Transhuman Epistemology: Knowledge in the Cosmic Scheme
Mental assimilation, the illusions of mastery, and the futility of revelation
In epistemology, knowledge is roughly justified, true belief. But what’s the point of having such beliefs? What’s the function of knowledge?
The justifications in question are the reasons you’d offer to show that you know what you’re talking about, that you’re not just guessing or lying. These reasons, then, are nodes in a net made of concepts, words, or institutional frameworks that we cast over what we know, to enable us to trap and to pacify the fact, to give us peace of mind.
Knowledge is mental assimilation, so there are two kinds of knowledge: either we assimilate the world or the world engulfs us and we reflect on the fallout.
Our Assimilation of the World
We understand X when we treat X like a fish that we catch with our various nets. Our smallest net is our conceptual network, our personal worldview. When you understand X for yourself, you personalize X: you absorb X into your worldview by cognitive osmosis.
In so far as your personal net of concepts, background assumptions, and memories reflects a larger, collective net, such as that of your club, political party, nation, ethnicity, or religion, you understand X by aggregating it.
For example, if you think of some social problem by applying a script or a creed that your membership in a religion bestows on you, you encompass X not individually but collectively by teaming up with the other members and investing that mode of conceptual assimilation with added assurance.
Objective knowledge is the humanization of X. Scientists trick the facts into speaking for themselves, by enfolding the facts into the broadest scheme we have for relating to our environment, which is the instrumental one in which we dominate the facts, teasing out their secrets with logic and experiments that control the variables, to transform hoodwinked nature into an artificial world that’s meant to better serve us.
The more familiar we are with our symbols and our cognitive assimilators, the more complacent we may be in relation to what we thereby tend to entrap. After all, to understand X is to have some power over it. We know the secret of its operations; we know its type and how it will respond to stimuli under different conditions.
The cognitive assimilation is only potential since to know that the sky is blue, for example, obviously isn’t to reach out and absorb the whole sky with our mind or our set of beliefs. Nevertheless, your knowledge filters and neutralizes the facts and puts you in a position to relate intelligently to them. Typically, human intelligence is directed towards the artificialization of nature. Thus, the assimilation begins with the ordering of symbols in our mind and ends with technological or social applications of that cognitive net, with our pacification or enrichment of the known facts.
Due to our primitive, mammalian pedigree and predilections, this assimilation is meant to be enslavement, the enthronement of us and of our kind at the expense of everything else that’s objectified or that’s reduced to manageable things, as in mechanisms and systems we can decode and manipulate. We thereby optimize our environment, building the throne, as it were, on which we prefer to sit.
But the master can tire of his or her servant. The personalized, aggregated, or humanized world becomes a reflection of us which corrupts us like Narcissus. All we see are our symbols and presumptions, the implicit affirmations of our centrality and greatness. We’re like the dictator who’s surrounded by sycophants, who’s ironically infantilized by his dominion.
Paradoxically, the more of the world we net, the less real and vivid the world seems because our knowledge makes it look as though we’re in control and have nothing to fear. Even if we know about all the potential threats in the world, such as diseases or the pitfalls of our plans, to know about these problems is to have the resources to formulate remedies.
When we occupy that subdued world that conforms more and more to our models, we busy ourselves with our projects that run smoothly or that we tweak as we learn from our mistakes, as we cast a wider net; we automate our activities as directed by our knowledge.
As a result, we, too, may be caught in our nets.
The World’s Assimilation of Us
We’re liable to forget that knowledge-as-assimilation implies there’s an X we mean to control. The second kind of knowledge, then, is revelatory and it consists in the humble recognition that X is larger than any of our filters, inferential principles, or aggressive strategies. The encounter with unassimilated X is the sublime appreciation that the human absorption of reality is a futile absurdity.
We’re part of X, so in some sense X is managing and transforming itself through us. The conceptual assimilation is an illusion compared to the cosmic flow of events that dwarfs all our personal, collective, or human concerns. In any case, the more we immerse ourselves in our techniques of belittlement and domination, the more we take for granted the pretense of our mastery, the greater our fear of a glimpse of unassimilated reality.
The fear may begin with an existential acknowledgement that the inevitability of our personal demise means our memories and private worldview are hardly of central importance. Or we may take up hypermodern skepticism and realize that if every society or religion glorifies itself as ultimate, none must truly matter since those civilizational judgments are in conflict. The relativity of knowledge means that knowledge can’t be as masterful as it seems to the naïve functionary.
When we philosophize, when we drop to a meta-level of questioning and focus not just on understanding the facts but on the natures of our cognitive practices and of our preoccupation with nature’s assimilation, we become alienated outsiders. We stand outside our systems and interfaces, which leaves us vulnerable to a direct encounter with X, whereupon X is free to dominate us.
We call these experiences “revelatory,” “religious,” or “apocalyptic.” In them we see things as they are, as the world would see them if the universal whole could see. We dissolve into X, through alienation, relativization, cynicism, or humility. We understand something of X in virtue of our acknowledged smallness and cosmic insignificance.
In popular culture, the temptation of conspiracy theories provides us a comparable opportunity since these subversive, paranoid speculations enable us to perform a gestalt switch. We’re used to interpreting the facts one way, typically in line with conventional, mainstream wisdom, but then along comes a radical revision of the facts which tests our fidelity to the prevailing perspective.
When we imagine what it would be like to see matters from a foreign mindset, to really experience the world as though lizard aliens were hiding in the government, 9/11 was a false flag operation, angels and demons are real, and so on, we occupy what Robert Anton Wilson called “Chapel Perilous.” We may find ourselves suspending our disbelief and wondering whether the facts are as harmless as we expect when we’re operating on autopilot, locked in our social routines.
Suddenly the world seems weird and alien, and we the neophytes are treated to childlike wonder as though we were seeing things for the first time. In short, we can imagine, at least, what life would be like without our familiar worldview, were we to adopt an alternative perspective, and just that suspension of disbelief can reinvigorate us in our doldrums.
Even when we read grandiose philosophy like the present article, we’re typically only amusing ourselves. We don’t take much seriously when we’re on autopilot, pivoting from one adult routine to the next, or functioning in one social system or another. We can’t even say what we really think or feel on most occasions, because that would be graceless. More than that, though, because we feel we’re in control as participants of human civilization (especially in postindustrial societies), we typically encounter only filtered, assimilated semblances of X, the simulacra of our mass hallucinations.
Only the impact on us of the real world’s inhumanity can shock us out of our ruts. When the mystic says reality is ineffable, it’s only partly because words are inadequate; the heart of the matter is that the proper response to the essence of being begins with terror and ends in sorrow or grim resolve. Descriptions and justifications are irrelevant; what matters is the visceral encounter, akin to what some ancient heretics called “gnosis” or saving knowledge, which sparks the cosmicist realization and the failing away of the scales from our eyes.
Enlightenment and Alienation
However, that sense of revelation is open to being assimilated, in turn, by other individuals or collectives or by the weaker or more cautious side of ourselves. In so far as we prefer to identify with our cognitive filters rather than to think of ourselves as an appendage of the inhuman X, of God, atoms, or the universe, we succumb to our personal or collective attempts to stifle or to coopt that outbreak of sublimity.
Once more we trivialize the prospect of the world’s assimilation of our small selves and of the whole human adventure. We downplay the mystical insights, selling them out for profit and popularity. Perhaps we join a self-help enterprise that proclaims the imperative of spirituality even as this business serves the unspiritual delusions of capitalism and consumerism.
Most importantly, we forget the eeriness of that alien encounter because we want to forget it, and because the act of remembering X is the assimilation of X. We shape our memories to tame and to contextualize any unfamiliar aspect of our practices, personalizing the unknown or casting some other net around the inhuman Other into which we’re thrown as living things.
To occupy the strangeness is to lose our personality, our nationality, and our humanity. The intrepid outsider is one with the inhuman other, estranged from all nets and networks, faithless, humiliated, and stripped of cognitive weapons. He or she sees the futility not just of knowledge but of the flow of natural events.
The world’s assimilation of us is the ultimate subversion. The wilderness as the inhuman, noumenal X crashes our party. We’d wanted to set up an artificial paradise, to avoid having to consider the remainder, the unassimilated terrestrial, galactic, or universal, multidimensional X that’s blind to our accomplishments, sins, and ideals.
To know that there’s a larger, inhuman world is to become at least momentarily blind to what had previously preoccupied our attention. The enlightened, nullified self is just as indifferent to morality and to all mundane, conventional expectations as is the larger world impartial towards everything anyone has ever said or done, because the cosmos has overwhelmed the filters and swallowed the observer.
If prehumanized reality is made reassuring only when our cognitive filters simplify and idealize matters, our direct confrontation with X can’t be expected to please anyone. Moreover, if nature were a pleasant place, we wouldn’t have so systematically fled from the wilderness to our alternative, humanized environments, to our cities and institutions and our schemes for assimilation and world domination. We flee because the real X is a horrific, inhuman absurdity, a zombielike, godless yet prodigious monstrosity, and we evolved to socialize with other clever, rebellious primates.
There’s no socializing with an undeluded mind, just as there’s no befriending a mountain, the sun, or the cosmic wind. Socializing is a form of assimilation which would be a self-indulgent reaction to the real world’s mindlessness. The real X evolves intelligent creatures like us to fool ourselves into thinking our mastery of natural processes is important or dignified, whereas our schemes of engineering are less than pinpricks to the universal whole. The real X evolves the humanization of X by way of perpetrating some heartless development of the much larger story of our planet or solar system.
We mean to enslave the world to become gods or transhuman inheritors of perfected technology, but even our most powerful kings and plutocrats are stooges in nature’s unwatchable play. The enlightened outsiders who side with X against humanity are reduced to being horrified, deranged, ascetic observers that are no longer scripted participants in the human drama.
Thus, nature nullifies us twice over, first by mocking human progress with the eventual extinction of our kind and with the overshadowing of our technological conversions, and second by confining those who know too much to the limbo of social marginalization and paralysis in view of the real X’s alienness to our naïve endeavours.