Archive for the Prometheus Category

Fatal Curiosity: Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the Terror of the Known

Posted in Consciousness, Existentialism, Gothic, Horror, irrational, Literature, Lovecraft, Lovecraftian, Metaphor, Metaphysics, Myth, Nietzsche, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Pop culture, Prometheus, Psychology, rationalizing animal, Religion, religious, Repression, resistance to critical thinking, short story, Speculative fiction, terror, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by Uroboros

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

If you’re a fan, you might think this an excerpt from an H.P. Lovecraft story, one of his twisted tales about erudite, curious men who learn too much about the nature of reality and are either destroyed or deeply damaged by what they discover. But this is actually the opening to Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-moral Sense” (1873), a biting critique of the epistemological pretentiousness he finds running rampant through Western philosophy. Nietzsche is an iconoclastic philosopher, hammering away at venerated ideas, slashing through sacred assumptions. He gleefully turns traditional theories on their heads, challenging our beliefs, disturbing our values—an intellectual calling that has much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s literary mission. His favorite theme is what he calls cosmic indifferentism. If Lovecraft has a philosophy, it is this: the universe was not created by a divine intelligence who infused it with an inherent purpose that is compatible with humanity’s most cherished existential desires. The cosmos is utterly indifferent to the human condition, and all of his horrific monsters are metaphors for this indifference.

Nietzsche and Lovecraft are both preoccupied with the crises this conundrum generates.

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

“What does man actually know about himself?” Nietzsche asks, “Does nature not conceal most things from him?” With an ironic tone meant to provoke his readers, he waxes prophetic: “And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness.” In Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” (1934) this ‘fatal curiosity’ is personified in the scientist Crawford Tillinghast. “What do we know of the world and the universe about us?” Tillinghast asks his friend, the story’s unnamed narrator. “Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature.” His Promethean quest is to build a machine that lets humans transcend the inherent limitations of our innate perceptual apparatus, see beyond the veil of appearances, and experience reality in the raw. From a Nietzschean perspective, Tillinghast wants to undo the effect of a primitive but deceptively potent technology: language.

In “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-moral Sense,” Nietzsche says symbolic communication is the means by which we transform vivid, moment-to-moment impressions of reality into “less colorful, cooler concepts” that feel “solid, more universal, better known, and more human than the immediately perceived world.” We believe in universal, objective truths because, once filtered through our linguistic schema, the anomalies, exceptions, and border-cases have been marginalized, ignored, and repressed. What is left are generic conceptual properties through which we perceive and describe our experiences. “Truths are illusions,” Nietzsche argues, “which we have forgotten are illusions.” We use concepts to determine whether or not our perceptions, our beliefs, are true, but all concepts, all words, are “metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.” [For more analysis of this theory of language, read my essay on the subject.]

Furthermore, this process happens unconsciously: the way our nervous system instinctually works guarantees that what we perceive consciously is a filtered picture, not reality in the raw. As a result, we overlook our own creative input and act as if some natural or supernatural authority ‘out there’ puts these words in our heads and compels us to believe in them. Lovecraft has a similar assessment. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), his essay on the nature and merits of Gothic and weird storytelling, he says the kind of metaphoric thinking that leads to supernatural beliefs is “virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned…there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue,” hence our innate propensity to perceive superhuman and supernatural causes when confronting the unknown. Nietzsche puts it like this: “All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them…we produce these representations in and from ourselves with the same necessity with which the spider spins.” This, of course, applies to religious dogmas and theological speculations, too.

From Beyond (1986 film adaptation)

From Beyond (1986 film adaptation)

In “From Beyond,” Crawford Tillinghast wants to see “things which no breathing creature has yet seen…overleap time, space, and dimensions, and…peer to the bottom of creation.” The terror is in what slips through the rift and runs amok in this dimension. His scientific triumph quickly becomes a horrific nightmare, one that echoes Nietzsche’s caveat about attaining transgressive knowledge: “If but for an instant [humans] could escape from the prison walls” of belief, our “‘self consciousness’ would be immediately destroyed.”

Here in lies the source of our conundrum, the existential absurdity, the Scylla and Charybdis created by our inherent curiosity: we need to attain knowledge to better ensure our chances of fitting our ecological conditions and passing our genes along to the next generation, and yet, this very drive can bring about our own destruction. It’s not simply that we can unwittingly discover fatal forces. It’s when the pursuit of knowledge moves beyond seeking the information needed to survive and gets recast in terms of discovering values and laws that supposedly pertain to the nature of the cosmos itself. Nietzsche and Lovercraft agree this inevitably leads to existential despair because either we continue to confuse our anthropomorphic projections with the structure of reality itself, and keep wallowing in delusion and ignorance as a result, or we swallow the nihilistic pill and accept that we live in an indifferent cosmos that always manages to wriggle out of even our most clear-headed attempts to grasp and control it. So it’s a question of what’s worse: the terror of the unknown or the terror of the known?

Nietzsche is optimistic about the existential implications of this dilemma. There is a third option worth pursuing: in a godless, meaningless universe, we have poetic license to become superhuman creatures capable of creating the values and meanings we need and want. I don’t know if Lovecraft is confident enough in human potential to endorse Nietzsche’s remedy, though. If the words of Francis Thurston, the protagonist from his most influential story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), are any indication of his beliefs, then Lovecraft doesn’t think our epistemological quest will turn out well:

“[S]ome day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality…we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

"Cthulhu Rising" by_Somniturne

“Cthulhu Rising” by_Somniturne

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The Promethean Urge

Posted in Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Forbidden Fruit, God, Literature, Morality, Mythology, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Technology with tags , , , on June 10, 2012 by Uroboros

When Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man, his punishment is to be bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again. The idea of breaking through boundaries is the key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth. Humans can’t help being curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be.

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. If we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals. Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. With the power of genetics, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances, and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. We can create tools of mass salvation and destruction. The sci-fi authors and filmmakers I admire most tend to imply that the sin isn’t necessarily in wanting to explore unknown territories. Hubris isn’t an epistemological issue. It’s a moral one. The sin is in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it too.

More Human Than Human: Blade Runner and the Radical Ethics of A.I.

Posted in A.I., artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Brain Science, Christianity, Consciousness, Descartes, Entertainment, Ethics, Film, Jesus, Morality, Neurology, Phillip K Dick, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Philosophy of Mind, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Psychology, Religion, Ridley Scott, Science, Science fiction, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on April 27, 2012 by Uroboros

Blade Runner: What makes us human?

Self-consciousness is a secret, or at least its existence is predicated upon one. The privacy of subjective experience has mystified philosophers for centuries and dogged neuroscientists for decades. Science can, in principle, unravel every enigma in the universe, except perhaps for the one that’s happening in your head right now as you see and understand these words. Neurologists can give rich accounts of the visual processing happening in your occipital lobes and locate the cortical regions responsible for parsing the grammar and grasping the concepts. But they can’t objectively identify the ‘you’ part. There’s no neuron for ‘the self.’ No specific neural network which is essentially causing ‘you’ –with all your unique memories, interpretive quirks, and behavioral habits—to read these words have the particular experience you are having.

This problem is illustrated in debates about artificial intelligence. The goal is to create non-biological sentience with a subjective point-of-view, personal memories, and the ability to make choices. The Turing Test is a method for determining whether a machine is truly intelligent, as opposed to just blindly following a program and reacting algorithmically to stimuli. Basically, if a computer or a robot can convince enough people in a blind test that it is intelligent, then it is. That’s the test. The question is, what kind of behaviors and signs would a machine have to have in order to convince you that it’s self-aware?

Voight-Kampf Test

The 1982 film Blade Runner, based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, has a version of this called the Voight-Kampf test. The androids in the story, Nexus-6 Replicants, are so close to humans in appearance and behavior that it takes an intense psychological questionnaire coupled with a scan of retinal and other involuntary responses to determine the difference. A anomalous emotional reaction is symptomatic of artificial, as opposed to natural, intelligence. Rachel, the Tyrell corporation’s most state-of-the-art Replicant, can’t even tell she’s artificial. “How can it not know what it is?” asks Deckard, the bounty hunter charged with ‘retiring’ rogue Replicants. Tyrell says memory implants have given her a sense of self, a personal narrative context through which she views the world. The line between real and artificial humans, therefore, is far from clear. Rachel asks Deckard if he’s ever ‘retired’ a human by mistake. He says he hasn’t, but the fact that Rachel had to ask is telling. Would you want to take this test?

If you think about it, what makes you’re own inner subjectivity provable to others—and their subjectivity provable to you—are the weird kind of quirks, the idiosyncrasies which are unique to you and would be exceedingly difficult for a program to imitate convincingly. This is what philosophers call the problem of other minds. Self-consciousness is the kind of thing which, by its very nature, cannot be turned inside out and objectively verified. This is what Descartes meant by ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Your own mental experience is the only thing in the world you can be sure of. You could, in principle, be deluded about the appearance of the outer world. You think you’re looking at this computer screen, but who do you know you’re not dreaming or hallucinating or are part of Matrix-like simulation? According to Descartes’ premise, even the consciousness of others could be faked, but you cannot doubt the fact that you are thinking right now, because to doubt this proposition is to actually prove it. All we’re left with is our sense of self. We are thinking things.

Fembot Fatale

The Turing Test, however, rips the rug away from this certainty. If the only proof for intelligence is behavior which implies a mindful agent as its  source, are you sure you could prove you’re a mindful, intelligent being to others? Can you really prove it to yourself? Who’s testing who? Who’s fooling who?

The uncanny proposition hinted at in Blade Runner is that you, the protagonist of your own inner narrative, may actually be artificial, too. Like Rachel and the not-so-human-after-all Deckard, you may be an android and not know it. Your neural circuitry may not have evolved by pure accident. The physical substrate supporting your ‘sense of self’ may be the random by-product of natural selection, something that just blooms from the brain, like an oak grows out of an acorn—but ‘the you part’ has to be programmed in. The circuitry is hijacked by a cultural virus called language, and the hardware is transformed in order to house a being that maybe from this planet, but now lives in its own world. Seen this way, the thick walls of the Cartesian self thin out and become permeable—perforated by motivations and powers not your own, but ‘Society’s.’ Seen in this light, it’s not as hard to view yourself as a kind of robot programmed to behave in particular ways in order to serve purposes which are systematically hidden.

This perspective has interesting moral implications. The typical question prompted by A.I. debates is, if we can make a machine that feel and thinks, does it deserve to be treated with the same dignity as flesh and blood human beings? Can a Replicant have rights? I ask my students this question when we read Frankenstein, the first science fiction story. Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was already pondering the moral dilemma posed by A.I. Victor Frankenstein’s artificially-intelligent creation becomes a serial-killing monster precisely because his arrogant and myopic creator (the literary critic Harold Bloom famously called Victor a ‘moral idiot’) refuses to treat him with any dignity and respect. He sees his artificial son as a demon, a fiend, a wretch—never as a human being. That’s the tragedy of Shelley’s novel.

Robot, but doesn’t know it

In Blade Runner,the ‘real’ characters come off as cold and loveless, while the artificial ones turn out to be the most passionate and sympathetic. It’s an interesting inversion which suggests that what really makes us human isn’t something that’s reducible to neural wiring or a genetic coding—it isn’t something that can be measured or tested through retinal scans. Maybe the secret to ‘human nature’ is that it can produce the kind of self-awareness which empowers one to make moral decisions and treat other creatures, human and non-human, with dignity and respect. The radical uncertainty which surrounds selfhood, neurologically speaking, only heightens the ethical imperative. You don’t know the degree of consciousness in others, so why not assume other creatures are as sensitive as you are, and do unto others as you would have them do to you.

In other words, how would Jesus treat a Replicant?

Frankenstein: Forbidden Fruit and the Promethean Mirror

Posted in Creature, Ethics, Frankenstein, History, Horror, Knowledge, Literature, Mary Shelley, Monster, Morality, Philosophical and Religious Reflections, Pop Cultural Musings, Prometheus, Religion, Writing with tags , , on April 20, 2012 by Uroboros

Prometheus Bound

Mary Shelley subtitled Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus,’ invoking the mythic archetype of the titanic transgressor, the rebellious figure who pursues forbidden knowledge and power and has to pay for his hubris. Prometheus steals fire from Zeus and gives it to man. His punishment is to bound to a mountaintop for all eternity. Each day, an eagle eats his liver. Each night, the wounds heals, and the next day the torture begins again.

The Modern Prometheus, as envisioned by Shelley, pursues nature’s greatest secret. Victor Frankenstein wants to grasp “the principle of life” so he can “infuse a spark of life into [a] lifeless thing.” He says, “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should break through.” The idea of breaking through boundaries is, of course, key to the enduring power of the Promethean myth.

Through Victor’s grand ambitions, Shelley explores the power humans have to imagine possibilities beyond what our senses reveal about the world. We perceive unseen forces at work in the cosmos; we infer law-like principles at play in nature. Humans are uniquely skilled at imagining everything from spirits and gods to mathematical abstractions and geometric forms. We can’t help but be curious about what’s really ‘out there’ beyond the veil of appearance—can’t help being tempted by the fruit of knowledge that grows there and the power it bestows.

When we part the veil and peer into the other side, though, are we gazing at something we were meant to see, or at a realm that is beyond human capacities and thus dangerous even to behold? Quite often, people think ‘God’ is on the other side—that ‘He’ has drawn the line, and it is out of pride that we want to trespass and set up camp in ‘His’ space. As sinful, broken creatures, we simply don’t know when to quit. A human is, by definition, the kind of being who won’t, or possibly can’t, accept limitations on its nature. Since we were made in God’s image, we are invariably tempted to become what we behold that mirror image to be, ignoring the fact that the same scripture which tells us we’re made in ‘His’ image also says we see through a looking glass, darkly.

Modern Prometheus at work

A survey of human history reveals that, despite our reservations, we have been playing ‘God’ right from the beginning. Restless creatures that we are, humans have always been asking questions, testing possibilities, and putting answers into practice. Victor Frankenstein articulates this ambivalence when he says a “human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility,” the pursuit of knowledge being no exception. But, he adds, if “this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit to interfere with the tranquility,” great advances and historical accomplishments would’ve never happened. In other words, if we didn’t continually test the bounds and explore ‘God’s territory,’ we’d still be hunting and gathering—we’d still be following and praying to animals.

Because we’ve indulged our Promethean urge, however, most humans don’t worship animals anymore. We keep them as pets. We clone them. We’ve pursued the principle of life down to its fundamental molecular formula and are beginning to re-write the code. With the power of genetic knowledge, we’re remaking life itself in our image. Modern civilization has re-framed the boundaries of its looking glass and is both enamored and terrified by what it sees. Undeniably, science and technology have enriched our lives—enhancing our ability to alleviate suffering, to travel previously unthinkable distances and communicate with each other on a global scale—but we can also annihilate ourselves with the push of a button. Global temperatures and sea levels are rising—the whole planet could be doomed.

Are we already trapped on the mountaintop?

If popular culture is a mirror, it certainly casts an anxious image. Over the last decade or so, there’s been an explosion of dark conspiracy theories festering in Internet chat rooms. There are countless apocalyptic movies and dystopian novels, as well as TV shows about zombie hordes and viral pandemics and alien invasions. Superhero epics now get two hundred million dollar budgets because Hollywood knows it’s a relatively safe investment. Why? More than ever the public enjoys the archetypal fantasy these modern myths tap into: the collective dream that a determined individual will rise up or sweep in and set the world right—reorder a culture that has gone too far, that has crossed an important but imperceptible boundary and can’t find its way back.

Mary Shelley

The prophetic genius of Shelley’s 200 year old novel is that it asks us to contemplate the  motivations and emotions that drive us to such extremes in the first place. Victor is a brilliant, ambitious medical student who sees what he’s doing and why he’s doing it in a highly distorted way. His intentions are complex to the point of contradiction and self-delusion. He wants to “banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death,” which sounds like a noble Promethean motivation. However, his research and experiments eventually fuel a desire that sounds less altruistic and more about his own vanity: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” This is the essence of hubris: crossing the taboo boundary in search of personal glory. This isn’t tempting fate in order to provide warmth and comfort for humanity. It’s wanting people to praise you because you had the gall and ingenuity to pull a fast one on Zeus.

If Victor would have been more Promethean, he would’ve been willing to accept the full consequences of his actions. And that’s the real tragedy in  the novel. He’s able to master the principle of life and bring a new being into existence, but he is unwilling to take care of the Creature—to be its parent and nurture its potential humanity. Victor is too immature. He   rejects his artificial son because, well, it’s ugly. More than anything Victor wants to ‘play’ God. He fantasizes and courts the idea, but when it comes   to dealing with the long-term responsibilities, Victor’s performance is a   one night stand. He’s God, the Creator, but not God, the Father.

By the time he realizes it, though, it’s too late. The Creature has become The Monster, and the horror plays out with a chilling, law-like precision. The Latin root of the word ‘monster’ means ‘warning.’ The message is clear: selfish creation begets absolute destruction. And all of it could have been avoided, Shelly suggests, if Victor could have looked into the Promethean mirror clearly and been more critical, more honest, about his true intentions.

Monster means 'warning'

Frankenstein holds the same mirror up to its readers. And as we push deeper into this undiscovered country opened up by modern science and technology, are we going to make the same mistakes as Victor? Shelly’s novel implies that it’s not the Promethean urge itself that’s problematic. The sin isn’t in wanting to explore hitherto forbidden territories. It’s in running away from the implications of what you find. It’s in disowning what you create in the process. Humanity does have to accept at least one limitation: we can’t have the fruit of forbidden knowledge and eat it to.

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