misled by nature’s twilight aspect. We build up unrealistic expectations such as that after we physically die we inherit a supernatural afterlife in heaven, thanks to the deity we presume is responsible for the natural order. Those expectations are dashed by the natural reality that’s weirder than our self-serving fictions. What we typically take for ultimate truth (conventional theism or naturalism) follows from one or the other of the above exaggerations, from unlimited personification or objectification of nature’s living-deadness. Both exaggerations are partially correct, but they must be combined to form the greater, pantheistic or cosmicist truth of nature’s neither-here-nor-thereness. Thus, the irony is that while we presume theistic or scientific knowledge is a comfort compared to ignorance, the ultimate revelation is bizarre and horrifying and it leaves both camps unsatisfied. The more disappointed we are in some philosophical proposition and the more thoroughly it defeats our intuitions, the more confident we can be in the proposition’s truth. The philosophical truth will likely be inhuman and so we pay for knowing that truth by suffering the embarrassment our species deserves for its self-centeredness.

Irony is like the Logos of ancient Stoic philosophy or Christian theology, in that Irony ensures the natural order has an aura of strangeness that acts in no one’s best interest but that deviates even from perfect indifference with treacherous illusions of cosmic purpose. The evolution of actual life within mere living-deadness is a monumental irony, second only to the enigma of nature’s mindless self-creation. The third great irony is the evolution of godlike (self-aware, intelligent, autonomous) creatures in addition to the more limited animals. This third irony is that people are equipped with the cognitive capacity to perceive the universe as it really is in all its monstrous glory. We were created largely by the neither-here-nor-thereness of natural (unintelligent) selection, and the emergence of intelligence was accidental; at most, we filled a niche, but that a zombie should be supplied with the potential to behold its hideous visage in a mirror and to understand its abominable nature is the stuff of the blackest comedy.

From that point in the lineage of cosmic irony, there’s a divergence as the intelligent species forms hierarchies of excellence and thus divides against itself. Specifically, there’s a twofold ironic backlash against the neither-here-nor-there. The first is the retreat to ignorance with the assistance of a willful submission to natural illusions. There are various ways of capturing the metaphysical essence of the masses that take this path of betraying their higher calling as intelligent animals, but perhaps the most fitting is to dub them the well-beings. These self-deluded individuals trade in their honour for a chance at comfort and happiness. They live for the sake of their wellness, which means they typically live for-themselves but also for some idol that stands in for the pantheistic reality. These multitudes are partly self-interested and partly idealistic or ideological, since they frequently focus their attention on some myth or fairytale that bears no relation to the inhuman facts. The purpose of their childlike ideas isn’t to get at the truth, but to distract their worried minds, to return them to the matrix of animal unknowingness.

By contrast, a minority of philosophical persons opts to live neither for themselves nor for unrealistic ideas, but for shame itself. These authentic philosophers trade in happiness for knowledge and the accompanying sorrow and forlornness. They recognize the ugly truth that evolved life is inevitably tortured, because its maker might as well be a zombie monster. Typically, the strategy of living for wellness fails, since the illusions can’t permanently mask the underlying horrors of nature’s randomness and indifference. But philosophers embrace the shame and the humiliation, wearing them as badges of honour to separate them from the unphilosophical majority. Ironies abound, since those who retreat from understanding their tragic condition fall into the herd mentality which returns them to the living-dead flow of natural events, untouched by authentic self-awareness or enlightenment. That is, by attempting to resist the quasi-mirror of philosophy in which we behold the stark alienness of cosmic reality (and our incapacity to perfectly mirror anything, given the relative smallness of even our best minds), the well-beings only come to reflect all the more faithfully their zombie maker, since they lose the greatest parts of their personhood (especially their rational autonomy). For example, the typical Western consumer assumes nature’s heartless indifference with his or her short-sighted lifestyle. Moreover, the beings-for-shame sacrifice their peace of mind to avenge life at large for the world’s living-deadness, to punish nature for torturing untold living creatures (including the unknowing well-beings), by forcing nature to stomach the sight of itself through the understanding of these philosophical rebels, as it were.

Anti-Heroes of Philosophy

What would the ideal philosopher do? What is the ultimate philosophical statement or act? What is the final purpose of philosophy? To answer these questions, we should begin by noticing that “philosophy” is a euphemism that obscures its origin and meaning. The word means love of wisdom, as is well-known, but more precisely it means love of Sophia, the female personification of wisdom. This explains the basis of the first part of the word, since if wisdom is personified (and thus falsified), “love” of wisdom must likewise be a figure of speech. And so this commonplace definition leaves us only with figments, not with the reality of philosophy. The nature of philosophy comes further into focus when we notice the connection between Sophia and the sophists. The presocratic sophists were teachers of virtue or excellence in various areas, including wisdom in general, but they charged money for their lessons and they didn’t distinguish between logic and rhetoric. Thus, they became known for quibbling and for being facile, for showing off their superficial cleverness. Plato famously criticized them for engaging in spurious disputations and for being interested more in tricking people for profit than for uncovering profound truths. Thus, philosophy proper became distinguished from sophistry, logic from rhetoric, and the art or science of acquiring deep wisdom from the business of demagoguery or public speaking.

But even that historical background amounts to a false start, because Plato too conceals the nature of the philosophy that was supposed to have replaced sophism. First, he wrote mainly for the upper class, since they alone could have read his works, although his writings were also sometimes read aloud to a general audience. But second, he also wrote dialogues and thus hid his views behind those of his characters. Instead of preaching, he meant to facilitate what he called “memories of generalities,” drawing them out of the audience by the Socratic method, that is, by inviting the audience to question their beliefs and to improve upon them by searching for superior answers. Third, Plato’s main protagonist was Socrates, and Socrates was executed by the state for atheism and for corrupting the youth with his philosophy. Plato’s wrote largely to respond to that political condemnation of Socratic philosophy. So while Plato essentially invented Western philosophy as a discipline, and while this discipline diverged from sophism, on which philosophers cast aspersions, philosophy itself was unpopular from its inception. More specifically, philosophy and sophism were both considered dangers, and while sophists at their worst were tricksters and time-wasters, philosophers arguably posed the greater threats of subverting what tends to be mistaken for knowledge (such as the popular opinions Socrates ironically refuted in Plato’s dialogues) and thus indeed of “corrupting” the public.

Here finally we approach the hidden meaning of “philosophy.” Lay aside the personifications and figures of speech. The key to understanding what philosophy is about is that the philosopher is supposed to “love wisdom” at the expense of everything else. By contrast, nonphilosophers love everything but knowledge, from sex to money to food to vacations to God to their family to their nation to themselves. The nonphilosophical life depends precisely on the opinions or conventions that don’t withstand philosophical scrutiny, to make possible ignorance-based happiness. The paradigmatic philosopher, thanks to the historical impact of Plato’s dialogues in the West, is Socrates. Thus, the philosopher is someone who comes along and casts doubt on the treasured myths that make traditional societies feasible. Plato himself was an elitist and a rationalist—but also a careful one, due to what befell Socrates—and so Plato advocated for a covert technocracy, ruled by a “philosopher king” or perhaps checked by a “nocturnal council,” and employing “noble lies” so as not to be as overzealous as Socrates in upsetting mass ignorance. In the Republic, Socrates says that a noble lie is a “myth” that has “a good effect,” making people “more inclined to care for the state and one another.” Socrates offers as an example a tale of how gods gave people different skills, which would justify social divisions into classes of leaders, guardians, farmers and craftsmen. Religion in general is a noble lie, from this philosophical viewpoint. But as Leo Strauss stressed, instead of publicly refuting all myths in the new-atheistic, Dawkinsian manner, the platonic philosopher would cynically leave religions intact as useful fictions, since without favour from the unphilosophical masses, the intellectual elites would have to fend for themselves, which they’re unable to do because their head is in the clouds. Thus the execution (or forced suicide) of Socrates is the landmark.

Still, if we leave aside the philosopher’s cynical relationship with society at large, that is, if we recognize that the philosopher is likely to conceal the truth from nonphilosophers, we can see that whatever else it is, Western philosophy is essentially unpopular. Again, by supposedly loving wisdom, the philosopher spurns everything else, whereas the nonphilosophical masses love everything except for that “wisdom.” The philosopher is attracted to something that would be socially detrimental, were this thing to be made more widely available. What this dangerous something is, I think, is the world’s neither-here-nor-thereness. Those who recognize the world for what it is live for shame (in mass society’s eyes), while those who flee from ultimate knowledge seek refuge in myths and fantasies and propaganda for their narrow well-being.

What, though, is the value of the philosopher’s shame, of all the disciplines of ascetic withdrawal from societal obscenities? Why dedicate yourself to horrific philosophical musings, sacrificing your chance at well-being? What is the greater shame, siding with the universe’s monstrosity or with the pastimes of the quivering, deluded masses? As I said, an existentialist such as Camus talks of a noble rebellion—perhaps on behalf of those who are ill-equipped physically or mentally to fight for themselves. But this, too, must be a myth in the full cosmicist picture. The philosopher’s honour is a sham, a fiction to keep the philosopher’s spirits up in the face of his or her status as an ostracized loser in conventional and evolutionary terms. Even the dichotomy between loving the appalling truth of nature and the pitiful distractions of mass society is a fiction, because there is no mirror in which the cosmic facts are known or in which they behold themselves. All human categories are parochial and wrong-headed compared to the wilderness itself; all our thoughts and deeds are as nothing next to the putrefaction of the world that’s neither here nor there. We’re condemned to be wrong-headed, because merely to have a head is already to be in the wrong in the sense of being out of place. That’s the horror at the end of philosophy! Philosophy undercuts not only mass society but the intellectual elites who know better; more precisely, the philosopher removes herself from social consideration once she understands that life is absurd.

In this respect, secular humanists are like the medieval scholastics: they fiddle with unpopular methods that lead to ruin—the elite medieval Christians, with ancient Greek philosophy; the modern liberal humanists, with scientific objectification—but prefer the halfway house of false enlightenment. The scholastics bastardized (or Christianized) Plato and Aristotle, thus avoiding the cosmicist implications of naturalism, while the liberal humanists obfuscate the world’s neither-here-nor-thereness, the rapacity of science and capitalism, and the degradations of democracy, pretending that we can just get on with our paltry life after God’s demise. Philosophy, the self-destructive love of knowledge (at the expense of everything else, as depicted at the end of Plato’s “Symposium”), is no cure for the human condition, nor are philosophers saviours of anyone, including themselves. At best, philosophers are anti-heroes just as their “wisdom” is anti-human. As far as I can project, we learn at the end of philosophy that everything is absurd, including the wilderness—as the-world-whose-essence-is-to-be-without-us—because biological processes are less than after-thoughts; also absurd are the charades of behavioural modernity and human history.

The “new atheist’s” lie is that happiness is not only possible but respectable after the Scientific Revolution, that morality is merely one more application of reason. On the contrary, reason tells us we’re self-glorified animals. Recall, then, that for millennia we’ve collectively enslaved or hunted animals for pets, sport, or food. We’ve even exterminated our fellow human species. We thus imprison the most human of all of us, namely those we deem criminals. In the face of unadulterated reason, the happy-talk of the domesticated masses is so much babbling or nervous whistling in the void. Prior to God’s death, morality required only empty-headed obedience to corrupt organized religions. Afterward, morality requires an even-less-tenable leap of faith. At least the silly gods we imagined were familiar beings we could reason or sympathize with; by contrast, the world that’s neither here nor there holds out no likelihood of redemption, transhumanist myths notwithstanding.

To help others on the basis of moral obligation, as opposed to merely following our “ethical” programming that’s at the mercy of the tyrants responsible for the beta masses’ domestication (as is consistent with Aristotle’s virtue ethics) requires something like blind deference to the liberal institutions that confer human rights. We’re seeing now the loss of that faith in liberalism and globalization, since the neoliberal technocrats that ran the Democratic Party for three decades, for example, betrayed the horde of losers created by global capitalism. Brexit and Donald Trump’s 2016 election thus give the lie to Richard Dawkins’ atheist bus slogan, “There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” A more fitting thesis for post-Nietzschean atheists would be, “Stop worrying about the false gods. Start worrying about the world’s mindless self-creation and development in the midst of which human rights are vain figments and the pursuit of happiness is a farcical dereliction of our philosophic duty to abase ourselves.”

In short, life emerges in the zombie wilderness that grips in its two decaying-but-magically-renewing fists the reflective and the naïve alike: in the one hand are those who pretend they’re someplace else while in the other are those averse to lying to themselves. Vulgar weakness and misplaced intellectual strength are only two forms of downfall, because there’s no real escape from the wilderness. All of history has been the business of attempting to transcend nature, to escape the world we find by falsifying it or by crafting a substitute, but we’re powerless to overcome the “fact” that even to speak blithely of “facts” and “truths” is to flatter us. The Gnostics were onto something when they suspected that intelligent creatures don’t belong in an inhuman universe, but they faltered when they posited a bogus adventure of escaping to an ideal realm. If the world is neither here nor there, we in turn are no place, despite our protestations and quixotic remedies. We can stay true to that reality by living as cynical nomads or we can pledge ourselves to the byproducts of collective solipsism like children playing and make-believing in a wasteland. The world doesn’t care about any of us, although natural laws often reward the boldest, most inhuman of alpha males. Moreover, neither the philosopher who lives for shame nor the herd of well beings cares much about the other; if anything, the two despise each other. We don’t choose to succumb to mass culture but are bred, in effect, to equate small-mindedness with civility, and we don’t choose to study philosophy so much as we heed a siren call.  


  1. It is perhaps the highly developed ascetic mysticism of the Orient, such as Taoism, Buddhism and suchlike that are paramount in coming the closest to grasping the living-deadness of "reality," as far as religions go. Christian mysticism claims to go further, but I doubt that, because the Christian ascetic claim is to keep the ego intact, while it is assumed that the oriental mysticism aims to relinquish the fictive identity entirely by being absorbed into nature's undeadness.

    I notice that both western and eastern ascetic traditions acknowledge the need to "zombify" one's self, but the Christian only seems willing to go half the distance. I presume this is the case, because the Christian tradition will not relinquish the personal, individual or subjective myth of the Christ.

    1. I think you're right that Eastern religions are less egoistic than the Western ones. The problem with Christian mysticism is that even if the Christian says God's essence as a whole is unknowable, as in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Christian also says this essence was fully expressed in the life of a particular person, in the Son of the divine Father. So Christian religious experience is bound to be egoistic because the Christian is supposed to be Christ-like, which means she has to follow a human's example, not look up to some transcendent reality. Of course, the character Jesus is selfless rather than selfish, so the Christian ideal isn't egoistic in that moral sense, but personhood is crucial to Christianity in a way that it isn't in other religions, because Christians identify God with a human person.

      I stress in this article that there's no escape from nature's living-deadness. But that's only the ultimate existential truth. There's also the relative truth of the superiority of certain lifestyles. My problem with Eastern mysticism and asceticism is that they don't leave much room for the power and wonder of art. Merely withdrawing in horror or insensitivity from nature's mindlessness isn't so honourable. Replacing the wasteland with something meaningful seems like the truly divine course of action.

    2. ["Merely withdrawing in horror or insensitivity from nature's mindlessness isn't so honourable. Replacing the wasteland with something meaningful seems like the truly divine course of action."]

      Yet, couldn't we consider the myth of the personhood of Jesus something incredibly creative? For centuries this was something very meaningful for millions of people. Its aesthetic power and wonder was in good taste for quite awhile.

      How did it become so distasteful?

    3. Well, I criticize Christianity specifically on aesthetic grounds (link below). Experts on religion, from Bishop John Spong to Joseph Campbell realize that the enchantment power of myths can come and go, even if the religious institution clings to power. Nietzsche made this point most powerfully, that God is dead, that the old-world myths need to be replaced to hold back nihilism.

      Gnostics are the ones who understood the power and personal relevance of the myth of a godman, and they were demonized and persecuted as heretics by the Western Church. One upside of the rise of Russia is that the Gnostic version of Christianity in the Eastern Orthodox Church may finally supplant the literalistic, exoteric Christianity of the West.