Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dark Mysticism: Tragic Heroism and Fear of the Undead God

Mysticism is commonly thought of as the esoteric practice of religion for the inner circle of initiates who seek enlightenment, which is to say freedom from suffering and an awakening from mundane experience. Enlightenment is said to be achieved by an inner discovery that the mind isn’t our true self, that our egocentric thoughts and feelings mislead us into identifying with the illusory world of material things. Our true self isn’t our personal one which distinguishes each of us from everyone else and indeed which drives us to compete, to dominate and inevitably to suffer and to cause others to suffer. The deeper self is supposedly impersonal conscious awareness, a way of perceiving that transcends everything that can be known with concepts and rational methods. Through pure consciousness we intuit the true nature of reality, including the timelessness of consciousness and thus the divinity of our true self. When we identify with our ego, with our personal mind, including our stream of thoughts, memories, and reactions to stimuli, we’re distracted from the fact that there’s another self that underlies those mental states, namely their conscious observer. That observer is God himself or at least ultimate reality, which the mystic discovers through an inner transformation, a detachment from the mind and a direct experience of pure awareness (awareness of nothing in particular) which shifts the mystic’s perspective. No longer craving positional goods in the animalistic struggle for material gain, the mystic has peace of mind since she’s found her home outside of space and time. She learns to identify not with her physical body but with divine consciousness which stands apart from all particular mental states and thus from any disappointment.

Eckhart Tolle: Optimystic

This is the mystical teaching, for example, of Eckhart Tolle, a popularizer of Buddhist and other ancient mystical traditions for Western, exoteric audiences. See, for instance, this interview with him, in which he explains spiritual awakening:
So what is it that we awaken from when spiritual awakening occurs? We awaken from identification with our thoughts. Everybody who is not awake spiritually is totally identified with and run by their thinking mind—the incessant voice in the head. Thinking is compulsive: you can't stop, or so it seems. It is also addictive: you don't even want to stop, at least not until the suffering generated by the continuous mental noise becomes unbearable. In the unawakened state you don't use thought, but thought uses you. You are, one could almost say, possessed by thought, which is the collective conditioning of the human mind that goes back many thousands of years. You don't see anything as it is, but distorted and reduced by mental labels, concepts, judgments, opinions and reactive patterns. Your sense of identity, of self, is reduced to a story you keep telling yourself in your head.
Tolle goes on to speak of how he came to interpret his personal enlightenment:
Years later, I realized that the acute suffering I felt that night must have forced my consciousness to withdraw from identification with the unhappy self, the suffering “little me,” which is ultimately a fiction of the mind. This withdrawal must have been so complete that the suffering self collapsed as if the plug had been pulled out of an inflatable toy. What was left was my true nature as the ever present “I AM”: consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form. You may also call it pure awareness or presence.
“When you become present in this way,” he says, “the judgments, labels, and concepts of your mind are no longer all that important, as a greater intelligence is now operating in and through you. And yet the mind can then be used very effectively and creatively when needed.” The reason unawakened egotists suffer is that they ignore the Being of the present moment. Their pride leads them to atomize themselves, to think of themselves as separate individuals who thus inevitably come into conflict.
The false self lives mainly through memory and anticipation. Past and future are its main preoccupation. The present moment, at best, is a means to an end, a stepping stone to the future, because the future promises fulfillment, the future promises salvation in one form or another. The only problem is the future never comes. Life is always now. Whatever happens, whatever you experience, feel, think, do—it's always now. It's all there is. And if you continuously miss the now—resist it, dislike it, try to get away from it, reduce it to a means to an end, then you miss the essence of your life, and you are stuck in a dream world of images, concepts, labels, interpretations, judgments—the conditioned content of your mind that you take to be “yourself.” And so you are disconnected from the fullness of life that is the “suchness” of this moment…The amazing thing is: Life, the great intelligence that pervades the entire cosmos, becomes supportive when you say “yes” to it. Where is life? Here. Now. The “isness” of this moment.
This kind of mysticism is purportedly for spiritual insiders, for the elites among us who have the courage to give up the illusions that provide a false and doomed sense of personal security. But this mysticism is nothing of the sort. It’s based on the same delusion and fallacy that gives rise to all theistic religions, which is anthropocentrism. All forms of theism are grossly exoteric. Thus, there are no enlightened mystics as long as they persist in anthropomorphizing ultimate reality. Mystics like Tolle maintain that the mind lives in illusion while pure consciousness presents the Truth. But this is false for several reasons. The mind is the source of true enlightenment, of the modern Age of Reason which has shown us the nature of reality. Enlightenment begins with philosophical naturalism and thus with atheism. Only the objective, curious, power-hungry mind could have been driven to survive by a pragmatic conquest of the material world, and thus have arrived by trial and error at the scientific methods of inquiry. Only minds focused on ideas (and eventually, hypotheses) and on their logical relationships could have reasoned their way to discovering the mechanisms at work throughout nature. Only progressive thinkers could have had the courage to see past religious dogmas and to search for the facts themselves. So Tolle’s mysticism is refuted by the single word: science.

Tolle and other optimistic mystics may be correct when they say that detachment from a narrowly-defined personal self is possible. Perhaps there are conscious states which seem to lack any object, mental association, or background noise of cognitive processing. There is the danger here of the homunculus fallacy, of saying that within the personal self is the impersonal self of pure consciousness, since this could lead to a slippery slope of questioning whether a yet deeper self lives in that supposedly pure, final consciousness. If a conscious observer is needed to witness the ego’s thoughts, shouldn’t another observer be needed to witness the mystical oneness of pure consciousness? Moreover, if pure consciousness isn’t aware of anything in particular, what makes this a kind of consciousness at all? (According to the philosopher Brentano, all mental states are intentional in that they’re directed towards some object, which means the states have content. Maybe mystical consciousness isn’t mental in that respect, but it’s hard to imagine what it could be, because it’s supposed to be ineffable.) In any case, even if there are peculiar states of consciousness, this doesn’t mean that consciousness is part of fundamental reality, that, as Tolle says, there’s a “great intelligence that pervades the entire cosmos” and thus chooses to benefit those who live in the now. Even if the ego is part of a larger self, what we know now, thanks to the science that followed from the Enlightenment, is that consciousness depends on the brain.

So however you want to define yourself, whether you include your mind or just your raw ability to perceive anything, you are one not with all reality but with that squishy, squiggly, dreadful mess of neurons that sloshes in your skull. You can extend your identity to encompass the health of your body, the technologies you rely on, the family, community, or nation you’re proud of, or even the whole world that awes you if you can think in such a universal, relatively selfless way. This is a well-understood process of making your use of an extended phenotype second nature to you, such as when you learn to drive by familiarizing yourself with the car. Likewise, we can shrink the self, disassociating from aspects of our character, forgetting some of our unpleasant experiences or editing the memories, or even quieting what mystics call the mind, the natural flow of thoughts spoken in our inner voice. But all of that inner activity is generated by the brain, not by any supernatural realm. To equate God with pure consciousness is just to resort to the god-of-the-gaps fallacy, of fulfilling our wishes by hiding what we find to find in a place that science hasn’t yet fully naturalized.

The mystic’s peace and freedom from suffering, then, are sustained merely by different delusions from those that enthrall the happy masses. All happiness, in the sense of contentment, is delusory. Peace of mind isn’t a worthy goal for enlightened people, nor is freedom from suffering. Knowledge and thus enlightenment bring suffering. The mind (the personal self) knows reality (nature) through science and other kinds of reasoning, and what the mind learns is that the mind inevitably conflicts with the rest of nature. People prefer a world that fulfills their ideals, which is why we exchange the real world (the wilderness) that’s utterly indifferent to us, for the personalized world we imagine nature to be and for the artificial world into which we transform pristine nature. Natural reality is the wilderness that includes the collision of particles, the all-powerful fusion reactions within stars, and the struggle of organisms to spread their genes. That’s the real world that we know now exists, and no sooner had people evolved from our protohuman ancestors than they began walling themselves off from that harsh reality—first with their imagination, myths, modest tools and social hierarchies, then with organized religions and the labour, bureaucratic and military megamachines, as Lewis Mumford calls those social systems, which produce the colossal structures that are the backbones of our artificial microcosms. Because the real world isn’t safe for us, let alone preferable, as we learned from the Ice Age and from the dangers of hunting for food, we chose to put our intelligence to work to detach from reality and to immerse ourselves in the collective hallucination that is indeed mass society. In the premodern world, we worshipped our autocratic rulers and now, thanks to the modern awakening, which theoretically transferred power to the masses, we worship ourselves. The more science reveals nature’s impersonality, the more we apply that knowledge to build a substitute world, a heaven on earth, to escape from the abhorrent reality of nature.

The difference between the modern escape and the theist’s mythical one is that the latter begins with delusion, whereas the former is at least consistent with naturalism. The mystic leaps from the fact that she can experience an altered, decentralizing state of consciousness, to the theistic overgeneralization that the real world is essentially conscious, that consciousness (or intelligence or love or justice) pervades everything. Instead, undead particles and creative forces pervade everything. Consciousness is, at best, an accidental emergence, as is now scientifically known to be true. By contrast, consumerism or any other mass secular delusion is manifestly an escape from the wilderness, because such a delusion is part of the secular enterprise to build an artificial oasis. Our mass delusions exist not just in the mind, because they’re externalized in the meaning we assign to the walls we physically build to block out any sight of the undead world that terrifies us. Pagan holdovers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins descry street light pollution that prevents our beholding the majesty of the Milky Way. But any such nightly vision would humiliate us and ultimately drive us to self-destructive worship of fascist saviour gods and to lose ourselves in work in the megamachine so that we might forget the fact that if our sun is just one of billions of other stars, we are in fact accidents of evolution and all social interactions are absurd and tragic games.

Seeing the Light Side of Dark Mysticism

This is not where natural enlightenment ends, however. Dispensing with the false comfort of any form of anthropocentrism, including most ancient kinds of mysticism, is a perquisite for taking the step towards true awakening. That’s the step of accepting naturalism, the science-centered worldview as your philosophical starting point. That worldview entails atheism and cosmicism, the nonexistence of supernatural gods and the humility to affirm that human beings are thoroughly insignificant in the unfolding of the cosmos. The real world is fundamentally impersonal and unconscious, and thus we aren’t at home in it and sentient life is tragic. Again, that’s why for thousands of years we’ve built our makeshift artificial homes, to struggle against the tragedy of our animalistic heritage. First, we built our minds, through language and the self-control established by our higher-order thinking. Then we conceived of our social identities and constructed our extended phenotypes, our outer shelters and civilizations. We civilized and deified ourselves, but all of that historical labour testifies to the fact that wise people have no business being happy. As Leo Strauss pointed out, the wise permit the masses to be happy, by codifying their delusions, so that the elites can privately revel in their decadence or their asceticism, depending on their aesthetic sensibility. The dream of happiness is for the sleeping herds. They’re the ones who seek peace in their ignorance of the fact that they’re standing not in a world hugged by God, but in a zombified corpse of matter and impersonal energy that decays to no humane end. True, the distracted masses suffer from unfulfilled cravings and even from anxiety and depression, owing to their servility in the modern megamachines. But they’re also sufficiently ignorant of the horrors of nature to entertain the utopian ideals of happiness and peace. Those ideals are fit for sheep, not for tragically awakened rebels whose knowledge only commits them to the realization that even their elevated life is ridiculous.

But again, this isn’t the end. In place of the false start of theistic mysticism, there’s the possibility of dark, naturalistic, pantheistic mysticism. Nature is horrible in its undeadness, but it’s also obviously divine. Natural forces and elements create absolutely everything, including the star that created our planet and us. The theist’s error isn’t to speak of an absolute power of creativity; rather, it’s to anthropomorphize that power. The undead subatomic and chemical and cosmological and biological processes are the true divinities, and pure consciousness has nothing to do with them; those processes are blind and dumb. Nevertheless, thanks to their indifference, such natural processes didn’t think twice about throwing up sentient creatures when circumstances accidentally permitted that evolution. And having assembled those creatures, the undead god signed its creation with its telltale mark of absurdity: sentient, social animals are bound to prefer a dream world that can never be perfectly implemented, because it’s at odds with natural reality. We’re peripheral to the undead god’s gyrations, but we’re genetically bound to be vain enough to pretend that we’re of central importance. Even if we manage to dispose of the ego, we fall back on Tolle’s sort of feel-good esotericism. We tell ourselves that alienation, anxiety, and indeed all suffering is disordered, since the healthy condition is the mystic’s selfless perspective in which everything is somehow unified by pure consciousness or love or some other idol. On the contrary, as I’ve said, suffering is entailed by knowledge of the true nature of reality.

What’s conventionally called mental health is little more than social functionality (utility). This is made explicit in the DSM’s definition of “mental disorder.” What’s crucial to disorder is that some suffering impairs a person’s ability to carry out her social functions, such as her ability to participate in family life or to work at a job. From the darkly mystical perspective, however, those social functions are themselves parts of the great tragicomedy of civilization. We’re socially useful only when we ignore the philosophical implications of naturalism. To play our social games we must suspend our disbelief, meaning our sense of those games’ greater absurdity. Only within a game’s confines does the game seem meaningful and even imperative. Modern objectivity, as established by the scientific paradigm, permits us a debilitating detachment even as it forbids a retreat to any form of theism. Thus the modern trend is for “healthy,” automated betas to graduate to alpha status, whereupon they’re beyond good and evil and free to practice their latent sociopathy with impunity, as in the case of the American plutocrats on Wall Street; alternatively, these betas drop out and become alienated outsiders (gammas, deltas, or omegas). Both the alpha rulers and the omega outsiders may content themselves with some form of dark mysticism, while the middleclass betas are squeezed in more than just economic terms. In the West there’s currently a loss of faith in the secular myths of modernity which were supposed to replace the archaic myths of anthropocentricity and supernaturalism. Intellectually average citizens face a stark choice, then, between myths that promise happiness but that fail to convince or inspire in our postmodern age, and a more tragic perspective that ennobles the individual by inuring her to the suffering that’s due to the curse of knowing that the real world is the undead god.

Again, peace for the unenlightened masses, which include pseudo-esoteric, cryptotheists like Eckhart Tolle, is based on delusions, including anthropocentrism which ought to be replaced by cosmicism; self-destruction, as in “mystical” dissociation from the mind or some other form of self-induced lobotomy; or world-destruction, as in the civilized enterprise of replacing the wilderness with our artificial, human-centered worlds. If you seek inner peace, your spirituality will make you existentially inauthentic and ignoble. As you achieve that peace, you’ll betray the naturalism that’s the starting point of late modern enlightenment. You’ll degrade yourself with primitive preferences for a humanized world, instead of coming to grips with the tragic nature of being alive in the form of a fly in the decaying corpse of the undead god. The mark of postmodern enlightenment isn’t to identify with the God within; instead, it’s to fear the undead god. God is the mysterium tremendum, the overwhelming mystery. That mystery is hardly found in imagining that a person has created the universe, since we’re quite familiar with the mental creativity we’ve displayed throughout history. Instead, the divine mystery is the horror that cosmic creativity is due to zombie forces acting on impersonal matter. The mystery is how the undead god could create itself—which gives rise to the secondary mystery of how sentient creatures within that god can overcome their horror.

Contrary to theistic mystics, the enlightened, which is to say the properly horrified mind isn’t an illusion. Tolle speaks of the personal self as “possessed by thought, which is the collective conditioning of the human mind that goes back many thousands of years.” But this evolution of our capacity for thought is the very process by which the true god, which is the set of natural forces and elements, has created us. God isn’t just empty consciousness subsisting in a supernatural vacuum. The idea of such a quasi-personal God that interacts with us, favouring the enlightened ones with bliss and punishing the ignorant ones with suffering, is a projection of our desire to be at home in some society. But society is our refuge from the undead reality. Whereas a magician deity might snap her fingers and in a flurry of creativity, create something wonderful, the undead god must labour for eons, stumbling from one dead end to the next, because the true god is an idiot that creates anything only because it creates absolutely everything, whether in this outrageously large universe or in the megaverse of all realized physical possibilities. Before the emergence of highly intelligent life on Earth, there were all manner of creatures thrown up by the genes to mechanically fill a variety of niches. When our species is extinguished, life will likely continue to evolve as if none of us had ever lived and proclaimed our all-importance.

The point, though, is that minds are as real as the natural process that made them. The undead god fashions birds and insects and reptiles and clever primates, among many other organic forms. We primates are thinkers and our intelligence liberates us from our older programming. That’s why we’re not enslaved to any niche, but can create our own worlds even as we consciously struggle against the underlying natural world we late modernists know all too well. It’s the mind that’s free, not any vacuous, supernatural consciousness. To be sure, the mind isn’t free from suffering; on the contrary, an enlightened mind is one that understands not just the necessity but the glory of suffering in our struggle with nature, without the crutch of any delusion. Mystics may be free from egocentric letdowns but they’re not free from their brain, from the theistic delusions and fallacies, or from the clammy grip of the undead god. To renounce the mind and our personal qualities, including our capacities for abstract thinking, for science, art, and so on is to renounce our chief weapons in our tragically heroic struggle with the monster that lies all around us, even in our brain and our atoms. That monster is the god that creates and destroys us all, and that lacks any power to explain itself—even if only as Yahweh pretends to answer to Job. The tragic hero is the informed person, not some carefree player of theistic word games or peddler of religious pablum for profit and mass infotainment. The hero makes the best of naturalism as she struggles with angst, dread, and despair; she creates not to avoid engaging with the undead foe but to maximize the irony that gives pleasure to those with refined aesthetic taste. The irony is that the undead god creates persons who can create to spite that god instead of honouring it; put mythically, the irony is that God creates angels that can fall from grace and usurp the divine power of creativity and use it to their personal ends. Existential authenticity, the will to live without delusions, gives ethical and aesthetic meaning to that irony, and that’s the esoteric meaning of human life.

Dark mysticism is the idea that our best heroism is nevertheless tragic, because despite our personal transcendence from our animalistic past and despite our existential rebellions, we’re one with the undead god. There is no permanent escape from undeadness. Our personhood is a reprieve from the insensateness that belonged to our atoms before they assembled our fetal form, and that will be ours again when we die and our atoms are recycled for the next round of “divine” creation. We were zombie atoms and we will be disassembled into them again when our body decays. In the interim, there’s sentience, personhood, and the possibility of an honourable life. This honour is nothing to the utilitarian who thinks value is found only in certain results. The ultimate ends are all dismal, so there’s only relative value in utilitarian ethics, which is to say no real value at all. The utilitarian says that giving money to charity is good, relative to the desire to fulfill our obligation to maximize happiness, because that action helps to achieve that goal. This makes the action instrumentally rational, but the hedonic axiom itself is quite unjustified. Again, happiness is for sheep, not for people as such. All value is subjective and thus dependent on desires, but some values are implicit in the objective state of things, as in the case of beauty which is destined to be acknowledged as such by creatures with fitting cognitive paraphernalia. When authentic naturalists struggle against nature, from the aeries of their brain and specifically the perches of their higher-order thoughts which give them limited autonomy, they close a cosmic circuit, waging an ironic war against the gods at the end of which there will be no victory march or peace treaty. The existential war thus has no instrumentally rational justification or at least none that’s decisive, since naturalists are free to rationalize their creative urges. Still, the war is a magnificent natural development, a partial unwinding of nature through our conscious labour, a monster’s beholding of itself through the mirror of our mind which shatters part of the monster, not necessarily the mirror. Would that there were more sturdy mirrors!


  1. Random question time: You're a fan of Sigur Ros. What's your favourite Sigur Ros song?

    1. I don't really have a favourite Sigur Ros song, since I like to listen to their whole CDs as background when I'm drawing. There are a few songs I skip because they're a bit repetitive or too noisy or they don't go anywhere, but most of them I like. My favourite CDs are probably ( ) and Takk. Some stand-out songs for me from other CDs are Hljómalind and Von.

      But I don't listen to Sigur Ros as much as I used to. I haven't updated my blogger profile in a while. Lately, I've been listening a lot to M83, especially Hurry Up, We're Dreaming and the new Beck CD.

  2. Do you think you could write an article expounding more on these "happy naturalists" (e.g Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, etc). Why do you think that the recognition that nature has no purpose and is impersonal is for some people horrifying and depressing while for others not a big deal?
    Is it just a matter of disposition?
    I don't want to get into the argument of anti-natalism but I do have to say I am surprised to see that most scientists are procreators and that Sagan for example, actually had five children! That's unusual even by average people's standards! It leads me to think he wasn't just content with life (knowing its objective futility), he probably thought existence was the most wonderful and fascinating thing that could happen to a person!
    On a different note, have you ever read Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling"? If you haven't I highly recommend it, if you have, do you think its possible to reconcile his concepts of infinite resignation set in a theistic context with the ineluctably atheistic worldview science has lead us to?

    1. Yes, I could say more about the optimistic atheists, although you might check out the articles I link to below. I think a lot of the cheerfulness of New Atheism is due to the fact that it's a marketing campaign to sell atheism especially in the US. So naturally you've got to put your best foot forward to convince atheists to come out of the closet or to attract wishy-washy theists.

      That's not to say I think new atheist leaders like Dawkins or Harris or Tyson are secretly dark and pessimistic. What these optimists also have in common is that their atheism is science-centered rather than philosophy-centered. Not only do they not think much about the philosophical implications of naturalism, they tend to sneer at philosophy for being too much like theology (too artistic and speculative and not sufficiently rigorous). Science itself won't make you pessimistic, because science is a business and it keeps you busy micromanaging a host of problems. It's philosophical reflection that makes you ask endless subversive questions. So there's a cultural difference here, in C.P. Snow's sense.

      I have read Fear and Trembling, although it was a number of years ago now. I think atheists can be ascetic and resigned to fate, but as for Kierkegaard's infinite resignation, I'm not sure that would be best. That kind of resignation is consistent with Spinoza's monism and with Tolle's mysticism, the idea being that we should lose ourselves in oneness with the totality of Being or with something greater than ourselves, so that we become "knights of faith." Spinoza says we then become blessed with the eternal perspective and Tolle says we gain the Zen peace of knowing that nothing is left out of each present moment. This is also a teaching of Taoism.

      The problem here is the naturalistic fallacy. Even if we could shift our perspective, by shutting down our ego and perceiving everything as one with Being in general, this wouldn't validate particular things unless Being itself were somehow good. Theists say God is perfect and it's that normative axiom that does the work in their mysticism. But if we start with naturalism, Being becomes the undead god so that particulars are monstrified in so far as they're part of that whole. Instead of pretending that being part of an enormous monster is fine and dandy, should we keep running away from the beast, like in the movies, going deeper and deeper into our fictional worlds? Not if we lose ourselves in delusions. I think, though, there's a noble kind of resistance to nature's monstrosity, a tragic heroism in maximizing the irony of using nature's undead creativity against itself.


    3. Thanks for the link. I think the article dismisses existentialism too quickly (doesn't existentialism start not with Sartre and Heidegger but with Nietzsche and Dostoevsky?), but maybe Harman's book on Lovecraft should be dismissed. I haven't read it, but I don't trust obscurantists or those who specialize in interpreting obscurantists like Heidegger.

      I've written on Brassier's nihilism (link below) and I've got another article on nihilism coming out in a week or so on Scott Bakker's blog. The thing is, I don't see how cosmic horror fiction supports nihilism, exactly. If the universe is horrifying, that's a negative meaning. In fact, it's an aesthetic judgment. In my upcoming article I point out how scientific objectivity is formally the same as the aesthetic attitude, which means that a science-centered worldview implies not nihilism but a negative aesthetic judgment of nature's undeadness.

      I agree that Lovecraft's stories aren't particularly scary, but I'd offer simpler explanations than saying that we postmodernists have overcome cosmic horror. The stories were meant to be weird, not outright scary. If they're less scary now, that's because they've become cliched over time. The power of any metaphor fades as the concrete situation that inspires it no longer obtains and is forgotten. We're actually more awash with technoscience than Lovecraft was, but Sartre's existentialist movement overdid the cosmic, nihilistic reflections and so they became cliched. Also, Lovecraft was hardly a perfect writer, so as vehicles for cosmicist philosophy his stories are likewise imperfect.

      Finally, just because we're more surrounded by technoscience than was Lovecraft, we've become infantilized by it (link below). We laugh now at cosmic horror not because we've successfully overcome it, but because we have an infant's preoccupation with consumption. Babies would laugh at Lovecraft's stories, too, but that's because they wouldn't understand the stories' philosophical implications.

  3. I read "The Power of Now" by Tolle some time ago, and I never got the impression that he was anti-science. I also thought his views in that book were compatible with atheism. But maybe his later work leans towards a more exoteric approach.

    I take it that he means we should avoid mental clutter, not that reason is useless by itself.

    1. I doubt Tolle's personally anti-science, although I think he'd fold science into his condemnation of the conflicts that are due to individualistic modernity and that are holding back the quantum shift in consciousness. Science enables the conflicts by focusing our attention on external forms rather than on the Being of present moments.

      His mysticism may be compatible with some kind of atheistic pantheism, but only if you ignore some of what he says. He says there's intelligence and consciousness in everything, because Being is everywhere, but also separate from material forms. That sounds crypto-theistic to me (and it would have to be to succeed in the American spiritual marketplace).

      Certainly, he agrees with Buddhists that we should avoid mental clutter, but he's more into Zen Buddhism and so he's opposed to the preoccupation with thinking in general. He says thinking is fine as long as you don't let your thoughts control you, or as long as you maintain the mystical detachment from your mind. He says thinking is just a tool, but what's more important is perception or direct experience, especially through introspection which is our window on pure Being or Source energy.

      Anyway, I'll say more about Tolle soon, since my next YouTube video will be on the difference between his mystical enlightenment and the modern kind.

  4. You seem to be hitting your stride with this stuff Ben, keep up the good/undead work.

    Pagan holdovers like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins descry street light pollution that prevents our beholding the majesty of the Milky Way. But any such nightly vision would humiliate us and ultimately drive us to self-destructive worship of fascist saviour gods and to lose ourselves in work in the megamachine so that we might forget the fact that if our sun is just one of billions of other stars, we are in fact accidents of evolution and all social interactions are absurd and tragic games.

    This is fucking hilarious and insightful at the same time.

  5. I agree with the above: very well-written. But even still, I don't see how you manage to recoup 'limited autonomy' given your naturalism. Too me, it sounds like you're arguing that Tolle has too many of the wrong kind of ghosts, not that he entertains ghosts. The science, meanwhile, seems to be cutting against all ghosts. And so in the end, the low-grain message you're sending sounds remarkably similar to Tolle's: that meaning is a personal matter of resolute self-creation. What *evidences* your particular, redemptive kernel?

    1. I see autonomy as a matter of putting barriers between an animal and its environment and adding complexity to the animal's control center so that it can control how its inner world responds to the outer one. I see greater and greater degrees of such self-control, from unicellular organisms up to fish, birds, reptiles, mammals, and humans. There's nothing supernatural or absolute about this self-control. Indeed, mechanisms are needed to build the walls (membranes, skull, blood-brain barrier, etc) and the control centers (the cerebral cortex).

      I've got a YouTube video on Tolle's version of enlightenment coming out today or tomorrow (as soon as I finish the annoying post-production), so I talk more about our differences there. But once again, I think our difference comes down to your denial that undead nature is also divine in its creativity. Don't you see natural processes of creation throughout the universe? Why couldn't natural forces and elements create an animal that's largely in control of itself and that can therefore shape its inner space and its outer environment to suit its interests? How is that creativity necessarily supernatural? Why can't the brain spontaneously modify its mental programs? Why couldn't language and culture facilitate that process of domestication? Where do I imply there are any ghosts in the machine?

  6. Hi Benjamin,

    Very interesting and enjoyable essay.

    I feel that your characterization of mysticism is incorrect. Mysticism does not start with naturalism. Mysticism starts with idealism, and ends with the cessation of conceptual elaboration entirely. Perhaps some pop-mystics seem to adopt naturalism out of ignorance or desire for mass appeal, but it is wrongheaded to project the ignorance of the philosophically unsophisticated masses onto the esoteric. Mysticism starts with idealism; call this a god-in-the-gaps argument if you wish.

    What's strange to me is that you say mysticism is deluded because it commits anthropocentrism, but your position somehow avoids this error. The way I see it, to apply concepts or value judgments, of any kind, to nature is anthropocentrism to some extent. I fail to see how beauty is implicit objectively in nature. This seem entirely subjective. Yet if you are willing to say beauty is inherent in objective reality, there is some pervasive creative force, and reality is clearly undead, why stop there? Why cannot consciousness be inherent to reality as a whole? Neuroscience has failed to show anything but correlation between consciousness and the brain (not definitive causation, though you'll likely disagree here). The line you have drawn in the sand for what is 'reasonable' seems to be a strange one, though it is pretty conventional given how riled up people get regarding consciousness these days.

    You are keen in pointing out the narratives society creates to delude itself with. Yet somehow, your narrative is the non-deluded, 'True' one. This is why I say ultimate reality ends with the cessation of conceptual elaboration entirely. By your definition, I have attained Existential authenticity, but I reject that it implies any sort of esoteric meaning. Existential authenticity is the willingness to just be in reality, without the need to obfuscate it with any sort of conceptual elaboration. This is what Tolle and other mystics are pointing to. Authenticity is found when concepts are dropped, not when rationalized with subjectively 'Truer' narratives.

    1. Thanks very much!

      I've got an article that further explains the objectivity of my aesthetic view of nature, that should be coming out soon on Scott Bakker's blog (I'll put up a link to it on my blog). I also explain it in another article which I'll link to below.

      Your broad idea of anthropocentrism can be parodied, since by your logic, any model of a natural system, including a scientific one that posits mathematical or physical properties, humanizes the system, because those concepts originate from us. This is similar to the fallacy of psychological egoism, which confuses the source of an action with its object. If I give charity to someone, the action originates from me, but it's directed towards someone else and thus it's arguably selfless, not selfish. Likewise, our concepts derive from our mind, but their content isn't always humanistic. Indeed, we have the concept of an alien or of something's undeadness, which differs greatly from how we naively see ourselves.

      So when I say that nature has aesthetic qualities, that's not necessarily a personification or projection of how I see myself. By the way, I don't say that nature is beautiful; I say its divinity is horrifying, but as I explain in my upcoming article, it's just a matter of nature having the objective capacity to affect creatures that have a certain aesthetic sensibility in that way, so the aesthetic value isn't entirely objective. It's more or less transcendentally idealistic in Kant's sense.

      As for consciousness and panpsychism, I say more about this in my upcoming YouTube video on Eckhart Tolle's mysticism. That should be coming out today or tomorrow.

      As for the "Truth" of my particular narrative, I say in a number of articles that I consider these philosophical reflections to be literally artworks made of ideas or myths that should be aesthetically evaluated for their capacity to inspire further creativity. I don't speak of absolute truth. I begin by assuming philosophical naturalism, because that philosophy is science-centered and science does indeed deal with objective truth. But my philosophy is a matter of interpreting the existential, ethical, political, and cultural implications of naturalism, and those interpretations are highly speculative and thus artistic. I make no bones about that (see the links below for more on this, if you're interested).

      As for existential authenticity, I agree that it involves a lack of delusion. And I say that as long as we understand philosophical speculations to be mere artworks made of ideas, we're not being deluded when we're drawn to one such artwork more than to another. But concepts are needed as the tools to produce that ideological art. And the art is needed for the existential rebellion against the undead god. Tolle would say that that rebellion is highly egoistic, but I deny that there's a transcendent self deeper than the personal one created by natural processes. Again, see the YouTube video for more on that.

    2. I look forward to your new video, and will check out those essays you linked. I apologize if I'm ignorant to some of the aspects or nuances of your View, as I'm not yet as deep into your blog as I intend to be.

      While you may say that my view of anthropocentrism is laughable, I believe that Kant took these concerns much more seriously. Kant argued that principles of geometry could be known only as synthetic relations between concepts, the truth of which could be known only via intuition. He argued that it was not the world that could be modeled by Euclidean geometry, but only our perceptual apparatus. Idealism is thus a problem for cognizing reality without antropocentrizing it, though I realize that idealism is not taken seriously by modern philosophy. I maintain that idealism is the basis of mysticism, both Western and Eastern. I would point to Plato's Timaeus and Tibetan Buddhism on this point.

      I appreciate your view of philosophical speculation as creative artwork. It most definitely is, and can be very beautiful as well! Yet I feel that there is still an element of delusion present in it. How one relates to myth/narrative is an extremely important question, and one I have recently been wrestling deeply with, lately. From my perspective, choosing to live in one or another of the creative artworks of reality creates separation from the rawness of pure presence. The realm of myth is not the realm of existential authenticity, but is instead a realm of fabricated existence. Yet given the mythological ecosystem we find ourselves in, myth is impossible not to engage unless one makes the drastic decision to become a hermit or something of that sort. Consciously recognizing and engaging myth is the best solution I have currently.

      Even though I disagree with you on many points, I hope you see that I am sincere in my desires to engage your views, and I appreciate your willingness to do so with me, despite my unconventional perspective. I'm learning a lot from your blog, and feel that I could potentially give you a more philosophically sophisticated view of mysticism than the $2 pop-mystic, though I'll understand if you don't want to hear about it from some anonymous guy on the internet. Thanks!

    3. When I said your view can be parodied, I didn't mean to say it's laughable. I meant that your view proves too much since it seems to count against all conceptual schemes, not just those that have humanistic content. You may be right about Kant's view of geometry, but that's neither here nor there for me, since I don't mean to take on board any of the details of his philosophical system. I read his first Critique as an undergraduate student, so I'm aware there are a great many twists and turns in his thinking. All I meant to allude to was his basic point about the moderate kind of idealism, the idea that we filter reality through our categories, some of which may be innate or at least intuitive and thus treasured (central in Quine's sense).

      So yes, as I say in my article on humanization and objectification (link below), all our concepts may humanize reality in some sense, but I don't think this means that all our ideas our anthropocentric. Again, this is like saying all our actions are selfish. These become weasel words, in that case, which deprives them of meaning. For me, anthropocentrism is more specific than the fact that all of our concepts and theories are in some sense human ones. Even scientific theories may have mythical roots in that the words they use derive from folk situations, but scientists have learned to circumvent such personification by constructing artificial languages and testing their ideas in objective ways. So scientific theories aren't nearly as anthropocentric as theistic religions which literally personalize ultimate reality.

      I agree that we tend to comfort ourselves with myths, no matter how modern we think we are. I talk about this more in Are Atheists Religious? (link below).

  7. I'll note that self-interest plays out differently in different social forms (and its meaning can even vary between different positions within the same system), and can look quite different from that glorified by Ayn Rand et al. One may say that it is, all the same, 'selfish' in a certain sense- but that's the point. One can acknowledge such drives without seeing a specific expression as inevitably ruling human possibility.

    Some propositions:
    *Transforming reality makes it no less real.
    *Psychological reactions to a phenomena aren't always immutable genetic givens- therefore, different reactions can be had by different humans who agree on what happened.
    *The origin of classes, states, and mythology/religion isn't about 'walling off reality' (well, for the third one, that's sometimes part of it- even then, an incomplete answer at best).

    Personal and collective mortality are facts I consider tragic. I do not, however, think they rule out consequentialist ethics. Does the fact that in the end 'dust will return to dust' mean that the interim is irrelevant in terms of results (in the case of hedonic utilitarianism, pleasure)? Hardly.Nor do I think genuinely recognizing these facts (and, additionally, that there is no 'guarantee of justice'), being enlightened in this respect, precludes happiness- albeit one tempered by tragedy. Your video "Happiness is for Sheep" does seem to perhaps be closer to this than this essay by itself indicates. And to prevent confusion: I certainly don't think personal happiness as ultimate goal/value is sound.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Sam, and thanks for reading. I agree that the tragic nature of life, owing to our eventual extinction, doesn't preclude consequentialist ethics in the narrow sense. That is, even though we're all going to die, acting in some ways rather than others might still maximize the happiness of those currently living. The mechanisms that achieve happiness can still work even though our ultimate end might be negative.

      However, I don't think consequentialist ethics suffices to make life meaningful. The existentialist is considering a deeper issue here, which isn't whether doing X or Y will make you happy or sad, but whether it makes sense to pursue happiness given the big picture in which all life is tragic. If you follow the consequences of our actions far enough, you find they they ultimately lead nowhere, to our extinction. So is it arbitrary to draw the line at the egocentric results of our actions, that is, at the local results that can benefit us if we manage to keep an upbeat attitude?

      I take up this issue more directly here:

      I agree that artificial phenomena are still real. This is my point about the reality of illusions like the emergent properties that make for personhood, which point I make against the eliminativist who says that only the underlying neural mechanisms are real. (I have an upcoming article on this, but see my articles on Scott Bakker's blog, which you can find at the end of the Science and Tech section of my Map of the Rants.) I do think, though, there are interesting differences between the artificial and natural worlds. The former has greater existential significance because it proceeds from horror for the latter. See also: