Friday, September 12, 2014

Asceticism and the Existential Crisis

Here is the secret history of life: animals evolved as machines produced by genes and proteins, working in concert with undead natural forces and processes such as natural selection. Those machines strive to carry out all the stages of their life cycle, meaning that they grow, eat, fight, mate, reproduce, and die. As species become more varied and competition for resources becomes more complex, animals evolve more sophisticated control centers and social relationships, which partially liberate them from their primitive cycles. For example, mammals learn to play and not just to practice fighting but for the joy of it. More powerful brains were used mostly to analyze opportunities in the outer environment, but eventually awareness and rationality were turned inward, leading in humans to self-creation and to an egoistic awareness of all other things in relation to the self.

Those are preliminary matters of biology and psychology. But the secret is that the difference between animalism and personhood lies in a dreadful enlightenment and a terrifying freedom to choose how to respond to the existential crisis. As reason and consciousness are more and more finely attuned, as humans build up more rigorous conceptions of the facts, and as we learn to objectify instead of just projecting the products of our imagination and indulging in our childlike yearnings, we confront the horror at the root of all things: Being is undead and there is no God but only natural forces, materials, and processes that parody personhood except when they transcend themselves and produce sentient creatures who are then cursed to learn their deeper undead nature. Like the artificial person in science fiction stories who doesn’t realize she’s a robot, but who scratches away at her organic skin, sees a metallic surface in the mirror, and goes mad from discovering the gap between her deluded self-image and the unnerving reality, every authentic person faces an existential crisis culminating in the question of how to live with philosophical illumination. 

This history isn’t progressive. There is no purpose of natural creation; rather, there’s an undead flow towards apocalypse and oblivion at the end of time, at the eventual extinction of beings which will reveal that the world has been inwardly empty all along. Life just happened to evolve and some mammals just happened to inherit the faculties which made them hyperintelligent. These are accidents of evolution, but they have the monumental consequence that through an enlightened soul’s cognitive faculties the cosmic zombie, the natural universe, is equipped to know itself for the monstrosity that it is, whereupon that doomed creature must decide what to do with such accursed knowledge. The noble lie in the West, originating from the plagiarisms in Genesis, is that self-knowledge is a sin, that Eve chose to disobey God and so God punished Adam and Eve because the Lord was afraid of having rivals. All of that is mere personification, which is the projection of comforting images sprouting from the minds of our more naïve ancestors. Of course, we weren’t created by any persons other than our biological parents and we don’t choose to be self-aware; instead, we acquire that power in so far as we’re embedded in the decaying plenum of the undead god. Genes and proteins and social relations align so that children tend to learn a language, to rationally process the contents of their conscious awareness, and to be domesticated as dictated by their cultural conventions. That’s our species’ life cycle—except that ours is one in which there’s a rupture that curses us with satanic freedom: we can choose to go back to sleep, to live as animals, forsaking our potential for transcendence, or we can choose how to transcend.

This may surprise you, but most biological humans aren’t persons in the existential, spiritual sense. Psychologically, they have minds or selves as well as a capacity for self-control, compared to nonhuman species. But they’re also antiphilosophical, meaning they don’t undertake the promethean project of inquiring into the objective truth; instead, they succumb to delusions, noble lies, and bodily distractions. These are the beta herds, the human animals that grovel and scramble and otherwise debase themselves for fleeting advantages in our dominance hierarchies, blind to the philosophical significance of their actions and to the universe’s aesthetic status—which is to speak of the horror within all things that leaves intelligent creatures dumbfounded until they devise noble means of coping.

Alpha and Omega Forms of Perseverance

There are mainly two such means, the paths of the alphas and of the omegas, these being the chief enlightened segments of our populations. Alphas try to be happy by overpowering others. They exploit the masses’ fear, gullibility and instincts, knowing there’s no God to stop them or any supernatural justice or salvation. The most successful alphas live as psychopathic parasites, as actual models for the gods of the world’s religions. The alphas’ tragedy is that their egoism greatly empowers them, but that power also corrupts them so that they become as monstrous as any undead natural force, standing finally as avatars, as incarnations of the amoral deity. Antichrists indeed.

By contrast with the extroverted tempters and rulers of the beta masses, there are the introverted omegas, the outsiders and outcasts who practice asceticism, rebelling against nature instead of excelling at being animals. Whereas the alpha learns of the objective facts in the course of doing business and eventually extinguishes her conscience and thus her inner self as she acquires godlike power, the omega learns the truth through philosophical reflection or artistic creation, which adds layers to her mind, increasing her self-control but also deepening her capacity for angst. The more independent the ego, the greater the anguish upon realizing the forbidden truth that even that exquisite jewel of creation, the potentially all-knowing and all-powerful human person is an ingrowth of an undead, cosmically-proportioned corpse. So whereas the alpha uses her enlightenment to build an outer world to match her deranged self-image, the omega retreats to her inner space, having been cast out from society and from the natural cycle of life. Alphas build material worlds through industry and sociopathic techniques of population control, while omegas beget worldviews and oeuvres, not biological heirs to empires but brainchildren that testify to their creators’ existential awakening.

Alphas have attributes conventionally deemed strengths which incline them to their path, such as extroversion, ambition, amorality, physical beauty, financial wealth, and the like. Meanwhile, omegas have certain social weaknesses that draw them to the wilderness: philosophical curiosity, skepticism, humility, anxiety, artistic sensitivity, scrupulosity, physical unattractiveness, and relative poverty. These omega traits make for both social failure and for spiritual illumination, and so as the alienated omega warily casts her light of reason on the natural facts, she’s in no position to respond to them by attempting to beat the undead god at its game, as it were. The omega isn’t fit for material godhood. Instead of tapping into the undead chaos within her, exacerbating her lusts for sex and power, she dwells on the moment of choice and transcendence, further detaching herself from the world by withdrawing from social games and renouncing her birthrights. Again, sufficiently sentient creatures learn the appalling truth and decide how to react, whereupon the mammalian life cycle goes off the rails. Alphas become living gods, introducing an element of psychology to nature’s undead divinity, whereas omegas neurotically linger over the existential problem itself, overanalyzing it and becoming less and less capable of normal human functioning. At the end of omegahood sits the hermit in her cave, the reclusive genius who knows the world as her foe and who tragically battles it by not participating in the more egregious or optional natural processes.

Theistic vs Existential Ascetics

Noble ascetics have been badly represented by their theistic counterparts that practice only an instrumental kind of detachment. These unenlightened pretenders believe they should renounce nature because a greater, supernatural world awaits them so that earthly defeat is only a prelude to victory in God’s eyes. By contrast, enlightened ascetics understand the horrifying fact of divinity, which is that nature blindly and dumbly creates itself for no purpose whatsoever, leaving us with no redemption or prospect of everlasting glory. These omegas, then, renounce the world not as a means to a crass end, but they do so aesthetically, severing themselves from nature and society as an end in itself, for the sheer thrill of doing battle with the cosmic leviathan. Categorical as opposed to instrumental asceticism is an art form: the ascetic turns her life into a great work of art in that she chooses originality over cliché in all her endeavours and acts without much thought for the consequences, because her strange actions themselves are aesthetically appealing in the natural context. Just as a painter, musician, novelist or actor may work obsessively in spite of the infamous difficulty of making a living in her field, the ascetic omega prefers her unconventional life choices because they’re necessitated by her creative vision. Chastity, frugality, vow of poverty, mortification of the flesh—these aren’t ways of proving yourself worthy of a supernatural order, but are fitting artificialities, these being some miracles hidden in plain sight. There is no great reward for the authentic ascetic nor any permanent recognition of her creativity, since all things will come to naught, but there’s somber beauty in the tragic hero’s ill-fated struggle against overwhelming odds. At any rate, the omega makes due with this silver lining, choosing a life of philosophy and art criticism, as she’s content to mock the beta herd’s pretentions and to condemn the alpha’s evil rather than to commit suicide.

What motivates the enlightened omega? Anger and sadness: disgust with cliché, with the absurdity of the untold wastefulness in nature, with the abomination of the world’s mindless self-origination from chaos, with the countless injustices in animals’ desperate struggles, and with the grotesque degradations of subpersonal humans; and pity for all organisms for being trapped and doomed, but pity especially for enlightened souls who are burdened with excessive knowledge and awareness which in the end redeem no one. These kinds of anger and sadness are the causes of existential asceticism, and of course the fact that some social outsiders are so motivated doesn’t add any moral value to their behaviour. However, in so far as these are the sources of the ascetic’s anomalous, tragically heroic lifestyle, they’re also integral to her artistry and so they’re the stuff of aesthetic value, which is value enough in the heartless cosmos.


  1. I can go with the last paragraph of this succinct rant quite well, anger and sadness are good markers to have and recognise in ourselves, and markers of difference from others. Anger and sadness help us recognise others too. But 'As reason and consciousness are more and more finely attuned, as humans build up more rigorous conceptions of the facts'? does seem to suggest some inexorable sub-Calvinist Progress to something ever bigger and worse/better depending on how you believe predestination divides species and people. I accept change and accept that some changes are measurable improvements. Putting an end to battery farming does improve life for chickens for instance. But I do not subscribe to progress through division ala Calvinism or Popular Darwinism, both of which feed the ego with poison. Good food for thought all through, though. Thanks.

    1. I meant to be talking there about objective knowledge, such as the scientific kind. It's a kind of progress in that a worldview can be more or less adequate to the world. It's like having a better or a worse map of the terrain. Scientific models are better than pseudoscientific ones, for example. Instead of anything being predestined, though, the value of having an adequate map is subjective since it depends on our interest in surviving by controlling natural processes through technology. Anyway, thanks for reading!

    2. I agree that genuine scientific models are better than pseudo-scientific models for living by, and I can imagine what you write about would work well if scientific understanding and practice were as integral to a given society as consumerism is to Western Society. Science is a practice/vocation requires both community and individuality. The original Greek idea of Democracy was based on a restricted active citizenship (slaves, women, and children could not fight therefore could not become citizens). If we could make scientific endeavour a condition of citizenship of society and broaden the means of admission into literate scientific activity then it would be big experiment indeed. Perhaps with the widespread knowledge of global warming we need that, and in part now have the potential for it. But it is a different model of citizenship to anything we know now, when 3 billion humans in the world cannot read.

  2. Hey Ben,
    I kind-of grasp, intellectually, your archetype of renunciant artist. Or, asceticism for aestheticism.

    A big motivation that I had for practicing yoga meditation and taking vows of renunciation (I was an ordained monk for 14 years) was to "tap" into my intuitive and creative "powers". It seems strange, looking back now. I was a rock musician in high school and college, writing songs, seeking creativity. Somehow I segued my art into being a renunciant, ascetic monk. I'll have to reflect on this artistic monastic aesthetic archetype some more to grasp what it's deep significance to me. Maybe I'll try to write a blog post, inspired by yours, to try to share more about my experience of monasticism and creativity or art.

    You mention "cosmic zombie" and "undead god" frequently. It would be helpful, since you use those concepts lots and they are not familiar, if you provided "definitions" in a link, diagram, or maybe a page of key concepts defined. Just a humble suggestion from a grateful reader.


  3. I'd like to read that blog post of yours.

    I try to provide links to relevant background articles that go further into the key terms. You're right that in this one I didn't do that for "undead." The main article where I introduce the term is called "Darwinism and Nature's Undeadness" (links below). Another helpful background article might be "God and Science: The Ironic Theophany." The undeadness metaphor also ties into Philipp Mainlander's dark theology, which I discuss in "The World's Creation as God's Self-Destruction." One of my favourite articles that I wrote "Life as Art: Nature's Strangeness and the Aesthetic Attitude."

    But if you're interested just in what I mean by "undead god," you might check out that first article I mentioned. Don't forget that they're all in the Map of the Rants (if you're reading this on a mobile device, try loading the web version of the page and going to Map of the Rants in the top bar).

  4. Hi Ben: I read your definitions of undead in your Darwinism post. Let's see if I understand what you mean by "undead". I assume you are using "undead" as a rhetorical meme for all living/dead beings as zombies. I agree life is a mix of death. But zombies are fictional, and more dead than alive. Whereas humans are actual, and more alive than dead. Maybe I get it?

    Loved your post on Asceticism, Mysticism and Creativity. I think and write about that "exclusively" on my blog SkepticMeditations. We corresponded early this year. I hope your new career and work is going well. Scott

    1. Yes, I remember our correspondence. You were an ascetic for a long while, as I recall. What do you think about this combination of existentialism and asceticism? Someone like Woody Allen who's supposed to be familiar with the dark truths of nature says we shouldn't stew in angst or in introverted meditation, but should get out there and live life while we have the chance. That's a very Jewish attitude (writing as a Jew myself). Secular Judaism is pretty lame now, though. As I write elsewhere, Judaism was once a religion for outsiders who wandered for years in the desert and merely fantasized about having imperial power like their neighbours. Now that Jews have that power, via Israel's protection by the US, their double-crossing this-worldliness is utterly obnoxious. They appropriate the fantasies of their introverted, angst-ridden ancient ancestors so they can pretend that even though they're materialistic, they're spiritually noble because they have their traditions and their social club. As I see it, Judaism doesn't even warrant atheistic refutation. (Hmm, I wonder where that rant came from.)

      I'm not sure you quite have the undeadness idea. My point was to formulate a postmodern kind of pantheism, so the idea is that *all* natural things as such are undead, meaning they're neither intelligently directed nor inert or chaotic. The universe simulates artistic creativity when it creates worlds upon worlds, but its forces and elements flow like a zombie horde. The universe creates itself as a crumbling zombie creates its altering corpse, by decaying greatly over time.

      The exception is that organisms are alive, even though physically we're undead too. This makes for the existential crisis: how should living things react to realizing that they're tics in a zombie's decaying corpse, i.e. in a lifeless abomination of a world that creates itself in a mockery of our pretensions to greatness on spiritual or artistic grounds? How could humans be noble creatures when undead (physical, chemical, etc) systems are far superior creators?

  5. Many of Woody's films are funny and thoughtful.

    RE: Ascetics, or people who practice severe self-discipline and abstention. I want to be careful not to lump all ascetics into one category. There's religious, physical, intellectual, artistic, virtually all kinds of motivations for a person to subject themselves to severe discipline and abstention. Olympic athletes are an example. Writers who shut themselves into their rooms to finish a book or play. Monks who sit in meditation for hours everyday. The method is a means to an end. In the case of the monks, the illusion of finding a miraculous power within oneself or the universe is probably a waste of time. Yet, the discipline and insights into the mind and the illusions of self can be useful.

    I'll have to read more of your posts to get your undeadness ideas.