Your Life is Meaningless: Neuropath and Nihilism

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by Scott Bakker, Jun 21, 2005.

  1. Scott Bakker

    Scott Bakker New Member

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    I had originally asked Gary if he would host this thread because I was worried that having this debate here might produce a 'deference effect' - but then I glanced down at my black and blue balls and realized I likely had nothing to worry about!

    I'm in the midst of tying off loose ends with The Thousandfold Thought and dusting off my draft manuscript Neuropath, which I like to describe as a 'near future psychothriller.' The M.O. for this book is the same as that for PoN: to explore the form of the genre by embracing it. The idea is to write a tale that's as philosophically troubling as it is psychologically terrifying.

    My problem (as many of you might have already guessed) is that I've been institutionalized. After years of studying philosophy I pretty much have no idea how noninstitutionalized folk will respond to the arguments and concepts I will be presenting in this book. So I was hoping I could solicit responses - of any variety - as a way of maximizing their impact. The most I can offer in return is infuriating stubborness, relentless condescension, mockery, and gushing thanks in the book's acknowledgements. :D

    We have two general ways of understanding phenomena: by reference to their causes, by learning 'what makes them tick,' or by reference to their reasons, by learning their point or purpose. Nowadays we generally draw a divide between these two explanatory modes: thanks to science, we understand the world in terms of causes, whereas we typically understand one another by reference to reasons. But it wasn't always such. Not so long ago, we understood the world in terms of reasons and purposes as well. For centuries science has been substituting our traditional intentional (reason-based) understanding of the world for it's functional (cause-based) understanding, and to good effect, as this computer mediated message attests.

    The problem with functional understandings is that they seem out and out antagonistic to intentional understandings. There's no purpose to evolution or plate tectonics or the hydrological cycle or combustion. These are simply causal processes. Things happen in the natural world not because they conform to the desires or wishes of any unseen agency, but because of what caused them to happen. (This is why science is central to the possibility of fantasy: what makes magic 'fantastic' is its impossibility given science's fucntional worldview).

    As a result of science's successes, intentionality became subjectified: meaning, purpose, and morality, it was thought, where phenomena belonging to that special corner of the natural world we call humanity. We became the meaning makers, and so long as we remained too complex for science to functionally unravel, there existed a truce of sorts. The world may be bereft of purpose, but we humans were not. All of us have seen this truce played out in innumerable ways in innumerable narratives: the protagonist struggling to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world (and typically finding that meaning in some sentimentalized notion of romantic love).

    That truce has been broken.

    With modern neuroscience we are finally unravelling the human functional puzzle, and surprise-surprise, intentional phenomena like meaning, purpose, and morality are starting to seem as ephemeral in us as they were in the rest of the natural world. We are in the process of being 'disenchanted.'

    It seems that we don't exist.
     
  2. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    Even if all I am is a bunch of switches and reflexes it sure as hell feels to me that I have intentions and morals and choices, so even if someone told me with absolute authority and irrefutable proof that my free will doesn't really exist I don't think I'd let it get to me very much. That only goes so far as no one trying to control me with it though, which is part of why I don't like Kellhus, I'm terrified of ever meeting anyone who could play me like that.

    It seems to me that something that exists as a delusion like self-cleaning ovens or early retirement still exists, if only in the minds of the deluded. I'd like to learn more about that memes thing you talk about I think.
     
  3. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    I still fail to be shocked or frightened by this. We're part of this world, aren't we? I never thught of humanity as "a special corner in the natural world". But, then, as a teenager, I based my philosophy on Pacman...
     
  4. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    Pac-man's like the ultimate consumer isn't he? consume all you can while fleeing the monsters until you consume something that will allow you to CONSUME THEM AS WELL!!! :eek:

    Say hello to Uncle Pac-Sam :D
     
  5. Scott Bakker

    Scott Bakker New Member

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    If human choice is an illusion, and that possibility doesn't bother you, then why should the prospect of 'being controlled' terrify you? If choice is an illusion, then everything you do is 'controlled' anyways, isn't it?

    Let me pose the question to you this way: Do you think genocide is wrong period, neither right nor wrong, or simply right or wrong depending on your POV?
     
  6. Davis Ashura

    Davis Ashura Would be writer? Sure.

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    It is very possible that many of the aspects of what we feel, such as love, compassion, hate, near-death experiences can certainly be induced or mimicked by controlled external processes. However, the underlying biology of what we're actually doing is far beyond us. We may know that certain parts of the brain are responsible for emotional content, or certain tracts connect auditory/visual cues with previous emotional content. How memory is laid down is being understood in a crude way - we know where certain types of memory are processed. We certainly should be able to configure more potent drug delivery systems, such as agents carried on dedrimer that could be far more specific to the neurotransmitters we wish to activate or block. Nanotechnology will fundamentally change how medicine is practiced as individual tissue specific drugs will become inevitable. This is impressive, but it does not get to the heart of the matter.
    Also, my expectations for 'understanding of the functionality' may be a bit different than others. It is not enough for me to know that certain neurotransmitters fired or blocked will cause a certain emotion. I want to know how the body itself regulates those same neurotransmitters. How does the body remodel neuronal connections, not at the gross level, but at the microscopic level? How are neurons reconfigured for love for instance? It can conceivably be possible to induce love with a drug that affects certain neurotransmitters and hormones. But I want more. I want to know what is actually happening at the DNA level, and what proteins are now being produced/not produced. I want to know how the transcription process is affected and what interneuronal connections are made. The enormity of understanding such a process in a way that truly explains it, boggles my mind.
    Also, it seems to me that science is poorly equiped to answer the bigger questions. Science has proven unmatched in evaluating and explaining function, but not the reason. So, I will admit that eventually even the process of emotion may be completely understood (not in my lifetime probably), but the 'why' is still going to be a mystery. For me, that is ultimately more important.
    But perhaps I am wrong, and science will answer the bigger questions also, in a way that proves that we are all just complex biological machines. All our cherished beliefs will be done for, and I suppose the idea of 'alive' will also be meaningless. What to do then?
     
  7. JRMurdock

    JRMurdock Where have I been?

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    Do you feel there is no difference between pre-destined and free will?

    Pre-destined to me just means there's a grand plan and all the 'choices' I make will fit within the grand schema be it work 40 hours a week for 40 years or being a genociding dictator. That's pre-destined.

    'controlled' means I'm a puppet. There is no 'free will' to get to the end by my own means. Everything, every choice, has be made for me.
     
  8. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    While that wasn't me saying it, I think we should be precise. It's not 'being controlled' that's terrifying but the illusions associated with being controlled.

    Actually, I think that without an acute context for reference this is a non-question. It simply doesn't matter if genocide is right or wrong. I'd say, it's "neither wrong nor right" in the sense that the question is irrelevant to me.

    What can I say, I wasn't a very happy kid, and I barely made it through my teenage years... :rolleyes:

    You put it quite well (only left out that they're AFTER YOU!!!). :cool:

    You'll have to explain Uncle Pac-Sam, though. :confused:
     
  9. Hereford Eye

    Hereford Eye Just Another Philistine

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    Can you help me out here, please? Is it your position that identifying the elements of the brain, the neurons, the synapses, the chemicals that excite and/or inhibit brain processes somehow describes the cause of our intentional behavior? Am I understanding you correctly that it is possible to say that if this given synapse closes I will act in a moral way and if it doesn't. I won't? If this is not what you mean, if I am mis-understanding your statement, then what am I missing, please?
    (a) It is quite possible to take a religious view of this and reply "of course we exist in the mind of God."
    (b) We can take DesCartes maxim that "I think, therefore I am." Which is similar to the argument saintjon presented earlier. If I can't tell the difference, what difference does it make?
    (c)Until we can demonstrate how we think - which I understand your argument to be: that we now know from neurology how we think - how can we complain about our existence or lack thereof?
    If your position turns out to be correct, I still wonder if saintjon's question applies yet again: what difference does it make to us? We will still proceed as if we do exist; we do not seem capable of any other response.
    But, as far as I can tell, to answer the question of whether we exist or not, the best we seem to be able to do from a functional POV is to generate is a hypothesis, not even a good theory, just a hypothesis.
    When asked by a philosopher, this question must carry some particular inference to it that we plebeians may miss. Is there a correct answer or does that depend upon my philosophical school?
    The question asks for a moral judgement to be made on a specific action. Moral judgments are made by individuals. So, whatever response is given is judged moral, right, and good by the person responding. Others may not agree with that individual's moral judgments based on their own judgments of the act; but the individual made it.
    Unless, of course, the individual did not make it; it was an excess of dopamine and a shortage of epinephrine that caused an inappropriate synapse to fire. Who makes that determination?
     
  10. kater

    kater Filthy Assistants!

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    On this point, just because you have all the parts laid out in front of you that make up a car, doesn't mean you know how they fit together or the intricacies of how it all works. I think it's dangerous to assume that just because we are beginning to understand, as Radone suggested, all the mechanical processes of human biology doesn't mean we have grasped humanity in our entirety. More than that I would suggest science has only just begun to scratch the surface of what we believe we know, factually, about ourselves.
    Also I'm a little lost as to the link between your final statement - 'we don't exist' and the title of the thread 'Your life is meaningless.' I don't really see how the two fit. I exist, maybe the rest of the world is one big blue pill/red pill nightmare, but at the same time my life is meaningless, further I believe all life is meaningless yet this doesn't lead to the position of 'we don't exist'. We do exist we just don't know what we exist for.
     
  11. Crow

    Crow Banned

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    I think he means the "self" doesn't exist. Your mind and such. Not sure.
     
  12. Murrin

    Murrin Registered User

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    The whole area of neuroscience has been becoming very interesting recently, what with the number of tests into fMRI scanning that have been going on (tests that have successfully identified through brain scans which of two pictures a person is looking at, or the talk there's been of the possibility of fMRI lie detection).
    The idea that one day we might be able to read the cause and function of every aspect of our minds is an interesting one. The more we learn about the scientific causes of our selves, the more ordinary we become, the less special and unexplainable our lives, feelings, and actions will be. We become yet another unremarkable, explainable and ultimately predictable feature of a universe governed by our universe's particular scientific laws.

    Of course, this is change of perspective is of an entirely academic aspect. Being able to understand why and how the human mind does what it does will change that fact that it does do what it does. Even with undeniable knowledge that because of our particular brain structure and chemistry we could never actually act in any different way to that in which we do, doesn't prevent us from having the sense that we are in control - because this sense of choice is part of what makes up our predictable selves. :)D)

    Perceiving the kind of inevitably this suggests as being controlled by your physical nature is wrong however - these properties shouldn't be seen as controlling our selves, they are our selves. An intrinsic part of our life and existance, unavoidable, and, because of the way our minds work, ultimately ignorable.

    I think that I, at least, could comfortably live my life knowing nothing I did wasn't inevitable from the moment the universe began (and perhaps before). Perhaps this is just because I've never believed there was anything spectacular about us anyway.


    (Whew - that was refreshing. Love this kind of discussion :D )
     
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2005
  13. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    God is dead. Long live the scientist.

    Let's define meaning here please. It doesn't much matter to me if my emotions are caused by charging neurons or by Quaaludes. But my memory of the experiences afterward form the basis for my understanding and appreciation of what might come next. My expectations result from my sense of what came before, right or wrong. What triggers my memory, my 'choice' of what I recall as pleasurable and fulfilling, again doesn't matter all that much. What matters is that I feel fulfilled. We eat. Food affects our moods and decisions. We sleep badly or well. That affects how we approach the next day. We take an aspirin or vitamins or steroids. Our perception changes. We breathe polluted air or fresh air and that affects how we move into the next moment. We are constantly and forever being influenced by things we have no sense of whatsoever. So what? On your deathbed, will it matter? We all do what we determine, or what our past experiences determine, or what today's weather determines, or what the sum of humankind's history as we experience it determines, to be the best for us or our sense of family or humanity. And we all try to find some satisfaction and gratification daily. Some of us suffer from chemical imbalances and we will never be at peace. But despite all of these things that we cannot control, we all agree that a chair is something that we sit upon, sweets are tasty but get you fat, sex is fun, infinity is incomprehensible, etc. So we manage to find little pieces of meaning in many of our actions, pieces that fit into our individual puzzles. God for you, science for him.
     
  14. saintjon

    saintjon Illustrious Gambler

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    Well, yes and no. At least my illusory choices come from my own set of bio-switches and not someone else's


    I would take the third option, and add "or neither" on the end. Absolutes are hard to come by. Even if we all have our own set of reflex decisions waiting to fire (and even as machines we are WAY more complex/ adaptable than any machine we've built that we could try comparing ourselves to) they differ from person to person, and situation to situation. So one person's genocide is another person's necessary cleanup is yet another person's boring distraction from a fine cup of coffee, so let them defend their choices. For me personally it is wrong but I feel I'd be fooling myself to think that everyone would agree with me. Hmm I begin to see a bit more depth to this question. Let me try again.

    Since the question is posed to me I will say that I find it to be wrong, but I can't make my opinion absolute in the foreseeable future, it's totally possible that not everyone would see it my way. Also, I could really choose to attach any number of different meanings to genocide, therefore I could see where someone might decide it's neither. Basically I don't have enough to go by in the question really to make a more certain answer. Sorry.

    Do you think there's any link between morality and necessity? What about conflicting necessities? Like something needs to happen, does that make it right? What about someone else who needs it not to happen...
     
  15. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    Without a specific context for that question Scott, it's impossible to answer. The inclination after centuries of conditioning is of course to say genocide is wrong in any context. But what does it mean to be wrong? At the risk of being misunderstood, I would say that in the end, genocide is no more right or wrong than any other actions we commit based upon the same moral presuppositions that ultimately would make genocide ethically reprehensible as well. What if it could be proven that the elimination of a specific race would destroy a gene that could eventually save millions and millions? But even that example begs the question. In this current day and age, it would depend upon our tolerance for the reprehensible, reprehensible being a descriptive word here. On the other hand, humans do have this natural tendency to deplore pain and to empathize with other's pain to an extent. The empathy might arise from the simple fact that we envision the same actions upon ourselves. Nevertheless, conditioning and circumstances allow us to do just about anything. We deceive ourselves all the time.
     
  16. Scott Bakker

    Scott Bakker New Member

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    Holy moly! Be careful what you wish for, I guess... :D

    Given the complexities of the brain, nothing will ever be 'completely' understood, but then that's not the point. The problem is that the more we learn the more difficult it becomes to square that knowledge with what we assume about ourselves.

    The threat here isn't one of science 'answering the bigger questions,' but one of having those questions explained away. What happens when 'Why?' turns out to be a cognitive illusion?

    Take the 'feeling of will,' the sense we have that we are in some kind of control over our actions. 'Willpower' is looking more and more like a cognitive illusion. If there's no real such thing as 'choice' it becomes awful hard to make sense out of responsibility, which makes it hard to make sense out of morality... You get the picture: the whole conceptual house of cards comes tumbling down.

    Just to be clear, nihilism is NOT my position. I'm just playing the devil's advocate.

    Given that morality and purposiveness seem to be written into the very structure of experience, we certainly we have 'no choice' but to proceed 'as if' they were real even if we know they're not. But certainly that's a big difference from knowing that they are in fact real!

    But the issue is one of self-control not control-by-others. If willing is an illusion, that means a cornerstone experience, one that anchors the whole system of concepts we use to make sense of ourselves and each other, is in large measure false. I'm not so sure that's ignorable.

    But as you yourself say, Gary, the question is one of what this 'meaning' is... The question is one of whether we find little pieces of real or illusory meaning in our lives.

    This actually answers the question as much as it challenges it, Dawnstorm. I'm curious, what would it take for genocide to be relevant to you, Dawnstorm? Must it impinge on your concerns first?

    In other words, Yes and yes... :D
     
  17. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    So we embrace a cognitive illusion. It feels good, right? We embrace illusions all day every day, and we know it. We rationalize all of the time, and we know it. Certainty has never been all that important to most people when it comes to issues like this. The bigger picture of socialization successes and physical pleasures that support our illusions of responsibility and ability are more important than the truth about the real origin of our efforts.

    There is a cognitive impasse here. No matter who tells us that we are nothing, that we don't really exist, that we aren't efficacious in our own right, we will never believe them. We still and always have this sense of self that is distinct from each other, that separates us from the things around us and that we go to sleep with at night and wake up with in the morning. That cognitive continuity of self makes your concerns fade into the background. It make them seem out of sync with the world as we see it daily. If you convince me that I am just an illusion, then the conversation is pointless to begin with, isn't it? Who the hell am I talking to?

    If we require certainty about perception and understanding, we are never going to be satisfied. There are always too many contingencies. But do we really need it Scott? Is there anything so special or crucial about certainty? I can live with expectations of likelihood. I can live with doubt. You are one of the proponents of doubt, so why do you have such a compelling need to be certain about our efficacy?
     
  18. Scott Bakker

    Scott Bakker New Member

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    Maybe a few of us do. But the vast majority?

    You tell me. I have an experience of willing, of deciding and undertaking directed actions, and science - which is only the greatest instrument of discovery in the history of the human race - tells me that these experiences have no basis in reality, that I'm simply fooled into thinking I exercise control, the same way I'm fooled into thinking I can see colour in my periphery, or into thinking there's no hole near the centre of my field of vision.

    Were does that leave me? Are you suggesting that it doesn't matter what science has to say on these issues?

    I'm don't see the 'compelling need' you refer to? Skepticism doesn't entail cognitive quietism. Otherwise, I'm not sure of the relevance of this concern to the question of nihilism.
     
  19. Gary Wassner

    Gary Wassner GemQuest

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    Here's where you lose me. What in the world is this reality you refer to? I guess that I don't understand how, if all you are saying about our lack of existence as true cognitive entities is to be accepted, we can even use the word reality.

    Everyone rationalizes. We have an urge to eat something but we know it's not healthy, so we hem and haw and then we give in to the urge and tell ourselves that tomorrow we will exercise more control. We understand that the 'we' who wants not to eat that candy bar or to run that extra mile is the same 'we' who ends up eating it or pushing the stop button on the treadmil. But one, the one that knows how to rationalize, assimilates this disparate urge and consequent action, and determines that it's okay.

    Sure what science has to say matters. But still the facts of science are interpreted by humans and explicated by humans and assimilated by humans. How is this process of discovery possible? Can we really discover things that prove we cannot truly discover things?
     
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2005
  20. Scott Bakker

    Scott Bakker New Member

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    It is a fact that we suffer cognitive illusions. I think I see colour in my periphery, but I really don't. This means what's 'real for me' (seeing colour in my periphery) isn't 'real in fact.' It is an entirely plausible empirical hypothesis that much, if not all, of our experience is not 'real in fact,' that we are as systematically deluded about ourselves as we once were about the world.

    At this level at least, I'm not sure I see your problem. Things start getting hairy when you consider the possibility that the cognitive opposition between 'real for me' and 'real in fact' is itself illusory: the possibility that cognitive illusions are themselves cognitive illusions (because cognition itself is a kind of functional deception)! I certainly can't make any sense of that, even though once again it is an empirical possibility.

    But this simply illustrates the profundity of what's at stake, doesn't it? If anything it makes the issue more pressing and problematic.