Highly stimulating paper presented by John Collins tonight at Roehampton University.

John was reformulating a distinction made by Chomsky between problems – which are, at least in principle, amenable to human solution – and mysteries, which are of their very nature insoluble, at least insofar as humans are concerned.

As John conceded in the discussion afterwards, the problem-mystery distinction had very definite echoes of Kant’s division between the phenomenal and the noumenal, and the empirical and the transcendental.

Problems are always contingent and empirical. It just so happens that we have not yet solved them, but that is an empirical question (it might, for instance, be because we don’t have the right equipment or the right concepts yet) not a transcendental one. Exactly those allegedly ‘insoluble’ enigmas inevitably cited by devotees of Qualia Qult in the audience as the very quintessence of the mysterious – consciousness! love! – are of course nothing of the sort. Needless to say, as trivial technical matters, both consciousness and love have already been solved philosophically – if I smash your brain, you won’t have any consciousness; if I take you into a lab and stimulate your neurons in a particular area, you will feel overwhelming lurv. (cf Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded for the grim details of how sexual love was cooked up in a neuroporno lab by the Nova Criminals). All we’re waiting for is a neuroscience sufficiently fine-tuned to provide the details.

On the other hand, there are what I will hesitatingly call meta-mysteries, or conundra the very existence of which we cannot conceive. To speak like Donald Rumsfeld, these are things we don’t know we don’t know about. Or rather: things we not only do not but cannot know we don’t know about. These meta-mysteries would be noumenal in the Kantian sense, but they aren’t mysteries by dint of the very fact that we cannot formulate them. (This suggests that, while mysteries are noumenal, not all of the noumenal is a mystery).

The issue seems to be formulation. A rat cannot formulate its mysteries, and so properly speaking, does not have mysteries at all. (The aspect of its world it samples but does not conceptually process would presumably be a kind of background fuzz of the inexplicable-unthought.)

So while John said that we cannot know in advance what would constitute a mystery – because a genuine mystery must be insoluble in an absolute sense and the issue of what the limits of human cognition are is an open empirical question at the moment – good candiates would be Godel’s theorem and Cantorian continuum. There is something structural about the insolubility of these conundra.

One of the counter-arguments against the distinction between problems and mysteries is that human beings are special. There is, it is held, something about human beings – capacity for language, or mathematics – that means that no problem is in principle resistant to our attempts to solve it. But the mathematical examples of potential mysteries suggest that our capacity to think mathematically – or rather to run mathematical programmes – is precisely a mystery-generating faculty. This raises the possibility that, if there is anything special about us, it is our very capacity to see ourselves and our cognition as abject local contingencies. It is this ability to use reason to probe its own limits that allows us to unplug ourselves from carnocentric animal narcissism.

The paper raised all sorts of fascinating transcendental materialist questions that can be posed in both a PKD-cyberpunk and a Lovecraftian-Horror register. On the PKD-cyberpunk level I was put in mind especially of Dick’s speculative fictions about humans who have their intelligence artificially augmented. At what point does an empirical adjustment produce a transcendental shift? But I was most often reminded of Lovecraft, whose stories relentlessly expose both the arbitrary origins of human cognition and its pitiful limitations. The entities looming at the threshold of sense in Lovecraft’s cosmos are transcendentally, not merely empirically, alien. In other words, it is not a question of different body shapes or an extraterrestrial origin, but of a constitution wholly alien to Human OS’s space, time and causality. To face these Outsiders
is to be confronted with the radical arbitariness of the universe.

Houllbecq: ‘The universe is merely a chance arrangement of elementary particles. A transitory image in the midst of chaos. Which will end with the inevitable: The human race will disappear. Other races will appear, and disappear in turn. The heavens are cold and empty, traversed by the faint light of half-dead stars. Which, also, will disappear. Everything disappears. And human actions are just as random and senseless as the movements of elementary particles. Good, evil, morality, fine sentiments? Pure “victorian fictions”. …

Lovecraft is well aware of the depressing nature of these conclusions. As he wrote in 1918, “all rationalism tends to minimize the value and importance of life, and to diminish the total quantity of human happiness. In some cases the truth could cause suicide, or at least precipitate a near-suicidal depression.”

… Of course, life has no meaning. But neither does death. And this is one of the things that chills the blood when one discovers Lovecraft’s universe. The death of his heroes has no meaning. It brings no relief. It doesn’t bring the story to a conclusion, not at all. Implacably, HPL destroys his characters without suggesting more than the dismemberment of a puppet. Indifferent to their wretched comings and goings, the cosmic fear continues to grow. It expands and articulates itself. The Great Cthulhu arises from his slumber.
What is the Great Cthulhu? An arrangement of electrons, like ourselves. The terror of Lovecraft is rigorously materialist. But it is strongly possible, from the free play of cosmic forces, that the Great Cthulhu has at his disposal a force and a power of action considerably superior to ours. Which is not, a priori, anything especially reassuring.

In all his voyages in the strange worlds of the unknown, Lovecraft never brings back any good news. Maybe, he confirms to us, there is something hidden, which can sometimes be perceived, behind the veil of reality. But in truth, it is something vile.

It is certainly possible that beyond the limited purview of our perceptions, other entities exist. Other creatures, other races, other concepts and other intelligences. Amidst these entities must surely be some of far superior intelligence and knowledge. But this isn’t necessarily good news. What would we think if these creatures, so different from ourselves, exhibited in some way a similar moral nature? Nothing permits us to suppose a transgression of the universal laws of egotism and wickedness. It is ridiculous to imagine that these beings would wait for us in some far corner of the cosmos, full of wisdom and benevolence, to guide us toward some sort of mutual harmony. To imagine the way they would treat us if we came into contact with them, we should rather recollect the way in which we ourselves treat “inferior intelligences”, rabbits and frogs. In the best case scenario, they serve as food; sometimes – often – we simply kill them for the pleasure of it. These are, Lovecraft warns us, the true models for our future relations with “alien intelligences”. Maybe certain particularly fine specimens of the human race may have the honour of ending up on the dissecting table; and that’s it.

And, once more, none of this has any meaning whatsoever.

For humans of the end of the twentieth century, this cosmos devoid of hope is absolutely our world. This abject universe, where fear spreads in concentric circles from the unnameable revelation, this universe where our only imaginable destiny is to be crushed and devoured, we recognize absolutely as our mental universe. And Lovecraft’s success is already just a symptom of those who want to capture this state of mind in quick and precise soundbites,. Today more than ever we can make our own this declaration of principles which opens Arthur Jermyn: “Life is a hideous thing; and from the background behind what we know of it peer demoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous.”’

Posted by mark k-p at December 16, 2004 12:16 AM

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