Saturday, 23 January 2016


The human mind is an enigma. You can think about an issue for years, decades, and make little progress forward. But then, one day, seemingly for no reason, something clicks. At that point the mental thorn in your side, the niggle that wouldn't go away, the itch you couldn't scratch, becomes resolved. 

Such, for me, has been the issue of the apparent meaninglessness and purposelessness of the universe. Throughout the course of my life I've tried out various solutions to this question but none satisfied. There was still, appropriately enough, a hole at the center of my thinking about this. This hole is a meaningful symbol for what, more generally, might be described as The Void. The Void is where our existence is located and where we have our being. Its best expression is space itself, vast and inscrutable, a vast nothingness which reduces everything within it to just some more inconsequential detritus. It is impossible to place yourself in the context of the mass of space and imagine you are anything important or necessary at all. You just are. Remember that next time you imagine your views matter so much or that things around you must take notice of you. You are literally nothing special.

People, for as long as they could think, have wanted to ascribe some meaning to this vastness. Often they have wanted to ascribe some overarching purpose to it or give some reasoning which explains why everything is and how its all of a piece, a oneness, and to give it some reasonable basis for being. But people have always failed in this and this is why other thinkers have explored its emptiness and what that means for us as thinking people. But this is a clue to where we should be looking for answers. The Void is often conceived as everything out there and, in a spatial sense, it is. But this void of meaning, this void of understanding, is not out there. This particular void is inside each one of us. My "Eureka!" moment is realizing that, actually, we are the void. We have an absence of presence, a presence and substance we try to give things with our descriptive schemes in our role as engineers of a meaningless universe.

For what is it that creates this void of meaning and sets up the questions to which we can find no satisfying long-term answers? What is it that means that all we can ever do is relate things one to another, both giving them context and allowing them to fit into a map of our understandings and beliefs? It is us, us as the universe has given us life. This form of life of ours which must make meaning, must understand, must hold beliefs, it is this which creates the void that we cannot fill. It condemns us to relate things one to another in some great mental act of dexterity so that we can even survive. We must believe things. We must hold what we regard as understandings. Things must mean. Without these operations we would die. They animate us and give us purpose. And so its not some void out there that needs to speak to us and explain itself (and that's good because it never will). The void is in us. The Void is us. We are the ones who create the problem we then cannot solve. Just by being the beings we are. With this form of life we condemn ourselves to explanations but never to an explanation much less the explanation.

And so I ask myself "What is our form of Being?" and I reply "Chaos giving expression to itself." And then I ask "What is my existence?" and the reply comes back "A partaking in my form of Being." All our questions find an answer not out there, not from some God figure, whether personal or metaphorical, but in us, in our form of life, who we are. This form of life offers us up meanings but never the meaning. It gives us beliefs but never the truth. It proffers knowledge but never that thing beyond knowledge in which all talking and thinking would cease because, finally, we have found something that could speak for itself. If there was something (and it would be divine in the truest sense) that could speak for itself then we would have found what human beings have always searched for: something beyond their creative self-understandings with which they could get in touch and about which there would finally be no words, the thing that was not just another thing to relate to something else. But we don't have that. We never will. There are no divinities and, much as we would like it, no God substitutes either. All we have is a void we cannot fill but must, nevertheless, keep trying to.

Given this background, my mind wanders. I think about the Transhumanist agenda I've been interacting with for a year now. Transhumanists want to "improve" the human form of life and they think of this primarily in physicalist terms. So this means they want to stop bad physical outcomes like disease and illness and, eventually, even death itself. Obviously, overcoming death, that decay until life becomes impossible for an organism, is no small task. After all, the laws of the physical universe seem to be that all things decay and die on a long enough timeline. So Transhumanists are happy to go with extending life significantly as a starting point. But I have a huge problem with this and its there in a play by a French existentialist called Jean-Paul Sartre. The play is called No Exit. In this play there are but three characters and they have died. They are in a room and they, so the play seems to suggest, must spend their eternity together. The play focuses on their relationships (which in life were complicated) in this scenario and ends with the comment "Hell is other people".

This comment needs unpacking. Sartre is not saying there, at the climax of his play examining the idea that you would be in the public gaze for all eternity, that everyone else is a shit. That may or may not be the case from your point of view. Sartre's point is more that a life in the gaze of others that does not end is not a life in which people can be themselves. Its like this: imagine you yourself in your public life. You are constantly aware of other people in these types of situations and your behavior is molded to this scenario. You wouldn't do some things in public that you would do when you are home alone in your own place and you imagine no one is watching you. The point there is that the gaze of others changes your behavior and your consciousness of yourself. You often hear a related complaint made about social media where some people act like asses and are then told that they wouldn't act like that if we knew who they were. Exactly! The gaze of other people affects your behavior. Public CCTV cameras (of which the UK has amongst the most in the world) work on the same basis. You are being watched and its affects you. And so you become a socialized version of you and not the you you are by yourself. So why is Hell "other people"? Because it would be to act out that socialized, bad faith version of yourself that is a performance for public consumption forever.

And so how does this relate to Transhumanist dreams of radically extending life and to my "Eureka!" moment? I think its because the Transhumanist understanding of the human being, by which I mean the human form of being, is not adequate to the task. Primarily thinking of us as biological organisms in need of a pep up is not, I think, good enough. Its like thinking of us as a car and saying that if we had a more powerful engine we'd be a better car. Well, we might be. Or you might just ruin the car you had in the first place. Crucially, to my mind, such understandings do not take into account who we are and how we live in terms of our life and existence. And it needs to. Instead, it focuses quite narrowly on the perceived downsides of being physical, that we can be hurt, that we die, and says that if we could solve these things then, somehow (and this point is largely assumed and not explained) things would be better. One thousand years of you is better than eighty years of you, right? Really? Is that what being you is about? Are you just meat that needs to avoid hurt? I think that Transhumanists, either wittingly or unwittingly (and some seem more tuned into this consequence of their thinking than others, to be fair) want to actually supercede a human form of being for a post-human form of being. They want, I think, to head off into the "we are become gods" direction. They want the end of human being.

And this is the problem when, as I see it, we are The Void. Wanting to live forever and cure all diseases is just another way of trying to escape what fate has given us. (And being fated beings is yet another aspect of our being.) This is not to say that we shouldn't try to escape. Its not to say that we shouldn't do any of the things that Futurists or Transhumanists want to do. Its merely to contextualize it. It is, as Richard Rorty said, just one more way to try and escape "time and chance". Its another effort in the on-going plan to escape being human with all its flaws and failures, its pains and struggles. It doesn't, I think, understand or even examine what human being and human existence is at all. I don't think it is to glory in the physical flaws like some masochist to say this. But I see this as the real essence of humanity (in a descriptive and not an actual sense). The human being is the suffering animal, the animal that is aware but never sure of what it is aware. It is the animal that always lacks something. And knows it. It is the finite animal who can see death from almost the beginning of its days. It is the animal that wants and needs and desires. And knows it. Behold, it is become The Void.

I don't think that we will ever become gods. Far too much in this chaotic universe is out of our control. It seems that Dr Stephen Hawking is convinced we will kill ourselves and that some man-made disaster is inevitable at some point. There are many foreseeable future scenarios for this but its just as likely that an unseeable one gets us too. We don't have eyes in the back of our heads. But even if this didn't happen there is too much going on out there for us to control it all. Even the most arrogant of people wouldn't think we could account for everything (another human failing, incidentally). So I do not think that a divine life will ever be something we can approach. Indeed, I think that the urge for divinity is internally generated and part of this form of life that we have now. It is a way to fill The Void with meaning, as we must, as we are impelled by our existence as an expression of our form of being. We are more than biological organisms. Even if you do not think we are in any sense "consciousness" you can at least admit that we have a consciousness. This, too, is part of our being, part of who we are. And its who we are that concerns me when I read philosophers telling me that to become who you are is to find the most meaning that we can in life. 

But when you look into the mirror what do you see? 

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