This is the dilemma of being human: believing that something needs to be communicated – a feeling, a thought, an urgent message – and not being able to communicate it; or, having made an attempt at communication and ultimately failing, causing irreparable harm. – David Peake, The Spectacle Of The Void, p. 11
There’s a notion in semi-pop philosophy that I kind of like: It’s called “The Weak Anthropic Principle”. The idea is actually a mixture of commonsense, about both ourselves and the larger Universe. It states that human consciousness as it has evolved is precisely the kind of consciousness one would expect to evolve in the Universe as we understand it. It’s admixture of order with a chaotic element that itself is governed by mathematical laws would, in all likelihood, evolve consciousness similar to our own, with its own understanding of order and acceptance of contingency and limited disorder that provides us the freedom both to imagine as well as figure out the Universe in which we live. With too much order, there would be no imagination, no room for any spark of insight that escapes the rationally resconstructed idea of knowledge. With too much chaos, the physical, chemical, and biological rules that create the needed stability for life itself, then evolution including consciousness, wouldn’t exist.
In other words, it isn’t a Matrix. It isn’t God. It isn’t a demiurge. It’s just the laws of probability with their openendedness that create the condition for a consciousness like our own to evolve. We are not so much special because of consciousness as we are the Universe having evolved to contemplate itself by using the very laws of the Universe to do so.
My recent foray into a species of recent explorations of philosophical pessimism, The Spectacle Of The Void, makes up in repetition what it lacks either in insight or originality. The argument that the facts of our own finite existence, combined with the evolution of human consciousness, which allows us to ponder that gap between our own contingency and the enormity of our Universe as well as the limits of our own ability to comprehend somehow, inexorably, leads to a kind of meta-existential horror in which we understand existence itself and human consciousness in particular as ethically vicious fails on so many levels it’s a wonder it carries on.
Perhaps the most egregious failure of philosophical pessimism is its combination of privilege and hubris. It takes someone with the time and education to consider these matters fully to articulate a philosophical notion of existence itself as evil; it takes a hubris that would make the Greek gods blush to insist that the best – indeed the only – response to the nothingness that is the limit both of our ability to think as well as what awaits us at the end of our contingent, limited life, is to end the entire species. No consciousness, no evils that flow from it. It’s the kind of logic any first-year philosophy student would be proud of.
The thing is, that nothingness, that limit both to human thought and existence, well, that’s not really a big deal, is it? I mean, really, when you think about, after a long life, the rest of death all too often seems like a blessing, particularly to those who are going through it. “But what about . . .?” demand so many voices who insist that certain kinds of death – the death of a child or spouse; young people dying needlessly in wars; the accident of genetics or environment that bring on diseases from cancer through MS to early-onset Alzheimer’s that destroy the human brain and body piece by piece – are morally wrong and proof enough that our Universe is one of singular horrors of which consciousness is the most evil, in need of destruction.
To all those who point out those horrors of disease and intra-human self-destruction, I can only say, “Well, it’s kinda always been this way, hasn’t it?” We lose some diseases – smallpox, say – and we gain others – like the Hanta Virus that emerged in the desert southwest of the US a couple decades ago, a hemorrhagic disease carried by fleas on desert animals. Europe’s age of internecine war is largely over while Africa’s enters its own stage of slaughter over much the same reasons as Europe’s in the 20th century – land, resources, and control over wealth and its production. This isn’t so much an evil as it is just kind of the way human beings and the world are made. A “making” that created our consciousness of that making as well as the “how” of that making. Nothing evil or immoral about it. The evils are the diseases we continue to seek to end; the evils are the human need for power and control over resources for the pursuit of personal and national wealth at the expense of others. These are things we continue to fight against. To struggle with. Rather than insist our consciousness of them renders us incapable of action, that it would be better if the human species cease reproducing in order to end them, that self-same consciousness gives us the tools to work to solve these problems.
The Spectacle Of The Void offers the reader nothing particularly new or interesting, especially if one has read other recent works of a similar bent. The idea that horror is about “nothingness”, besides being wrong, is only outdone by the claim that horror is the result of the contingency of interpersonal communication and the limits of understanding between people. This latter is no more a source of horror than are urban legends. We are, it needs to be repeated, limited contingent creatures who inhabit an unbounded but finite Universe that operates according to mathematical laws and meta-laws that determined, in the first nano-seconds after the Big Bang, the limits and possibilities of variety within the then-natal Universe. As such, we have the freedom to imagine all sorts of wonders and horrors; we also are limited in how much of that imagination we can bring into actual existence.
Real horror would be a Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more order than ours has: A Universe in which imagination, freedom, even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible. Real horror would be Universe in which there was just a tiny bit more chaos than ours has: A Universe in which space-time has no direction, or changes randomly; a Universe in which it were as easy to put a broken glass together as it is to break it; a Universe in which human life lasted mere moments, or centuries. A Universe, in other words, in which imagination, freedom, and even consciousness as we know it, would be impossible.
That is the source of horror: Not an active void that steals even our ability to comprehend it as void; but a world that would permit, say, a creature like Cthulhu to exist, or in which human beings aged backwards, or in which the thermodynamic, space-time clock were not bound by any laws. A world in which murderous revenants, shape-shifting humanoids, evil shadows, creatures of pure evil intent on human destruction were at all possible is not a world in which human beings would or could live with any hope of maintaining anything like sanity. Horror fiction takes our fear of chaos, gives it shapes and names and faces and teeth and claws and allows us to face it and destroy it (or have it destroy us, as sometimes happens).
The idea that human consciousness is an active evil that needs to be destroyed for the benefit of the Universe at large is kind of silly. The idea that human existence is an active evil we should seek to end is ethically horrible, considering it views other human beings as inherently active agents of evil, in need of destruction. The fascism that lurks behind the idea that we human beings are some kind of deformation the Universe coughed up before it had a chance to apologize needs to be called out as it is. The idea that we human beings use horror fiction as a way of expressing the long-repressed “reality” ignores what horror fiction, when done well, really is and how it works.
There should be better works on the relationship between horror fiction and philosophy than the ones currently available.