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For the purposes of a philosophical study I am seeking a framework that would regard humans fairly unsympathetically, both individually and en masse, but which is not in itself essentially pessimistic. I am sure that there must be established frameworks along these lines.

I am trying to unpack the philosophy emergent in the writings of the American writer of 'weird fiction', HP Lovecraft (Wikipedia entry here). He seems torn. On the one hand he seems convinced that the universe is serenely indifferent to all living creatures, including humanity. On the other, some of his characters are portrayed as labouring (often unwittingly) to repay the sins of their ancestors. In those cases, the universe seems to recognise not only humanity, but specific individuals.

If these tendencies are to be reconciled, it seems that humanity must be acknowledged as having a distinctive cognitive perspective in at least having the capacity to address the world in a way that animals cannot, and this also appears to confer some degree of moral duty (thus arguing against Existential Nihilism: here, the capacity for judgment brings responsibility). At the same time, part of this address seems to require that humans who can recognise this position should keep it in proportion, and understand that none of this brings with it any special rights: the fact that we can recognise the absurdism of it all does not grant us any means of getting round it.

In day-to-day practicality, this appears to amount to the ludicrous, self-deluding futility of seeking meaning and significance in chasing a pay rise or buying a hat. Such acts positively advertise an unwillingness to get things in perspective.

From my literary background I would associate this kind of perspective as sharing some features of Romanticism, and some from the Gothic Revival (personally, I regard both of those as being different angles on much the same thing). There is something of absurdism in this. There is also some resonance here with Taoism.

I'll sketch some basic ideas, while trying not to constrain things too much.

  1. The world is what it is, and is therefore in some sense 'good': it cannot help being straightforwardly 'honest'. Avalanches, mushrooms, carnivores, forest fires, ice ages, savannahs... all of these things participate in an ongoing, self-regulating balance (which also encompasses evolution, continental drift, etc.).

  2. This does not require nature-worship. The core would be something much more like a realistic sensitivity to and appreciation of natural systems. Nature does not care about us, any more than it 'cares' about bees or pebbles. In effect, worshipping nature would be more a self-aggrandising declaration of our own supposed importance than anything else.

  3. Humans compulsively impose complex ideological structures upon this network of natural entities and events, to justify activity that typically limits its views and objectives in practice to social concerns (often preoccupied with the locus of social power). We spend a lot of time and effort on initiatives to resist and/or control natural systems, not always sensibly (e.g. building skyscrapers on fault lines).

  4. Individual humans expend a surprising amount of energy upon self-satisfaction and self-flattery. It is much easier to justify a varied accumulation of artistic items, than an extensive wardrobe or a prestigious but stressful and destructive job. Many social mechanisms are geared merely towards persuading individuals that in some cloudy way they are valued and respected.

Any suggestions? Of course this general line of thought cannot be new, but I am not currently aware of any particularly well-defined and structured statement of it.

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    The idea of "supposed importance" suggests that the idea of importance is not real, and "appreciation of natural systems" suggests that there is something important enough to be appreciated, but that something turns out to be nothing more than the "honest" disregard for us, presumably because we're unimportant. Does your system of thought suppose the existence of some real basis for the idea of importance? Or, do you believe that it would be more consistent to say that nothing is really important? – user3017 Nov 24 '16 at 16:53
  • Pé de Leão I should have said 'assumed importance', for a human propensity to imagine a privileged relationship with the world. Gothic, absurdism and Taoism coincide here: you can say all you like about harmony with the universe, but if you get in its way it will simply drive over you without noticing. Everything is 'important' in that empirical existence is significant and noteworthy: penguins, asteroids and air currents. I wondered about taking such a view without in the process privileging the human perspective. The position I am imagining is not fundamentally nihilistic. – Captain Cranium Nov 24 '16 at 23:25
  • Everything you're saying assumes perspective. The idea of importance assumes the capacity to evaluate; significance assumes apprehension; noteworthiness assumes the ability to take notice and assign value. Nature has no perspective (it drives right over you), and you're rejecting human perspective. By process of elimination, it sounds like you're seeking God. That's the only world view that makes sense anyway. Otherwise, you might as well be a nihilist. – user3017 Nov 25 '16 at 1:41
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    Can you edit down and specify what your question about philosophy is? I'm having trouble finding it in your post. – virmaior Nov 25 '16 at 5:28
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    I see. You're looking for a philosophy that could expound on the logical inconsistencies of Lovecraft's "weird fiction," but most people wouldn't call that philosophy. You're personifying the universe because it doesn't make sense to derive subjective value from the impersonal, but it only amounts to inventing the very thing you hope to conclude. There's no hope of finding "reconciliation" for that type of circular reasoning. – user3017 Nov 25 '16 at 13:13
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I think that you should take an objective scientific view.

1 The world is what it is, and is therefore in some sense 'good': it cannot help being straightforwardly 'honest'. Avalanches, mushrooms, carnivores, forest fires, ice ages, savannahs... all of these things participate in an ongoing, self-regulating balance (which also encompasses evolution, continental drift, etc.).

The above seems very scientific to me. The notion of how the world 'as is' is in some sense good is promoted by evolution. Since we evolved in this word we have developed survival skills in it. It is where we can survive (most of the time). It's good to survive, survival instinct is required by evolution.

2 This does not require nature-worship. The core would be something much more like a realistic sensitivity to and appreciation of natural systems. Nature does not care about us, any more than it 'cares' about bees or pebbles. In effect, worshipping nature would be more a self-aggrandising declaration of our own supposed importance than anything else.

Worshiping nature in the religious metaphysical sense is clearly not scientific. Being fascinated by nature and studying it is due to the kind of appreciation you describe. The scientific descriptions of chemistry and biology/evolution attribute no intentions to it's workings. Humans are neither elevated or debased scientifically.

3 Humans compulsively impose complex ideological structures upon this network of natural entities and events, to justify activity that typically limits its views and objectives in practice to social concerns (often preoccupied with the locus of social power). We spend a lot of time and effort on initiatives to resist and/or control natural systems, not always sensibly (e.g. building skyscrapers on fault lines).

Yes, we do many foolish things. Such would be expected in an objective understanding of a species that is slowly learning about how the world works, how it has developed into an extremely social species, so highly dependent on on another as we emerged so recently from really brute creatures into amazingly sophisticated ANIMALS with massive killing and creative powers. We compete as individuals and cooperate as nations. We don't know our own genetic differences, tendencies toward violence and compassion. If we don't kill ourselves off we'll sort out why we have such bad actors and miracle workers all called the same species. This variety within the species is exactly what one would expect from a species whose only real competition for survival is itself. While evolving we needed those ready to kill quickly when threatened,-- to protect the tribe, we needed the kind ones to tame the viscous ones and keep the tribe together.

4) Individual humans expend a surprising amount of energy upon self-satisfaction and self-flattery. It is much easier to justify a varied accumulation of artistic items, than an extensive wardrobe or a prestigious but stressful and destructive job. Many social mechanisms are geared merely towards persuading individuals that in some cloudy way they are valued and respected.

Individual survival to produce offspring has honed our intra-species interactions/competition to a fevered pitch. The power that these animals possess, have developed by way of cooperation has amplified the societies abilities to provide rewards for the winners and the power to control others way beyond the types of controls present in the hunter gatherer groups from which we came. Our social instincts , so necessary for our species, drives a major sense of morality and responsibility to the group ( tribe if you will). Yet we have the hunters still among us, so good at stealth, sneaking up on the nights dinner, so essential for survival. Those skills make good criminals and politicians. Absurd? Yes and for and an absurd reason, we needed it for survival- contradictions liars, sneaks, geniuses and followers. This is the scientific viewpoint on humans. We are animals of wild design. Really really smart compared to any other ANIMALS. It's amazing that we turned out so well, it's amazing that we haven't already killed each other off.

  • "Really really smart compared to any other ANIMALS" Dolphins have probably slightly more complex than those of humans, or at least very close. One aspect you haven't accommodated is losing the hubris, which science doesn't have a great record with. Especially in terms of subjugating animals for our research convenience. – CriglCragl Feb 26 '18 at 23:28
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Starting from Nietzsche, taking Perspectivism as the morality, I would say there is at least one established framework that applies.

If the whole of reality is about negotiating power relations, and everyone is present to provide a perspective on reality and to attempt to assert will and live with maximal effect, that is not specifically about humans, it is about the nature of genetics. When our species is gone, power relations between genes or other forces will continue, as they existed before us.

Various people have tried to evolve this notion further in ways that correct for Nietzsche's megalomania, artistic temperament and basic mental instability. Unfortunately many of them are political activists focussed on ecology or anti-Christian religionists trying to form a morality based on a vision of nature, rather than philosophers.

For a normalization of Nietzsche with healthy individualism as its morality and a focus on attachment to nature, I would point you specifically at Creation Spirituality as expressed in Witchcraft, in the form of Starhawk's "Truth or Dare". But again, she is a psychologist, and a religionist, not a philosopher.

From this perspective, I would answer your enumerated concerns:

1) Yes, nature is good, because it is more powerful than we are. So our tendency to impose control over it needs to give way to working with and through it. But we can only have effect by working toward our own ends, and other parts of nature do not share those ends. We will always consider our own ends good, and we will always choose 'good' to mean something specific to ourselves. That does not put us at odds with nature unless we are looking for something to be at odds with.

2) We are beings evolved to worship. Worship is a form of power-with. Not worshiping the things in our world that are more powerful than we are is a mistake, a betrayal of our basic nature, and in that a forfeiture of part of our collective mind. Why avoid this in particular?

3) We are social story-driven beings, so we impose stories on things. That includes ideologies. This is not waste. It is the primary way our minds grasp reality. Resisting power is not a way to be powerful, it is a way to be dead. But it is also reflexive not to allow yourself to be limited unnecessarily. Resisting natural resistance is defying nature -- so don't. On the other hand, we are in a period where domination is the primary expression of power, so we do stupid things to display domination and independence. But that is a lack of perspective created by the shape of our stories, and partly by the fact that our power-focusing institutions have been spread by war, and are all shaped in a warrior mode. It is not something humans naturally do too much.

4) We do live for evidence of our power: we are story-driven animals. Genes seek power, and we want to see that power in stories we can tell ourselves about ourselves. Again, that is not silly, it is just out of context. Look at the profusion of waste that sustains life. We will do that. All the simple mechanisms have been leveraged enough that this kind of thing is what is needed to move forward. It is actually our attempts to be efficient that are the most wasteful, not our enjoyment of our own power. (You mention building a skyscraper on a fault line -- but that happens because having it there produces efficient profit offsetting the risk. How much self-indulgence does it take to offset that level of investment? Self indulgence is implicitly limited, so I doubt it is even possible.)

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I have not read Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", but I have come across it in a class. It seems quite similar to your description. I am unclear of the exact argument, but from what I recall, he draws on Nietzsche's concept of the "unbearable weight" brought on by the burden of eternal return. I believe Kundera refutes this burden by challenging that, without being able to affect any change in this ever repeating cycle, we have only the one life to live. Thus, we can shed the weight of the return, by ensuring we are constantly seeking the best in our own action. It's that endeavour alone which can set us free. This may fit perfectly with what you are investigating because it does not award any unique rights or responsibilities to humanity. It merely provides certain people, who can internalize this view, with the added ability to achieve happiness.

If I am off base in my understanding of the novel, please feel free to correct.

  • Really superb book, well worth the time to read. I'd agree with your summary, but it's far more interesting and compelling in prose. – CriglCragl Feb 26 '18 at 23:23
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It reminds me most strongly of Albert Camus' version of absurdism, in which people live their lives and strive towards moral choices, in spite of the "objective fact" that there is no meaning in any of it.

This position is perhaps best captured in his novel The Plague which dramatizes the variant reactions of a group of villagers to an unexpected disaster, a disease that kills mercilessly, and without regards to people's individual traits. While we, the readers, may admire those who find a way to survive and carry on, Camus is careful not to imply that the universe cares one way or the other.

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Why do you expect a single word or a short description? You seem to have a pick-and-mix perspective, that it would take a pick-and-mix description for.

"at least having the capacity to address the world in a way that animals cannot"

Why though? You mean because by talking about these topics we can evidence to each other we think about them? Do you just mean cognitive capacity-wise & aliens included too?

"and this also appears to confer some degree of moral duty"

Why? Because we can invent morals, we should have some?

Lovecraft wrote Cosmic Horror, and you could link that to Cosmic Pessimism. Possibly a Spinozaist kind of deism. Other than that you seem more to be about a literary-aesthetic mode than a philosophical one. I suspect Daoism does not fit the role you want it to, though your description is too vague to be sure. In the context of artistic items rather than things for prestige, ypu might be interest in Japanese tea ceremony concepts, ichi-go ichi-e (the one-timeness of encounters and gatgerings) & wabi sabi (an aesthetic centered around the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete).

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