This article is Part I of a three-part dialogue between Daniel Miller and Zero HP Lovecraft. Read Part II here, and Part III here. To read the full dialogue together, click here.
Dialogue: DC Miller vs Zero HP Lovecraft, Part I
Daniel Miller: Would it surprise you to discover that I consider you my enemy?
Zero HP Lovecraft: Indeed, I would find that surprising, as I have so far found that we seem to have similar outlooks on society, its mechanisms of control, and its failures.
Are you not a Nietzschean, a Darwinist, a materialist, an atheist?
I am all of those things, in greater or lesser degrees. But I am sure that Nietzsche means many things to many people. We could spill several books’ worth of ink trying to ascertain what exactly it means to be Nietzschean, for example. I find the ideas of Darwin to be undeniable, but I accept that there are problems with the theory as its currently understood. Regarding materialism, I have never found any reason to believe in invisible agents that act on the material world, but if such things exist, then they, too, will be bound by logic, and that they must exist within some physics of their own. Finally, regarding atheism: I have written at length elsewhere, that one must live as if there is a God, regardless of what he personally believes. To be succinct, I am an atheist who is ‘on the side’ of the Christians – though I know many of them won’t accept that.
In short, you are a nihilist…
I have never heard that term used in any way but pejoratively. It’s not a label I would ever choose for myself. I believe in perpetuating myself, my friends, my family, and my civilization because I see those things as good and self-justifying in their own right. I think most of the ‘ultimate’ justifications that people provide for their existence are voluptuous rationalizations of amour propre and I find it to be more honest and more useful to discard the pretense. Any healthy organism desires to continue and grow, and needs no further justification for it. Across the whole earth, Man is alone in asking “why should I go on?”
Is this question not Man’s greatness?
Perhaps, but I think the great men of history have only struggled with this question after achieving greatness. It is a decadent question.
Or else their quest for greatness was a struggle for an answer. Alexander the Great, for example, said to have wept on the banks of the Ganges “because there were no more worlds to conquer.”
If a man lives to conquer, it is reasonable to lament having run out of conquests. But this is why I say it is necessary to live “as if” there is a God. Many people, I would venture the majority, do need to find some answer to this question if only to quiet their mind. One fixes one’s sense of purpose on the eternal, even though these same people (i.e., nearly everyone) having fixed their gaze on the eternal, proceed to pursue the immediate and the expedient. Such is human nature.
You psychologize, biologize and rationalize activity; you speak of the health of an organism and the wages of reason. Is this very language not decadent?
I will confess to decadence; these are decadent times. But indeed, I think all of these things find their rationalizations in the body, in the blood. The part of man that answers why is something prerational, preconscious; it is that part of him which is still animal, the same dark fundament from which issues erotic desire. This isn’t to say that the desire to conquer is necessarily sexual, only that instinct is older and deeper than reason.
This is true for Darwin, and Freud, and their followers, which now includes the greater part of the West. A nonmodern perspective takes a different approach. For Thomas Aquinas, intelligence was conceived as a property belonging to angels, not humans, that is, belonging to the celestial sphere that man as a spiritual being inhabited. Today we think that we can quantify intelligence, like every other property. You yourself believe this; But man is the measure of all things.
I would argue that while quantification of intelligence (I assume here you mean IQ research) does capture something real and observable, it is not sufficient to explain the successes of some individuals or people vs others. IQ is one facet of human capability which is measurable, but a complete model of a man would be exactly as complex as the man being modeled. All quantifications are built out of abstraction and omission, and if they are overly relied upon, they tend towards perversity.
By “success” I presume that you are referring to material success within a context of social, biological or economic competition…
Yes. While it’s true that some few people can hold on to idiosyncratic definitions of success that exist outside of these categories, most people wouldn’t and won’t. It is ultimately an aesthetic judgement, however, which defies quantification.
Any attribution of validity to the conceptions of the masses or majority is itself an argument from quantity.
Crowds are probably wrong about complex things, but they tend not to be wrong about simple things. Man is a social creature; you’re a winner if everyone thinks you’re a winner. You’re a loser if everyone thinks you’re a loser. We all know who is beautiful and who is ugly.
The notion that the crowd, not merely has the capacity to adjudicate metaphysics, but itself supplies the decisive judgment in the very fact of its existence terminates in tyranny. Truth is not available for quantification. What is true is true no matter how many people believe it, and even if nobody does. To assert Man is a social creature, which is Marx’s paraphrase of Aristotle, is only half correct. Man is a social being, an animal, an organism, yes, but he is also more.
Isn’t it reasonable to suspect that the same metaphysical principles would be manifest in the people over whom they ostensibly supervene, in such a way that they would have some faculty for perceiving metaphysical parsimony? (Indeed that itself is a potentially hairy debate, but I think that you also believe some version of this. It must be, or else you wouldn’t be able to argue from metaphysical principles at all).
In any case, I claim that there is an important distinction to be made between ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ – gravity is a fact, and beauty is a truth; the former exists regardless of whether anyone believes it, the latter, however, is contingent on men. Unfortunately, we only have one apparatus for knowing things, be they fact or truth, so one can rarely be sure which is which. For this reason, it is perfectly reasonable to appeal to people and to consensus in some knowledge domains. (This becomes more complicated, as you understand well, when you introduce something like broadcast media into the equation, where it becomes possible to create society-scale epistemological feedback loops that can pervert this apparatus beyond redemption.)
I’d say gravity is not a fact; it is a theory, which appears to fit the facts quite well, and enables certain kinds of operations while disabling others. As for beauty, this goes to the heart of the matter. The philosophical problem of beauty since Plato has been concerned with distinguishing Beauty from particular beautiful objects, according to a conception of philosophy as a discipline which moves from the perceptible to the intelligible. There are beautiful things, which are physical, as well as beautiful gestures, and beautiful memories, but beauty itself is a metaphysical quality. Accordingly, for Plato, beauty is the first idea, and the key to his philosophy, as a philosophy of the suprasensible. You wrote earlier that you had “never found any reason to believe in invisible agents that act on the material world.” Yet an idea is precisely such an agent.
An idea is not the same as an agent, and never can be. Agency means having internal states, motivations, and intentions; in short, an agent is a thing with a will. An idea has none of these things. There are invisible structures, such as those things which are discovered by mathematicians. But mathematical principles, or laws like gravity, have no agency. They are, at most, mechanisms. You cannot pray to gravity, or appeal to it, or convince it to change its mind. Moreover, agency requires temporality. An idea is eternal, being the same in the past, the future, and the present moment, but an agent acts in time, and through time.
This is also why beauty is contingent in a way that gravity is not. We could easily imagine some other kingdom of creatures, aliens perhaps, who have an entirely different faculty of perceiving beauty from us. Even within our own terrestrial experience, we have little doubt that the aroma of feces is sweet perfume to flies and certain other insects. But no matter how the aesthetic faculties of aliens or flies work, they are equally bound by the laws of gravity.
Etymologically agent comes from Latin agentem (nominative agens) “effective, powerful,” present participle of agere “to set in motion, drive forward; to do, perform; keep in movement.” The assertion that an agent must possess internal consciousness or will is not a definition that I’ve previously encountered, and it seems to involve collapsing into a single term two distinct, although connected qualities. In fact, what you appear to be seeking is the reduction of all phenomena to a metaphysics of will. I would be curious as to where you imagine the source of this will, given your materialist postulates. If reality consists of the instincts of organisms, stripped of any spiritual dimension, will is simply another materialist force, that is there is no will, or even mind but simply things enacting code, on other things. This view provokes further questions. Do you believe ideas lack power?
As for gravity, I will share with you McLuhan’s comment: “Newton, in an age of clocks, managed to present the physical universe in the image of a clock.” But “poets like Blake were far ahead of Newton in their response to the challenge of the clock. Blake spoke of the need to be delivered ‘from single vision and Newton’s sleep,’ knowing that Newton’s response to the challenge of the new mechanism was itself merely a mechanical repetition of the challenge. Blake saw Newton and Locke and others as hypnotized Narcissus types quite unable to meet the challenge of mechanism.”
Blake was a fine poet, but it’s telling that there is no Blakean school of rocketry or chemistry or so on. Newton’s view of the world as mechanism is ‘correct’ in the sense that it is possible to build on his work (along with that of people like Faraday, Edison, and Von Neumann) something like the internet, without which we would not even be having this discussion. Blake and McLuhan were both keen observers of the human heart, but the heart (by which I mean the soul) is quite a complex thing, whereas the things Newton et. al examined are much simpler.
My use of the word agent derives from my understanding of game theory and artificial intelligence: an agent is an entity that acts. The laws of mathematics (for example) do not act, they merely obtain. They are much more like an object than a subject. Subjectivity is a necessary precondition of will. When we talk about things like angels and devils and God or gods, we conceive of them ‘anthropomorphically’ – that is, we imagine them more or less as people, albeit people with special attributes. The Bible of course says that Man is made in the image of God, but regardless of which way the relation points, the idea is the same. I don’t see will as something atomic or fundamental; a will is also a very complicated thing.
Agents, which have will and subjectivity and so on, are built out of primitives like what scientists study; logic, matter and electricity. Regarding the question of how ideologies exert power over men, there is no way that living in a deterministic universe undermines the emotional power of ideas.
Newton was ‘correct’ if correctness is conceptualized in terms of technical criteria. The theory of gravity was evidently very useful for extending the technical domination of man over nature. Eventually this domination gave birth to machine guns, concentration camps, and atom bombs; as you acknowledge, technical development has now reached the stage where the world is ringed by a global communication system in the process of mutating into a totalitarian social control matrix. Man is subordinated to a second nature, as exemplified by cyberspace. Your work as a horror writer is focused on this world; you’re a kind of anthropologist of the dystopian near future. But you yourself are trapped by it.
For example: “The Bible, of course, says that Man is made in the image of God,” you claim, “but regardless of which way the relation points, the idea is the same.” The idea, I think, is not the same. Between the classical view and the modernist vision that God was created by Man are the battle lines of two implacably opposed philosophies. This problem of agency, or will, or consciousness that we are now confronting is situated right in the center of this battlefield. On the one side is the possibility of order in the universe, on the other is a materialist or nihilist conception of the world as random chaos. Between them is the recognition of thought as something other than a synapse firing in a brain. Perhaps you now see why I say we are enemies.
I think that enmity only exists at a very abstract level. I claim that in the practical realm, we would both like to structure society in a very similar way. I consider universalism of all kinds to be perverse. It is precisely this demand for ideological purity, which can tolerate no dissent even in the private space of one’s own head, which is the animating force behind so much of the tyranny we encounter in the modern age. A world where we can have philosophical debates but we don’t have to worry about our physical security is a desirable world, and it’s much more interesting when the mind is free to roam.
Technological development comes with its own attendant horrors, but the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, short of a total industrial collapse. We have to find ways of maintaining our humanity within a technological society, and to some degree, that means embracing horror.