On Rationalizing Consciousness

“If you trample on the roots, you trample on reality.”

If you trample on the roots, you trample on reality. I’m not sure who, but one of the ten attendees at the discussion on nihilism and the scientific image of reality made this point last night. The proposition imbued by such a statement mechanically divides it’s recipients. There are those of us who see this as an opportunity, a destabilizing and intoxicating prospect, and those of us too ontologically secure, be it through spirituality, solipsism or simply distraction, to give a damn about the roots.

My experience of idealism vs. materialism existential tension has been largely a project of controlled perception. Not only were ideas boxed into an externally imposed standard of legitimacy measured against Protestant ethos, but the material word itself became limited through restriction based in these ideas. The possibility for realities outside ascetic ideals and the theological doctrine of predestination were narrow and my understanding of the relationship between ideas and the physical world also suffered from ideologically imposed arrested development.

Consciousness, the very word, was regarded as a symptom of narcissism in my family. Of course, this was never explicated stated or even considered, but it was a suggestion made implicit on various occasions. The incessant need to dig deeper, to uncover greater and greater truths, based in philosophy, science and their intersections, was perhaps regarded by my elders as a dissatisfaction with the answers they had already provided me. This was, in part true, but also a simplification of compulsion and a misinterpretation of their own role in managing my seemingly endless curiosity. After I finished sixth grade, my parents, against my will (but of course for the ‘best’), decided it was safest to enrol me in seventh grade at the Christian school. This, inevitably, was a catalyst for rebellious activation at levels they did not expect. Underpinning the tension of ideas held between myself and ‘them’ (them, referring to a host of mentors, guardians, family) was this destabilizing desire to dig up the roots.

I think part of what was so discomforting about the Protestant set of ideals and the ethos of rationalism was discrediting or sometimes complete dismissal of other realities. Not realities in the sense of physical, built realities (those were never up for discussion) but also in the sense of interpreted reality; the insistence on compliance to a greater, mystified order shut out so many possibilities. The reduction of material existence to a mere examination of morality – an entry test into the next (pure) location for our souls, didn’t satisfy. This view, couched in Christian Protestantism, transposed to operate most efficiently alongside the dominant economic structure (capitalism), seemed to streamline reality through a prism of morality as a way to cope with the complexity of something so unknown. People write about this constantly, and have been for centuries. If you can’t tell, I’m halfway through Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Sprint of Capitalism. The existential gap between the chaotic and fluid experience of consciousness and Puritan, Calvinistic morality manifested as a deep seeded discontent with all things defined and deriving power through prescription – religion being the most obvious.

Consciousness does not map onto the spiritualized rationalization of modern society. In tandem, Protestant values and the sacralizing of utilitarian ideals, parts of ourselves get lost in the order. The refinement of the subject, her interpellation into a predestined and systemized world necessarily involves the suppression of core perceptual abilities and cognition.

An essentially mechanistic world would be an essentially meaningless world. (Nietzsche, Gay Science 1882)

The hyper-rationalism embedded in both capitalist and Protestant ideals seeks to arm the elect – those mastering the material world with various motives for doing so – with a sense of order. Weber argues that the idea of a ‘calling’ (a task set by God) represents a traditionalistic acceptance of divine ordinance (45). This abstract notion of a preset task implies that there is a divine will that ultimately sanctions one’s job. The belief in this divine will, the will of God, harnesses a unique obedience to systems of power and directs consciousness towards an acceptance of these structures. Systematizing pursuit in accordance to economic conditions is of course productive for hegemonic power, but I feel like it cheats the subject out of her own consciousness. The problem of a meaningless world is what Nietzsche articulates as a problem of the value of existence. It’s very difficult to attach yourself to the idea that there in inherent meaning to an existence that is fundamentally outlined through religious and economic doctrine. When the meaning you see your peers, loved ones and closest ties latch onto falls apart in your own emotional and cognitive interrogation, you may feel that sense of ontological anxiety creep in.

Ontological insecurity – or as I experience it, ontological anxiety, does something to you. If at first you begin to feel the central operating beliefs of the world around you no longer coherent or ideologically inviting, you may feel disillusioned and alienated. I am sure that I am not the only one who feels entirely alienated by her inability to participate in certain existential comforts derived in church sermons, biblical or pseudo-scientific texts or the ‘wellness’ industrial complex. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister claims that it is belonging, or at least perceived belonging, which guarantees protections from anxiety, depression, guilt and shame. Belonging is the way we affirm our selves as acceptance renditions of a social subject and locate ourselves in the psychosocial environment of human existence. What I am beginning to realize however, is that belonging also in some instances (most) necessarily depends on the suppression, or policing of consciousness. Consciousness is stifled and refined through social reality – the laws which determine what can be said, thought and proposed seem to be shrinking.

Compliance to a social order, still steeped in remnants of a Protestant capitalistic morality and set of limitations but unable to acknowledge it, dictates a smoother material experience and perhaps simplified ontological experience. But this distinction between crazy/normal has been reiterated so often, in so many contexts and on so many levels that it has become the fundamental means of categorizing with which we make sense of the world. This is the policing of consciousness. Why is it when you propose ideas outside of accepted rationalized, mechanized order, you are met with suggestions you ‘need to get out of your head’ (the presumption you spend too much time in your head is a powerful disciplinary mechanism) or the other iteration that you ‘are thinking too much about ____.’ These distillations of a general anxiety towards the unknown are old, they’re  overused and, much like Protestant ethics, they’re immensely restrictive and dismissive.

Intentionality: directed consciousness. Do you ever notice that once you start trying to understand a theory you start to assign it meaning in every realm with which it applies? Constructing filters (ontologies) can be both productive and destructive. Connecting seemingly distinct propositions can be enormously rewarding. Why do we learn certain thing, pick up specific books and have specific conversations exactly at the time that we do? Because at that moment, the information you are vested in, will inevitably interact with various other information and stimuli present at that time. This, and I know this is probably quite unclear, is my point.

It is exceedingly more important now than ever to allow the unknown to be understood through a dynamic integration of every theory that ever resonated with you. Attaching yourself to a single dogma, a transhistorical paradigm that interprets the world and disregards context (i.e. organized religion, manufactured identities) limits your capacity to achieve existential satisfaction. And while all of these words are likely incoherent and the ideas fragmented, I really do want to encourage people to be cognizant of the ideological and ontological limitations they place themselves into everyday, with every conversation and every interpretation. For me, as things start to make sense and tentative answers emerge, more and more of what used to make sense, no longer does. This happens at the same thing: ideas become clear as other ideas suddenly lose stability. Why can’t I bring up the simulation hypothesis in private conversation with someone who can somehow justify their devote Catholicism? One is grounded in quantum physics and the other in a prophet – which one would you expect is more difficult to place belief into?


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