I’d like to thank Scott for his article, Man the Meaning-Faker, in which he analyzes my views and lays out more of his take on Brassier’s way around science-centered nihilism. The more you write on a topic, the more you can benefit from someone else’s formulation of your ideas, so that you can look at them from a different angle. For the most part, Scott has very well represented my viewpoint in his analysis, although there are a few important points that he misses. I’ll concentrate on those, largely by way of elaborating on what I had in mind in my article on Brassier’s nihilism.
Science as a Constraint on Meaning
Scott rightly says that on my view, science constrains meaning. In part at least, irresponsible faith is indeed when we trust in stories that make us vulnerable by merely deluding us. By contrast, science enlightens and empowers us, although as Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice poem illustrates, there’s such a thing as having too much power. Anyway, Scott wonders how science can constrain meaning when the two are incompatible. How, he asks, can science “constrain something it simply cannot cognize as real in any manner we find intuitively recognizable?”
To answer, I have to point out that I wouldn’t say science is the only constraint. Aesthetics (good taste) is another. So what makes some faith irresponsible isn’t necessarily just the falseness of the story; it could also be dereliction of our aesthetic obligation to avoid clichés. Scott observes that there can be a variety of original meanings, including insane or evil ones, so the newness of creations won’t suffice as a worthwhile standard. There’s certainly a big problem here of how to squeeze ethics out of aesthetics, but the relevant point is that I needn’t rely just on science to do the job. Indeed, science would explain both natural and artificial parts of the world as equally meaningless, since science objectifies, dehumanizes, and disenchants. So it’s not science exactly that constrains our creations, but the harsh facts themselves; necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. As the messenger that shows us the world’s physicality and undeadness, science is only indirectly a constraint.
This constraint begins with a yearning: we feel we must regain the comfort level we had in our ancient mythopoeic days, when our ancestors had no objective conception of nature, but perceived everything in the world as flush with personality. Our response to the loss of that childlike sense of wonder is to do away with nature’s undeadness, to transform the facts of the wilderness into artificial environments which literally embody our ideals. We make manifest the so-called manifest image, by creating vessels for our presumed subjectivity, in the form of our artifacts which extend our body and realize the ideal mind as it’s naively conceived, along with our other fantasies. So science and natural facts limit our creation of meaning, in that our artifacts must succeed in keeping up our spirits in light of the threat of nihilism from the modern worldview. Our fictions shouldn’t merely paper over nature’s meaninglessness, since one of their apparent evolutionary purposes is to allow us to live well despite the knowledge that makes for our existential predicament.
Our creations must re-enchant the world; they must show us our worth, by filling in the blank we’re left with when we try to look at ourselves in the mirror of self-awareness. Through introspection, as BBT says, we seem to be no concrete (real) thing, and we rationalize that fact with metacognitive fictions, such as the intuitions of our independence, immateriality, and immortality. But thanks to the relentlessness of modern and postmodern skepticism, the fictions don’t enchant. Still, there’s no arguing with concrete reality, so we create a whole artificial world and we pour our minds into it. The artifacts embody the meaning and purpose we want to find in ourselves. And science constrains this way of reassuring us, by forcing us to adopt sufficiently high aesthetic standards to counter the dire indifference of the natural facts. As threatening as nature’s impersonality is to our psyche, which seeks social relationships in all things (hence the Mythopoeic Age), so too must our artificial transformation of nature be a powerful work of art to overcome that threat.
Heuristics All the Way Down
Scott says, “Science tells us that human cognition is heuristic all the way down.” It strikes me now that this can’t be so and that the reason why is relevant to my point about the meaningfulness of technology. To see this, recall that a heuristic is a dumbed-down algorithm. An algorithm is a rule for achieving some end—but not just any rule; no, an algorithm is an exhaustive step-by-step procedure. In this respect, an algorithm might be compared to an anal-retentive lawyer, someone who follows the letter of the law no matter how inefficient or Kafkaesque the process of getting just the right paperwork and all the necessary signatures, and so forth. Because Mother Nature is frugal, not to mention a zombie (a quasi-machine that simulates intelligent creativity), our brains aren’t supercomputers with the resources to follow all the logical loose-ends of our thoughts; instead, we use shortcuts, like rules of thumb, to save time and energy. I take it this is why cognitive scientists expect to find only heuristics rather than algorithms in our mind.
But notice that we in fact build computers that run on algorithms rather than heuristics, and that we rely on these machines more and more as parts of our extended brain. It seems, then, that human cognition is not heuristic all the way down. We can say that our native, organic mind is heuristic, but then we’re assuming a Cartesian distinction between the inner and outer worlds. I raise this point, though, because it’s an example not just of how we extend ourselves, but of how we extract meaning from the extensions. Alan Turing derived the idea of computation by imagining what it would be like to be a typewriter. What exactly is a mechanical process that can be reduced to a dumb thing’s following of an algorithm? The typewriter was invented to improve people’s lives in certain ways, but implicit in that invention was the idea of a mechanism, which Turing used to invent the algorithmic computer.
To be sure, there are causal relations throughout nature, but they’re not as explicitly mechanical as those in a machine, since a machine is intelligently designed to keep the rest of the world out of its private business, as it were; for example, the typewriter has a shell that keeps dust out of its greased components. By contrast, probabilistic laws have to be divined from our observations of natural processes, since we must imagine, counterfactually, how a process would unfold were all other things equal; that is, we need to imagine what would happen were everything else irrelevant and prevented from having any impact on the system of interest, even though a natural system is hardly ever so isolated. We compensate for that lack of a clear, disentangled mechanism in nature by designing experiments that keep out the parts that don’t interest us, thus isolating the interesting variables, but those experimental settings are themselves artifacts that carry meaning and purpose. Just as Turing used an artificially-streamlined mechanism in his conception of the ultimate extension of the mind (the Turing Machine), so too does the scientist use an experimental setting such as a laboratory as an instrument to achieve the goal of disentangling the world’s systems.
Subjective Truth and Meaning
Scott points out that it begs the question to explain meaning in terms of subjective truth, since the latter is just as questionable as the former, on a mechanistic view of things. As he says, “The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is also the question of whether there is any such thing as ‘subjective truth.’” So my article on Brassier’s nihilism seems to beg the question at that point.
But this isn’t quite right, because in that article I mean to parody Brassier’s account of truth. As I say there, to avoid adding meaning to the world, while taking science seriously, Brassier says that truth isn’t a semantic relation but a causal one. Truth is the trauma caused by the world’s assault on our preferences. We prefer the mythopoeic world that’s filled with vitality, but the truth is that all physical things as such are lifeless. Truth is the dawning of that fact on us. My point about meaning, then, is that two can play that game. Meaning too can be understood in such causal terms. The horror of nature’s undeadness causes us to create a substitute for that world, one in which we prefer to live. Meaning, then, is the humanness of that substitute world, the ideality we see in all our artifacts.
The question is whether there’s anything normative about this artificial meaning, but my point is that it’s easier to see the reality of meaning in artifacts than it is to discern the inner self that’s supposed to correspond to the manifest image. Artifacts are concrete objects that are all around us and that we use all the time. Moreover, there’s some irony here. Scott says, “science was really only ever technically constrained,” since for a long time science couldn’t crack the brain’s enigma. But who would want to bet against scientific progress? Notice, then, that the kind of meaning-creation I’m talking about counts on that progress, since advances in technology flow from our greater understanding of nature. I’m not talking about any supernatural origin of meaning; rather, I’m pointing to the concrete, intelligently-designed vessels of purpose that sit right in front of us and that science itself, the so-called force for nihilism, has made possible. This is why I speak of technoscience.
Certainly, to some extent artifacts can be explained in physical terms, but they also call for a teleological level of explanation. We can try to reduce all of that purpose and ideality to causal relations, but there’s one glaring dynamic that will be left over, I think: the creatures with the most self-awareness and objective knowledge are also far and away the most obsessive creators of artificial worlds which replace their natural habitats. I challenge any strictly mechanistic explanation of that dynamic to rival the existential one that I’ve sketched here: we create artifacts to put the meaning that we don’t find in ourselves, in front of our eyes, to comfort us with the knowledge that we needn’t think of us as imprisoned by an undead wilderness, after all; we needn’t settle for nihilism after science’s disenchantment of the world, since we technologically re-enchant the found world with our extended body.
In any case, to show further how artifacts are normative, I’d turn to the aesthetic appreciation of them, since artifacts are also artworks. Subjective truth derives from an aesthetic sensibility. There’s a lot more to say about this and indeed I’ve just encountered Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological criticism of aesthetics, so I’ll be saying more in a later article.
Nature vs the Subject
Scott says, “So where science conceives the human as organic subsystems within larger environmental systems, the subject-object dyad conceives the human as a subject set over and against a world of objects. It occludes, and therefore problem solves, without the benefit of, the very mechanical systematicity that science has revealed. Small wonder it suffers compatibility issues!”
I think this is right. Science objectifies everything and so dehumanizes ourselves, in which case we become just more quantified systems according to a theory that encompasses trillions of other such systems. But from the subjective viewpoint, we’re special because we’re godlike destroyers of nature as well as creators of a meaningful world that substitutes for the old one. Scott’s saying that this dualism is delusional because we’re attempting to solve problems without the benefit of knowing the objective facts that do away with that dualism. Objectively, that is, physically, we’re not at all godlike since we’re on an equal footing with everything else.
But again, the point I’m trying to make is that subjectivity grows out of our encounter with the horrible objective truth. The incompatibility here is, first of all, an existential crisis: science shows us all the facts, including those of our inhumanity; introspection misleads us to expect that those facts would be life-affirming rather than dismaying; thus, we compensate by avenging ourselves on the natural world, by playing its game just long enough to figure out how its systems operate, so that we can safely play our social, humanizing game in a world we can call a home for subjects rather than mere objects. By my reckoning, there are two incompatibilities here. First, there’s the shock of becoming aware that science disenchants nature. This is Brassier’s trauma of nihilistic truth. Second, there’s the technological response of replacing the disenchanted, undead world with the re-enchanted one consisting of artifacts that are used by subjects.
Are we users really subjects or are we just continuing to delude ourselves? Well, without artifacts, we would indeed be babes in the woods, with just our transparent fantasies to distract us from the world’s strangeness in comparison to the persons we prefer to be. But with the artificial world, our dreams are made tangible and our so-called delusory goals are technologically fulfilled. We live longer and longer, thanks to modern medicine, and perhaps with genetic engineering and other techniques, we’ll make ourselves immortal. We’ve shown at least that our power of reason is immaterial in that it consists of a program that can be implemented by a computer rather than just by an organic brain. So if the natural facts make the manifest image of our subjectivity embarrassing and delusory, perhaps the artificial ones vindicate that image. Maybe we weren’t always as we seemed to ourselves, but the illusion of a free, rational, conscious and worthy self serves as a blueprint that inspires us to make ourselves that sort of being. Thus, transcendentalists can welcome the mechanistic perspective, since they can see subjectivity in Hegelian terms, as an unfolding process. There need be no teleological or metaphysical guarantee here, though, but just the action of the traumatic, nihilistic truth and the existential reaction of the transformation of the meaningless world into its opposite.
It’s this sort of grand pattern that’s easily missed when we think only in mechanistic terms, since then we busy ourselves with dissecting natural systems, looking into how the parts hang together, and thus potentially missing the forest for the trees. The question I’m raising for the nihilist is whether our penchant for creatively re-enchanting our environment is explainable solely in mundane causal terms, with no ontological recourse to an emergence of ideality. We can say that our artifacts serve biological functions, but this doesn’t explain the magnitude of the transformation, especially since our artifacts may ultimately be maladaptive, endangering us rather than increasing our evolutionary fitness. Even if there were an evolutionary explanation, I don’t think it would make the existential one superfluous. The latter one, though, posits meaning (normativity) in addition to natural facts.
Maybe as Scott says, science will show how what seems like normativity is really just a poorly-perceived bit of causality. Alternatively, as I argue elsewhere, science might show how the normative properties emerge as a result of what Scott calls the brain’s blindness to itself. I’m saying here that the creation of artifacts, at least, flows from that blindness, so that the failure of intuitions and introspection to uncover the inner facts of our nature has real-world, systematic consequences, as I outline above. We stumble onto a way of living in spite of the curse of reason: we create a matrix to flatter us so that we can ignore the natural facts and interact mainly with artifacts that literally and intelligently satisfy our interests and thus embody our ideals.