- THE SPECTRE OF NIHILISM
The spectre of nihilism haunts the periphery of the modern mind, fortifying as the existential threat for which culture is meant to mediate. The crumbling of tradition, and with it, the collapse of transcendence, wreaks havoc on consciousness at both the collective and individual level. Various configurations of deconstructive thought attempt to diagnose this phenomena to account for an antidote. At the very least, theorists posit an articulation of the Nietzschean dilemma: God is dead, the value structure has collapsed and in its wake the spectre arises of all value structures collapsing. Postmodernists launch their deconstructive project as the logical response to this dilemma. Forced to grapple with the metaphysical roots, or choose to disavow their existence altogether, theory is compelled to provide an account of the cultural fallout and reconstruction of culture and consciousness post-God, post-Nietzsche, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial, post-postmodern now, posthuman. The the advancement of mechanized, automatized modes of being, conjured up alongside the technological revolutions from the 19th Century, cast the social subject in new paradoxical relationship to his own conscience. Left to navigate the godless universe, devoid of the sacred, and dominated by logos, the individual oscillates between nihilistic surrender and totalitarian impulse. Overextended scientism attempts to fill the void left by religion by promoting a sanitized, objectivized and rationalized manufacturing of consensus-culture via scientific ‘truth’. The void cannot be fully attended to without proper attention to the embodied potentialities for being. Metaphysical cosmology shall always be in operation alongside cold, hard physical reality. As the separation between object and subject becomes increasingly rigid and distinct, the individual, located in culture, can no longer absorb transcendence.
- RATIONALIST VOID
In the wake of post-industrial, technosocial reality, disembodied rationality constitutes the single dimension of Being. The rationalistic fog engenders a repressive force toward the multiplicity of self, leaving in it’s path, a culture which embraces and exploits this acoustic rational objectification for stabilizing the social condition. Efforts to seize meaning become esoteric, disparate and marginalized from dominant culture. Mythological and archetypal knowledge, evolutionarily built into the structure of Being, programmed into the human nervous system over millena, gets transposed with shifts in culture. Conceptual reinvention of durable mythological constructs inevitably spill into the vernacular and collective consciousness of cultural reality. The beliefs which held, before we killed God, get translated into the the sacred language of the epoch. The creation story, the very mythology on which Western ontology is grounded, reemerges as new linguistic and conceptual tools become available for cultural integration. Creationism is reinvented as an onto-theological handmaiden to the Simulation Hypothesis.
Rationality is engendered with a design of human nature by its author, it implies (and imposes) a particular teleological, moral and metaphysical framework. Rationalization of both the human condition and of cultural configuration indirectly hollows out avenues for meaning for both layers of experience. Max Weber might refer to this as ‘world disenchantment’. With regards to the human capacity for transcendence, or the existential reality housed within our embodied form, rationality endeavours to attribute cause and effect for phenomena which cannot be boxed in in such a way without necessarily damaging them conceptually. Theism protects the individual from the spectre of nihilism by providing a tyrannical narrative and moral organization on the conscience. Theist tradition simplifies the chaos of the world by arranging a hierarchy of priority and desire composed of that which perpetuate and legitimate its role as an ordering set of principles. Culture, not unlike theist belief structure, guarantees a relatively stable doctrine of accepted, encouraged and intolerable behaviour and belief. Similarly, culture assimilates the individual by producing a system of values for which the individual must reconcile desire and action in accordance to. As a consequence of this, orderly social reality emerges and the individual is afforded considerable security and stability in cultural life. The dualistic and often paradoxical relationship of enculturation produces an existential tension within the individual. Without validated transcendental presuppositions (secular or theistic) to soothe existential anxiety, the mechanical subject experiences lacks avenues toward meaningful experience, a lapse of purpose and an appetite for
III. ONTOLOGICAL MOVES
Human beings have always been fascinated with the nature of their existence. In 2003 Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom published his thesis titled “Are You Living in a Simulation?” In this paper he argues that it is entirely rational to conclude that in fact, human beings are composed of ones and zeros, rather than flesh and blood. This is put forth by assuming that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. (Bostrom: 2003, 1) Since 2003, the Simulation Hypothesis, as it is commonly referred to, has acquired cultural currency and mainstream integration both ironically and seriously. The metaphysical implications of such a hypothesis are woven throughout publications in scientific and esoteric communities. Positing than the experienced world is in fact a simulated reality, suggests a multitude of alignment with theistic presuppositions related to intelligent design, teleology, and organizing principles. 17th Century natural philosopher, Galileo Galilei once stated that the book of nature is written in mathematica which was echoed by polymath Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first programmable computer, described God as a ‘divine programmer’. The metalanguage required to generate a coherent technological interpretation of such a prospect signals a human capacity for onto-theological reinvention. Perhaps, embedded in the sociohistorical trajectory of human existence, lies a metadiscourse, a collision of language from the past and language of the future. In the machine age, interpolation into mechanized structures, belief or physical, elucidates a mechanical language, a reinterpretation of these principles grounded in the language of technology and science.
- POST-GOD CULTURAL MIND
20th Century Functionalist Sociologist, Emile Durkheim, was very concerned about the condition of society after the fall of religion. He recognized the void being left in secularism’s wake and investigated the glue, or lack thereof, that ties individuals together in this organism we call ‘society.’ He catalogued the progression of society from its mechanical to organic forms of solidarity, the former being characterized by a type of phenomenological homogeneity made absent and impossible in the latter. He, like Nietzsche, wanted to account for the moral vacuum left by the fall of religion as a consistent cultural feature. For Durkheim, shifts in the division of labour, a significant organizing factor for social reality, were involved in a significant transformation at the level of culture and collective consciousness. (Lemert: 2016, 80) Of particular interest was the question of morality and its relationship to the individual located in society.
Durkheim understood society as a necessary condition for a moral world. (Lemert: 2016, 61) “Man is a moral being only because he lives in society” and the mechanism for how this takes place centers on the regulative and integrative functions society exerts. (Lemert: 2016, 67) Emerging out of the interplay between these function in the relationship between society and the individual, is a collective moral reality which dominantes. (Lemert: 2016, 65) Durkheim was interested in the entanglement between religious and economic forces and how changes in one these two dimensions would spur changes in the other. Further, he saw economic shifts, particularly the movement towards an industrialized, specialized production-based labour economy as having tremendous psychosocial consequences. These effect are then compounded by the fall of traditional Christianity in the 18th Century, a sociological alchemy which would ultimately affect the consciousness of the whole.
By the mid 20th Century Durkheim saw what Weber saw described in the early 1900s in terms of increased rationalization in every genre of existence. Durkheim writes, “in the face of the economic, and administrative, military, and religious functions become steadily less important. Only the scientific functions seem to dispute their place.” (Lemert: 2016, 63) His thesis for this sentiment was that in general, industrial modes of living were a source of demoralization, with the dogmatism of economic materialism subjecting collective consciousness to a one dimensional perceptive state. (Lemert: 2016, 69) As industry becomes an end in itself, the capacity for multiplicity in psychic and social life are greatly diminished. Pronounced specialization and alienation from the totality of meaning signal the end of consensus-culture as collective consciousness fragments.
Durkheim highlights the anomic and suicidal response common within a phenomenologically fractured of society and seems to suggest that the socio-spiritual wound left by industrialization could only be attended to with dynamic reconfiguration of collective consciousness. For Durkheim, the highest form of psychic life rested on collective consciousness, what he called, “consciousness of consciousness”. (Lemert: 2016, 80) This reflexive embodiment of shared values and ideas imbue a transcendental quality of expression and awareness that blend the mind to matter and the self to culture. Without access to realms with higher meaning, be it through religion or culture, sacred values are eroded, placing meaningful existence further out of reach. The tendency, desire and need to identify upwards, aiming at higher level conceptions of reality does not diminish when the avenues available for achieving this are swept away. As Nietzsche so clearly pointed out in the late 1800s, there is no existence absence of a belief structure. Nietzsche forecasted the existential threat posed by cultural fragmentation corresponding to shifts in the division of labour, namely increased specialization. The drive to belief still weighed on the consciousness of both the collective and the individual. Striving to explain this phenomena are the postmodernists who suggest that signs and language may change but the structure often remains intact.
- THE LANGUAGE CHANGED, THE STRUCTURE REMAINS THE SAME
Originator of poststructuralist thought, Jacques Derrida, noticed in 1966 the flexibility of language and structure. He grappled with the prospect that structure, an encompassing term bound with metaphysical and epistemological meaning, was empty. The constituents of being, the truths of existence, were destabilized as the structure neutralized and gave way to fluctuations in the way knowledge and information are organized. Fractured homogeneity of metaphysical truth and epistemic quandaries interested Derrida as much as it concerned Durkheim. The distinction between Durkheim’s structuralist slant and Derrida’s nostalgia for a the narrative organization of history (i.e. structuralism) follows the move history with stylistic connotaeationThe room for ‘play’, as Derrida refers to it, gives structure movement to bounce in and around new ontological configurations. Structure, bearing an empty signifier, becomes the grounds for which the center, the point of orientation, balances and organizes the structure through the intercourse of play. However, Derrida so aptly noted that the point of the center was not simply to orient the structure, but also to delimit the bounds in which play can occur. (Lemert: 2016, 320) Furthermore, there is a paradoxical dimension to the center in which it is both within and outside the structure. If we view this angle in view of the onto-theological progression from
Creationism to the Simulation Hypothesis, we can see the center – the belief in intelligent design, a deterministic cosmology, organizing principles, harmony between and metaphysics etc. – at play within the boundaries of the presuppositions of both.
The Simulation Hypothesis poses as a scientific theory but draws heavily on religious presuppositions derived from, socialized and reproduced in culture. These presuppositions exist and continue to exist independent of their immediate expression. The theory establishes itself from outside the structure of religious beliefs while working within it. Derrida notices a historical conceptual pattern wherein the center is substituted for another center, producing a successive chain of substitutive forms, names, metaphors and metonymies. (Lemert: 2016, 320) The matrix composed of these substitutions, as Derrida calls it, determines the nature of Being itself. Reworking notions of “essence, existence, substance, subject, transcendentality, consciousness, God, man and so forth” designs familiar but novel belief into Being itself. Interestingly enough, Derrida explains that “the substitute does not substitute itself for anything which has somehow existed before”, that the center was never truly a center, but a sort of non locus with an infinite number of sign-substitutions.
The language of quantum physics and the science behind the holographic universe (simulation) hypothesis did not exist in the premodern vernacular. Therefore, the religious substructure generates a substituted language based on it’s original axioms, i.e. God as ‘divine programmer’, human nature as ‘programmed behaviour’, ‘divine intervention’ as ‘error correcting code’, knowledge and meaning-construction as ‘informational downloads’ etc. The scientific slant of religious principles formulates a satisfying schema to ameliorate the existential threat posed by the fall of religion, substantiated by the cult of reason circulating through scientific discourse. The dialectical process required for the arrival of a ‘Simulation Hypothesis’ in the popular imagination is rather curious as we can see the thesis (creationism) is responded to by the naturalists (atheists, scientists), the antithesis, to ultimately synthesize a new articulation of the relation between these two seemingly antagonistic forces in order to produce an onto-theological hypothesis whose truth-claims are based in universal mathematical and scientific principles.
VII. REFORMULATING METAPHYSICS IN POSTMODERNITY
The motive of science to decenter theological metaphysics in favor of the installment of rational, objective, legitimate truth takes an ironic turn as quantum and theoretical physics reconstitutes metaphysical speculation in its own language. This metaphysical turn undermines the empiricist project of doing away with onto-theological intermingling with science. For centuries, scientific endeavor remained a handmaiden to religion, with nearly all natural philosophers partial to the design argument, the existence of an intelligent creator and universal governing laws of the universe. And yet, post-industrial science and society at large reimagined a scientific doctrine as holy grail of truth, a means to gain access to the fundamental, non-transcendental laws of the physical universe. Emile Durkheim chronicled the disintegration of the sacred in culture. He noted the collapse of collective ideals and, while maintaining that in fact religious forces were human forces, he noted that religion functioned to give rise to “mystical mechanics” through which the collective ideal could be expressed and elevated beyond the real. (Lemert: 2016, 75) The sacred, as Durkheim writes, answers to the same elevated status as the ideal, ultimately corresponding to a higher dimension beyond the physical reality. Durkheim discloses that the personal state cannot be thought of outside of its relationship to the universal order of succession which imposes itself upon all minds and events. (Lemert: 2016, 76) He elucidates that, “since the universe does not exist except in so far as it is thought of”, there is a human tendency to identify upward, seek higher order meaning, and therefore, notions of the sacred which embody this transcendence, are necessary constituents of experienced reality.
French postmodernist, Jean-Francois Lyotard described the postmodern condition as a consequence of the fracture of a grand narrative. (Lemert: 2016, 355) With the collapse of a grand narrative, various speculative narratives emerge to fill its place. The Simulation Hypothesis certainly adheres to such remark on speculative fetish and corresponds directly to Lyotard’s assertion that the fracture of narrative originates with the introduction of new technology. What Lyotard describes however, is the transition from sacred principles based in religion to a consensual embrace of scientific ‘truth’ as the new sacred. In the wake of “disorienting technology and capitalist renewal”, science, as a “speculative apparatus” grounds us in an empirical and consistent (“replicable”) version of reality. (Lemert: 2016, 356) Lyotard describes the self-affirming nature of science and suggests its capacity for legitimation be interrogated further but also implies that this function of certitude embodies the same security of religious ontology. The game of science is a game of language, it operates in the arena of meaning alongside many other language games. The special, or sacred quality of science, however, remains the level of certainty written into the phenomena of scientific language itself. Lyotard describes a collision of languages in the absence of a universal metalanguage, resembling the poststructuralist concern over dislocation of the center in a neutral structure. The collision of languages, the mystical, the religious, the scientific, the existential, all interwoven in the Simulation Hypothesis, is only made possible by the ‘play’ the structure of belief affords – the dynamic center, the multiplicity of meaning.
Lyotard sees a nihilistic quality intrinsic to science and seeks to locate the seeds of the 19th Century narrative of nihilism. This, I submit, is not too difficult in view of Nietzsche’s contribution to the origins spectre of nihilism in his 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil. And yt, Nietzsche, despite inadvertently planting the seeds for nihilism’s emergence, centered his approach on life, meaning and truth. Postmodernists reflect Nietzsche’s doubt of language as a sufficient vehicle of meaning, moral maxims and objective truth but unlike Nietzsche, in doing so they hollow out the meaningful possibilities that like in skepticism’s wake. Perhaps it is not science which is fundamentally nihilistic, but the atmospheric postmodern condition which subjugates the existential epiphanies found in subjective infinitude in favor of deterministic deconstruction with infinite regress. The Simulation Hypothesis, tentatively embraced by a community of revered physicists and technologists, flies in the face of nihilistic interpretations of science, based mainly in naturalistic atheism and empiricism. The destabilization of meaning does not necessarily lead to its hollowing out. For Nietzsche, a life-affirming cosmology, the Will to Truth, supersedes the Will to Truth. An untruth bears more value than truth if it accommodates life-affirming principles. Therefore, if we do not in fact live inside a simulated reality, a matrix of code and of intelligent design, but in believing so happen to quell our existential terror and embrace life as miraculous, the untruth of the Simulation Hypothesis fills the void left in the wake of secularist nihilism.
Durkheim wanted to establish an understanding for what the minds of collectives and individuals might use to cope with the ontological insecurity and moral vacuum necessitated by the proverbial, ‘death of God’. If alive today to hear the language of science cast within the frame of the sacred (truth) and responding to the metaphysical gaps in conscious experience, Durkheim might agree with Nietzsche’s prioritizing of life over truth. Postmodernists see the fracture of collective consciousness and multiplicity or negation of truth as a condition inherent to the post-industrial, hyper-reflexive age and unsurmountable in terms of formulating ad hoc alternatives. And yet, our collective minds, steeped in the postmodern existential condition, devise modes of ontological formations in line with the sacred language of the day (science in 2017) in order to derive a curiously meaningful existence. This is not something to be overlooked, in fact is must be understood as a miraculous self-innovation on behalf of the collective psyche of the connected virtual and physical realms. Transcending the default nihilism of our day does not require the adoption of dogmatic religious principles, it only requires the capacity for novel, imaginative and meaningful transfigurations of previous belief structures. If nothing else, the Simulation Hypothesis proves this.
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