A Secret History of Enlightened Animals (by Ben Cain)
As proud and self-absorbed as most of us are, you’d expect we’d be obsessed with reading history to discover more and more of our past and how we got where we are. But modern historical narratives concentrate on the mere facts of who did what to whom and exactly when and where such dramas played out. What actually happened in our recent and distant past doesn’t seem grandiose enough for us, and so we prefer myths that situate our endeavours in a cosmic or supernatural background. Those myths can be religious, of course, but also secular as in films, novels, and the other arts. We’re so fixated on ourselves and on our cultural assumptions that we must imagine we’re engaged in more than just humdrum family life, business, political chicanery, and wars. We’re heroes in a universal tale of good and evil, gods and monsters. We thereby resort to the imagination, overlooking the existential importance of our actual evolutionary transformation. When animals became people, the universe turned in its grave.
Awakening from Animal Servitude unto Alienation
The so-called wise way of life, that of our species, originates from the birth of an anomalous form of consciousness. That origin has been widely mythologized to protect us from the vertigo of feeling how fine the line is between us and animals. Thus, personal consciousness has been interpreted as an immaterial spirit or as a spark left behind by the intrusion of a higher-dimensional realm into fallen nature, as in Gnosticism, or as an illusion to maintain the play of the slumbering God Brahman, as in some versions of Hinduism, and so on and so forth. But the consciousness that separates people from animals is merely the particular higher-order thought—that is, a thought about thoughts—that you (your lower-order thoughts) are free in the sense of being autonomous, that you’re largely liberated from naturally-selected, animal processes such as hunting for food or seeking mates in the preprogrammed ways. That thought eventually comes to lie in the background of the flurry of mental activity sustained by our oversized brains, along with the frisson of fear that accompanies the revelation that as long as we can think we’re free from nature, we’re actually so. This is because such a higher-order thought, removed as it is from the older, animal parts of our brain, is just what allows us to independently direct our body’s activities. The freedom opened up by human sentience is typically experienced as a falling away from a more secure position. In fact, our collective origin is very likely encapsulated in each child’s development of personhood, fraught as that is with anxiety and sadness as well as with wonder. Children cry and sulk when they don’t get their way, which is when they learn that they stand apart from the world as egos who must strive to live up to otherworldly social standards.
Animals become people by using thought to lever themselves into a black hole-like viewpoint subsisting outside of nature as such. The results are alienation and the existential crisis which are at the root of all our actions. Organic processes are already anomalous and thus virtually miraculous. Personhood represents not progress, since the values that would define such an advance are themselves alien and unnatural by being anthropocentric, but a maximal state of separation from the world, the exclusion of some primates from the environments that would test their genetic mettle. Personal consciousness is the carving of godlike beings from the raw materials of animal slaves, by the realization that thoughts—memories, emotions, imaginings, rational modeling for the sake of problem-solving—comprise an inner world whose contents need not be dictated by stimuli. The cost of personhood, that is, of virtual godhood in the otherwise mostly inanimate universe, is the suffering from alienation that marks our so-called maturity, our fall from childhood innocence whereupon we land in the adult’s clownish struggles with hubris. Our independence empowers us to change ourselves and the world around us, and so we assume we’re the stars of the cosmic show or at least of the narrative of our private life. But because the business of our acting like grownups is witnessed by hardly any audience at all—except in the special case of celebrities who are ironically infantilized by their fame, because the wildly inhuman cosmos is indifferent to our successes and failures—we typically develop into existential mediocrities, not heroes. We overcompensate for the anguish we feel because our thoughts sever us from everything outside our skull, becoming proud of our adult independence; we’re like children begging their parents to admire their finger paintings. The natural world responds with randomness and indiscriminateness, with luck and indifference, humiliating us with a sense of the ultimate futility of our efforts. Our oldest solution is to retreat to the anthropocentric social world in which we can honour our presumed greatness, justly rewarding or punishing each other for our deeds as we feel we deserve.
Hypersocialization and the Existential Crisis of Consciousness
The alienation of higher consciousness is followed, then, by intensive socialization. Animals socialize for natural purposes, whereas we do so in the wake of the miracle of personhood. Our relatively autonomous selves are miraculous not just because they’re so rare (count up the rocks and the minds in the universe, for example, and the former will so outnumber the latter that minds will seem to have spontaneously popped into existence without any general cause), but because whereas animals adapt to nature, conforming to genetic and environmental regularities, people negate those regularities, abandoning their genetic upbringing and reshaping the global landscape. The earliest people channeled their resentment against the world they discovered they’re not wholly at home in, by inventing tools to help them best nature and its animal slaves, but also by forming tribes defined by more and more elaborate social conventions. The more arbitrary the implicit and explicit laws that regulate a society, the more frenzied its members’ dread of being embedded in a greater, uncaring wilderness. Again, human societies are animalistic in so far as they rely on the structure of dominance hierarchies, but whereas alpha males in animal groups overpower their inferiors for the natural reason of maintaining group cohesion to protect the alphas whose superior genes are the species’ best hope for future generations, human leaders adopt the pathologies of the God complex. Indeed, all people would act like gods if only they could sustain the farce. Alas, just as every winning lottery ticket necessitates multitudes of losers, every full-blown personal deity depends on an army of worshippers. Personhood makes us all metaphysically godlike with respect to our autonomy and our liberation from some natural, impersonal systems, but only a lucky minority can live like mythical gods on Earth.
We socialize, then, to flatter our potential for godhood, by elevating some of our members to a social position in which they can tantalize us with their extravagant lifestyles and superhuman responsibilities. We form sheltered communities in which we can hide from nature’s alien glare. Our elders, tyrants, kings, and emperors lord it over us and we thank them for it, since their appallingly decadent lives nevertheless prove that personhood can be completed, that an absolute fall from the grace of animal innocence isn’t asymptotic, that our evolution has a finite end in transhumanity. Our psychopathic rulers are living proofs that nature isn’t omnipresent, that escape is possible in the form of insanity sustained by mass hallucination. We daydream the differences between right and wrong, honour and dishonour, meaning and meaninglessness. We fill the air with subtle noises and imagine that those symbols are meant to lay bare the final truth. We thus mitigate the removal of our mind from the world, with a myth of reconciliation between thoughts and facts. But language was likely conceived of in the first place as a magical instrument, that is, as an extension of mentality into nature which was everywhere anthropomorphized. Human tribes were assumed to be mere inner circles within a vast society of gods, monsters, and other living forces. We socialized, then, not just to escape to friendly domains to preserve our dignity as unnatural wonders, but to pretend that we hadn’t emerged just by a satanic/promethean act of cognitive defiance, with the ego-making thought that severs us from natural reality. We childishly presumed that the whole universe is a stage populated by puppets and actors; thus, no existential retreat might have been deemed necessary, because nature’s alienness was blotted out in our mythopoeic imagination. As in Genesis, God created by speaking the world into being, just as shamans and magicians were believed to cast magical spells that bent reality to their will.
But every theistic posit was part of an unconscious strategy to avoid facing the obvious fact that since all gods are people, we’re evidently the only gods. Nevertheless, having conceived of theistic fictions, we drew up models to standardize the behaviour of actual gods. Thus, the Pharaoh had to be as remote and majestic as Osiris, while the Roman Emperor had to rule like Jupiter, the Raj had to adjudicate like Krishna, the Pope had to appear Christ-like, and the U.S. President has to seem to govern like your favourite Hollywood hero. The double standard that exempts the upper classes from the laws that oppress the lowly masses is supposed to prevent an outbreak of consciousness-induced angst. Social exceptions for the upper class work with mass personifications and enchantments of nature, and those propagandistic myths are then made plausible by the fact that superhuman power elites actually exist. Ironically, such class divisions and their concomitant theologies exacerbate the existential predicament by placing those exquisite symbols of our transcendence (the power elites) before public consciousness, reminding us that just as the gods are prior to and thus independent of nature, so too we who are the only potential or actual gods don’t belong within that latter world.
Scientific Objectivity and Artificialization
Hypersocialization isn’t our only existential stratagem; there’s also artificialization as a defense against full consciousness of our unnatural self-control. Whereas the socializer tries to act like a god by climbing social ladders, bullying his underlings, spending unseemly wealth in generational projects of self-aggrandizement, and creating and destroying societal frameworks, the artificializer wants to replace all of nature with artifacts. That way, what began as the imaginary negation of nature’s inhuman indifference to life, in the mythopoeic childhood of our species, can be fulfilled when that indifference is literally undone by our re-engineering of natural processes.
To do that, the artificializer needs to think, not just to act, like a god. That required forming cognitive programs that don’t depend on the innate, naturally-selected ones. Cognitive scientists maintain that the brain’s ability to process sensations, for example, evolved not to present us with the absolute truth but to ensure our fitness to our environment, by helping us survive long enough to sexually reproduce. Animal neural pathways differ from personal ones in that the former serve the species, not the individual, and so the animal is fundamentally a puppet acting out its life cycle as directed by its genetic programming and by certain environmental constraints. Animals can learn to adapt their behaviour to their environment and so their behaviour isn’t always robotic, but unless they can apply their learning towards unnatural ends, such as by developing birth control techniques that systematically thwart the pseudo goals of natural selection, they’ll think as animals, not as gods. Animals as such are entirely natural creatures, meaning that in so far as their behaviour is mediated by an independent control center, their thinking nevertheless is dedicated to furthering the end of natural selection, which is just that of transmitting genes to future generations. By contrast, gods don’t merely survive or even thrive. Insects and bacteria thrive, as did the dinosaurs for millions of years, but none were godlike because none were existentially transformed by conscious enlightenment, by a cognitive black hole into which an animal can fall, creating the world of inner space.
People, too, have animal programming, such as the autonomic programs for processing sensory information. Social behaviour is likewise often purely animalistic, as in the cases of sex and the power struggle for some advantage in a dominance hierarchy. Rational thinking is less so and thus less natural, meaning more anti-natural in that it serves rational ideals rather than just lower-order aims. To be sure, Machiavellian reasoning is animalistic, but reason has also taken on an unnatural function. Whereas writing was first used for the utilitarian purpose of record keeping, reason in the Western tradition was initially not so practical. The Presocratics argued about metaphysical substances and other philosophical matters, indicating that they’d been largely liberated from animal concerns of day-to-day survival and were exploring cognitive territory that’s useful only from the internal, personal perspective. Who am I really? What is the world, ultimately speaking? Is there a worthy difference between right and wrong? Such philosophical questions are impossible without rational ideals of skepticism, intellectual integrity, and love of knowledge even if that knowledge should be subversive—as it proved to be in Socrates’ classic case.
While the biblical Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for the sake of hypersocializing with an imaginary deity, Socrates died for the antisocial quest of pursuing objective knowledge that inevitably threatens the natural order along with the animal social structures that entrench that order, such as the Athenian government of his day. Socrates cared not about face-saving opinions, but about epistemic principles that arm us with rationally-justified beliefs about how the world might be in reality. Much later, in the Scientific Revolution, rationalists (which is to say philosophers) in Europe would revive the ancient pagan ideal of reasoning regardless of the impact on faith-based dogmas. Scientists like Isaac Newton developed cognitive methods that were counterintuitive in that they went against the grain of more natural human thinking that’s prone to fallacies and survival-based biases. In addition, he served rational institutions, namely the Royal Society and Cambridge, which rivaled the genes for control over the enlightened individual’s loyalty. Moreover, the findings of those cognitive methods were symbolized using artificial languages such as mathematics and formal logic, which enabled liberated minds to communicate their discoveries without the genetic tragicomedies of territorialism, fight-or-flight responses, hero worship, demagoguery, and the like that are liable to be triggered by rhetoric and metaphors expressed in natural languages.
But what is objective knowledge? Are scientists and other so-called enlightened rationalists as neutral as the indifferent world they study? No, rationalists in this broad sense are partly liberated from animal life but they’re not lost in a limbo; rather, they participate in another, unnatural process which I’m calling artificialization. Objectivity isn’t a purely mechanical, impersonal capacity; indeed, natural processes themselves have aesthetically interpretable ends and effective means, so there are no such capacities. In any case, the search for objective knowledge builds on human animalism and on our so-called enlightenment, on our having transcended our animal past and instincts. We were once wholly slaves to nature and we often behave as if we were still playthings of natural forces. But consciousness and hypersocialization provided escapes, albeit into fantasy worlds that nevertheless empowered us. We saw ourselves as being special because we became aware of the increasing independence of our mental models from the modeled territory, owing to the formers’ ultra-complexity. The inner world of the mind emerged and detached from the natural order—not just metaphysically or abstractly, but psychologically and historically. That liberation was traumatic and so we fled to the fictitious world of our imagination, to a world we could control, and we pretended the outer world was likewise held captive to our mental projections. The rational enterprise is fundamentally another form of escape, a means of living with the burden of hyper-awareness. Instead of settling for cheap, flimsy mental constructions such as our gods, boogeymen, and the panoply of delusions to which we’re prone, and instead of hording divinity in the upper social classes that exercise their superpowers in petty or sadistic projects of self-aggrandizement, we saw that we could usurp God’s ability to create real worlds, as it were. We could democratize divinity, replacing impersonal nature with artificial constructs that would actually exist outside our minds as opposed to being mere projections of imagination and existential longing.
The pragmatic aspect of objectivity is apparent from the familiar historical connections between science, European imperialism, and modern industries. But it’s apparent also from the analytical structure of scientific explanations itself. The existential point of scientific objectivity was paradoxically to achieve a total divorce from our animal side by de-personalizing ourselves, by restraining our desire for instant gratification, scolding our inner child and its playpen, the imagination, and identifying with rational methods. Whereas an animal relies on its hardwired programs or on learned rules-of-thumb for interpreting its environment, an enlightened person codifies and reifies such rules, suspending disbelief and siding with idealized or instrumental formulations of these rules so that the person can occupy a higher cognitive plane. Once removed from natural processes by this identification with rational procedures and institutions, with teleological algorithms, artificial symbols and the like, the animal has become a person with a godlike view from outside of nature—albeit not an overview of what the universe really is, but an engineer’s perspective of how the universe works mechanically from the ground up.
To see what I mean, consider the Hindu parable of the blind men who try to ascertain the nature of an elephant by touching its different body parts. One of the men feels a tusk and infers that the elephant is like a pipe. Another touches the leg and thinks the whole animal is like a tree trunk. Another touches the belly and believes the animal is like a wall. Another touches the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. Finally, another one touches the ear and thinks the elephant is like a hand fan. One of the traditional lessons of this parable is that we can fallaciously overgeneralize and mistake the part for the whole, but this isn’t my point about science. Still, there is a difference between what the universe is in reality, which is what it is in its entirety in so far as all of its parts form a cohesive order, and how inquisitive primates choose to understand the universe with their divisive concepts and models. Scientists can’t possibly understand everything in nature all at once; the word “universe” is a mere placeholder with no content adequate to the task of representing everything that’s out there interacting to produce what we think of as distinct events. We have no name for the universe which gives us power over it by identifying its essence, as it were. So scientists analyze the whole, observing how parts of the world work in isolation, ideally in a laboratory. They then generalize their findings, positing a natural regularity or nomic relation between those fragments, as pictured by their model or theory. It’s as if scientists were the blind men who lack the brainpower to cognize the whole of natural reality, and so they study each part, perhaps hoping that if they cooperate they can combine their partial understandings and arrive at some inkling of what the natural universe in general is. Unfortunately, the deeper we look into nature, the more complexity we find in its parts and so the more futile becomes any such plan for total comprehension. Scientists can barely keep up with advances in their subfields; the notion that anyone could master all the sciences as they currently stand is ludicrous, and there’s still much in the world that isn’t scientifically understood by anyone.
So whatever the scientist’s aspiration might be, the effect of science isn’t the achievement of complete, final understanding of everything in the universe or of the whole of nature. Instead, science allows us to rebuild the whole based on partial, analytical knowledge of how the world works. Suppose scientists discover an extraterrestrial artifact and they have no clue as to the artifact’s function, which is to say they have no understanding of what the object is in reality. Still, they can reverse-engineer the artifact, taking it apart, identifying the materials used to assemble it and certain patterns in how the parts interact with each other. With that limited knowledge of the artifact’s mechanical aspect, scientists might be able to build a replica or else they could apply that knowledge to create something more useful to them, that is, something that works in similar ways to the original but which works towards an end supplied by the scientists’ interests, not the alien’s. There would be no point in replicating the alien technology, since the artifact would be useless without knowledge of what it’s for or without even a shared interest in pursuing that alien goal. Replace the alien artifact with the natural universe and you have some measure of the Baconian position of human science. Of course, nature has no designer; nevertheless, we experience natural processes as having ends and so we’re faced with the choice of whether to apply our piecemeal knowledge of natural mechanisms to the task of reinforcing those ends or to that of adjusting or even reversing them. The choice is to act as stewards of God’s garden, as it were, or as promethean rebels who seek to be divine creators. There are still enclaves of native tribes living as retro-human animals and preserving nature rather than demolishing the wilderness and establishing in its place a technological wonderland built with knowledge of natural mechanisms. But the billions of participants in the science-driven, global monoculture have evidently chosen the promethean, quasi-satanic path.
Existentialism and our Hidden History
History is a narrative that often informs us indirectly about the present state of human affairs, by representing part of our past. Ancient historical narratives were more mythical than fact-based. The New Testament, for example, uses historical details to form an exoteric shell around the Gnostic, transhumanist suspicion that human nature is “fallen” to the extent that we surrender our capacity to transcend the animal life cycle; we must “die” to our natural bodies and be reborn in a glorious, unnatural or “spiritual” form. At any rate, like poetry, the mythical language of such ancient historical narratives is open to endless interpretations, which is to say that such stories are obscure. Josephus’s ancient histories of the Jewish people, written for a Roman audience, aren’t so mythologized but they’re no less propagandistic. By contrast, modern historians strive to avoid the pitfalls of writing highly subjective or biased narratives, and so they seek to analyze and interpret just the facts dug up by archeologists and textual critics. Modern histories are thus influenced by the exoteric presumption about science, which is that science isn’t primarily in the business of artificializing everything that’s wild in the sense of being out of our control, but is just a mode of inquiry for arriving at the objective truth (come what may).
Left out of this development of the telling of history is the existential significance of our evolutionary transition from being animals, which were at one with nature, to being people who are implicitly if not consciously at war with everything nonhuman. What I’ve sketched above is part of our secret history; it’s the story of what it means to be human, which underlies all our endeavours. The significance of our standing between animalism and godhood is hidden and largely unknown or forgotten, because at the root of this purpose that drives us is the trauma of godlike consciousness which we’d rather not relive. We each have our fill of that trauma in our passage from childhood innocence, which approximates the animal state of unknowing, to adult independence. Teen angst, which cultures combat with initiation rituals to distract the teenager with sanctioned, typically delusional pastimes, is the tip of the iceberg of pain that awaits anyone who recognizes the plight entailed by our very form of existence.
In Escape from Freedom, Erich Fromm argued that citizens of modern democracies are in danger of preferring the comfort of a totalitarian system, to escape the ennui and dehumanization generated by modern societies. In particular, capitalistic exploitation of the worker class and the need to assimilate to an environment run more and more by automated, inhuman machines are supposed to drive civilized persons to savage, authoritarian regimes. At least, this was Fromm’s explanation of the Nazis’ rise to power. A similar analysis could apply to the present degeneration of the Republican Party in the U.S. and to the militant jihadist movement in the Middle East. But Fromm’s analysis is limited. To be sure, capitalism and technology have their drawbacks and these may even contribute to totalitarianism’s appeal, as Fromm shows. But this overlooks what liberal, science-driven societies and savage, totalitarian societies have in common. Both are flights from existential reckoning, as I’ve explained: the one revolves around artificialization (Enlightenment, rationalist values of individual autonomy, which deteriorate until we’re left with the fraud of consumerism), the other around hypersocialization (cult of personality, restoring the sadomasochistic interplay between mythical gods and their worshippers). Fromm ignores the existential effect of the rational enlightenment that brought on modern science, democracy, and capitalism in the first place, the effect being our deification. By deifying ourselves, we prevent our treasured religions from being fiascos and we spare ourselves the horror of living in an inhuman wilderness from which we’re alienated by our hyper-awareness.
We created the modern world to accelerate the rate at which nature is removed from our presence. Contrary to optimists like Steven Pinker, modernity hasn’t fulfilled its promise of democratizing divinity, as I’d put it. Robber barons and more parasitic oligarchs do indeed resort to the older departure of hypersocialization, acting like decadent gods in relation to human slaves instead of focusing their divine creativity on our common enemy, the monstrous wilderness. The internet that trivializes everything it touches and the omnipresence of our high-tech gadgets do infantilize us, turning us into cattle-like consumers instead of unleashing our creativity and training us to be the indomitable warriors that alone could endure the promethean mission. This is because we, being the only gods that exist, are woefully unprepared for our responsibility, having retained our animal heritage in the form of our bodies which infect most of our decisions with natural fears and prejudices. At any rate, the deeper story of the animal that becomes a godlike person to obliterate the source of alienation that’s the curse of any flawed, lonely godling helps explain why we now settle more often for the minor anxieties of living in modern civilization, to avoid the major angst of recognizing the existential importance of what we are.