Three Pound Brain

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Tag: Existentialism

A Secret History of Enlightened Animals (by Ben Cain)

by rsbakker

Stair of Being

 

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.

The Ironies of Modern Progress and Infantilization (by Ben Cain)

by rsbakker

It’s commonly observed that we tend to rationalize our flaws and failings, to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance, so that we all come to think of ourselves as fundamentally good persons even though many of us must instead be bad if “good” is to have any contrastive meaning. Societies, too, often exhibit pride which leads their chief representatives to embarrass themselves by declaring that their nation is the greatest that’s ever been in history. Both the ancients and the moderns did this, but it’s hard to deny the facts of modern technological acceleration. Just in the last century, global and instant communications have been established, intelligent machines run much of our infrastructure, robots have taken over many menial jobs, the awesome power of nuclear weapons has been demonstrated, and humans have visited the moon. We tend to think that the social impact of such uniquely powerful machines must be for the better. We speak casually, therefore, of technological advance or progress.

The familiar criticism of technology is that it destroys at least as much as it creates, so that the optimists tell only one side of the story. I’m not going to argue that neo-Luddite case here. Instead, I’m interested in the source of our judgment about progress through technology. Ironically, the more modern technology we see, the less reason we have to think there’s any kind of progress at all. This is because modernists from Descartes and Galileo onward have been compelled to distinguish between real and superficial properties, the former being physical and quantitative and the latter being subjective and qualitative. Examples of the superficial, “secondary” aspects are the contents of consciousness, but also symbolic meaning, purpose, and moral value, which include the normative idea of progress. For the most part, modernists think of subjective qualities as illusory, and because they devised scientific methods of investigation that bypass personal impressions and biases, modernists acquired knowledge of how natural processes actually work, which has enabled us to produce so much technology. So it’s curious to hear so many of us still assuming that our societies are generally superior to premodern ones, thanks in particular to our technological advantage. On the contrary, our technology is arguably the sign of a cognitive development that renders such an assumption vacuous.

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Animism and Angst

One way of making sense of this apparent lack of social awareness is to point out that there are always elites who understand their society better than do the masses. And we could add that because the modern technological changes have happened so swiftly and have such staggering implications, many people won’t catch up to them or will even pretend there are no such consequences because they’re horrifying. But I think this makes for only part of the explanation. The masses aren’t merely ignoring the materialistic implications of science or the bad omens that technologies represent; instead, they have a commonsense conviction that technology must be good because it improves our lives.

In short, most citizens of modern, technologically-developed societies are pragmatic about technology. If you asked them whether they think their societies are better than earlier ones, they’d say yes and if you asked them why, they’d say that technology enables us to do what we want more efficiently, which is to say that technology empowers us to achieve our goals. And it turns out that this pragmatic attitude is more or less consistent with modern materialism. There’s no appeal here to some transcendent ideal, but just an egocentric view of technologies as useful tools. So our societies are more advanced than ancient ones because the ancients had to work harder to achieve their goals, whereas modern technology makes our lives easier. Mind you, this assumes that everyone in history has had some goals in common, and indeed our instinctive, animalistic desires are universal in so far as they’re matters of biology. By contrast, if all societies were alien and incommensurable to each other, national pride would be egregiously irrational. And most people probably also assume that our universal desires ought to be satisfied, because we have human rights, so that there’s moral force behind this social progress.

The instincts to acquire shelter, food, sex, power, and prestige, however, seem to me likewise insufficient to explain our incessant artificialization of nature. There’s another universal urge, which we can think of as the existential one and this is the need to overcome our fear of the ultimate natural truths. There are two ways of doing so, with authenticity or with inauthenticity, which is to say with honour, integrity, and creativity or with delusions arising from a weak will. (Again, this raises the question of whether even these values make sense in the naturalistic picture, and I’ll come back to this at the end of this article.) Elsewhere, I talk about the ancient worldviews as glorifying our penchant for personification. Prehistoric animists saw all of nature as alive, partly because hardly anything at that time was redesigned and refashioned to suit human interests and the predominant wilderness was full of plant and animal life. Also, the ancients hadn’t learned to repress their childlike urge to vent the products of their imagination. At that time, populations were sparse and there were no machines standing as solemn proofs of objective facts; moreover, there wasn’t much historical information to humble the Paleolithic peoples with knowledge of opposing views and thus to rein in their speculations. For such reasons, those ancients must have confronted the world much as all children do—at least with respect to their trust in their imagination.

More precisely, they didn’t confront the world at all. When a modern adult rises in the morning, she leaves behind her irrational dreams and prides herself on believing that she controls her waking hours with her autonomous and rational ego. By contrast, there’s no such divergence between the child’s dream life and waking hours, since the child’s dreams spill into her playful interpretations of everything that happens to her. To be sure, modern children have their imagination tempered by the educational system that’s bursting at the seams with lessons from history. But children generally have only a fuzzy distinction between subject and object. That distinction becomes paramount after the technoscientific proofs of the world’s natural impersonality. The world has always been impersonal and amoral, but only modernists have every reason to believe as much and thus only we inheritors of that knowledge face the starkest existential choice between personal authenticity and its opposite. The prehistoric protopeople, who were still experimenting with their newly acquired excess brain power, faced no such decision between intellectual integrity and flagrant self-deception. They didn’t choose to personify the world, because they knew no different; instead, they projected their mental creations onto the wilderness with childlike abandon and so distracted themselves from their potential to understand the nature of the world’s apparent indifference. After all, in spite of the relative abundance of the ancient environments, things didn’t always go the ancients’ way; they suffered and died like everyone else. Moreover, even early humans were much cleverer than most other species.

Thus, the ancients weren’t so innocent or ignorant that they felt no fear, if only because few animals are that helpless. But human fear differs from the reactionary animal kind, because ours has an existential dimension due to the breadth of our categories and thus of our understanding. Humans attach labels to so many things in the world not just because we’re curious, but because we’re audacious and we have excess (redundant) brain capacity. Animals feel immediate pain and perhaps even the alienness of the world beyond their home territory, but not the profound horror of death’s inexorability or of the world’s undeadness, which is to say the fear of nature’s way of developing (through complexification, natural selection, and the laws of probability) without any normative reason. Animals don’t see the world for what it is, because their vision and thus their concern are so narrow, whereas we’ve looked far out into the macrocosmic and microcosmic magnitudes of the universe. We’ve found no reassuring Mind at the bottom of anything, not even in our bodies. Our overactive brains compel us to care about aspects of the world that are bad for our mental health, and so we’re liable to feel anxious. And as I say, we cope with that anxiety in different ways.

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Modernity and Infantilization

But how does this existentialism relate to the source of our myth of modern progress? Well, I see a comparison between prehistoric, mythopoeic reverie and the modern consumer’s infantilization. In each case, we have a lack of enlightenment, a retreat from rational neutrality, and an intermixing of subject and object. I’ve discussed the mythopoeic worldview elsewhere, so here I’ll just say that it amounts to thinking of the world as entirely enchanted and filled with vitality. Again, the modern revolutions (science and capitalistic industry) have led to our disenchantment with nature, because we’ve been forced to see the world as dead inside. That’s why late modernists are at best pragmatic about progress. We must somehow express our naïve pride in ourselves and in our self-destructive modern nations, because we prefer not to suffer as alienated outsiders. But modernity’s ideal of ultrarationality makes absolutist and xenophobic pride seem uncivilized—although American audiences are notorious for stooping to that sort of savagery when they chant “USA! USA!” to quell disturbances in their proceedings. In any case, we postmodern pragmatists think of progress as being relative to our interests.

Arguably, then, we should all be despairing, nihilistic antinatalists, cheering on our species’ extinction to spare us more horror from our accursed powers of reason, because of the atheistic implications of science-led philosophical naturalism. But something funny happened along the way to the postmodern now, which is that our high-tech environment has driven most of us to revert to the mythopoeic trance. We, too, collapse the distinction between subject and object, because we’re not surrounded by the wilderness that science has shown to be the “product” of undead forces; instead, we’ve blocked out that world from our daily life and immersed ourselves in our technosphere. That artificial world is at our beck and call: our technology is designed for us and it answers to us a thousand times a day. Science has not yet shown us to be exactly as impersonal as the lifeless universe and so we can take comfort in our amenities as we assume that while there’s no spirit under any rock, there’s a mind behind every iPhone.

So while we’re aware of the scientist’s abstract concept of the physical object, we don’t typically experience the world as including such absurdly remote quantities. Heidegger spoke of the pragmatic stance as the instrumentalization of every object, in which case we can look at a rock and see a potential tool, a “ready-to-hand” helper, not just an impersonal, undead and “given” object. (This is in contrast to objectification, in which we treat things only as “present-to-hand,” or as submitting to scientific scrutiny. The latter seems to reduce to the former, though, since objectification is still anthropocentric, in that the object is viewed not as a fully independent noumenon, but as a subject of human explanation and that makes it a sort of tool. True objectivity is the torment not of scientists but of those suffering from angst on account of their experience of nature’s horrible indifference and undeadness. True objectivity is just angst, when we despair that we can’t do anything with the world because we’re not at home in it and nature marches on regardless. All other attitudes, roughly speaking, are pragmatic.) In any case, the modern environment surpasses that instrumentalism with infantilization, because we late modernists usually encounter actual artifacts, not just potential ones. The big cities, at least, are almost entirely artificial places. Of course, everything in a city is also physical, on some level of scientific explanation, but that’s irrelevant to how we interpret the world we experience. A city is made up of artifacts and artifacts are objects whose functions extend the intentions of some subjects. Thus, hypermodern places bridge the divide between subjects and objects at the experiential level.

However, that’s only a precondition of infantilization. What is it for an adult to live as a child? To answer this, we need standards of psychological adulthood and infancy. My idea of adulthood derives from the modern myths of liberty and rational self-empowerment. Ours is a modern world, albeit one infected with our postmodern self-doubts, so it’s fitting that we be judged according to the standards set by modern European cultures. The modern individual, then, is liberated by the Enlightenment’s break with the past, made free to pursue her self-interest. Above all, this individual is rational since reason makes for her autonomy. Moreover, she’s skeptical of authority and tradition, since the modern experience is of how ancient Church teachings became dogmas that stifled the pursuit of more objective knowledge; indeed, the Church demonized and persecuted those who posed untraditional questions. The modern adult idolizes our hero, the Scientist, who relies on her critical faculties to uncover the truth, which is to say that the modern adult should be expected to be fearlessly individualistic in her assessments and tastes. Finally, this adult should be cosmopolitan—which is very different from Catholic universalism, for example. The Catholic has a vision of everyone’s obligation to convert to Catholicism, whereas the modernist appreciates everyone’s equal potential for self-determination, and so the modernist is classically liberal in welcoming a wide variety of opinions and lifestyles.

What, then, are the relevant characteristics of an infant? The infant is almost entirely dependent on a higher power. A biological infant has no choice in the matter and her infancy is only a stage in a process of maturation. Similarly, an infantile adult lacks autonomy and may be fed information in the same way a biological infant is fed food. For example, a cult member who defers to the charismatic leader in all matters of judgment is infantile with respect to that act of self-surrender. Many premodern cultures have been likewise infantile and our notion of modern progress compares the transition from that anti-modern version of maturity to the modern ideal of the individual’s rational autonomy, with the baby’s growth into a more independent being.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that modern science is wedded to industry which applies our knowledge of nature, and the resulting artificial world infantilizes the masses. How so? For starters, through the post-WWII capitalistic imperative to grow the economy through hyper-consumption. Artificial demand is stimulated through propaganda, which is to say through mostly irrational, associative advertising. The demand is artificial in that it’s manufactured by corporations that have mastered the inhuman science of persuasion. That demand is met by mass-produced supply, the products of which tend to be planned for obsolescence and thus shoddier than they need to be.

The familiar result is the rebranding of the two biologically normal social classes: the rich and powerful alphas and everyone else (the following masses). Modern wealth is rationalized with myths of self-determination and genius, since no credible appeal can be made now to the divine right of kings. Mind you, the exception has been the creation of distinct middle classes which is due to socialist policies in liberal parts of the world that challenge the social Darwinian cynicism that’s implicit in capitalism. Maintaining a middle class in a capitalistic society, though, is a Sisyphean task: it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill we’re doomed to have to keep reclimbing. The middle class members are fattened like livestock awaiting slaughter by the predators that are groomed by capitalistic institutions such as the elite business schools. And so the middle class inevitably goes into debt and joins the poor, while the wealthy consolidate their power as the ruling oligarchs, as has happened in Canada and the US. (For more on what are effectively the hidden differences between democratic liberals and capitalistic conservatives, see here.)

The masses, then, are targeted by the propaganda arm of modern industry, while the wealthy live in a more rarified world. For example, the wealthy tend not to watch television, they’re not in the market for cheap, mass-produced merchandise, and they don’t even gullibly link their self-worth to their hording of possessions in the crass materialistic fashion. No, the oligarchs who come to power through the capitalistic competition have a much graver flaw: they’re as undead as the rest of nature, which makes them fitting avatars of nature’s inhumanity. Those who are obsessed with becoming very powerful or who are corrupted by their power tend to be sociopathic, which means they lack the ability to care what others feel. For that reason, the power elite are more like machines than people: they tend not to be idealistic and so associative advertising won’t work on them, since that kind of advertising construes the consumption of a material good as a means of fulfilling an archetypal desire. Of course, the relatively poor masses are just the opposite: burdened by their conscience, they trust that our modern world isn’t a horror show. Thus, they’re all-too ready to seek advice from advertisers on how to be happy, even though advertisers are actually deeply cynical. The masses are thereby indoctrinated into cultural materialism.

Workers in the service industry literally talk to the customer as if she were a baby, constantly smiling and speaking in a lilting, sing-songy voice; telling the customer whatever she wants to hear, because the customer is always right (just as Baby gets whatever it wants); working like a dog to satisfy the customer as though the latter were the boss and the true adult in the room—but she’s not. The real power elite don’t deal directly with lowly service providers, such as the employees of the average mall. Their underlings do both their buying and their selling for them, so that they needn’t mix with lower folk. This is why George H. W. Bush had never before seen a grocery scanner. No, the service provider is the surrogate parent who is available around the clock to service the consumer, just as a mother must be prepared at any moment to drop everything and attend to Baby. The consumer is the baby—and a whining, selfish one she is at that. That’s the unsettling truth obscured by the illusion of freedom in a consumption-driven society. A consumer can choose which brand name to support out of the hundreds she surveys in the department store, and that bewildering selection reassures her that she’s living the modern dream. But just as the democratic privileges in an effective plutocracy are superficial and structurally irrelevant, so too the consumer’s freedom of choice is belied by her lack of what Isaiah Berlin calls positive freedom. Consumers have negative freedom in that they’re free from coercion so that they can do whatever they want (as long as they don’t hurt anyone). But they lack the positive freedom of being able to fulfill their potential.

In particular, consumers fail to live up to the above ideal of modern adulthood. Choosing which brand of soft drink to buy, when you’ve been indoctrinated by a materialistic culture, is like an infant preferring to receive milk from the left breast rather than the right. Obviously, the deeper choice is to prefer something other than limitless consumption, but that choice is anathema because it’s bad for business. Still, in so far as we have the potential to be mature in the modern sense, to be like those iconoclastic early modern scientists who overcame their Christian culture by way of discovering for themselves how the real world works, we manic consumers have fallen far short. Almost all of us are grossly immature, regardless of how old we are or whether consumer-friendly psychologists pronounce us “normal.”

Now, you might think I’ve established, at best, not a one-way dependence of the masses on the plutocrats, but a sort of sadomasochistic interdependence between them. After all, the producers need consumers to buy their goods, just as a farmer needs to maintain his livestock out of self-interest. Unfortunately, this isn’t so in the globalized world, since the predators of our age have learned that they can express the nihilism at the heart of social Darwinian capitalism, without reservation, just by draining one country of its resources at a time and then by taking their business to a developing country when the previous host has expired, perhaps one day returning as that prior host revivifies in something like the Spenglerian manner. Thus, while it’s true that sellers need buyers, in general, it’s not the case that transnational sellers need any particular country’s buyers, as long as some country somewhere includes willing and able customers. But whereas the transnational sellers don’t need any particular consumers and the consumers can choose between brands (even though companies tend to merge to avoid competing, becoming monopolies or oligopolies), there’s asymmetry in the fact that the mass consumer’s self-worth is attached to consumption and thus to the buyer-seller relationship, whereas that’s not so for the wealthy producers.

Again, that’s because the more power you have, the more dehumanized you become, so that the power elite can’t afford moral principles or a conscience or a vision of a better world. Those who come to be in positions of great power become custodians of the social system (the dominance hierarchy), and all such systems tend to have unequal power distributions so that they can be efficiently managed. (To take a classic example, soviet communism failed largely because its system had to waste so much energy on the pretense that its power wasn’t centralized.) Centralized power naturally corrupts the leaders or else it attracts those who are already corrupt or amoral. So powerful leaders are disproportionately inhuman, psychologically speaking. (I take it this is the kernel of truth in David Icke’s conspiracy theory that our rulers are secretly evil lizards from another dimension.) Although the oligarch may be inclined to consume for her pleasure and indeed she obviously has many more material possessions than the average consumer, the oligarch attaches no value to consumption, because she’s without human feeling. She feels pleasure and pain like most animals, but she lacks complex, altruistic emotions. Ironically, then, the more wealth and power you have, the fewer human rights you ought to have. (For more on this naturalistic, albeit counterintuitive interpretation of oligarchy, see here.)

In any case, to return to the childish consumer, the point is that consumption-driven capitalism infantilizes the masses by establishing this asymmetric relationship between transnational producer and the average buyer. Just as a biological baby is almost wholly dependent on its guardian, the average consumer depends on the economic system that satisfies her craving for more and more material goods. The wealthy consume because they’re predatory machines, like viruses that are only semi-alive, but the masses consume because we’ve been misled into believing that owning things makes us happy and we dearly want to be happy. We think wealth and power liberate us, because with enough money we can buy whatever we want. But we forget the essence of our modern ideal or else we’ve outgrown that ideal in our postmodern phase. What makes the modern individual heroic is her independence, which is why our prototypes (Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, Darwin, Nietzsche) were modern especially because of their socially subversive inquiries. We consumers aren’t nearly so modern or individualistic, regardless of our libertarian or pragmatic bluster. As consumers, we’re dependent on the mass producers and on our material possessions themselves. We’re not autonomous iconoclasts, we’re just politically correct followers. We don’t think for ourselves, but put our faith in the contemptible balderdash of corporate propaganda. We haven’t the rationality even to laugh at the foolish fallacies that are the bread and butter of associative ads. It doesn’t matter what we say or write; if we enjoy consuming material goods, our subconscious has been colonized by materialistic memes and so our working values are as shallow as they can be without being as empty as those of the animalistic power elite. As consumers, we’re children playing at adult dress-up; we’re cattle that make-believe we’re free just because we routinely choose from among a preselected array of options.

So both technology and capitalism infantilize the masses. By doing our bidding and so making us feel we’re of central importance in the artificial world, technology suppresses angst and alienation. We therefore live not the modern dream but the ancient mythopoeic one—which is also the child’s experience of playing in a magical place, regardless of where the child actually happens to be. And capitalism turns us into consumers, first and foremost, and constant consumption is the very name of the infant’s game, because the infant needs abundant fuel to support her accelerated growth.

A third source of our existential immaturity is inherent in the myth of the modern hero. For many years, this problem with modernism lay dormant because of the early modernists’ persistent sexism, racism, and imperialism. Only white European males were thought of as proper individuals. Their rationalism, however, implied egalitarianism since we’re all innately rational, to some extent, and once the civil rights of women and minorities were recognized, there was a perceptible decline in the manliness of the modern hero. No longer a bold rebel against dogmas or a skeptical lover of the truth, the late-modern individual now is someone who must tolerate all differences. Ours is a multicultural, global village and so we’re consigned to moral relativism and forced to defer to politically correct conventions out of respect for each other’s right to our opinions. Thus, bold originality, once regarded as heroic, is now considered boorish. Early modernists loved to discuss ideas in Salons, but now even to broach a political or religious subject in public is considered impolite, because you may offend someone.

Such rules of political correctness are like parents’ futile restrictions on their child’s thoughts and actions. Western children are protected from coarse language and violence and nudity, because postmodern parents labour under the illusion that their children will be infantile for their entire lifespan, whereas we’re all primarily animals and so are bound to run up against the horrors of natural life sooner or later. Compare these arbitrary strictures with the medieval Church’s laws against heresy. In all three cases (taboos for infantilized adults, protectionist illusions for children, and medieval Christian imperialism), the rules are uninspired as solutions to the existential problem of how to face reality, but the Church went as far as to torture and kill on behalf of its absurd notions. At most, postmodern parents may spank their child for saying a bad word, while an adult who carries the albatross of the archaic ideal of the independent person and so wishes to test the merit of her assumptions by attempting to engage others in a conversation about ideas will only find herself alone and ignored at the party, inspecting the plant in the corner of the room. Still, our postmodern mode of infantilization is fully degrading despite the lack of severe consequences when we step out of bounds.

This is the ethic of care that’s implicit in modern individualism, which is at odds with the modern hunt for the truth. Modernism was originally framed in the masculine terms of a conflict between scientific truth and Christian dogmatic opinion, but now that everyone is recognized as an autonomous, dignified modern person, feminine values have surged. And just as someone with a hammer sees everything else as a nail, a woman is inclined to see everyone else as a baby. This is why, for example, young women who haven’t outgrown their motherly instincts overuse the word “cute”: handbags are cute, as are small pets and even handsome men. This is also why girls worship not tough, rugged male celebrities, but androgynous ones like Justin Bieber. As conservative social critics appreciate, manliness is out of fashion. Even hair on a man’s chest is perceived as revolting, let alone the hair on his back. Men’s bodies must be shorn of any such symbol of their unruly desires, because men are obliged to fulfill women’s fantasy that men are babies who need to be nurtured. Men must be innocent, not savage; they must be eternally youthful and thus hairless, not battered and scarred by the heartless world; they must be doe-eyed and cheerful, not grim, aloof and embittered. Men must be babies, not the manly heroes celebrated by the early modernists, who brought Europe out of the relative Dark Age. Men have been feminized, thanks ironically to the early modern ideal of personal autonomy through reason. As for women themselves, those who must see themselves primarily as care-givers in so far as they’re naturally inclined to infantilize men, they too become child-like, because “care” is reflexive. And so modern women baby themselves, treating themselves to the spa, to the latest fashions and accessories, to the inanities of daytime television, to the sentimental fantasies of soap operas and romance novels, and to the platitudes of flattering, feel-good New Age cults.

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The Ignorant Baby and the Enlightened Aesthete

Those are three sources of modern infantilization: technology, capitalism, and postmodern culture. I submit, then, that the reason we can be so ignorant as to speak of technoscientific progress, even though scientific theories imply naturalism which in turn implies the unreality of normative values and the undeadness of all processes, is that we lack self-knowledge because we’re infantile. We’re distracted by the games of possessing and playing with our technotoys, because our artificial environment trains us to be babies. And babies aren’t interested in ideas, let alone in terribly dispiriting philosophies such as naturalism with its atheistic and dark existential implications. That’s why we can parrot the meme of modern progress, because we’ve already swallowed a thousand corporate myths by the time we’ve watched a year’s worth of materialistic ads on TV. What’s one more piece of foolishness added to that pile? If we were to look at the myth of progress, we’d see it derives from ancient theistic apocalypticism, and specifically from the Zoroastrian idea of a linear and teleological arrow of historical time. The idea was that time would come to a cataclysmic end when God would perfect the fallen world and defeat the forces of evil in a climactic battle. All prior events are made meaningful in relation to that ultimate endpoint. In that teleological metaphysics, the idea of real progress makes sense. But there’s no such teleology in naturalism, so there can be no modern progress. At best, some scientific theory or piece of technology can meet with our approval and allow us to achieve our personal goals more readily, but that subjective progress loses its normative force. Mind you, that’s the only kind of progress that pragmatists are entitled to affirm, but there’s no real goodness in modernity if that’s all we mean by the word.

The titular ironies, then, are that the so-called technoscientific signs of modern progress are indications rather of the superficiality or illusoriness of the very concept of social progress that most people have in mind, despite their pragmatic attitude, and that the late great modernists who are supposed to stand tall as the current leaders of humanity are instead largely infantilized by modernity and so are similar to the mythopoeic, childlike ancients.

Here, finally, I’ve pointed out that there’s no real progress in nature, since nature is undead rather than enchanted by personal qualities such as meaning or purpose, and yet I affirmed the existential value of personal authenticity. I promised to return to this apparent contradiction. My solution, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, is to reduce normative evaluation to the aesthetic kind. For example, I say intellectual integrity is better than self-delusion. But is that judgment as superficial and subjective as a moral principle in light of philosophical naturalism? Not if the goodness of personal integrity and more specifically of the coherence of your worldview which drives your behaviour, is thought of as a kind of beauty. When we take up the aesthetic perspective, all processes seem not just undead but artistically creative. Life itself becomes art and our aesthetic duty is to avoid the ugliness of cliché and to strive for ingenious and subversive originality in our actions.

Is the aesthetic attitude as arbitrary as a theistic interpretation of the world, given science-centered naturalism? No, because aesthetics falls out of the objectification made possible by scientific skepticism. We see something as an art object when we see it as complete in itself and thus as useless and indifferent to our concerns, the opposite being a utilitarian or pragmatic stance. And that’s precisely the essence of cosmicism, which is the darkest part of modern wisdom. Natural things, as such, are complete in themselves, meaning that they exist and develop for no human reason. That’s the horror of nature: the world doesn’t care about us, our adaptability notwithstanding, and so we’re bound to be overwhelmed by natural forces and to perish with just as little warning as we were given when nature evolved us in the first place. But the point here is that the flipside of this horror is that nature is full of art! The undeadness of things is also their sublime beauty or raw ugliness. When we recognize the alienness and monstrosity of natural processes, because we’ve given up naïve anthropocentrism, we’ve already adopted the aesthetic attitude. That’s because we’ve declined to project our interests onto what are wholly impersonal things, and so we objectify and aestheticize them with one and the same act of humility. The angst and the horror we feel when we understand what nature really is and thus how impersonal we ourselves are are also aesthetic reactions. Angst is the dawning of awe as we begin to fathom nature’s monstrous scope, horror the awakening of pantheistic fear of the madness of the artist responsible for so much wasted art. The aesthetic values which are also existential ones aren’t merely subjective, because nature’s undead creativity is all-too real.

Homelessness and the Transhuman: Some Existential Implications of Cognitive Science (by Benjamin Cain)

by rsbakker

If science and commonsense about human nature are in conflict, and cognitive science and R. Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory are swiftly bringing this conflict to a head, what are the social implications? After explaining the conflict and putting it in the broader contexts of homelessness and alienation, I contrast the potential dystopian and utopian outcomes for society, focusing on the transhuman utopia in which, quite ironically, science and technology make the fantasy of the manifest image a reality, by turning people into gods. I use the sociopathic oligarch and the savvy politician as models to try to understand the transhuman’s sophisticated self-conception.

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Our Self-Destructing Home

Richard Dawkins called the genetically-determined, artificial transformation of the environment–for example, the spider’s web, beaver’s dam, or human-made shelter–an organism’s extended body. So to see why alienation is part of our destiny, compare a person’s situation with that of a web-spinning spider. Remove the spider entirely from its web, deprive it of its ability to weave a new one, and the spider would be discombobulated from its homelessness. The spider that spins webs can’t function without them. This creature’s body evolved to walk on silk threads, to eat the prey that can be caught in that net, and to sense threats through vibrations in the web. To the extent that a spider thinks of the world, its viewpoint is web-centric. The spider surely feels most at home in its web where it’s lord of the land; from its perspective, the world beyond is webless and out of its control. So a spider has external and internal means of reorganizing the world, although its internal means are indirect. Its body crafts a tool, the web, for transmuting part of the world into a form that’s compatible with the spider’s way of life, and its brain states lump the world into categories so that the spider can deal with threats and opportunities.

A typical person likewise has a home in the world, although a person’s home is much more flexible. When someone takes a broom to a spider’s web, the spider must weave a new one and once woven, the spider is committed to that location. The web isn’t portable, although it can withstand minor disturbances. By contrast, a person adapts her outer home to suit the environment, and so in a snowy climate a person builds an igloo, while in a rainy place she adds a roof that causes the rain to roll harmlessly down the roof’s slope. And we add a wide variety of buildings to achieve our many purposes, building not just houses but towns, cities, and civilizations. The relevant difference between a spider and a person is that the spider’s body is highly specialized whereas a person’s physiological capacities are more open-ended. All of the web-spinning spider’s physical traits are put to optimal use in the web which the spider must build for itself, whereas a person’s main outer advantage is her opposable thumb which gives her a capacity for infinite manipulations of the environment. Thus, we’re not so committed to just one kind of artificial home, but can adapt our extended body to suit the natural circumstances. To do this, we must understand those circumstances, and so the main web we weave, as it were, is inside rather than outside us. We weave this with our mind or more specifically with our brain. This web is made not of silk threads but of electrical currents which pass between neurons. The web of our thoughts allows us to make many subtle distinctions and so to exploit much more of the environment. Whereas a spider requires an outer web to feel at home and even to live as a spider, a person requires a mind made up of an inner web of memories, imaginings, feelings, categories, speculations, and inferences.

But there’s a paradox. A person’s mind accesses the world through the five senses and processes the information received. That task is what the mind is mainly for in evolutionary terms. But those senses don’t similarly access the mind itself or the brain. The senses are all pointed outward. They could conceivably be extended by technology and then directed inward to observe the brain as it processes the information generated by its activities. In fact, this is what dreams or psychedelic drugs may do; the hallucinations you perceive when sleeping or stoned may reflect deeper mental processes than those with which ordinary consciousness is familiar. In any case, observation doesn’t suffice for understanding, so the impressions of what the brain does while it’s thinking would have to be interpreted, and we don’t yet have as much experience of the brain’s intricacies as we do, say, of elements in the outer world like earth, water, and fire.

The paradox, then, is that our primary shelter and source of comfort is internal and yet this shelter dissolves itself.

We belong not so much to the brick and concrete homes we build–those are not the worlds we truly live in–but to the cherished beliefs of our religious, political, and other ideologies. The degree to which we live in our heads is the degree to which we live as persons, as mammals that are highly curious and reflective not just about the physical environment but about our capacities for understanding it. Self-awareness is a necessary condition of personhood. But the more we look at ourselves, the more we shrink from our withering glare until the self we imagine we are is lost. We’re most at home in the world when we feel free to fill the unobserved void of our inner self with speculations and fantasies. They form the so-called manifest image, the naive, intuitive picture of the self that we dream up because we’re extremely curious and won’t settle for such a blind spot. We replace ignorance about the brain and the mind with fanciful, flattering notions such as those you find in religious myths and in other social conventions. But the more we think about our inner nature, the more rigorous and scientific our self-reflections become until we discover that the manifest image is largely or perhaps even entirely a fiction; certainly, that image is a work of art rather than a self-empowering scientific theory.

We learn that there is no inner self in the ordinary, comforting sense, but we’re not adapted to identify with our body because our body is pitifully weak. Again, our main physiological advantage is our opposable thumb, and it’s our brainpower that permits us to reinforce our body, to engineer an airplane because we have no wings, a saw because we have no claws, clothes because we have no fur, and so on. In effect, we’re most proud of our brain–except when we learn what the brain actually is and does. As cognitive science and BBT in particular show (and as the philosopher Immanuel Kant maintained), the mind prefers delusion to a humble admission of ignorance. As those who attempt to still their thoughts in meditation will testify, the mind loves to think and won’t shut up unless the thinker exerts herself in ignoring its spontaneous ramblings. We fill our head with chitchat, with rumours and all manner of mental associations, often on the basis of scarce input. We take that input and run with it and we’re drawn especially to those speculations that flatter us. Like a hermit crab, we climb inside the net of those speculations and we live there, meaning that we identify our self with them. Most of us don’t know exactly what the inner self is, but we surmise that the self is rational, conscious, free, unified, and even immaterial and immortal. Then we take a closer look, with science, and we find that we can look past the illusion. Of course we’re not as we naively picture we are: look at the brain, see what it does, and notice that there’s no ghost inside! If we were hermit crabs, we’d learn that our shell isn’t so sturdy after all, that it dissolves on contact. The difference is that whereas the crab needs that shell to protect it from others, we need the manifest image to protect us from ourselves, or rather from our capacity to discover that we have no self.

Mind you, we erase not just the naive image of the self, but that of the outer world as well. The senses and the brain present a colourful, three-dimensional world that’s relative to each viewer’s perspective, thus effectively flattering the ego. Moreover, we perceive all events as having a past, a future, and a present moment in consciousness. Einsteinian physics teaches, though, that space and time are not as we so intuit them. Again, we think of causes and effects as mechanisms, as though the cosmos were a machine, but that’s a naive, deistic conception. We think of the universe as governed by laws even though the scientist no longer assumes there’s an intelligent designer to issue them or to ensure that the universe follows them. We perceive the environment as made up of whole, solid things even though matter at the quantum level isn’t solid or neatly divided. Modern science thus undermines all intuitive conceptions, both those of the self and of everything else. This is just to say that the brain’s spontaneous chatter about this or that which happens to mesmerize us isn’t likely to be the brain’s last word on the subject.

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The Horror of Alienation

The paradox of reason, which makes reason an evolutionary curse rather than just a gift, is that we live mainly in the ideational home we make in our heads, but those ideas eventually lead us to recognize that our heads are empty of anything with which we’d prefer to identify ourselves. Reason thus evicts us from our homes, kicking us to the curb, whereupon we may wander the cultural byways as outsiders, unable to lose the selves we cease to believe in in the cultural products that cater to the mass delusions. As least, that’s one path for the evicted to travel. Another is for them to sneak back into their homes, to forget that they don’t belong there and to pretend that they’re full-fledged home owners even though they know they’re dressed in rags and smell like urine. That’s an illustration of the difference between existential authenticity and inauthenticity.

To understand what I mean by that distinction, we need to consider the idea of alienation. The way I like to approach this is through the melancholic philosophy that Lovecraft dramatized in his cosmicist short stories. And it seems to me that this philosophy is analogous to the philosophical upshot of BBT. So what BBT contends is that scientific truth is opposed to personal truth, that what a self actually is is very different from what is naively presumed. This opposition raises the likelihood of cultural apocalypse and of the intriguing possibility of transhumanity to which I’ll turn in the next section. But what Lovecraft realized is that there’s a more general opposition, between the potential science of a superhuman species and even our supreme rational output. Just as the manifest image is inadequate to our scientific image, so too our scientific image may be inadequate to the superhuman conception of the world. To get an idea of the relevant sort of superhuman, picture Superman, the fictional hero whose superpowers are confined to his physiological and perhaps moral capacities, and now add superhuman intelligence plus the important levels of reality that may be exposed only to someone of that mental caliber. Of course, Lovecraft stressed that this more general scenario of what philosophers call mysterianism, which is a plausible result of atheistic naturalism, makes for psychological horror. Whereas BBT and cognitive science kick us to the curb, Lovecraft removes the curb, the street, and the whole planet and leaves us floating in a void that only a hideously indifferent alien could comprehend and use to its inhuman advantage.

What, then, is alienation? It’s just the futile feeling of homesickness, of not belonging somewhere you’d like to be or indeed of not belonging anywhere at all. Science alienates us from our preference to see ourselves in terms of the manifest image. We’d prefer to identify with that naive conception of the ego or of the immortal spirit, but informed people with intellectual integrity or perhaps with the foolishness to take human knowledge so seriously as to upset their chance for a happy life, are estranged from that conception. Married people who get divorced may feel terribly awkward when they’re then forced to be together, say, in some legal hearing. Likewise, science and especially cognitive science seem to push us towards a reckoning with the naive self-image so that even if we’re forced to project that image onto the brain, we’re sickened by or bored with that particular painting. In this context, alienation is the fear that that reckoning leaves us nowhere, or at least unsure of where to go next. And an existentially authentic, self-evicted mammal stays true to that homelessness, whereas an inauthentic one settles for a delusion rather than the reality.

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Home for the Transhuman

I want to consider some possible refuges for those who are existentially homeless. The most likely scenario, I fear, is the dark one that RSB speaks of and that is in fact a staple of dark science fiction. In this scenario, most people are reduced to the inauthentic state. What may happen, then, is that the majority either aren’t permitted to understand the natural facts of human identity or they prefer not to understand them, in which case they become subhuman: slaves to the technocrats who perfect technoscientific means of engineering cultural and mental spaces to suit the twisted purposes of the sociopathic oligarchs that tend to rule; automatons trained to consume material goods like cattle, whose manifest image functions as a blinder to keep them on the straight and narrow path; or hypocrites who have the opportunity and intelligence to recognize the sad truth but prefer what the philosopher Robert Nozick calls the Happiness Machine (the capitalistic monoculture) and so suffer from severe cognitive dissonance and a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. These aren’t dubious predictions, but are descriptions of what most people, to some extent, are currently like in modern societies. The prediction is only that these dynamics will be intensified and perhaps perfected, so that we’d have on our hands the technoscientific dystopia described by Orwell, Huxley, and others. I should add that on a Lovecraftian view, it’s possible that human scientific control of our nature will never be absolute, because part of our nature may fall within the ambit of reality that transcends our comprehension.

Is there a more favourable outcome? Many transhumanists speak optimistically about a mergence between our biological body and our extended, technological one. If we aren’t immaterial spirits who pass on to a supernatural realm after our physical death, we can still approximate that dualistic dream with technoscience. We can build heaven on earth and deify ourselves with superhuman knowledge and power; cast off our genetic leash/noose, through genetic engineering; overcome all natural obstacles through the internet’s dissemination of knowledge and nanoengineering; and even live forever by downloading our mental patterns into machines. In short, even though the manifest image of a conscious, rational, free, and immortal self is currently only an illusion that conceals the biological reality, the hope is that technoscience can actually make us more rational, conscious, free, and immortal than we’ve ever imagined. Of course, there are many empirical questions as to the feasibility of various technologies, and there’s also the dystopian or perhaps just realistic scenario in which such godlike power benefits the minority at the majority’s expense. But there’s also the preliminary question of the existential significance of optimistic transhumanism, granting at least the possibility of that future. How should we understand the evolutionary stage in which we set aside our dualistic myths and merge fully with our technology to become more efficient natural machines? Indeed, how would such transhumans think of themselves, given that they’d no longer entertain the manifest image?

I think we should conceive of this in terms of a natural process. Atoms bond to become molecules, molecules join to form macroscopic things like rocks, animals, and planets, and some animals incorporate their handiwork to become creatures that can interact more fully with the rest of nature. There’s the mereological process of complexification and the temporal process of evolution, and these may come together to produce transhumans. Lacking the manifest image and the vanity but also the moral limitations which that image subserves, a transhuman would have to conceive of itself as strictly part of some such natural process. The universe changes itself, and the transhuman can bring about many more of those changes than can a deluded, self-limited mammal. Currently, we transform much of our planet, whereas a transhuman who accepts only the scientific image of human nature may acquire the power to transform star systems, galaxies, or untold dimensions. A transhuman wouldn’t think in normative or teleological terms; such a natural god would have no goals or individualistic hallucinations, and would take to heart the Joker’s lines in the movie, The Dark Knight, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?…You know, I just…do things.”

We have a model of such a transhuman god and that’s the oligarch. An oligarch is a very powerful person who’s reached the top of a national pecking order and is either sufficiently sociopathic to have reached that position with finesse or is naturally corrupted by the power he thereby acquires, in which case he conditions himself to be sociopathic. What I mean by “sociopathy” in this context is that power corrupts in the specific sense that the very powerful person tends to lose not just a sense of morality but the capacity for empathy. A transhuman would share that incapacity, since morality is part of the illusion of the manifest image. However, a transhuman and a corrupted ruler would differ significantly in that the latter would still act egoistically; indeed, such a person is a megalomaniac who believes he’s entitled to so much wealth and power because of his personal magnificence. By contrast, the transhuman would have no illusion of personhood: a transhuman would be only an instrument that ushers in galactic transformations; these wouldn’t be intended or preferred, but would be understood as just meaningless, natural evolutions of the cosmic landscape.

Another model that can help us get a sense of what transhuman life would be like is the democratic politician. I may be slightly more cynical than the average person living in a democracy, but I just take it for granted that a politician never speaks the truth in public. More precisely, the politician never tells the people at large exactly what she’s thinking. This is because when a politician speaks publicly, she’s on the job and so must carry out the functions of her office. As is said in the business, the politician–and the lobbyist, political handler, public relations expert, spin doctor, partisan, and so forth–speak publicly only in “talking points,” never leveling with the public or having anything as pedestrian as a conversation or a dialogue with a presumed equal. This is to say, then, that the politician eliminates semantics in her side of the public discourse: the meaning of her statements is irrelevant to their function, and the politician is interested only in that function, which is to say in the statements’ shaping of public opinion to the politician’s advantage. In other words, a politician’s public statements are guided only by what we might call their political syntax, which is the set of social scientific laws that make plausible various Machiavellian strategies for manipulating people, for exploiting their weaknesses and biases as a means to some end. The ends of the politician’s purely instrumental use of language are usually the limited ones of maintaining the politician’s privileged position and of stroking her ego, but may rarely include the purpose of benefitting the country at large according to the politician’s principles.

Again, there are interesting differences between this politician and the transhuman. A politician has goals whereas the transhuman has none. We might prefer to say that the transhuman has “implicit purposes,” but this would be sheer personification, since anything in the universe can be interpreted as acting towards some end point that isn’t mentally represented by that which is so acting. This would just amount to reading intelligent design into everything and positing some transcendent designer that does so represent the goals which that designer’s creations would be built to achieve. No, a transhuman who has fully embraced the scientific image and so abandoned the crude conception of personhood wouldn’t conceive of herself as mentally representing anything, which is to say that she would understand her mental states to be meaningless pseudo-instruments, as elements of a natural process. She would have neither beliefs nor desires in the ordinary sense and so she wouldn’t seek her enrichment or even the continuation of her life (although her vast technoscientific knowledge and power would render her invulnerable, in any case). The transhuman would be a new force of nature, as blind, deaf, and dumb as the wind or as sunshine. By contrast, a politician’s instrumentalism is petty, the scheme of a child playing at being a god. A politician may flatter herself that in her political role she acts as a savvy machine that sees past the delusions of the herd and can manipulate the masses at will by pushing their proverbial buttons, uttering a code word or two to initiate the news cycle, and so forth. But as long as the politician labours under the quaint delusion that she personally plans or desires anything, she’s better thought of as a wannabe god, as a child who hasn’t yet grown into her shoes. At best, the cynical politician would be the harbinger of the god to come, the Silver Surfer to the future Galactus.

Where, then, would the transhuman call home? The universe would be the transhuman’s playground, just as a force of nature works wherever it’s naturally able. A transhuman identifies not with a figment of its imagination, with a particular mind or consciousness, but with all of nature, since the transhuman’s knowledge and power would encompass that whole domain, or at least enough of the universe that the transhuman would effectively be divine. The transhuman’s reach would extend very far in space and time, and her body would be the extended one of technology that only morally-neutral science could unleash. And the transhuman would understand natural processes at a highly technical level; she’d be immortal, fearless, and enmeshed in the universe’s course of self-creation, as opposed to being limited, alienated, and homeless. Perhaps technoscience is the means of building gods, of ironically turning the manifest image, which is currently a fantasy, into a reality, and we are mere strands in the cocoon that will birth that new form of life. This transhumanism seems to me the most uplifting way of imagining the outcome of the clash between science and commonsense, but of course this doesn’t mean the scenario is plausible or likely. At any rate, if BBT is correct, we are primarily not individual persons with private agendas, but are stages of some natural process that we can’t yet see clearly, because our vision is obscured by smoke and mirrors.