Picture Sun

[this is a draft of a work-in-progress]


Thinking about existential finitude is one thing, solemn and practical in range, but acknowledging and then living with an awareness of the myriad of blindnesses, biases and otherwise unconscious routines and functions which generate and afford sentient experience is quite another. Increasingly empirical science is suggesting that we often fail to understand just how little we are capable of understanding. “Reason”, logic, intentionality, agency, etc., are all weak conceptual placeholders for much more complex, varied and distributed realities. Human cognition is not an organ for the bequeathing of ‘Truth’, nor the realization of extra-material value and purpose, but a relatively modular capacity that specific types of bodies have for coping with sensory information in differentially structured environments. And it is my contention that becoming aware of the embodied, “bounded” and limited nature of our conscious lives has far reaching consequences for the stories we are willing to tell about the world, how it works, and, more importantly, how we might engage within it.

For me, a move toward praxis via a post-nihilist attitude (a ‘pragmatism’ never content to be defined as such) is about attempts to instantiate varieties of what, following R. Scott Bakker (here), we might call ‘neglect-awareness’ when deploying our all-too-human knowledges. If nihilism is in large part an unraveling of traditional structures of meaning accompanied by the collapse of certainty then scientific suggestions about the limits of human know-ability and its supporting unconscious operations can only serve to intensify the nihilistic tendency. Meaning, value, truth, agency, understanding and consciousness are being exposed as ghost-objects of conceptual association, previously (mis)taken as ontological rather than functional singularities. Our hitherto waywardness in this regard has allowed us to set and accumulate confused and misguided cognitive, existential and practical tasks dangerously disconnected from the autonomous and mostly anonymous life of non-linguistic, non-intentional corporeality. Yet possibilities remain.

In fact there must be ways forward; because life goes on regardless of how we interpret it to be. We are not our semantic mistakes, nor our projected phantasies, but actual bodies in movement and affective relation enacting consequential situations. And so forward we must go into the storm of nihilistic dissolutions and mournings and reactionary impulses seeking to exist, subsist and generate places and spaces of relief for all that we are given and all that we make. We must continue to communicate, scheme, plot, scavenge and design, but only now we do so with a semblance of awareness of what we do not and often cannot know or understand. The problems that plagued our thoughts and consciences – and our practices and institutions – in the past no longer motivate our existential and social projects. We become experimental beings; as much bricoleurs as ever but now consciously so, seeking solutions not truths, assembly not meaning. We thus become post-nihilists by default and necessity.

Socrates was among the first Western philosophers to formulate a maxim around a reflexive awareness of the limitations of human thinking with his equation of wisdom with knowing that one does not know, but many profound thinkers and teachers have also set about to make ‘neglect-awareness’ a central feature of their own philosophical stories: from Siddhartha (the Buddha) and the Gnostics to Nietzsche, William James, Wittgenstein and Derrida. Their works lay among the ruins of all those edifices build by so many other rhetoricians and professional discourse elites. And so finding out what works and what no longer applies after the tyranny of meaning – a tyrannical state of affairs deposed by the logic of sensation and flesh – becomes a salvage operation lead by sadists and psychonauts whose only function now is to rouse and resonate with those huddled minorities no longer enchanted by the sorcery of language.

To be sure, there is no final liberation. We are phantasmic creatures burdened by the weight of our determining biases as much as our cognitive luminescence. And no heroes remain. Not you, not me, not Socrates, not Obama – and none waiting to be born in the clash of necessity or immediacies of human civilization. Idealistic transcenders and promethean consenters must give way to quiet transgressors and frenzied adapters who, being what they are, gather together on alternating occasions for Dionysian celebrations and ritualistic intellectual humiliation.

The past cannot hold us because the urgency of now is intensifying. And the future was not cancelled because it never existed. We creep forward with disdain for all those spoon fed fascinations and lies propping up the contemporary condition. We are the bastard children of Nietzsche – exposed, temperamental and willing to take the practical exigencies of an immanent life to radical extremes.

The elimination and ratification of belief

The problem of nihilism is also the problem of belief. If our highest values have corroded and our firmest foundations have been removed from beneath us then the question is “what is left to believe in”. Even deeper than this crisis in belief is the crisis of belief itself that issues from the ferocity of eliminativism’s dismissal of the “folk psychology” that counted belief among its terms. So we know longer know what to believe in and find even the category and phenomenal experience of believing to be illusory (at the least). In the first instance we find the possibility of taking up a belief but also the possibility of refusing to do so. This is the common horizon of theism and atheism; the territory on which the belief in God and the lack or refusal of belief in God stand. There is a long, exhausting and bloody history that has carved out the geological morphology of this territory that stretches further back than our histories record up until our questioned modernity. The acid of eliminativism is like an asteroid on collision course with the planetary of belief and unbelief, which threatens to pulverise both into the dust of history.In what follows I want to discuss how this collision perversely ensures the resurrection of a weakened form of belief, a belief that corresponds to a faith in the empty space of God.

Insofar as “belief” is taken to be a kind of element or entity in our inner mental life, eliminativist materialists like the Churchlands consider them to be false theoretical representations of what is really going on. By now we all know that eliminativist materialism reduces mental states to brain states and calls for the literal elimination of concepts like belief from our theoretical repertoire. The crux isn’t that a representation like a belief (“God is real”) doesn’t happen but that we ought not suppose that the belief is itself the whole story but instead regard such a representation as the outcome of an elaborate neurocognitive process. It is not so much the case that the experiential phenomena of having a belief is false, but that the explanation that sees the belief as the depth rather than the surface level of the engineering of such a belief.

Thus the fact of experiencing oneself as having a belief says in place but the empirical reality of the belief itself is called into question. In seeking to support the eliminativist programme that folk-psychology is false, Paul M. Churchland lists a host of phenomena that it cannot but ought to be able to explain: sleep, learning, mental illness and perceptual illusions. To take the example of mental illness we can see how the claim that a delusion is a false belief that is not amenable to rational falsification in the mind of the deluded merely describes the situation that a paranoid schizophrenic may find herself in without actually explaining it (although I’d point out that no naturalist theory has been successful either). That the deluded has a “false belief” only opens up an abyss of epistemological problems regarding the truth and falsity of belief that are associated with the deeply problematic theory that the evaluative criterion for belief is the correspondence-theory of truth.

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