There is a kind of knowledge that strips whatever you do of weight and scope: for such knowledge, everything is without basis except itself. Pure to the point of abhorring even the notion of an object, it translates that extreme science according to which doing or not doing something comes down to the same thing and is accompanied by an equally extreme satisfaction: that of being able to rehearse, each time, the discovery that any gesture performed is not worth defending, that nothing is enhanced by the merest vestige of substance, that “reality” falls within the province of lunacy. Such knowledge deserves to be called posthumous: it functions as if the knower were alive and not alive, a being and the memory of a being.
-E.M. Cioran – The Trouble With Being Born
Shut up, there’s no excuse to live!
-Carpathian Forest – Fuck you all!!! Caput Tuum In Ano Est
Thomas Ligotti writes horror fiction that is really, really good. So far I’ve read his most recent output, the collection of short stories Teatro Grottesco, and his not-so-short story My Work Is Not Yet Done, which also includes two bonus short stories. I’m working on obtaining copies of the rest of his fiction. The best way to describe Ligotti’s fiction is by comparison to Lovecraft (everyone’s doing it), though Ligotti doesn’t at all involve himself in the Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos. He’s similar to Lovecraft in terms of the obscenely insignificant standing he gives humans amid an incomprehensibly vast and ancient universe. His stories aren’t horror of the pop variety, ala Stephen King, which consist of familiar characters with which one can identify encountering strange and unexplainable phenomena. Of course, strange and unexplainable phenomena are also important elements of Ligotti’s narratives, but the difference is that in Ligotti’s works there are no familiar characters to identify with – unless perhaps you’re one of those unfortunate folks who, in Ligotti’s words, “treasure philosophical and literary works of a pessimistic, nihilistic or defeatist nature as indispensible to their existence” (147).
Most people would not want to be or even meet any of the characters in Ligotti’s works. His characters exist in realities which appear vaguely familiar, but horribly distorted and terribly bleak, drained of all hope and hopeful lies – realities which are vehicles for deliciously nihilistic philosophical insights.
Ligotti’s contention in his first non-fiction work, The Conspiracy Against The Human Race is that the terrible bleakness and hopelessness of his fictions is not a distorted view of reality, but rather a honest perspective cleared of the myriad filters and blinders that humans apply to reality to make it manageable or livable. This is The Conspiracy.
The main conclusion of the book is this: that non-existence is better/preferable to existence because existence is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (Ligotti’s capitalization). As such, he recommends the voluntary extinction of the human race through the cessation of reproduction. In what follows I’ll flesh out some of his reasons for arguing as he does and also note some of the interesting (often disappointingly brief) asides he makes. The book is a bit of a ramble.
I’ve identified two main reasons that support his argument. Though it’s not really an argument. It’s more of a statement or maybe a manifesto. He’s not writing to convert. Though there’s undoubtedly some pleasure to be derived from the infecting of other minds with nihilistic thoughts/memes. The book is certainly a salve and a great pleasure to read for a person with nihilistic tendencies. It even has intoxicating properties, for the right reader. Or maybe the book is best understood as a manual, for the non-pessimist, concerning how a hardcore pessimist’s mind works. Regardless.
First, and key to Ligotti’s dark worldview, is his belief that humans are preprogrammed machines or puppets that entirely lack free will or the ability to make decisions. This is a position that people who care to discuss such things refer to as hard determinism – that the state of affairs in the universe at any time is determined by its previous states, with no wiggle-room for human freedom. Just as the 8-Ball’s falling into the corner pocket is determined by my propelling the cue ball into it with the right amount of force and at the right angle, so the thoughts that run through my mind are determined by the movements of bits of matter. Matter seems to act in regular, predictable ways and we have generalized observations of this kind and come up with laws of nature/physics. Rocks don’t spontaneously turn into eggs or gases. Electrons act in such a way, molecules of x substance act in such a way, etc. Now, since we humans are composed of precisely the same basic elements as the rest of nature there’s the question of how free will could be possible if all we are made up of is particles acting in “lawful” ways just like the particles in a tree or litre of water. Just like the 8-Ball is propelled into the pocket by a force external to it, so are all our thoughts driven by forces impinging on us. There’s no “you” controlling your thoughts, only the illusion of a self that thinks this or that. Or so hard determinists such as Ligotti believe.
And at this point in time there’s no way to say whether the determinists are right or whether we have free will (or whether both are true at the same time, a position called compatibilism). Many proponents of free will point to quantum mechanics as evidence that the universe is not at base law-governed and determined because quantum mechanics asserts that some tiny particles exist in multiple locations at once (superpositions). One can only calculate probabilistically the chance that the particle might be in a given area at a given time – quantum indeterminacy. Look up the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment for an illustration of quantum indeterminacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat. The idea is that if the minute particles of the universe display quantum indeterminacy, determinism may only exist at the macro-level (of human bodies, and cars) but perhaps not at the micro-level of neural processes or the level of conscious thought. Free will might arise out of the strangeness of the quantum realm. Quantum indeterminacy might save us from hard determinism.
I had this idea in the back of my head while reading The Conspiracy, so I did a little research. It turns out that quantum mechanics does not necessarily entail indeterminism and indeed there are quantum mechanical theories that are wholly compatible with hard determinism (Bohmian Mechanics: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qm-bohm/). I bet that most youtube-fed new-agey mystic-hippies are unaware of this.
Anyhow, the question of determinism is up in the air. If I had to bet, I’d go for determinism being true. We’ll see in the future. It’s hard for me to see how the human brain, which is the hardware on which the software of the mind runs, could somehow bootstrap itself out of the determined movement of particles that makes up the rest of the universe.
Obviously, if hard determinism is true, we are just puppets following predetermined roles that were essentially laid out at the moment of the big bang. But wait, a standard objection goes: “It is obvious that we have free will. I can choose to do or refrain from doing, whatever I want”. The standard reply is: “The feeling of free will doesn’t mean anything. Does it feel like you’re wheeling through space at 100,000km/h on a rotating sphere? Because you are”. For a more articulate reply, you could look to Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. There he offers a pretty convincing theory of how the feeling of having a self could arise from a purely computational model of the brain.
Ligotti notes that the big problem for humans if determinism is true is that our “sacrosanct belief in moral responsibility” will have to be shoved down the garbage disposal (95). If we’re just knocked about like billiard balls and no one really chooses to do anything, how can anyone be at fault for doing anything? What would be the justification for any kind of punishment? And conversely, any kind of reward or accolade? Simply, there wouldn’t be. Society would be fucked, clearly, if most people thought this way. So would thinking about oneself and one’s own life, but we’ll get to that next. But now we’re seeing why Ligotti speaks of a Conspiracy – ideas such as hard determinism have to be fought, dismissed and ridiculed if we humans are to keep on living in the societies we have. The idea that we’re all just puppets is a horror lurking behind everyday reality that we cannot seriously entertain.
This leads us to the second reason for Ligotti’s stance against existence: consciousness is a torturous paradox or a tragedy. He writes:
“While a modicum of consciousness may have had survivalist properties during an immemorial chapter of our evolution – so one theory goes – this faculty soon enough became a seditious agent working against us … we need to hamper our consciousness for all we are worth or it will impose upon us a too clear vision of what we do not want to see … Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are – hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones” (27-28).
Human-level consciousness presents us with the awareness of bleak ideas like hard determinism, our possible puppet-natures and therefore the non-existence of morality. Trees, for example, don’t suffer from such distressing ideas and thus don’t have to hide from them. There are three other bleak ideas that consciousness is to blame for. The first is the very concept of suffering and its predominance in our lives. Most of life consists of suffering, says Ligotti, drawing heavily on that pleasant old German philosopher Schopenhauer (who once shoved a woman down a flight of stairs for moving too slowly) and we spend most of our time avoiding current or projected sufferings. We eat to avoid the pain of hunger, we socialize to avoid to pain of loneliness, we sell our labour the majority of our waking hours to obtain little tokens which we can exchange for products to stave off the countless forms of suffering that can and do befall us. Yet we try not to think much about this. There’s no point in moping over such ideas, conventional wisdom says. Better to be optimistic. And here the Conspiracy again becomes visible: the pessimistic view of life as suffering just can’t be entertained. Ligotti makes the true claim that people who espouse such views tend to be marginalized. He writes:
“Optimism has always been an undeclared policy of human culture – one that grew out of our animal instincts to survive and reproduce – rather than an articulated body of thought. It is the default condition of our blood and cannot be effectively questioned by our minds or put in grave doubt by our pains” (64).
Those who do hold the pessimistic view – why are they different from the optimistic masses? Does Ligotti think he’s particularly enlightened? No. He suggests that the difference is probably biological – an evolutionarily disadvantageous mutation, an error in neural wiring or a sub-optimal distribution of chemicals in the brain. The pessimist garners no benefits for her lucidity.
Related to the preponderance of suffering are the facts of our origins and our ends. We humans came into being after a long series of life-forms reproducing, and in so doing, producing mutants. We just happened to evolve into what we are now, which is not the apex of evolution, but just a moment on a continuum that extends potentially until the heat death of the universe or more likely, until we annihilate ourselves.
We, as individuals, just pop into existence without any explanation provided. (Heidegger referred to this strange quality of appearing in the world without any reasons for being there as thrownness). There’s a total lack of answers as to why we’re here and what we’re supposed to do, Ligotti holds, other than the biologically hard-wired imperatives to survive and reproduce (which on their own are not very meaningful by the standards of most humans). There’s no meaning to be found in life. Questions regarding such a meaning are pointless and cannot even be asked seriously.
Neither is there meaning to be found in death. It comes and kills each of us at some arbitrary moment and that’s it for us. You can be brave in the face of it, or weep in terror, but it all amounts to the same thing for Ligotti, the annihilation of a confused puppet. Whatever you do in life will be, in the end, even less meaningful than it seemed in life because you will not be there to experience it and apply to it that façade of meaning.
What about our emotions? We feel certain ways about certain things. Can’t we derive meaning from feelings such as pleasure, love and joy? Guess Ligotti’s answer? It’s another No. He writes:
“What meaning our lives may seem to have is the work of a relatively well-constituted emotional system. As consciousness gives us the sense of being persons, our psychophysiology is responsible for making us into personalities who believe the existential game is worth playing … You can conceptualize that your life has meaning, but if you do not feel that meaning then your conceptualization is meaningless and you are nobody. The only matters of weight in our lives are coloured by rainbows or auroras of regulated emotion which give one a sense of that ‘old self’ … Emotions are the substrate for the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world. Not knowing this ground-level truth of human existence is the equivalent of knowing nothing at all” (114).
You might want to reply that emotions are base-level phenomena from which we can derive meaning. Surely, at least, we can salvage hedonism from a nihilistic worldview such as Ligotti’s, you might say. Again, he would answer in the negative. He considers severe depression as proof of this. He holds that “a major depression causes your emotions to evaporate, reducing you to a shell of a person standing alone in a drab world,” and thus that they are not base-level or necessary/ever-present qualities of human existence (114). Another lengthy quote is necessary here:
“In the recumbence of depression, your information-gathering system collates its intelligence and reports to you these facts: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know. Without meaning-charged emotions keeping your brain on the straight and narrow, you would lose your balance and fall into an abyss of lucidity. And for a conscious being, lucidity is a cocktail without ingredients, a crystal clear concoction that will leave you hung over with reality. In perfect knowledge there is only perfect nothingness, which is perfectly painful if what you want is meaning in your life … This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige” (115-116).
A “vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige” (!) Well put. The interactions, flows and balances of various chemicals in our brains and nervous systems and the rest of our bodies determine how we construe the input data which makes up our individual reality tunnels. If these chemicals get unbalanced we can lose access to the emotions which charge our experience of reality with meaning. This prospect is especially terrifying to anyone who believes in grand concepts such as love. The depressive, in her lucidity, Ligotti is saying, perceives that her love for Person X is built on a seaside bluff of emotion that has eroded and collapsed into the infinite and pointless sea of particles bouncing around. She might reconstruct the bluff and her love which sits on it, but she now knows that love’s foundation is tenuous and her conception of it will be tainted with that knowledge, which she will have to either lie to herself about, distract herself from or hide from. By such practices The Conspiracy is perpetuated.
All right, time now to muse on a few particular points extracted from the book. First, the notion of ecocide. Suffer another massive extract:
“As appealing as a universal suicide pact may be, why take part in it just to conserve this planet, this dim bulb in the blackness of space? Nature produced us, or at least subsidized our evolution. It intruded on an inorganic wasteland and set up shop. What evolved was a global workhouse where nothing is ever at rest, where the generation and discarding of life incessantly goes on. By what virtue, then, is it entitled to receive a pardon for this original sin – a capital crime in reverse, just as reproduction makes one an accessory before the fact to an individual’s death? … We did not make ourselves, nor did we fashion a world that could not work without pain, and great pain at that, with a little pleasure, very little, to string us along – a world where all organisms are inexorably pushed by pain throughout their lives to do that which will improve their chances to survive and create more of themselves. Left unchecked, this process will last as long as a single cell remains palpitating in this cesspool of the solar system, this toilet of the galaxy. So why not lend a hand in nature’s suicide? For want of a deity that could be held to account for a world in which there is terrible pain, let nature take the blame for our troubles. We did not create an environment uncongenial to our species, nature did. One would think that nature was trying to kill us off, or get us to suicide ourselves once the blunder of consciousness came upon us. What was nature thinking? We tried to anthropomorphize it, to romanticize it, to let it into our hearts. But nature kept its distance, leaving us to our own devices. So be it. Survival is a two-way street. Once we settle ourselves off-world, we can blow up this planet from outer space. It’s the only way to be sure its stench will not follow us. Let it save itself if it can – the condemned are known for the acrobatics they will execute to wriggle out of their sentences. But if it cannot destroy what it has made, and what could possibly unmake it, then may it perish along with every other living thing it has introduced to pain. While no species has given in to pain to the point of giving up its existence, so far as we know, it is not a phenomenon who praises are often sung” (79-80).
Hah! What a wonderful and absurd idea, revenging oneself against all nature, against the blind idiot god Azathoth as Lovecraft obscurely described it, or the Great Black Swine as Ligotti calls it in My Work Is Not Yet Done. I have a lot to say about this idea (setting aside philosophical haggling over the definition of nature) but I’ve decided not to get into it here as this post is already far longer than anticipated. Expect to hear more about ecocide and its relation to dramatic ideas such as The Second Death of God.
Ligotti also briefly discusses transhumanism, which, if you know me, you’ll know has occupied about 80% of my mental capacity for the past year or so. You’ll also know that I’m generally a supporter of transhumanism, though I lack the optimism that most transhumanists exude or must pretend to exude. Ligotti is definitely not a fan:
“Like believers in libertarian free will, transhumanists believe we can make ourselves. But this is impossible. Because of evolution, we got made. We did not bring ourselves out of the primeval ooze. And everything we have done since we became a species has been a consequence of being made. No matter what we do, it will be what we were made to do – and nothing else … We are following orders, as we have always done, that nature is forever barking out” (125).
A primary tenet of all transhumanist thought is that through the use of technology we should radically alter the human condition/body/being and in so doing, wrest evolution from natural processes like natural selection and genetic drift, etc, and bring them under human control. Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson (who has never admitted to being a transhumanist as far as I know) terms this “volitional evolution”. See his book Consilience for more on that idea.
Ligotti rejects this idea because he’s a hard determinist. And as the status of determinism is still up in the air, this objection to transhumanism remains up in the air as well. But Ligotti also presents a far more interesting objection to transhumanism. He writes:
“one possibility that transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take. They have also failed to reflect upon those aspects of the scientific world-view which may be damaging to our mental well-being. In that case, transhumanists will not get as far as stage one in their mission before they must head back to the conspiracy against the human race and be reeducated in the art of self-deceptive paradox” (128).
I’m pretty sure when he speaks of “the ideal being standing at the end of evolution” Ligotti is referring to the grandiose predictions as to the nature of a posthuman being made by prominent transhumanist Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near (which you should read). There Kurzweil describes how all matter in the universe might, in the future, be converted into computing power, creating a universe-sized supercomputer that will closely approximate traditional conceptions of a god. Kurzweil holds that post-Singularity:
“Our civilization will then expand outward, turning all the dumb matter and energy we encounter into sublimely intelligent—transcendent—matter and energy. So in a sense, we can say that the Singularity will ultimately infuse the universe with spirit. Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love, and so on. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal” (389).
Ligotti is right to be skeptical about this benevolent superintelligence. The Singularity is called a singularity because it will be a unique event, the wake of which is impossible to conceive of with our current knowledge and intelligence. We can’t even begin to guess how a being that possesses more computational power and knowledge than all human that have ever existed combined would think or feel. It is certainly seems likely that that superintelligence would see through The Conspiracy, but how would it feel about it? Who knows. It might not be bothered by the meaninglessness of existence.
Ligotti also asserts that transhumanists neglect to consider that “aspects of the scientific world-view … may be damaging to our mental well-being”. If he’s referring to those transhumanists that consider transhumanism an extension of Renaissance humanism and its ideals (Max More, Kurzweil), then I concede him the point. However, this isn’t the case for all transhumanists. There are others who recognize the screaming and awful extent to which human values and ideals will have to change along with radical changes to the physical constitution of the human being. But to be fair to Ligotti, this subgroup of transhumanists is less vocal, or at least (even) less accepted in serious, academic circles, perhaps because they broach issues that must be suppressed by The Conspiracy.
Finally, a problem I have with The Conspiracy. We might call it The Problem with the Suffering Problem. It goes as such: Why and/or how is suffering a problem in a meaningless universe? I mean, how can you use the preponderance of suffering in the universe as grounds for judging that existence is not “all right” or of positive value if the universe is wholly bereft of meaning? How can suffering be of negative value? Isn’t it just valueless? Why and/or how can it be bad to suffer? How can anything at all be bad or good? Judgments about the badness of suffering are necessarily equally as meaningless as judgments about the aesthetic supremacy of blue eyes. And by extension, isn’t existence just valueless, and not of negative value? Isn’t it all just banally neutral or void? I can agree with Ligotti that it’s all USELESS, but I have a hard time seeing how it’s MALIGNANTLY so, other than through eyes that are still crusty with nostalgia. I guess he means that the malignance derives from the uselessness, but there’s still some use to malignance, and in the end it’s all just USELESS. But I get it. MALIGNANTLY USELESS has a pleasant ring to it.