Dead World (by Paul J. Ennis)

by rsbakker

Futility

What’s it like to really give up on philosophy? I don’t mean to give up on a specific brand of philosophy or even to tune out and churn out something akin to it. I mean embracing the knowledge that philosophy is no longer worth doing. I can only answer with a response I would have chastised a student for saying: I can only speak for myself. At some point I came to fully own up to the impossibility that I might work something out about this world that was positive. That I might find a niche in philosophy that I could latch onto and develop, bit by bit. Maybe it might even impress someone at a conference (assuming anyone would even be listening at a conference, they never are). All I really learned from philosophy is that it is very unlikely a bunch of people might reason their way toward an understanding of how it goes with the world. Except in that quirky round-about way where philosophy demonstrates the limitations of reasoning stripped of any lead. You need a bit of lead to weigh things down. But what happens when you realise you could just describe the lead and leave it at that?

If philosophy has a bunch of questions it grapples with perhaps the only decent one left is consciousness. It’s got this edge that apparently makes it resistant to reduction to neurobiological processes such that, contrary to everything we know about reality, it is somehow distinct from nature. Now, there is an entire botnet of thinkers that will, for a fee, find a way to say ‘well it’s both in nature and distinct from it,’ but better them than me. It’s a lot of fuss with little reward. Unless you really think future generations are going to care that you defended the Real or objects or invented the future, all positions currently on offer at discounted prices. My point is that philosophy is not just weird, but doing it is weirder. Even better it has some hilariously entertaining group dynamics. Philosophy is a discipline where you can have a guy defending the necessity of diversity whilst railing against another group doing the exact same. The kind of place where one bully shouts over another about just how damned intolerant the other fellow is. Lots of fellows too. The kind of discipline, to be sure, where men will chastise other men for how their group of men has too many men.

Since there is no common ground anymore, outside the mainstays of security and other mundane issues, we end up with little more than a situation of jockeying for status. Assuming, that is, one is comfortable enough to do so. There are marginalised groups everywhere, but unless you’ve just decided to volunteer or something, I’m going to take the oh-so-bold wager you are mostly in it so that others now you are a really good guy. Or, on the flipside, a rogue. Either way it’s ugly. Whether it’s wilful intellectual censorship or calculated trolling it’s mostly a clamour for the goods. ‘Life is a war of all against all,’ as the eminently reasonable Hobbes once said.  That’s not a bad place to start from. Why? Because it’s honest. It has a ring of truth to it. We organise ourselves for peace, security, and the path of least resistance. In doing so we operate from a suite of facts, of how it goes with the world, and find niches where we might take on a few adventures, like improving our lot. And if this sounds like what you say when with friends that’s because it’s the one group you don’t lie so often to.

I think that’s more or less what consciousness looks at when viewed without romance. As ultra-sophisticated animals we have evolved in a certain direction. There’s a lot in there about just getting on and, indeed, getting along through empathy. This is not entirely neat. Empathy is limited, associated with bonds and kinship often, and it flows into protection. And we know all this exists at least partially because of the threat of others humans and their groups. Even in our own groups the pact is partially rooted in the knowledge that there is a violent streak in us. I say partially because I’m appeasing. Because I don’t want those who dislike such readings to be upset. I’m signalling I’m not so bad. The things we learned and shared were also, and here is a word I know other groups will dislike, arrived at through trade. Our cultural evolution is intimately bound up with the traders who moved between the semi-settled and the settled. Information, tactics, methods, goods, means and ends. Traded. Enough that trade, alongside the embodied sovereign interests we call nations, are intrinsic to our species.

If capitalism is evil then so too are humans. Capitalism is such a clear-eyed ordering of how we are in the world it is no wonder that it no longer has any serious competitors (this, in itself, was always a game of some players at the table operating with one hand tied behind their backs). It captures our mixed feelings about being here at all. It offers the possibility, no matter how remote, of generating a social force field known as wealth. It includes in the chase for that risk. And also every grimy, awful aspect of what our species will do when reward is high enough. It is so essential that those who manage to truly move beyond it take on a holy sheen. It can even present you with the vilest caricature of a human and make you ponder what you would do in their shoes. Most important of all, it’s nothing more than a powerful idea. Like its chief representative, fiat currency, it’s a cognitive agreement. This is worth something and it is worth something because that’s the agreed upon organisational field one is in. But this organisational field is not arbitrary. It’s an expression of what humans need to function. It came about because it worked. Not from the ether.

It worked. Humans and heuristics, peas in a pod. The thing about heuristics is that when you try to grapple with them you are trying to retroactively explain something your brain pushed toward for ends that may not have been all that clear during the push. But that is how we have tended to make discoveries. We do first and fail. Eat berries and die. Try again, well someone else alive would, and live. Then as time passes, not even deep time mind, it seems it has always been so. Since we are especially good at this we might even seem special, bearing an almost supernatural ability to adapt, except, of course, it only looks this way because most of the time we have very limited information about what is going on. Leaving aside the very natural deceptions humans practise as they go about their business there is the much weirder structural fact that the brain, as Bakker has shown, is pretty good at hiding information about its own operations from…well, itself, or us, or whatever tangle of words you prefer.

Heuristically it’s better not to know too much. As is well known it is easier to do something when you are not thinking too much about it than it is when you do. Consider that for a moment. Although we value reason as one of our highest virtues when it comes to doing something it’s best not to think about it too much. You can practise, get better, learn, be trained, and so on, but ultimately your ambition is to perform the action without cognition throwing you off. Now, let’s apply this to self-reflection. By its very nature self-reflection, since it involves thinking too much about something (in this case, thinking), is bound to be tricky. Humans, nonetheless, have engaged in this practise for quite a while. We celebrate Socrates precisely for his ability to force others to trip over themselves as they try. Unless you are Nietzsche and you call this out as ugly. Famously, this two-thousand year old practise has yielded pretty much no clues about the true nature of consciousness. Indeed, the only reason that sentence even matters is because almost every other discipline philosophy concerned itself with, with the exception of maybe ethics, is now analysed by specialists elsewhere. No wonder philosophers are so precious about it.

Previous because nobody likes to have spent a long time working on some thinker or another and then have to admit they have learned very little beyond a few historical curios. That’s pretty much the state of play in any contemporary philosophy department. Ashen-faced at thirty and defending a tiny set of ideas to maybe thirty other specialists across the entire planet the overworked philosophy academic has basically ceased original production in favour of the repetition of a few notes they know by heart. On this score I’m not even railing against those who at least keep zipping around searching. Rather, what stuns me, and I’m not stunned easily these days, is how someone in a discipline dedicated to dropping bad ideas when faced with better ones spends their entire time building defences to ensure they never have to.

Years and years ago at some god-awful leftist event someone told me that Trotsky had said something like, ‘imagine all the Aristotles that have gone unnoticed amongst the working class?’ I’ve always liked this quote, but I guess my point is imagine all the Aristotles that have been lost to organised philosophy (and yes, I do want you to make that association)? I’m going to stop here because, as Nick Land once said, concluding is ugly.

 

 

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