To Be or Not to Be (Free)

I recently posted a YouTube Short video titled You Have No Free Will, but this is still debatable.

Video: You Have No Free Will

The premise of the belief in free-will is that human decisions are made approximately half a second before we are conscious of them, and then the conscious brain convinces itself that it just made a choice. This sounds pretty damning, but let’s step back for a moment.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

If you’ve been following this blog these past few months, you’ll be aware that I feel the question of free will is a pseudo-question hinging primarily on semantics. As well, there’s the causa sui argument that I’d like to ignore for the purpose of this post.

There remains a semantic issue. The free will argument is centred around the notion that a person or agent has control or agency over their choices. This means that how we define the agent matters.

In the study this references, the authors define the agent as having conscious awareness. Since this occurs after the decision is made, then the person must have had no agency. But I think an argument can be made that the earlier decision gateway is formed through prior experience. Applying computer metaphors, we can say that this pre-consciousness is like embedded hardware or read-only logic. It’s like autopilot.

In business, there are various decision management schemes. In particular, the conscious but slow version is for a person to be notified to approve or deny a request. But some decisions are automatic. If a purchase is over, say 50,000 then a manager needs to sign off on the request. But if the purchase is under 50,000, then the request is made automatically and then the manager is notified for later review if so desired.

I am not saying that I buy into this definition, but I think the argument could be made.

You might not know it by the number of posts discussing it, but I am not really concerned about whether or not free will really exists. I don’t lose any sleep over it. At the same time, I tend to react to it. Since I feel it’s a pseudo-problem where tweaking the definition slightly can flip the answer on its head, it’s just not worth the effort. On to better things.

A New Explanation for Consciousness?

“I did that!” consciousness declares loudly. Is reality just one giant self-deception?

Source Article
YouTube Short of related content

“We knew that conscious processes were simply too slow to be actively involved in music, sports, and other activities where split-second reflexes are required. But if consciousness is not involved in such processes, then a better explanation of what consciousness does was needed,”

Andrew Budson, MD, professor of neurology, Boston University

Under this new theory, supported by recent studies, choices are made unconsciously and then we are made conscious of the choices after the fact. This tosses a spanner in the works of some proponents of free will. Some may still claim that it was uniquely ‘you’ who made this choice—conscious or otherwise—, but others may not be so fanciful.

“According to the researchers, this theory is important because it explains that all our decisions and actions are actually made unconsciously, although we fool ourselves into believing that we consciously made them.”

“What is completely new about this theory is that it suggests we don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then—about half a second later—consciously remember doing them.”

Andrew Budson, MD, professor of neurology, Boston University

And here we are again with more evidence that we are not consciously responsible for our choices, and yet the conscience has such a fragile ego, it needs to think it does.

What Is Love?

I love the panels, interviews, and insights presented on The Institute of Art and Ideas channels. In this segment, I am familiar with the host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, who has put this all together, and two of the panellists, Iain McGilchrist and Donald Hoffman. I am not familiar with Eva Jablonka or Michelle Montague. This is an interesting conversation on consciousness, but I am commenting on McGilchrist’s position on love and how science can never capture the essence or dimensions of it because it is subjective and experiential. I’ve cued the video clip below to just prior to his response to provide he view with a set up.

As I’ve been saying for some decades now, I believe that love is a weasel word in the realm of justice and freedom. It’s an archetypal extreme, but it doesn’t mean anything more than trebled or analogical references.

McGilchrist resorts to the age-old, you don’t know it if you haven’t experienced it. This was famously captured by the US Supreme court’s take on pornography, “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.” This is used with God and faith as well. So, bollox, really. They’ve got nothing. And if you haven’t experienced it, then you aren’t a member of the club, and it’s your loss. Rubbish.

From the transcript, Iain tells the viewer (edited below for clarity),

“Love is a very real experience. and you only know it when you’ve had it. But it’s something that science can only refer to physical correlates of—rather ineffectively… But it’s not the same as knowing what love actually is.

“And the same is true of consciousness. It’s a subjective phenomenon, and as such, it’s not open to the kind of science that that i think is being required.”

Notice that this is the same defence asserted by religions. If you are seeking evidence, you are barking up the wrong tree. The evidence is that you can experience it, but this is not a shared experience. The shared experience occurs when people who feel they have had a similar experience can gather together and compare notes and share stories like they were participating in a 12-Steps program. Hullo, my name is Bukowski, and I’m an alcoholic.

Love is a delusion. Consider the notion of romantic love —just one of several purported flavours of love. What do we mean by this? We mean that we are very attracted to and emotionally attached to some other entity. Let’s limit this to other people. We care for this person and about what happens to this person, and we’d presumably like to remain a partner with this person. Generally, there would also be a sense that the other party reciprocates this feeling, but unrequited love is another aspect.

Given this state, we can measure hormonal changes, pupil dilation, and other physiological changes. And if we want to label this state love, then great. In practice, that’s what we’ve done. But so what? All we’ve really done is to take a bundle of descriptions and collated them into a nebulous term.

There are a couple of perspectives on this type of love. There is the person who senses their own feelings about their experience of love, as in “I love X”. Then there is a target of this love who may experience that they are loved by someone. Finally, there is the observer that might assess that Y loves X and or vice versa.

But what does this really mean? Is it just that Y like X very very much and has painted a picture of a future than includes this person? That Y has constructed some narrative storyline that includes X? That there is likely some lust involved in this particular flavour of love? Is love more than this? Is love more than just a shortcut? Is it just an acronym for “Likes Other Very Extremely”? Alright, I’ll stay out of the acronym construction business and end this just now.

Book Review: Conspiracy Against the Human Race

The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a work of non-fiction by horror author Thomas Ligotti. There is an audio podcast version and a YouTube video version. Feel free to leave comments in the space below or on YouTube.

Transcript

In this segment, I’ll be reviewing a book by Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, A Contrivance of Horror.

I haven’t done any book reviews, but since I tend to read a lot of books, I figure why not share my take and see how it’s received? If you like these reviews, click the like button and I’ll consider creating more.

Let’s get started.

First, I’ll be providing a little background, and then I’ll summarise some of the content and main themes. I’ll close with my review and perspective.

The author is Thomas Ligotti. He is a published writer in the horror genre in the vein of Lovecraft’s atmospheric horror. I’ve not read any of his work and haven’t read much fiction in ages.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is Ligotti’s first work of non-fiction. The book was originally published in 2010. I read the 2018 paperback version published by Penguin Books.

Conspiracy Against the Human Race falls into the category of Ethics and Moral Philosophy in a subcategory of pessimism. The main thesis of this book is that humans ought never to have been born. Following in the footsteps of anti-natalist David Benatar, who published Better Never to Have Been Born in 2007, Ligotti doubles down on Benatar’s position on the harm of coming into existence and argues that humans should just become extinct. Moreover, we should take out life in general.

In the book, Ligotti posits that consciousness was a blunder of nature and is the root of all suffering. He argues the derived Buddhist position of dukkha, which translates as Life is suffering. He establishes that most people are aware of this fact, but that we are nonetheless wired to be biased toward optimism through delusion and what a psychoanalyst might call repressed memories. Moreover, pessimists are a cohort not tolerated by society, who don’t want their delusions shattered.

Philosophically, Ligotti is a determinist. I’ve created content on this topic, but in a nutshell, determinism is the belief that all events are caused by antecedent events, leading to a chain of causes and effects stretching back to the beginning of time and bringing us to where we are now. If we were able to rewind time and restart the process, we would necessarily end up in the same place, and all future processes will unfold in a like manner.

Ligotti likes the metaphor of puppets. He employs puppets in two manners. Firstly, being the determinist he is, he reminds us that we are meat puppets with no free will. Our strings are controlled by something that is not us. This something ends up being Schopenhauer’s Will, reminding us that one can want what we will, but we can’t will what we will. This Will is the puppeteer. Secondly, puppets are soulless, lifeless homunculi that are employed in the horror genre to create unease by means of an uncanny association.
He cites the work and philosophy of Norwegian author Peter Zapffe, who also elucidates human existence as a tragedy. Humans are born with one and only one right—the right to die. And death is the only certainty. The knowledge of this causes unnecessary suffering.

Quoting Ligotti,

Stringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die. No other right has ever been allocated to anyone except as a fabrication, whether in modern times or days past. The divine right of kings may now be acknowledged as a fabrication, a falsified permit for prideful dementia and impulsive mayhem. The inalienable rights of certain people, on the other hand, seemingly remain current: somehow we believe they are not fabrications because hallowed documents declare they are real.

Ligotti reminds us that consciousness is a mystery. We don’t really know what it is or what causes it other than it exists and we seem to have it, to be cursed with it. He adopts Zapffe’s position that consciousness is also responsible for the false notion of the self.

As all life is, humans are the result of an evolutionary process. Consciousness was just the result of an evolutionary blunder. He cites Zapffe and conveys that “mutations must be considered blind. They work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.”

Whilst pessimists view consciousness as a curse, optimists such as Nicholas Humphry think of it as a marvellous endowment.

He summarises the reason humans have it worse than the rest of nature:

For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”

I’ll repeat that: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious.

He cites Zapffe’s four principal strategies to minimise our consciousness, isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation

  1. Isolation is compartmentalising the dire facts of being alive. So, he argues, that a coping mechanism is to push our suffering out of sight, out of mind, shoved back into the unconscious so we don’t have to deal with it.
  2. Anchoring is a stabilisation strategy by adopting fictions as truth. We conspire to anchor our lives in metaphysical and institutional “verities”—God, Morality, Natural Law, Country, Family—that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds.
  3. Distraction falls into the realm of manufactured consent. People lose themselves in their television sets, their government’s foreign policy, their science projects, their careers, their place in society or the universe, et cetera. Anything not to think about the human condition.
  4. Sublimation. This reminds me of Camus’ take on the Absurd. Just accept it. Embrace it and incorporate it into your routine. Pour it into your art or music. Ligotti invokes Camus’ directive that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, but he dismisses the quip as folly.

Ligotti underscores his thesis by referencing the works of other authors from David Benatar to William James.

Interestingly, he suggests that people who experience depression are actually in touch with reality and that psychology intervenes to mask it again with the preferred veil of delusion and delf-deception. Society can’t operate if people aren’t in tune with the masquerade. Citing David Livingstone Smith in his 2007 publication, Why We Lie: The Evolution of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, Ligotti writes:
“Psychiatry even works on the assumption that the “healthy” and viable is at one with the highest in personal terms. Depression, “fear of life,” refusal of nourishment and so on are invariably taken as signs of a pathological state and treated thereafter.”

Ligotti returns to the constructed notion of the self and presents examples of how a lack of self is an effective horror trope, citing John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

He spends a good amount of time on ego-death and the illusion of self, a topic I’ve covered previously. He mentions Thomas Metzinger and his writings in several places including his Being No One, published in 2004, ostensibly reinforcing a position described as naïve realism, that things not being knowable as they really are in themselves, something every scientist and philosopher knows.

He delves into Buddhism as a gateway to near-death experiences, where people have dissociated their sense of self, illustrating the enlightenment by accident of U. G. Krishnamurti, who after some calamity “was no longer the person he once was, for now he was someone whose ego had been erased. In this state, he had all the self-awareness of a tree frog. To his good fortune, he had no problem with his new way of functioning. He did not need to accept it, since by his report he had lost all sense of having an ego that needed to accept or reject anything.” Krishnamurti had become a veritable zombie. He also cited the examples of Tem Horwitz, John Wren-Lewis, and Suzanne Segal, but I won’t elaborate here.

Russian Romantic author, Leo Tolstoy, famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, was another pessimist. He noticed a coping approach his associates had employed to deal with their morality.

  1. Ignorance is the first. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. For whatever reason, these people are simply blind to the inevitability of their mortal lives. As Tolstoy said these people just did not know or understand that “life is an evil and an absurdity”.
  2. Epicureanism comes next. The tactic here is to understand that we are all in here and no one gets out alive, so we might as well make the best of it and adopt a hedonistic lifestyle.
  3. Following Camus’ cue, or rather Camus following Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, he suggests the approach of strength and energy, by which he means the strength and energy to suicide.
  4. Finally, one can adopt the path of weakness. This is the category Tolstoy finds himself in, writing “People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally—to end the deception quickly and kill themselves—they seem to wait for something.”

The last section of the book feels a bit orthogonal to the rest. I won’t bother with details, but essentially he provides the reader with examples of how horror works by exploring some passages, notably Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher; Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu; and contrasting Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet.

This has been a summary of Thomas Logotti’s Conspiracy against the human race. Here’s my take. But first some background, as it might be important to understand where I am coming from.

I am a Nihilist. I feel that life has no inherent meaning, but people employ existentialist strategies to create a semblance of meaning, much akin to Zapffe’s distraction theme or perhaps anchoring.
This said I feel that, similar to anarchism, people don’t understand nihilism. Technically, it’s considered to be a pessimistic philosophy because they are acculturated to expect meaning, but I find it liberating. People feel that without some constraints of meaning, that chaos will ensue as everyone will adopt Tolstoy’s Epicureanism or to fall into despair and suicide. What they don’t know is they’ve already fabricated some narrative and have adopted one of Zappfe’s first three offerings: isolation, which is to say repression); anchoring on God or country; or distracting themselves with work, sports, politics, social media, or reading horror stories.

Because of my background, I identify with Ligotti’s position. I do feel the suffering and anguish that he mentions, and perhaps I am weak and rationalising, but I don’t feel that things are so bad. I may be more sympathetic to Benatar’s anti-natalism than to advocate for a mass extinction event, though I feel that humans are already heading down that path. Perhaps this could be psychoanalysed as collective guilt, but I won’t go there.

I recommend reading this. I knocked it out in a few hours, and you could shorten this by skipping the last section altogether. If you are on the fence, I’d suggest reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. Perhaps I’ll review that if there seems to be interest. If you’ve got the time, read both.

So there you have it. That’s my summary and review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race.

Before I end this, I’ll share a personal story about an ex-girlfriend of mine. Although she experienced some moments of happiness and joy, she saw life as a burden. Because she had been raised Catholic and embodied the teachings, she was afraid that committing suicide would relegate her to hell. In fact, on one occasion, she and her mum had been robbed at gunpoint, and her mum stepped between my girlfriend and the gun. They gave the gunmen what they wanted, so the situation came to an end.

My girlfriend laid into her mother that if she ever did something like that again and took a bullet that was her ticket out, she would never forgive her. As it turned out, my girlfriend died as collateral damage during the Covid debacle. She became ill, but because she was living with her elderly mum, she didn’t want to go to hospital and bring something back. One early morning, she was writhing in pain and her mum called the ambulance. She died later that morning in hospital, having waited too long.

For me, I saw the mercy in it all. She got her ticket out and didn’t have to face the hell eventuality. Not that I believe in any of that, but she was able to exit in peace. Were it not for the poison of religion, she could have exited sooner. She was not, in Tolstoy’s words, weak, so much as she had been a victim of indoctrination. I feel this indoctrination borders on child abuse, but I’ll spare you the elaboration.
So, what are your thoughts on this book? Is there a conspiracy against humanity? Are optimists ruining it for the pessimists? What do you think about anti-natalism or even extinction of all conscious beings or the extreme case of all life on earth? Is Ligotti on to something or just on something?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Analytic Idealism

Until now, I’ve considered myself to be a physicalist or materialist, but in adopting this position, I’ve had open questions. I’d tell people, “I’m a Physicalist, but I don’t understand how X, Y, or Z works.” As it happens, Analytic Idealism fills in most of these gaps. I’ve also been leery of Constitutive Panpsychism, and this theory addressed those shortcomings.

According to standard materialistic doctrine, consciousness, like space-time before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being considered just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are only helpful for its description.


Universe, Life, Consciousness by Andrei Linde
What about mainstream Physicalism?

Firstly, it centres everything on experience. It divides the world into ‘out there’ and ‘perception’, what Bernard Kastrup calls ‘intrinsic view’ and ‘extrinsic experience’, what Schopenhauer termed ‘noumena’ and ‘phenomena’.

So how could I abandon material so quickly? The short answer is that I didn’t. It’s just that it’s not fundamental. One of the challenges I always had with the notion of materialism is the distance between perception and material. Analytic Idealism allows there to be a concealed nature out there and a revealed nature that our senses could perceive.

physics is ultimately a science of perception

I abandoned Donald Hoffman’s’ book, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes, a few months back because although it seemed to make sense, it wasn’t quite resonating with me. It seems that he shares this perspective.

Before I get ahead of myself, I’ll lay a foundation. Our brains, among other things, are experience-perceiving machines—not experience-generating. Unlike some solipsistic theories, we don’t generate our reality. There is an objective reality, as it were. out there, but our perception of it is limited by our sense organs and cognitive faculties. Anything not accessible to these is imperceptible, pretty much by definition. It could be that there is nothing out there beyond perception, but I wouldn’t count on it.

I know that this invites paranormal and spiritual injections. I don’t have a propensity to make this jump, and absence of at least circumstantial evidence, I don’t expect to expend energy pondering this space. If this is your proclivity, feel free, and I’d love to see what you come up with. As it happens, Bernard Kastrup does believe in paranormal phenomena, so you’d be in good company. I’m just not ready to make that leap.

Humans do not view reality as it is. This conforms to correspondence theories of truth. In this theory, we interface reality through a virtual dashboard. Like an aeroplane with dials and gauges, our sense organs merely give USA representations of this reality in a manner suitable to our survival—fitness over truth. Just as the altimeter and speedometer are fit for navigating a plane, they are just symbols or icons representing the ‘out there’. Similar to the Matrix, the out there is unintelligible—save for Neo who is able to transcend and decode on the fly. But this is science fiction. We cannot see beyond the dashboard, and it wouldn’t benefit us if we could.

instrument dashboard from EssentiaFoundation.org

This instrument panel or dashboard, as Kastrup calls it, is all we have. And like a computer monitor that represents files and folders as beige, blue, and white rectangles, looking behind the screen isn’t going to yield you more information. At their core, these represent binary code, millions or zeros and ones that would not be useful to see in their native state. It is more useful to see the iconic representation.

It turns out that matter is simply a representation of reality through dashboard instruments. This means that physics is ultimately a science of perception, though it only has access to the map rather than the terrain.

It’s not my intent to articulate the entire theory. Besides, I’m new to it. There is much more for me to suss out. For now, it’s the best explanation for the way I perceive perception. And although I still have questions, I have fewer than before, so here’s looking to a long and fruitful relationship.

Man versus Machine

Human-designed systems seem to need a central orchestration mechanism—similar to the cognitive homunculus-observer construct substance dualists can’t seem to escape—, where consciousness (for want of a better name) is more likely the result of an asynchronous web with the brain operating as a predictive difference and categorisation engine rather than the perceived cognitive coalescence we attempt to model. Until we unblock our binary fixedness, we’ll continue to fall short. Not even quantum computing will get us there if we can’t escape our own cognitive limitations in this regard. Until then, this error-correcting mechanism will be as close to an approximation of an approximation that we can hope for.

The net-input function of this machine learning algorithm operates as a heuristic for human cognition. Human-created processes can’t seem to create this decoupled, asynchronous heuristic process, instead ending up with something that looks more like a railway switching terminal.

Cover photo: Railroad tracks stretch toward Chicago’s skyline at Metra’s A2 switching station on March 29, 2019. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune); story

What is Consciousness?

This infographic helps to articulate various notions of consciousness. Not much more to add.

I think I am partial to emergent theories, but I favour property dualism over emergent. The dualism employed in property dualism doesn’t feel accurate. It’s not dual so much as it just hasn’t been described yet.

I don’t think that physics can express or descriptively characterize everything that exists.

The Silence of Physics | Galen Strawson | Talks at Google

I want to accept the Buddhist notion, but I can’t seem to not differentiate.

I don’t feel I have enough information on the remainder of these. I could lean on the name and short description, but I feel this would necessarily establish me firmly in Dunning-Kruger territory. There may be even more hypotheses than are captured here.