Ray Brassier is associated with the speculative realist movement in continental philosophy, the movement being a reaction against what Meillassoux calls “correlationism,” in After Finitude. Kant was an Enlightenment philosopher who found a way of condemning dogmatic, anti-scientific thinking while leaving room for philosophy and for religious faith. He did this by making the relation between mind and the rest of the world foundational in his worldview. For the Kantian, mind and world are interdependent: the world we perceive is preconditioned by our ways of understanding it, that is, by the innate cognitive faculties we bring to bear, and in so far as the mind is this cognitive system, it requires input from something outside itself, obtained by the senses. On this transcendental basis, Kant could say that all knowledge, whether empirical or necessary, has objective (universal) and subjective aspects. Science deals with the real world, but only in so far as things in themselves are humanized, as it were, and philosophy deals with the epistemic grounds of that humanization. Meanwhile, religion and morality are preserved, because they have to do with the world as it is prior to our mental processing of it, and reason must be agnostic about that hidden dimension of all things.
Speculative realists think the subjective aspect of this Kantian compromise between science and religion has been disastrous for continental philosophy, beginning with Hegel and continuing with Husserl, Heidegger and the postmodern relativists and antirealists whom many think now give philosophy a bad name. The realist denies that the relation between mind and world is fundamental; instead, the world of objects that science explains is at the base of everything and minds must answer to that world. We know the things in themselves, not just shadows we project onto them due to our methods of understanding. Now, it’s hard to see how philosophy remains relevant, given this realism about objective things in-themselves. In short, there seems no need for speculation (in “speculative realism”) if everything is objective and scientists and mathematicians have their hands full investigating the nature of all objects, including ourselves or at least our bodies, social systems, and everything else that can be objectified.
Meaning versus Truth
Well, Brassier ends his book, Nihil Unbound, by saying that philosophy ought to be “the organon of extinction” (“organon” means an instrument of thought). What Brassier does, you see, is draw out the nihilistic implications of this realism about objects, which is to say more broadly, this philosophical naturalism. In an interview in which he summarizes his view, Brassier says he’s a nihilist because meaning (purpose or value) is opposed to truth and he sides with truth. The more we know, the more meaning seems unreal. By contrast, he says, Nietzsche saves meaning by denying there’s any truth. When people claim to know the facts, they’re only trying to empower themselves, says Nietzsche. Truth claims are manipulations of people with words. Thus, after the death of God, it’s up to us to cherry pick the fictions that serve us best for psychological, ethical, or aesthetic reasons.
You might think it’s obvious that Nietzsche’s antirealism about truth is incoherent, since he presupposes his truths about the prevalence of power games, about God’s nonexistence, and so on. But Nietzsche’s view is subtler than this would suggest. He called himself a perspectivist; he adopts different ways of looking at an issue, without committing to belief in any truth. Moreover, he’s a great literary stylist and aphorist, not a systematic thinker, so I think his writings were intended as quasi-fictions, not as straightforward theories. Thus, when he talks about power, manliness, and so on, his remarks should be read as hypothetical. Nietzsche creates fictional worlds and explores their implications, rather than trying to confirm his writings correspond to reality. In short, Nietzsche is interested more in the existential or ethical coherence of a modern or postmodern perspective than in the empirical or necessary truth of his propositions.
In any case, Brassier implies that Nietzsche isn’t sufficiently serious about science. Science is not just one among many perspectives, leaving us free to pick another that better suits our purpose. Science tells us the facts that obtain in the real world of objects. And that world is absolutely meaningless. In this regard, Brassier agrees with Lovecraft’s cosmicism: nature is perfectly indifferent to us and there’s no trace of us anywhere beyond our planet, so our anthropocentric metaphors are of no avail. Certainly, theism is obviously false in light of the objective nature of reality. After all, what is a world of objects? It’s physical, decomposable into mindlessly-ordered mechanisms, and in the case of our corner of the universe, it’s doomed to extinction. Even if nature is unified, in the sense that objects are caught up in interdependent processes, as indeed many physicists believe, we are limited creatures that come and go, just as our species will perish, as will all life left on Earth when our sun explodes. Brassier puts this latter point paradoxically, by saying that we should live as if this extinction had already happened—and indeed, had happened even before terrestrial life began. His point, I take it, is the fatalistic one that because our extinction is naturally inevitable, we ought to think of ourselves in terms of how nature treats us: we are nothing now because we’re sure to become nothing.
None of the other quadrillions upon quadrillions of objects in the universe cares about us, so neither should we care about ourselves or each other. Likewise, none of these other objects has a purpose, so neither does human life. In short, because reality is made up of objects, as science shows, there are no subjects; that is, there are no people, nor spirits, souls, or anything else that lives up to our humanizing self-image. We seem to be rational, conscious, and autonomous, but science shows we’re not really so—at least, not in the way we usually think; our selfhood is illusory, as Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory says, and to preserve that illusion along with our self-respect, we create a world fit for subjects, full of more flattering illusions like purposes and rights and ideals. That social world is unreal, implies Brassier, and philosophy shouldn’t be in the business of feeding such delusions of subjectivity. Only lifeless objects are real, because science presents us only with objects, with material, finite and contingent things, and science alone tells us the truth. Philosophy’s task, then, is to help reconcile us with horrible reality, to help us live as the nihilists we ought to be.
Another way of framing this prescription of nihilism in terms of extinction is to think of living things not as having any vital, supernatural core, but as being undead, as being robots that simulate what we think of as higher dimensions but that are actually objects enslaved to natural law. To say that we’re already extinct, then, is to say that science presents us with the shocking truth, in effect, that we’re more like zombies than like human beings, given the ordinary folk’s conception of the latter. There never was any life in the universe, if by “life” we’re thinking of something the ending of which would be in any way wrong, such as tragic, inhumane or sinful. The universe is devoid of life in that sense, because everything is fundamentally meaningless; metaphysically, we’re one with rocks, which is to say that we matter no more than they do. Nihilism, then, is the realization that, contrary to Dawkins, science really does unweave the rainbow in that science disenchants nature, exorcising all traces of subjectivity from measurable, manipulable, knowable objects. Nihilism is the philosophy needed for living with intellectual integrity as one of the walking dead.
Critique of Nihilism
There are a few lines of criticism of this nihilism which you might be pondering. First, we can question whether science really does show that only objects exist and thus that meaning is unreal. For one thing, science isn’t equivalent to physics. There’s also psychology and the social sciences, and thus the possibility of emergent levels of nature. So we needn’t think of science as always reductionistic; indeed, chaos theory seems to show that the universe consists largely not of decomposable mechanisms, with causal relations neatly holding together parts of whole systems, but of dynamic, entangled systems which, like quantum ones, are unpredictably changed by the very attempt to disentangle them through measurement or some other intervention. As I explain elsewhere, objectivity isn’t the same as letting the world speak for itself; the world is shy, as it were, objectivity requires that we trot out methods to incite nature to reveal herself piecemeal, and those methods leave our fingerprints on what we’re studying so that we have to backtrack to sever our contribution.
But I don’t think this response takes us so far in this context. If reason inevitably objectifies, whatever’s rationally understood will appear at best to be undead, classified, quantified, manipulated, dissected, and disenchanted material things. Exapted reason is our faculty for figuring out how things work and when we have that useful information, we have the option of thinking instrumentally about what we thereby understand; moreover, because we’re greedy and bent on survival at all costs, we jump at the chance to ignore questions of the thing’s worth, given that with reason we’re poised to be masters over the objects of our inquiry. Perhaps we oversimplify when we say that science hands us the facts, since the facts are, as Kant said, partly constructed by our cognitive methods. Still, Brassier’s point would then be that even if we should be transcendental rather than naïve realists, reason indirectly tells us the objective truth and that truth is opposed to any enchantment of the world through thoughts of its meaning. (Transcendental realism would say that reason shows us directly the facts produced by an interaction between reason’s methods and the object of inquiry, and on that basis allows us indirectly to figure out what the mind-independent facts should be.) Reason finds no meaning in the world, whether that’s because the real world is indifferent and worthless or because reason objectifies and thus zombifies whatever it touches.
Still, this point about science’s focus as an objectifying instrument makes more plausible another objection, which is that science is capable of uncovering only part of reality, leaving the possibility that a normative aspect of things is beyond reason’s purview. Saying otherwise would be a scientistic overstretch, since not even reason in general, let alone science, needs to encompass everything there is in the world. Science might be like the proverbial hammer that inspires its user to think of everything as nails. Whether (1) the world can’t speak for itself, because we always employ interfaces to intermediate between us and the object of inquiry, and thus nature’s objectivity or undeadness is partly constructed or merely apparent in more or less the Kantian way, or (2) Brassier’s realism is correct and science does present us directly with the facts, those rationally-obtained facts may be only part of what the world has to offer. Reason may be a limited tool, so just because there’s no meaning in the truth that’s rationally discovered doesn’t entail nihilism—unless we’re willing to defend that extra scientistic or rationalistic step of assuming that human reason can comprehend all of existence. This optimism about our cognitive powers would be opposed to cosmicist pessimism, to the assumption that much of the world is alien to us because we’re puny creatures that must therefore suffer from a lack of self-esteem, to say the least.
In any case, how does Brassier think of rational truth? After all, yet another objection presents itself at this point: if there’s such a thing as the semantic property of truth, why aren’t there also the normative and aesthetic properties of rightness, purpose, and beauty? In his interview, Brassier addresses a similar objection when he says,
Some might object that there is a latent contradiction between my denial of the metaphysical reality of narrative order in nature and my appeal to a narrative of cognitive progress in intellectual history. But there is no contradiction: it is perfectly possible to track explanatory progress in the conceptual realm without invoking some dubious metaphysical narrative about the ineluctable forward march of Spirit. I think Robert Brandom’s reconstructive reading of Hegel does just this—it frees the normative ideal of explanatory progress from its metaphysical, and ultimately mythological, inflation into the universal history of Spirit.
I think Brassier may be right that not all normative evaluations need be grandiose, but this seems beside the point. The point is that if science entails nihilism, because the objective truth is that nature is bereft, how can there be room for any normative talk of progress at all, grandiose and mythological or otherwise? Indeed, any notion of cognitive progress requires purpose and thus meaning! The purpose would be to know how the world works and the contention would be that through trial and error or a competition of ideas, we’re steadily achieving that goal. True, this purpose would be merely ours, which would make it subjective (mind-dependent), but that needn’t also make it unreal. So the very science which Brassier uses to bludgeon the naïve folk who cling to their archaic delusions seems to show us there’s at least one enchantment left in our bag of tricks: hope for cognitive progress which science seems to fulfill.
But I think Brassier has a better response, found at the end of Nihil Unbound:
Thus, if everything is dead already, this is not only because extinction disables those possibilities which were taken to be constitutive of life and existence, but also because the will to know is driven by the traumatic reality of extinction, and strives to become equal to the trauma of the in-itself whose trace it bears. In becoming equal to it, philosophy achieves a binding of extinction, through which the will to know is finally rendered commensurate with the in-itself. This binding coincides with the objectification of thinking understood as the adequation without correspondence between the objective reality of extinction and the subjective knowledge of the trauma to which it gives rise. It is this adequation that constitutes the truth of extinction. (239, my emphases)
Here we find a causal theory of truth. Brassier is saying, I think, that being a fact is a matter of causing us to feel a kind of trauma that matches the nothingness at the heart of anything in the world. The world is desolate and so a statement is true if it matches a thing’s deadness (objectivity) by way of the statement’s liability to cause the requisite suffering in the speaker! As I say elsewhere, reason is accursed, because reason’s bound to make us suffer by showing us a world that likely differs from how we’d prefer it to be. This strikes me as a naturalistic theory of truth, since truth becomes a sort of wound produced by the world’s assault on our senses and sensibilities. However, this theory also seems to make rational truth subjective in a way that undermines Brassier’s nihilism. Realistic truth becomes the world’s sorrowful impact on us, but that depends on the mindset we bring to bear. If we don’t happen to be charmed by the old enchantments of theism, the promise of immortality, and the like, the world might impact us differently, which means we might not suffer in response to the scientific facts and so we needn’t feel the urgency of nihilism.
Still, Brassier can say that in so far as we’re rational, we will feel the trauma of knowing the world’s undead nature. Far from being a cold instrument of calculation, reason becomes a dawning realization of nature’s horrible inhumanity. As Brassier says in the interview, “I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition.” The progress, though, must be just the furtherance of a natural process, namely the decay produced by the wound that a monstrous world inflicts on a hapless creature. When we think about the world logically or empirically, we detach from our hopes and dreams and from our irrational commitment to any feel-good narrative, and so we’re bound to feel alienated from our irrational side and from the world that forces this ordeal on us. Brassier seems to be saying that reason isn’t just the act of measurement or of experimentation, but the aftershock that ought to be felt by anyone who enters this rational frame of mind. Nihilism is just a name for the inner desolation left when we soberly acknowledge that the world can be explained without our anthropomorphic bells and whistles, that those who best understand the physical nature of things, in fact, are experts precisely in (temporarily) divesting themselves of their humanity, of engaging the world like unfeeling machines, handling exotic mathematical formulas that baffle the nakedly biased and emotional hoi palloi.
Objective and Subjective Truth
Now, however, I think the telling weakness of this nihilism shows itself, at last. If this is how to make sense of Brassier’s nihilism, I think he’s open to the charge that objective truth, which is actually a devastating effect on our mind, needn’t be the only cognitively-relevant effect produced by an interaction between nature and us. Follow it through: we have the capacity for rational detachment and so we’re drawn to the world’s physicality, to its undeadness, objectivity, and thingness, and that rational engagement with the world properly ends in nihilism, which is crestfallenness, awareness that our rational judgments damage us, that, to reverse the metaphor that’s often attributed to Francis Bacon, when we think critically, we’re being raped by nature. Far from mastering the world, thanks to logic and science, we’re bowing our heads and being stabbed in the gut with each act of our rational detachment. We’re consigned to nihilism, to the humiliating prospect of being left to lick our wounds and rue what happens naturally when the world is beheld by reason. Just as some women who are raped prefer to forget the event because the abuse and the objectification are too painful to contemplate, so too even some rational people fail to come to grips with the root of their ennui.
But now notice that we can imagine a parallel process as follows. We have nonrational capabilities as well, such as our aesthetic taste and the perfectibility of the emotional side of our character, which distinguish virtue from vice. Suppose, then, we enter not the rational frame of mind, but an emotional one based on character, experience, taste, and culture. In that case, when the world’s physicality strikes us, we needn’t suffer the rational person’s dread of nature’s hollowness, because now an altogether different natural interaction occurs: we fill that hollowness with meaning. As I lay out elsewhere, we transform dead facts into value-laden symbols, replacing the wilderness with a cultural world of ideas and with a concrete, artificial environment that embodies them. When I say, then, that we fill the nothingness with meaning, this isn’t an idle figure of speech. On the contrary, this is clearly a process that’s just as real as the existential trauma suffered by someone undergoing prolonged objectivity (dehumanization). The artificial worlds we build that are filled with embodiments of our myths and ideals (think of advertisements, architecture, sports events, political rituals, and even just the myriad uses of language) are real and they’re clearly different from the pre-existent, merely physical and wholly undead wilderness. Here, then, we have another clash which leaves behind not trauma but a literal enchantment, a bestowal of meaning upon the void, a vitalization of zombie nature. Brassier might call the meanings that make up culture “illusory” or “subjective,” but because these meanings are naturally produced by a parallel process of interaction between the world and some mental capacity, that belittling of meaning and normativity would strike me as arbitrary. The effects of the two interactions between mind and world are equally real.
Are we left, then, with Nietzsche’s relativism and antirealism or with Cartesian dualism, according to which we have two opposing worldviews which are (very roughly) the rational and emotional ones? Well, I do think there are two perspectives here and I agree with Brassier that rationality by itself leads to nihilism, disenchantment, angst, and so forth. Reason is accursed. But I don’t think the two perspectives are incommensurable so that the choice between them must be arbitrary. On the contrary, the perspectives are themselves naturally interrelated. We can speak of objective and subjective truth. The former is the trauma of learning that nature is fundamentally physical, that in itself, prior to our transformation of it, the universe is a harsh, mostly barren wasteland that’s doomed to destruction. By contrast, subjective truth is the feeling of rightness that results when instead of keeling over in horror after the world’s physicality slaps us in the face, we creatively undo that loathsome undeadness and surround ourselves with a more palatable version of the world that’s full of concrete vessels of purpose and ideality. So subjective truth is a salve for the trauma of objective truth, even as objective truth is a check on the vices of irrationality brought on by a wholesale escape into our fantasy worlds. The fact is we must live with both inclinations and we should avoid their opposite pitfalls. We should avoid scientism and nihilism, on the one hand, and delusion and irresponsible faith, on the other.
If nihilism is the view that the universe is absolutely meaningless, nihilism is false because there is plenty of meaning on our planet. That meaning is real although it’s also mind-dependent. But Brassier is in no position to condemn everything that’s mind-dependent, because rational truth is likewise dependent on the rational creature that suffers the trauma of knowing the otherness of much of what’s known. There would be facts with no organic life, but no truth since while truth isn’t a ghostly semantic relation, for Brassier, truth is the result of an interaction between mind and world, a trauma caused by an assault. Still, granting this, Brassier might say that most of the universe, namely the part untouched by organic life, is absolutely meaningless. And that recognition should lead us to question the meanings we produce, which in turn leads to nihilism, to skepticism about all meanings.
In response to this, I think Brassier’s extinction argument can likewise be paralleled. Brassier says we should think of organisms as if they were already extinct, since their extinction is inevitable and the killer, as it were, is already glaring at them with murder in its heart. Now, we could just as easily project our minds forward and imagine a different future, one in which intelligent life throughout the universe eventually transforms much of the wilderness, much as we’ve done on Earth. Perhaps some species will achieve godhood status in the transhuman scenario, thanks to the very progress in technoscience which Brassier assumes, in which case the sky’s the limit when we ponder the future ratio between meaningless physicality and meaningful artificiality. Maybe most of the universe will be colonized and somehow the tragic end of all things will be averted so that heaven will be technologically realized. Most of this is highly speculative, of course, but even if we grant that all life will eventually go extinct, it seems unlikely that in the billions of years remaining, the production of meaning through the cultural transformation of natural into artificial habitats will be confined to a handful of planets and then only for split seconds of galactic time. Some species might find means of viable interstellar travel and spread meanings and subjective truths, enchanting nature with the fairy dusts of their language and their creative use of technology. Taking into account how our technology has changed radically over just a few centuries, who knows what far future technology will construct? At least, there’s this unknown potential for creatures to spread meaning according to their subjective truths, and this further counters the absoluteness of Brassier’s nihilism. Thus, just as we can imagine ourselves as already being lifeless, because our star will explode, so too we can imagine much of the universe as already being invested with cultural meaning, because of the plausibility of assuming that such meaning will actually be created in time.