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“An essentially mechanistic world would be an essentially meaningless world.” – Nietzsche, Gay Science 1882
Nearly everything we, as humans, do carries an intention directed towards altering consciousness. From making friends to reading literature, there is an implicit motivation to alter one’s state of being and consciousness, temporally or eternally. And yet, consciousness, an elusive concept, nascent in scientific understanding, remains locked within imposed ontological structures external from the vast subjective experience of being. Attempts to define consciousness are manifold with empirical domains of psychology and cognitive science failing to reach consensus on it’s meaning. For the purposes of this paper, consciousness will refer to that which is central to phenomenology, an experience separate from physical sensory reality, and relating to experience based in the seemingly inexplicable existence of subjective interiority.
The cosmological order of which our state of being is experienced and conceived of is a construction of human invention. These cosmologies of order are cultural, economic, scientific, religious and social in nature – all interwoven and spilling into the domain of one another. 19th century theorist Max Weber understood that ontological structure, a notion of “this is how things are” can become so regarded as truth that it attains a firmness in consciousness and sets the groundwork for perpetual reproduction on this basis of truth. The capitalist economy of the present day is, as Weber describes, an “immense cosmos into which the individual was born.” (1905, 19) Seeing beyond this structure of reality is increasingly difficult as rationality, a principle regarded as an instrumental means to a virtuous teleological end, gains power in the organization of consciousness. In dealing with the ceaseless tension between experiences of order and chaos, rationalization narrows the possibilities of what could be to replaces all with a structure of what is. However, the sense of order emerging from rationalization circumscribes a particular set of phenomena on being itself – powerfully reducing the possibilities of human experience and constructing, as Weber accounts, an iron cage from which consciousness is both incarcerated and repressed.
Rationalist utopianism, an optimism centered on the value of disembodied order, designates a single structure of being and knowing that has phenomenological and existential consequences for both the individual and society. At its core, rationalist utopianism bears the seeds of internal repression. Internal repression imbues consciousness with a cognitive dissonance in knowing, in an abstract and perhaps subconscious way, that there are possibilities beyond the the prevailing structure of being but at the level of observation, awareness is powerfully blinded by this structure so that she fails in self-actualization. In rationalizing consciousness, we limit reality and invoke insidious internal repression at the cultural level – the question then becomes, is it worth disrupting order to descend into the chaos of possibility in order to overcome this repression?
I.“No problem can be solved at the level of consciousness that created it.” -Albert Einstein
Prevailing economic rationalism necessarily requires a complementary ethos with which is can be legitimized, adhered to and reproduced. Max Weber demonstrates that the social ethic of capitalist culture and rationalist economic order co-construct one another. Weber writes that “the attitude of the mind has found a suitable expression in capitalist enterprise” while “enterprise has derived its most suitable motive force from the spirit of capitalism.” (1905, 27) Thus, while consciousness is oriented towards a particular structure, this structure draws on potentialities within consciousness that preexist it. “Summum bonum”, or the ethic of earning money, dominates and restructures consciousness by appealing to several religious conceptions central to the Protestant belief system. (Weber: 1905, 18) The first of these conceptions is a spiritualized obligation to rational organization of everyday life. Weber highlights the role of labour as a means in itself that regards ascetic virtue and frugality as signification of virtue and proficiency. (1905, 26) This conception of labour builds a foundation for the religious doctrine of predestination that is fundamental to the Protestant ethic and gives meaning to the religious conception of a “calling.” (Weber: 1905, 25)
The doctrine of predestination and subsequent conception of the calling dictate that fulfillment in economically productive position (a calling) is the only way to surpass worldly morality and live in ethical alignment with the plans of God. (Weber: 1905, 40) This particular style of rationalized life-purpose necessarily narrows the chaos of possibility and reconfigures reality so as to produce a predictable and economically productive organization of human experience. Even a concept as abstract and internal as faith, can, in this framework, be reduced to a replication of rational effort towards the afterlife.
Fulfillment in a worldly calling simplifies and standardizes solutions to existential anxieties by “systemizing ethical conduct” by virtue of an economic teleology that is based in proficiency in a worldly calling. (Weber: 1905, 77) This worldly activity, the calling, as Weber describes, counteracts religious anxiety, and in doing so becomes a rational attempt to overcome the state of nature – the chaos of being. (1905, 68) Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard regarded anxiety as a the “dizziness of freedom.” (1844, 61) This freedom, when appropriated to a religious and economically conceived ontological structure, is experienced with, arguably, far less dizziness and therefore far less anxiety. But underneath rationality, anxiety and terror are forms of meaning – not yet actualized, left unexamined. One can think of the Protestant ontological structure as Weber’s “iron cage” that is both a cage and a mirror as through repetition and indoctrination, reflects back sterile preconceptions of the individual to the individual. If we accept what Weber is expressing in stating that the individual is born into an immense cosmos of economic rationality, this implies that the individual is then also equipped with an a priori ontological structure that decides what is meaningful and what is compelling – and what isn’t – essentially dominating consciousness.
As structure transforms chaos into order through a string of ethical, social, economic, religious and cultural doctrines, what is considered meaningful is determined in alignment to such a structure. If, as Nietzsche asserts, action is guided by desires and the structure of those desires, then the process of how desires are ordered becomes internalized and reflects in the structuring of one’s own desires. (1886) Weber is clear – the ideological foundation of capitalism is “auri sacra fames” (greed for gold) and at the core of Protestant ethics, ascetic rationalism. (1905, 21) Earning money within the economic modern order, so long as it is done legally, is then, an expression of virtue and a proficiency in a calling and worthy of salvation. In this economic cosmology, absolute obedience to God’s will and proficiency in a worldly calling constitutes an a priori ontological structure that requires disembodied rationality that imposes an external direction on consciousness. The instillment of a “purposeful will” premised on ascetic restraint hijacks the meaning-making process central to individual self-actualization and conscious realization.
II. “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” -Albert Eisenstein
Theories of consciousness, at the quantum level are far more sophisticated than those at the behavioural level. Max Planck, hailed as the father of quantum physics determines that “all matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force. We Must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.” (1944) It seems Planck is suggesting promotion of an objective physical reality is a mental construction – a self-produced illusion. The mental matrix he refers to can be conceptualized a holographic reality. This notion is common across the realms of theoretical and quantum physics – with Albert Einstein famously quoted as expressing that the imagination is more important than knowledge – that knowledge is limited and it is in fact imagination that encircles the world. Reality as a self-generated illusion is similarly echoed in the concept of “maya” central to Buddhist thought. The phenomenological and existential implications of such a radical ontology stand in diametrical opposition to that of rationalist economic order whereby the structure, the objective, bureaucratic and reasoned order of things organizes the experience of being.
These two opposing views resonate with overarching debates over structure vs. agency that characterize sociological investigation. In a sense, the agency unveiled in the assertion that reality is an illusion produced in directed consciousness wherein the individual manifests meaning and builds their own world. This is consistent with the notion that thought presupposes intentional entities, namely belief, meaning, agency, persons and value – phenomenologically, what ‘shines forth’ manifests as meaningful – and this is what composes reality. The starting point of phenomenology is registering where meaning exists and how it is embodied. If one accepts the principle that reality is an illusion composed by subjective manifestations of meaning, the imposition of rational, objective structure thereby obstructs and overrides this realization and distracts its full potential through the ordering of desire and therefore of meaning.
French theorist Jean Baudrillard complicates this conception of reality as a production of directed consciousness by arguing that the lines between reality and simulation are becoming increasingly false. His thesis sits in between the Weberian structural (structured belief and economic order) or deterministic relationship to consciousness and the quantum and Buddhist suggestion that reality emerges from the individual’s manifestation of what is meaningful. Baudrillard’s conception of the simulation mirrors Weber’s articulation of economic rationalism as an immense cosmos that individuals are born into, but not without tension. He writes, “simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra.” (1983, 363) So, it follows that either we live in the world we are thinking of, or an order exists prior to experience of it. In relation to economic rationalism and the spirit of capitalism, it is, as Weber points out, difficult to decipher which precedes which. Here, the concept, the map, or in Weberian conceptions, the cosmology of capitalist economic order precedes the territory or the “real”, which is perhaps an amalgamation of potentialities for consciousness outside this order. Baudrillard goes further however, to suggest that the map (order) has overridden the territory (chaos) in stating “something has disappeared: sovereign difference between maps and territory – the difference was the abstractions charm.” (1983, 366)
Thus, magic, mystery and imagination is hollowed out from the real to be replaced by a system of signs that simulate original meaning. Sign systems of the real substitute the real itself, “lending themselves to a system of equivalence.” (1983, 366) In the context of economic rationality, it is currency – money – that becomes a signifying element of value. Abstract value, in its multiplicity of meaning, is sacrificed for its substitute – a standardized simulation of exchange value – it is systematized and structures social reality, eventually achieving a status of ontological necessity – we can no longer conceive of value separate from its canon form. Controlled currency thus becomes “an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all signs of the real and short circuits all its vicissitudes – never again will the real have to be reproduced.” (Baudrillard: 1983, 366) Value is refined as currency – a construction of meaning that has enormous power in ideological totality.
In his final example, Baudrillard cites the simulacrum of divinity as yet another instance of meaning derived from an “edifice of representation.” (1983, 368) He claims “God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum”, which is consistent with the view of Protestant religious doctrine as a human artifact of reductive beliefs that sacralize labour as a means in itself and sanctify possession and accumulation of material items as a means to security in salvation through a God assigning these things beliefs (1983, 367) Baudrillard essentially erases divine providence as a reality directly accessible and imparts a notion that believers have gone beyond belief in a distorted truth and descended into an illusion of God – one that is merely an image confused as the “real”. This assertion matches neatly with those made by the 17th century natural philosopher, Francis Bacon who disclosed that “human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly distorts, and discolours nature by mingling its own nature with it.” (Matthews: 1989, 49) The structure imposed, in Weber’s account, a structure of rationalized economic capitalist order, lays the scaffolding for which human perception if framed – it delineates what is possible and as Baudrillard discovers, it cannot detect simulacrum from the real. Through this, conscious awareness becomes an entanglement between structure (cultural and economic systems) and mediating individual desires that emerge and are regulated by these systems.
III. “Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” -George Bernard Shaw
To disentangle the relationship between consciousness and simulated realities in the form of economic and cultural systems, there is use in attempting to unwind the cognitive dissonance occurring in spaces of awareness that is central to human experience but often left unexamined. Existing within a structure while seeing potentialities beyond it is more challenging than normatively expressed, if not entirely condemned. Weber notes that within the rationalized ascetic ethos, philosophical speculation (i.e. processes of self-actualization – self-directing consciousness) was viewed as “dangerous to faith.” (1905, 86) Meaning, as it stands, is effectively monopolized and directed towards an economic aim – again, the structure orients desire towards a manipulated teleology.
American social theorist Clifford Geertz, in agreement with Weber, notes, “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun”, citing culture as one of those webs. (1973, 298) Weber and Geertz are clear that ontological structures are human productions – they are not ordained by celestial knowledge but simply a mirror of man himself. But to imagine culture as self-contained, or as a “super-organic reality with forces and purposes of its own” is “to reify it”. (Geertz: 1973, 300) The hyper rationality that characterizes capitalist order, in tandem with a spiritualized legitimation of such order (the Protestant ethic) presents itself as a cohesive and naturally occurring reality. Calvinism, key in the ideological formation of the Protestant ethic, held everything emotional to be illusory and thus attempted to rationalize emotion. (Weber 1905, 92) Thus, what is in fact a realization and expression of conscious awareness in reacting to stimulus – emotion – is held to be illusory. Authentic (or real) phenomena is strategically replaced by a humanly produced and maintained structure of meaning.
Geertz goes further to assert that “extreme subjectivism is married to extreme formalism, with the expected result: an explosion of debate as to whether particular analyses reflect what the natives “really” think or are merely clever simulations, logically equivalent but substantively different, of what they think.” (1973, 300) What he is communicating in the context of rationalized consciousness is perhaps the question of whether or not the ‘self’, existing in culture, is truly capable of expressing an undistorted realization of itself to the Other. This, naturally, begs the question of whether or not being can be fully actualized while situated inside an externally imposed order of meaning.
Albert Einstein is famously quoted as stating, that the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. (1930) The limitations imposed on conscious potentialities are revealed in the ascetic radical elimination of magic through rational suppression of the mystical and can be identified in the contemporary context with the supremacy of reason and legal and social condemnation of psychedelic substances. (Weber: 1905, 77) Attempts to enclose and direct consciousness through various systems of rationality and determinism are aimed towards ontological dominion over reality. Simulations of meaning, archetyped, standardized and replicated take the form of economic and cultural organization. As these simulations become more indecipherable from the original, more convincing in their inescapability, and more comfortable as an attempt to order chaos, they gain ontological power. As a consequence, consciousness stagnates, fragments, forms itself to manufactured order and fails to register meaning where it truly exists – in potentialities.
Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulacra and Simulation: Disneyland. Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classical Readings, Sixth Edition, Charles Lemert, Westview Press
Einstein, A. (1930) What I Believe. Living Philosophies XIII. Forum.
Geertz, C. (1973). Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture. Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global, and Classical Readings, Sixth Edition, Charles Lemert, Westview Press
Kierkegaard, S. (1844). The Concept of Anxiety. Princeton University Press.
Matthews, M. (1989). Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy. Hackett Publishing.
Nietzsche, F. W. (1996). Beyond good and evil ; and the genealogy of morals. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Weber, M. (2001). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge.