Chapter no 3

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race

Uncanniness I

No philosopher has ever satisfactorily answered the following question: “Why should there be something rather than nothing?” It seems a fair enough question on its face. But that it should even be asked may seem to some of us inexplicable, even preposterous. What the question suggests is our uneasiness with Something. Alternatively, there is nothing troubling about Nothing, because we cannot give it consideration. Something, on the other hand, allows or necessitates our experience of the uncanny. Whether we are speaking of something that evolved naturally or was made by the digits and opposing thumbs of humanity, whether it is animate or inanimate, that something may become uncanny to us, a contravention of what we think should or should not be.

In the same way that most of us share a general pattern of feeling about what is right or wrong in a moral sense, we also share a general pattern of feeling about what is right or wrong with respect to the world and ourselves—an internal authority that judges entities and events as within or outside of customs of reality. In experiencing the uncanny, there is a feeling of wrongness. A violation has transpired that alarms our internal authority regarding how something is supposed to happen or exist or behave. An offense against our world-conception or self-conception has been committed. Of course, our internal authority may itself be in the wrong, perhaps because it is a fabrication of consciousness based on a body of laws that are written only within us and not a detector of what is right or wrong in any real sense, since nothing really is right or wrong in any real sense. That we might be wrong about something being wrong would in itself be wrong according to our internal authority, which would then send out a signal of the uncanny concerning its own wrongness that would be returned to it for another round of signaling on the principle that everything it knows is

wrong, which is to say that Something is always wrong. For the welfare of our functioning, however, we are insured against the adverse effects of an ever-cycling signal of uncanny wrongness by our inability to recognize it, although it might be going on all the time, thus accounting for our uneasiness about Something. But we may still perceive other phenomena to be on the wrong side of right and wrong—things that should not happen or exist or behave in the way we feel they should.

Even the most unexceptional things may impress us in this way. In no time at all they may cease to be seen the way we usually see them and come to be seen as something else, something we may not be able to name. This unsteadiness of quality and meaning in something—a puppet doll, for instance—repels our lasting inspection of it, for the longer this inspection goes on the more we become lost in a paradoxical state of knowing and not knowing what was once known and familiar. And it is then that the question “Why should there be something rather than nothing?” may become lost in the inexplicable, even preposterous, ambition to resolve it without losing our minds to the uncanny.

Everyday objects seem curiously liable to being perceived as uncanny, because we see them every day and “know” how they should be and should not be. One day those shoes on the floor of your clothes closet may attract your eye in a way they never have before. Somehow they have become abstracted from your world, appearances you cannot place, lumps of matter without a fixed quality and meaning. You feel confused as you stare at them. What are they? What is their nature? Why should there be something rather than nothing? But before your consciousness can ask any more questions, you dial it back so that your footwear seems familiar again and not uncanny in its being. You select a pair of shoes to wear that day and sit down to put them on. It is then that you notice the pair of stockings you are wearing and think of the feet they conceal . . . and the rest of the body to which those concealed feet are connected . . . and the universe in which that body is roving about with so many other uncanny shapes. “What now?” a voice from the other side of being seems to say. And what if you should look at yourself—the most everyday object there is—and feel at a loss to attach a quality and a meaning to what is being seen or what is seeing it. What now indeed.


Uncanniness II

A sense of the uncanny can be activated in the average mortal under various conditions. Principal among these conditions are those which cause us to feel that we are not what we think we are, which was touched on at the close of the previous section. In his groundbreaking essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906), the German physician and psychologist Ernst Jentsch analyzes this feeling and its origins. Among the examples of uncanny experience Jentsch proffers in his essay is one where individuals cease to appear integrated in their identity and take on the aspect of mechanisms, things of parts that are made as they are made and are all clockwork processes rather than immutable beings unchanging at their heart. As Jentsch explains:


[A] confirmation of the fact that the emotion being discussed [the uncanny] is caused in particular by a doubt as to the animate or inanimate nature of things—or, expressed more precisely, as to their animatedness as understood by man’s traditional view—lies in the way in which the lay public is generally affected by the sight of articulations of most mental and many nervous diseases. Several patients afflicted with such troubles make a quite decidedly uncanny impression on most people.

What we can always assume from our fellow men’s experience of ordinary life is the relative psychical harmony in which their mental functions generally stand in relation to each other, even if moderate deviations from this equilibrium make their appearance occasionally in almost all of us: this

behavior . . . constitutes man’s individuality and provides the foundation for our judgment of it. Most people do not show strong psychical peculiarities. At most, such peculiarities become apparent when strong affects make themselves felt, whereby it can suddenly become evident that not everything in the human psyche is of transcendental origin, and that much that is elementary is still present within it even for our direct perception. It is of course often in just such cases that much at present is generally accounted for quite well in terms of normal psychology.

But if this relative psychical harmony happens markedly to be disturbed in the spectator, and if the situation does not seem

trivial or comic, the consequence of an unimportant incident, or if it is not quite familiar (like an alcohol intoxication, for example), then the dark knowledge dawns on the unschooled observer that mechanical processes are taking place in that which he was previously used to regarding as a unified psyche. It is not unjustly that epilepsy is therefore spoken of as the morbus sacer [“sacred disease”], as an illness not deriving from the human world but from foreign and enigmatic spheres, for the epileptic attack of spasms reveals the human body to the viewer—the body that under normal conditions is so meaningful, expedient, and unitary, functioning according to the directions of his consciousness—as an immensely complicated and delicate mechanism. This is an important cause of the epileptic fit’s ability to produce such a demonic effect on those who see it. (Translation by Roy Sellars)


The brilliance of Jentsch’s example is that it explicates the uncanny not as an objective quality of something in the outside world, but as a subjective experience of a perceiver of the outside world. This is how it is in real life: The uncanny is an effect of our minds—and nothing else. And yet, at least for the average onlooker in this case, the uncanny effectively originates in an objective stimulus, something that seems to have about it a power of its own. In the example given, the objective stimulus is an animate individual observed as behaving against “animatedness as understood by man’s traditional view,” the offender here being an epileptic exhibiting unusual bodily motions in the midst of a seizure. The subjective reaction to the seemingly objective stimulus of the uncanny is the gaining of “dark knowledge” about the workings of individuals, including the onlooker of the epileptic in the midst of a seizure. More expansively stated, not only is the epileptic perceived as uncanny by the onlooker (unless the onlooker is a physician who understands epileptic seizures by the lights of modern medicine and not according to a “traditional view”) but the onlooker also perceives himself as uncanny because he has been made conscious of the mechanical nature of all human bodies and, by extrapolation, of the fact that “mechanical processes are taking place in that which he was previously used to regarding as a unified psyche.” Neuroscientists are now familiar with some of these mechanical processes, as was Zapffe, who wrote in

“The Last Messiah”: “All things chain together in causes and effects, and everything [man] wants to grasp dissolves before the testing thought.

Soon he sees mechanics even in the so-far whole and dear, in the smile of his beloved.” The knowledge that we are not the idealized beings we thought, integral and undivided, does frighten some people, including physicians and neuroscientists. Yet even though we are not as we usually perceive ourselves to be, we can still continue in our accustomed ways if only we can quash the sense of being uncanny mechanisms in a world of things that may be transformed anytime and anywhere. Such quashing is not often a problem in the so-called real world. But it must be a problem in the world of supernatural horror.

Artistic invocations of horror are most successful when the phenomena they depict call up the uncanny, which, unlike Jentsch’s example of seeing someone having an epileptic seizure, are genuinely threatening both from the outside and from within. This species of horror can only be provoked when the supernatural is conjoined with the uncanny, because not even physicians and neuroscientists can be comfortable with supernaturalism, either by the lights of modern medicine or by any other lights. Bloodthirsty vampires and ravenous zombies are prime examples in this context, because their intrinsic supernaturalism as the undead makes them objectively uncanny things that generate subjectively uncanny sensations. They are uncanny in themselves because they once were human but have undergone a terrible rebirth and become mechanisms with a single function—to survive for survival’s sake.

Necessarily, they also inspire a subjective sense of the uncanny in those who perceive them because they divulge the “dark knowledge” that human beings are also things made as they are made and may be remade because they are only clockwork processes, mechanisms, rather than immutable beings unchanging at their heart. As uncanny mechanisms, vampires and zombies usually perform the mechanical act of reproduction with no weighty deliberation, or none at all—the replication of their kind being epiphenomenal to the controlling urge that drives them. This second consequence completes the requirements of a supernatural horror story to present a phenomenon that poses an uncanny threat from both outside and from within, which is the ultimate threat to ordinary folk who only want to live in a world and in a way that is

natural and familiar to them and their families, even though they are darkly aware that this familiarity is a fabrication that may be invalidated.

Both requirements of the uncanny are recognizable in such horror films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; remakes 1978 and 2007) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which belong only negligibly to the genre of science fiction and solidly to that of supernatural horror as cognate with the uncanny. In the former classic of cinema, human beings are replaced by physical doubles of themselves by an alien power— something pernicious, in Jentsch’s analysis of the layperson’s perception of epilepsy, “not deriving from the human world but from foreign and enigmatic spheres.” What business does this alien power have on our planet? It has come to protract the survival of its kind by re-creating itself in our image. And that says all we need to know about its mechanics and intentions: They are the same as ours, only they threaten to replace the survival and reproduction of our species with the survival and reproduction of theirs. The methodology of this alien power is to make duplicates of us after we fall asleep, so that we will never again awaken as ourselves but will be transformed into another sort of being altogether. Due to these transformations, everyone who has not been taken by the Body Snatchers suffers from two appalling uncertainties.

One is that any other person may not be what they seem to be—human. The other is that they themselves will also be transformed once they go to sleep. But unlike becoming a vampire or a zombie, neither being a desirable state of being, our transformation into Body Snatchers, which, despite the pluralization in the film title, seem to be parts of a hive rather than uniquely individuated entities, does not look too bad, objectively speaking. Once absorbed by the alien power, the converted lose all the qualities they had as humans except for one—that of contentment, or happiness if you like. They become quietists in their existence, which in the film appears the last thing that human beings want, preferring the agitations of the life they know. This reaction is understandable. No one wants to be other than they are, or think they are. That is a fate worse than death: the transformation in which you stop being you. And better to die than to live in an assimilated condition, even one that is permanently collected and reassuring rather than vulnerable to the startling and dreadful. Our sense of the uncanny is too ingrained in us as beings that may not be what we think we are, but who will hold on for

dear life to survive and reproduce as our own species and not that of some alien power.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is quite similar in its ontological scheme to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The motivations of the Thing are the same as those of the Body Snatchers—to survive and reproduce. Only its method is different, which results in a somewhat greater degree of uncanniness in this film than in the earlier one. Because the title creature has the ability to remake itself as any and all life forms without their knowledge, the characters in the film cannot be sure who is a “thing” and who is not, since those who are transmuted retain their former appearance, memories, and behaviors even after they have become, in their essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world. This situation leaves the members of an Antarctic research station—in the vicinity of which the Thing’s spacecraft crash-landed long ago—doubtful about which of them is a thing and which are still the individuals they seem to be. Naturally, those at the Antarctic station are invested in repressing any consciousness that they are things, just as those who witness someone in the midst of an epileptic seizure are invested in thinking they are not things of parts that are made as they are made and are all clockwork processes rather than immutable beings unchanging at their heart. By isolation (putting this possibility out of their minds), the latter can maintain their sense of being idealized beings, integral and undivided, and not mechanisms—human puppets who do not know themselves as such. They can also distract themselves from any petrifying news about human beings by watching films in which all of the characters suffer an uncanny doom that could not possibly have relevance to real life, since it is represented as an invasion from “foreign and enigmatic spheres” they believe have no place in our world, where we know who we are and who everyone else is—members of a species that exists to survive and reproduce, ordinary folk who have nothing to do with supernaturalism and the uncanny and who are resistant to the pessimism of fictions like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing, whose principals all suffer death or deformation in their fight to hang on to their lives and their humanity.

In protest to the mentality of ordinary folk, let us again call on the incorrigibly pixilated Professor Nobody. In his “Pessimism and Supernatural Horror—Lecture One,” he accommodates us with a

rejoinder to the average, optimistic mortal and helps us recall some of the main themes of the present work.


Madness, chaos, bone-deep mayhem, devastation of innumerable souls—while we scream and perish, History licks a finger and turns the page. Fiction, unable to compete with the world for vividness of pain and lasting effects of fear, compensates in its own way. How? By inventing more bizarre means to outrageous ends. Among these means, of course, is the supernatural. In transforming natural ordeals into supernatural ones, we find the strength to affirm and deny their horror simultaneously, to savor and suffer them at the same time.

So it is that supernatural horror is a possession of a profoundly divided species of being. It is not a property held by even our closest relations in the wholly natural world. We came into it, as part of our gloomy inheritance, when we became what we are. Once awareness of the human predicament was achieved, we immediately took off in two directions, splitting ourselves down the middle. One half became dedicated to apologetics, even celebration, of our new toy of consciousness. The other half condemned and occasionally launched direct assaults on this “gift.”

Supernatural horror was one of the ways we found that would allow us to live with our double selves. By its employ, we discovered how to take all the things that victimize us in our natural lives and turn them into the very stuff of demonic delight in our fantasy lives. In story and song, we could entertain ourselves with the worst we could think of, overwriting real pains with ones that were unreal and harmless to our species. We can also do this trick without trespassing on the real estate of supernatural horror, but then we risk running into miseries too close to home. While horror may make us squirm or quake, it will not make us cry at the pity of things.

The vampire may symbolize our horror of both life and death, but none of us has ever been uprooted by a symbol. The zombie may conceptualize our sickness of the flesh and its appetites, but no one has ever been sickened to death by a concept. By means of supernatural horror we may pull our own strings of fate

without collapsing—natural-born puppets whose lips are painted with our own blood.



Within the strictures of commonsense reality and personal ability, we can choose to do anything we like in this world . . . with one exception: We cannot choose what any of our choices will be. To do that, we would have to be capable of making ourselves into self-made individuals who can choose what they choose as opposed to being individuals who simply make choices. For instance, we may want to become bodybuilders and choose to do so. But if we do not want to become bodybuilders we cannot make ourselves into someone who does want to be a bodybuilder. For that to happen, there would have to be another self inside us who made us choose to want to become bodybuilders. And inside that self, there would have to be still another self who made that self want to choose to choose to make us want to become bodybuilders.

This sequence of choosing, being interminable, would result in the paradox of an infinite number of selves beyond which there is a self making all the choices. The foregoing position is based in a strain of philosophical thought called determinism and is here stated in one of its strongest forms. British philosopher Galen Strawson describes this position, which is his own as a determinist, as pessimistic. (“Luck Swallows Everything,” Times Literary Supplement, June 28, 1998.) It is pessimist because it turns the human image into a puppet image. And a puppet image of humanity is one of the hallmarks of pessimism.

Those who most vehemently oppose the pessimistic form of determinism are libertarian indeterminists. They hold that we have absolute free will and can make ourselves into individuals who can choose to want to make a certain choice and not some other. They hold that we are what Michelstaedter despaired we could ever become: individuals who are invulnerably self-possessed and not the products of an indeterminable series of events and conditions that result in our being able to make only one choice and not any number of choices, because factors beyond our control have already taken care of who we are as individuals and what choices we will finally make.

In the history of philosophical lucubration, arguments for determinism are traditionally the most argued against. Why is this so, aside from the fact that it turns the human image into a puppet image? It is so because arguments for determinism step on the sacrosanct belief in moral responsibility. Even the average atheist draws the line whenever someone says that we do not have any degree of freedom and that moral responsibility is not a reality. As die-hard unbelievers, they may reject the position that moral laws descend from a higher plane unperceived by our senses; as tax-paying citizens, however, they still need to live by sublunary standards of civility. And this can be done only if free will and moral realism are the law of the land.

Of course, there are rare cases when a wrongdoer’s malfeasance is determined to be the result of determining forces. Then free will and moral responsibility are waived, and the defendant is either sent to a psychiatric hospital rather than a prison or gets off scot-free because a certain judge and jury in a certain society temporarily became strong determinists without a sense of moral realism, thereby turning the human image of a defendant into a puppet image. But this is highly irregular. In the normal course of events, both determinists and indeterminists are one in promoting some kind of operative morality. As guardians of our morale, they feel moral realism to be a necessary truth, whether it is objectively real, as it is to indeterminists, or subjectively “real,” as it is to determinists. Without this truth, or “truth,” we could not go on living as we always have and believe that being alive is all right.

It does not seem wildly improbable that determinations have been made in our psyches that make some people determinists and others indeterminists. If we could only know how these determinations work, we would be able to answer the only interesting question in the debate pitting free will against determinism: Why argue for one side or the other? The answer to this question would abort all rivalry in this matter, since it would bring to light the reason why any philosopher would engage in a conflict more vain than most in his discipline. But should we ever get an answer to this question, the repercussions would far override matters of moral realism or “realism.” Really, there would only be one repercussion: to reduce all philosophical proclivities to the psychology of the individuals who exhibit them. In his Metaphilosophy and Free Will (1996), Richard Double speaks of analytic philosophers whose writing is protective of free will.

Although this type of free will writing pays dividends in terms of precision, it has its disadvantages. First, we may lose sight of the philosophical forest for the technical trees. Second, and following from the first, we may collect psychological consolation at the expense of candor. By submerging ourselves in the nuances of theories, we may avert our attention from the big, scary questions. An attention to detail can be an exercise in bad faith when it uses up our time and energies so that we do not bother to question whether what we are trying to do is possible. Meticulous precision can enable us to remain happy and engaged at the expense of averting our eyes from the disturbing big picture.


Perhaps one day cognitive psychologists will settle once and for all why an individual would argue for either free will or determinism. Studies might also be conducted on those who cling to one side or the other of any philosophical question. This may not advance any philosophical questions, although it might make them disappear once the argumentative motives behind them have been determined.

In the everyday world, no such thing as an out-and-out determinist ever existed, since everyday people cannot shake off a sense of having free will. The best we can do is to reason that we are determined based on observing the common law of causality among things in the world and applying this law to ourselves. But we cannot feel ourselves as determined. (One philosopher has said, and possibly more have thought to themselves: “Can one really believe in determinism without going insane?”) Being determined in thought and deed is not experientially noticeable, only abstractly deducible. It would be impossible for someone to say “I am nothing but a human puppet.” The only exception would be an individual with a psychological disease that had induced in him the sense of being controlled by an alien force. Should this individual say “I am nothing but a human puppet,” he would forthwith be marched to the nearest psychiatric hospital, conceivably overtaken by the horror of feeling he was a human puppet controlled by an alien force working outside him or within him or both.

The extent to which any of us is determined in thought and deed may be logically argued but cannot be known by firsthand experience. Determinists are only too aware that if free will is illusory on paper, it is insuperable in our lives. To hate our illusions or hold them dear only lashes us to them more tautly. We cannot stand up to them without our world falling apart, for those who care. And those who really care cannot be anything but believers in some form of moral realism or “realism,” which buttresses the optimistic reality that most people call home and braces up everything you need in order to be you—your country, your loved ones, your job or vocation, your golf clubs, and, in an all around sense, your “way of life.”



In the free will debate, the reality, or “reality,” of free will is something of an irrelevancy, since it is a parasite of the feeling we each have of being or possessing a self (often capitalized). This self is an intangible entity that is spoken of as if it were an extra internal organ, yet to every one of us it seems more than the sum of our anatomical parts. Everything comes back to the self and must come back to the self, for it is the utmost issue in our deciding whether we are something or nothing, people or puppets. Without the sense of being or possessing a self, there would be no use disputing whether or not we are free, determined, or somewhere in between. Why we have a sense of self has been variously explained. (For one explanation, see the next section in this chapter.) Having this sense is what brings the free-will-versus-determinism debate to the table. Even further, it is what brings everything to the table, or at least to the table of human existence, because nothing else that exists has a sense of being a self that can do or not do anything at will.

You can reason that you do not have a self and that your behavior is determined, but if you feel that you are or possess a self, then you will probably have a time of it denying responsibility for every thought that passes through your brain or the slightest movement of your little toe.

Yet there is a problem with the feeling of responsibility, because sometimes you feel responsible for something that you cannot, by any logic or physical law, be held responsible for. When someone dies of an undiagnosed case of liver cancer not long after he punches you in the stomach, you cannot say, “That’s what he gets for messing with me.” Yet

people do say such things in such circumstances. Nevertheless, they can usually be brought to their senses about feeling somehow responsible for the death by unrelated causes of someone who has punched them in the stomach.

More often, though, an individual cannot be brought to his senses when he feels responsible for something that he cannot, by any logic or physical law, be held responsible for. For example, you call up a friend or a relative to help you fix your toilet, and while driving over to your place to do this he is hit by an eighteen-wheel truck and dies. It would not be out of the ordinary if you felt responsible for your friend or relative’s death for the reason that if you had not called him up to help fix your toilet he would not have been on the road at that time and gotten killed in a collision with an eighteen-wheel truck. Under these circumstances, your friends and relatives who are still alive may find it difficult to convince you of your non-responsibility in the death of your friend or relative who died in a vehicular misadventure. There may be any number of factors involved in that fatal collision, but you could still feel that the only factor worth consideration was your calling up your friend or relative to drive over to your place when he would otherwise have been doing something you had nothing to do with. You would be mistaken to feel this way, of course, but just because you can reason that you are mistaken would not in itself make you feel any less responsible for what happened. And you may mistakenly take that feeling of terrible responsibility to your grave, because you were the self who called another self to come to your place to help fix your toilet. You might just as well blame your toilet for going out of order when it did, or blame any number of causes back to the beginning of time as much as blame yourself. The thing is this: If you can be mistaken in attributing to yourself responsibility, or anything more than a bare trace of causal responsibility, you can also be mistaken about other things, such as being a self with free will. But if you feel that you are or possess a self, then you will probably have a time of it denying responsibility for every thought that passes through your brain or the slightest movement of your little toe.

Other people may try to console you for your friend or relative’s death by saying that this atrocious event was not your fault. They may also surreptitiously blame you for it, as people sometimes blame those who have had a heart attack for being lax in following the unhealthy

injunction to watch your health. But it is quite possible you will disbelieve anyone who says you are not to blame for your friend or relative’s death in a vehicular misadventure, perhaps because you can tell that they surreptitiously blame you for it. But that is inconsequential. As someone who feels he is a self, you will likely as not feel responsible for things you could not by any logic or physical law take responsibility for, or no more than a bare trace of causal responsibility. This is not even to consider circumstances in which you may feel morally responsible for something that happens when by rights you should not feel this way. And here is where the feeling of being a self with free will really comes in.

Say you asked your friend or relative to help fix your toilet not because you needed help fixing your toilet but because you wanted to get back at him for asking you to help him move into his new house the week before when he could have called a moving company, as you did when you moved into your new house, and saved you from having your little toe broken when a heavy piece of furniture fell on it during the move. Morally, inconveniencing your friend or relative just to get back at him for the reasons stated in the previous sentence was not the right thing to do, or so you feel after your friend or relative’s car crashed when it collided with an eighteen-wheel truck in an explosive vehicular misadventure. You did not mean for that to happen. You were just looking for some petty form of payback, some kind of reprisal for the pain of your broken toe—and not even a proportional reprisal, nor anything illegal or particularly immoral, as these things go. Good luck, though, if you try to feel you were not responsible in an intensely moral sense for your friend or relative’s vehicular misadventure. You could reason that your part in this misfortune was causally determined and not your fault. But if you feel that you are or possess a self then you will probably have a time of it denying responsibility for what happened. If you did not feel this way, what kind of person would that make you, assuming you still felt yourself a person and not some monstrous thing?

What is most uncanny about the self is that no one has yet been able to present the least evidence of it. Like the soul, that figure of speech which has long since been snickered out of existence, the self may be felt but never be found. It is a spectral tapeworm that takes its reality from a host organism and grows along with the physical matter in which it is

encased. It may even grow beyond its material confines. Some believe that a Big Self enfolds all our little selves. Far fewer, or none, believe that little selves can have littler selves or play host to a number of self-contained selves. Do infants have selves? Fetuses? When do we get a self and can we lose it or have it taken away from us? Putting nonsense aside, some of us are surer than others of our selves. And how many of us want nothing so badly as to be a self-made somebody?

Without a relentless sense of the self, the person, we could not live as we have all these years. Were a personal god to be excluded from everyone’s universe, persons would still retain their status. Sensory perceptions, memories, aches, ecstasies: Because these phenomena occur inside the same sack of skin, we suppose that we are enduring, continuous entities, things that serve as the infrastructure for war, romance, athletic competition, and every other genre of human activity.

We do not just have experiences—we own them. That is what it means to be a person. No quibbling, everyone who is anyone holds this article of faith, even those who, like the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, have done a good job of logically dismantling the reality of selves. But logic cannot exorcise that “I” (ego) which stares back at you in the mirror, just as logic cannot remove the illusion of free will. When someone says she has not been feeling her old self, our thoughts turn to psychology, not metaphysics. To reason or to hold as an article of faith that the self is an illusion may help us to step around the worst pitfalls of the ego, but mitigation is light-years from liberation.

To all human beings, or almost all (see the section Ego-Death in this chapter), we seem to be the most real thing going. No one can say with assurance what the world outside of us is like, but inside us we feel self-assured. How does this occur? So far, no one knows. Cognitive psychologists, philosophers of mind, and neuroscientists have their theories, of course, among them those that argue for temporary selves and selves over time, psychophysical selves, neurological selves, objective selves, subjective selves, social selves, transcendent selves, the self as a process and not a “thing,” and even the simultaneous existence and nonexistence of the self. But these and many other self-concepts leave the self as we have always known and experienced it intact and unharmed. We will all, or almost all, still feel that we are or possess an old-fashioned self. Thus, cognitive psychologists, philosophers of mind, and neuroscientists who extend theories that the self does not exist as we

have always believed are not saying that the self does not exist; they are only spreading complex self-constructions that save the self from anyone’s questioning its existence. And those who try to prove that selves do not look out at the world from behind our eyeballs might as well be telling us that we have been snatched by the Body Snatchers or coalesced into the Thing.

Within the hierarchy of fabrications that compose our lives—families, countries, gods—the self incontestably ranks highest. Just below the self is the family, which has proven itself more durable than national or ethnic affiliations, with these in turn outranking god-figures for their staying power. So any progress toward the salvation of humankind will probably begin from the bottom—when our gods have been devalued to the status of refrigerator magnets or lawn ornaments. Following the death rattle of deities, it would appear that nations or ethnic communities are next in line for the boneyard. Only after fealty to countries, gods, and families has been shucked off can we even think about coming to grips with the least endangered of fabrications—the self. However, this hierarchy may change in time as science makes inroads regarding the question of selfhood, which, if the findings are negative, could reverse the progression, with the extinction of the self foretelling that of families, national and ethnic affiliations, and gods. After all, the quintessential sequence by which we free ourselves from our selves and our institutions is still that depicted in the Buddha legend. Born a prince, so the story goes, the nascent Enlightened One, Siddhartha Gautama, embarked on a quest to neutralize his ego by first leaving behind his family, gods, and sociopolitical station—all in one stroke. But Buddha’s way requires a near inhuman dedication, and few of us have that kind of stamina. This being so, a speedy and efficient breakdown of fabrications having a worldwide ambit seems remote without the intercession of science, which could at some future date provide a vaccination against the development of “selves” after models already in use to wipe out certain diseases.

Perhaps the only matter of interest about the self is this: Whatever makes us think that we are what we think we are lies in the fact that we have consciousness, which gives us a sense of being somebody, specifically a human somebody, whatever that may be, since we do not

have a definition of “human” on which there is universal agreement. But we do agree that, if only in practice, we are all real live selves, since we are all self-conscious. And once we have passed through every door that qualifies our selves in some way—be it by name, nationality, occupation, gender, or shoe size—we then stand before the door of consciousness— parent of all horrors. And that is all there is to our existence.

No creature caged in a zoo even knows what it is to exist, nor does it crow about being superior to another kind of thing, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral. As for us humans, we reek of our sense of being special. Those hailed as the most conscious among us—the ones needful of a refined type of brainwashing—have made investigations into what it means to be human. Their divergent ramblings on this subject keep our brains buzzing while our bodies go the way of surviving and reproducing

—being alive that is, since we do not especially consider the alternative. That being human might mean something very strange and awful, something quite uncanny, is not given a passing thought. If it were, who knows what would happen to us? We could disappear in a puff of smoke or fall through a mirror that has nothing on the other side. Naturally, such possibilities do not lift our spirits the way we need them to be lifted if we are to continue to live as we have all these years.



Perhaps foremost in the investigation of selfism and egology is the field of neuroscience. Therein may be found a dense and technical literature antithetical to the everyday world of the everyday self. In Being No One (2004), for example, the German neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger provides a theory of how the brain manufactures the subjective sense of our existence as discrete “selves,” even though, as Metzinger explains, we would be more rigorously categorized as information-processing systems for which it is expedient in an existential sense to create the illusion of “being someone.” In Metzinger’s schema, a human being is not a “person” but a mechanistically functioning “phenomenal self-model” that simulates a person. The reason we cannot examine these models is that we see through them, and so cannot see the processes of the models themselves.1 If we could, we would know there is nothing to us but these models. This might be called “Metzinger’s Paradox”: You cannot know what you really are, because then you would know there is

nothing to know and nothing to know it. (What now?) So rather than be know-nothings, we exist in a condition of what Metzinger describes as “naïve realism,” with things not being knowable as they really are in themselves, something every scientist and philosopher knows.

The above sketch of Metzinger’s central thesis is transparently inadequate, though necessarily so in the present context. By his reasoning and intuitions concerning the nature and workings of consciousness, Metzinger has no equal in his field and impresses one as a thinker whose speculative investigations will someday prove to be the way of reality. By argument and analysis, he has taken consciousness studies as far as possible by the resources available in the early twenty-first century. The project Metzinger has taken upon himself is precisely of the kind whose import is not restricted to the halls of science but is pursued for the far-reaching implications it may have with regard to the life of the average mortal. That said, the following discussion of Metzinger has an ulterior purpose having little to do with the value of his theories.

In his essay “The Shadow of a Puppet Dance: Metzinger, Ligotti and the Illusion of Selfhood” (Collapse IV, May 2008), James Trafford breaks down Metzinger’s Paradox as follows: “The object ‘man’ consists of tightly packed layers of simulation, for which naïve realism becomes a necessary prophylactic in order to ward off the terror concomitant with the destruction of our intuitions regarding ourselves and our status in the world: ‘Conscious subjectivity is the case in which a single organism has learned to enslave itself.’” The closing quote from Metzinger’s Being No One might be seen as an extension of Zapffe’s Paradox, by dint of which we repress from our consciousness all that is startling and dreadful in our lives. For Metzinger, this repression takes the form of the aforesaid naïve realism, which masks the single most startling and dreadful revelation for human beings: that we are not what we think we are. Assuaging our qualms about such a deplorable enlightenment, Metzinger avers that it is “practically impossible” for us to attain realization of our unreality due to inbuilt manacles of human perception that keep our minds in a dream state.

An interesting fact that seems relevant to Metzinger’s study of the illusion of selves is the following: Metzinger is a lucid dreamer. His

treatise Being No One contains an entire chapter on the knack of being able to “wake up” in one’s dreams and recognize that one’s consciousness is operating within an illusory zone created by the brain. In that aspect of our lives where we have no say in what happens and are free to choose nothing, the lucid dreamer is no one’s fool, or at least not his own. He has peeked behind the curtain of what his consciousness has made and seen through its tricks and traps. This faculty might very well explain Metzinger’s inquisitiveness about the nature of waking perception and the possibility that, as Poe wrote: “All that we see or seem / Is but a dream within a dream.” These lines sum up the argument of Being No One—that we sleep in the self and cannot awake. Yet at the close of this 699-page work, following hard upon an examination of how and why human beings evolved in such a way that we believe we are someone while actually being no one, there seems to be some hedging. “At least in principle,” Metzinger writes, “one can wake up from one’s biological history. One can grow up, define one’s own goals, and become autonomous.” So imponderably nebulous, the meaning of these sentences can only be guessed at, since Metzinger leaves them hanging in the air. One is unreservedly stymied as to how this transformation could occur in terms of Metzinger’s theory and research. Did he wrap up his treatise prematurely? Does he know something he is not telling us?

Or did he just want to end a disillusioning book on an up note?

The same year that he published Being No One, Metzinger further clouded the issue. In a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, he referred to our captivity in the illusion of a self—even though “there is no one” to have this illusion—as “the tragedy of the ego.” This phrase fits like a glove into Zapffe’s theory of consciousness as a tragic blunder. Disappointingly, Metzinger goes on to say that “the tragedy of the ego dissolves because nobody is ever born and nobody ever dies.” This statement is borrowed from Zen Buddhism (the Heart Sutra) and loses something when translated from a monastery to a university lecture hall. In traditions of enlightenment, the only redress for our fear of death is to wake up to our brain’s manufactured sense of self and thus eliminate what we mistakenly think we are before it is too late. But Metzinger’s mission as a scientist-philosopher has been to shed light on the neurological mechanisms that make this goal unfeasible. Why, then, does Metzinger speak to his auditors about the “tragedy of the ego,” which in all probability none of them thought to be a tragedy before coming to his

lecture, and how it “dissolves because nobody is ever born and nobody ever dies”? He seems to be trying to alleviate any fears they might have about their death at the same time he is telling them that they do not exist in the first place. Either way, something is lost that everyone cannot help wanting to hold on to, tragic as that may be. Metzinger’s whole routine seems to be based in the same kind of paradoxical double-talk that the world already lives by so as to deny the suffering it must endure and to continue to believe that consciousness is not a problem and that being alive is all right.

But let us not jump to conclusions. In an online forum in which some of the most prestigious figures in consciousness studies responded to Nicholas Humphrey’s “A Self Worth Having,” where, as quoted earlier, Humphrey says that consciousness is a “wonderfully good thing in its own right,” Metzinger sums up his own position on this subject.

Here he tolls the same bell as Zapffe when he writes:


It is not at all clear if the biological form of consciousness, as so far brought about by evolution on our planet, is a desirable form of experience, an actual good in itself. . . .

The theoretical blind spot of current philosophy of mind is the issue of conscious suffering: Thousands of pages are being written about color qualia or the contents of thought, but almost no theoretical work is devoted to ubiquitous phenomenal states like human suffering or simple everyday sadness (“subclinical depression”), or to the phenomenal content associated with panic, despair and melancholy—let alone to the conscious experience of mortality or of losing one’s dignity. . . .

The ethical-normative issue is of greater relevance. If one dares to take a closer look at the actual phenomenology of biological systems on our planet, the many different kinds of conscious suffering are at least as dominant a feature as are color vision or conscious thought, both of which appeared only very recently. Evolution is not something to be glorified. One way—out of countless others—to look at biological evolution on our planet is as a process that has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none. As not only the simple number of individual conscious subjects, but also the dimensionality of their phenomenal state-

spaces is continuously increasing, this ocean is also deepening. For me, this is also a strong argument against creating artificial consciousness: We shouldn’t add to this terrible mess before we have truly understood what actually is going on here. (Metzinger’s emphases)


To the relatively observant eye there seems a disparity between Metzinger’s conclusion of his book and Berkeley lecture and his online exchange with his colleagues. One could speculate that he felt more comfortable expressing his misgivings about the evolution of human consciousness in a cyber-convocation of his peers than in his high-profile opus and public appearances. In the former outlet, he pulls no punches when he says, “[T]here are aspects of the scientific world-view which may be damaging to our mental well-being, and that is what everybody intuitively feels” (Metzinger’s emphasis; quoted in Trafford). This is a breathtaking statement for a well-credentialed philosopher to make (as was his inquiry quoted earlier about whether someone could really believe in determinism without going insane). What else could Metzinger mean by this utterance other than that well-used caveat of horror fiction that we are in danger of knowing things we were not meant to know? And the worst possible thing we could know—worse than knowing of our descent from a mass of microorganisms—is that we are nobodies not somebodies, puppets not people.

In a later book, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self (2009), Metzinger confronts the problems involved with breaking the news to the average mortal that he or she is actually an average phenomenal self-model and not a person. He wants to assure people that this is not a secret too terrible to know but a truth that will set us free to be better human beings—once we settle on “What is a human being?” (since to Metzinger we are not what we think we are) and once we decide “What should a human become?” which is a knotty issue in light of how this decision should be made and who should make it. One of Metzinger’s fears is that some people will sink into what he contemns as “vulgar materialism” and will conclude there is nothing for them in this life but survival, reproduction, and death, with the wise guys of the world saying to themselves in Metzinger’s imagined soliloquy: “I don’t understand what all these neuroexperts and consciousness philosophers are talking about, but the upshot seems pretty clear to me. The cat is out

of the bag: We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe. I get the message, and

you had better believe I will adjust my behavior to it.” This strategy seems to be that of “heroic pessimists” like Miguel de Unamuno (see above), Joshua Foa Dienstag (see above), William Brashear (see above), Friedrich Nietzsche (see below), and any number of others who are already in the know. It is surely the strategy that Zapffe observed everyone to be following, the strategy that we must follow if we are to go on living as paradoxical beings who know the score but tamp down their consciousness to keep from knowing it too well. And it works well enough to keep us living as we have all these years. But could the vulgar materialist actually say that he or she is aware of being no one as a fact and still go on to pretend that he or she is someone? Would this not be another version of Metzinger’s asking “Can one really believe in determinism without going insane?” Would such a mental state not only be “practically impossible” but totally impossible, just as it would be impossible for someone to say “I am nothing but a human puppet” and continue to live as he or she had lived before? It does not seem likely that you could ever see yourself as what you are per Metzinger. You would then know the horror and know that you know it. No longer would it be impossible to believe that you are nothing but a human puppet.

What now? Answers: Now we go insane; now our species goes extinct in great epidemics of madness, because now we know that behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world. Now we know that we are uncanny paradoxes. We know that nature has veered into the supernatural by fabricating a creature that cannot and should not exist by natural law, and yet does.

Metzinger’s derision of vulgar materialism seems to rest on his optimistic belief that a future technology of consciousness will take us places where the “biological form of consciousness, as so far brought about by evolution on our planet” has not taken us. Beautiful and wonderful places, in Metzinger’s admittedly well-informed and extraordinarily humane opinion. If we do not yet know what it is to be human, we have a ballpark idea of what it is to be humane. And Metzinger’s preoccupation with the suffering of sentient beings matches that of any pessimist. The only difference is in his opinion of how we may eliminate or greatly ameliorate this suffering. In any event, while Metzinger has been audacious enough to state that “there are aspects of

the scientific world-view which may be damaging to our mental wellbeing, and that is what everybody intuitively feels,” he himself feels that everybody may not always feel that way and that the risk-benefit calculation will add up in our favor. What else could a neurophilosopher believe—that we should give up on ourselves and go extinct? Metzinger must have faith that once the rest of humanity has seen through the game, we will—in all sincerity and not as pretenders—play through to a world in which day by day, in every way, we are getting better and better. But that will take time—lots of it.

Even in the twenty-first century there are people who are incapable of abiding Darwin’s theory unless they can reconcile it with their Creator and His design. Losing hold of these shielding eidolons would make them honor-bound to become unhinged, so they might say, because the world as they knew it would molder away in their palsied arms.

Unprepared to receive the evidence, they run from it as any dreamer runs from a horror at his heels. They think that when this horror closes in on them they will die of madness to see its shape and know the touch of what they believe should not be. No doubt they would survive the experience, as so many have done before them. We have already weathered torrents of knowledge we were not meant to know yet were doomed to know. But how much more can we take? How will the human race feel about knowing that there is no human race—that there is no one? Would this be the end of the greatest horror tale ever told? Or might it be the reinstatement of the way things had been before we had lives of our own? For now, those who cannot abide even Darwin’s theory without the Creator beside them seem to be safe. To quote Lovecraft on the subject of forbidden knowledge, “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little.” But perhaps they will one day. Then the time may come to engage Zapffe’s solution for saving the future from the curse of consciousness.

While we wait breathlessly for the test results of neuroscientists, people will still be knocking on your door to hawk some gimmick that will get you into their heaven. Naturally, these salesmen of the sacred do not have a clue regarding what things are like in heaven. Are there levels of heaven? Could someone be in heaven and not know it? And how often have we heard that many who are alive today will not “taste death” but

instead will proceed directly to paradise when the rapture is upon us? This means that billions have already dropped dead with the unfulfilled hope of not having to suffer the throes of the unsaved.

What disillusionment must have incommoded them as they lay in extremis. Death would not be so bad if we could just disappear into it without any irksome preliminaries. But even those who expect the doors of heaven will open for them would prefer not to make their entrance after the physical trials of fighting for the life that God gave them. For the rest of us, the carousel of consciousness spins round and round, enlightening us only to the bloodcurdling probability that the worst will likely be saved for last. And even those who experience being alive as quite all right will have to live through such tacked-on endings as dying in a vehicular misadventure or lying abed sucking tubes.

Life is like a story that is spoiled by an unsatisfactory resolution of preceding events. There are no retroactive fix-ups for the corpses we shall become. “All’s well that ends well” is well enough in the short run. “In the long run,” as British economist John Maynard Keynes reportedly stated, “we are all dead.” This does not sit well with us by way of an ending. But it is not as if we can choose how things will end for us, or for those yet unborn.



In his novel translated as Moment of Freedom, which was published ten years before his suicide in 1976, the Norwegian author and cultural critic Jens Bjørneboe wrote that “he who hasn’t experienced a full depression alone and over a long period of time—he is a child.” Aside from being indemonstrable in its validity, Bjørneboe’s bilious discharge is also too restrictive in esteeming his personal class of suffering as the sole rite of passage to maturity as a conscious individual. Depression is only one of the psychopathologies that could be selected to make the bombastic claim that those who have not been affected by it in full and over a long period of time belong on a playground or in a playpen. But it is serviceable as an example of a psychological disease with which most people have had some experience in one or more of its varieties.

The statistically prevailing form of this disease is “atypical depression.” Less common and more deadly is “melancholic depression.” But whatever family name a given case of depression goes

by, it has the same effect: sabotaging the network of emotions that make it seem as if you and your world mean something in some meaningful way. It is then you discover that your “old self” is not the inviolable thing you thought it was, nor is the rest of your “old reality.” Both are as frail as our bodies and may be perforated as readily, deflating all that we thought meaningful about ourselves and our world.

What meaning our lives may seem to have is the work of a relatively well-constituted emotional system. As consciousness gives us the sense of being persons, our psychophysiology is responsible for making us into personalities who believe the existential game to be worth playing. We may have memories that are unlike those of anyone else, but without the proper emotions to liven those memories they might as well reside in a computer file as disconnected bits of data that never unite into a tailor-made individual for whom things seem to mean something. You can conceptualize that your life has meaning, but if you do not feel that meaning then your conceptualization is meaningless and you are nobody. The only matters of weight in our lives are colored by rainbows or auroras of regulated emotion which give one a sense of that “old self.” But a major depression causes your emotions to evaporate, reducing you to a shell of a person standing alone in a drab landscape. Emotions are the substrate for the illusion of being a somebody among somebodies as well as for the substance we see, or think we see, in the world. Not knowing this ground-level truth of human existence is the equivalent of knowing nothing at all.

Although varying in intensity and nature, our emotions must seem ever-stable in their concatenation, just as a mixed drink must be made with specific ingredients in the same relative amounts so that they may blend into a vodka martini or a piña colada. United, our emotions ostensibly form a master self to which anomalous secondary selves may be compared for quality. Even as they are ever trading places or running together within us, clearly cut or amorphous, the experience of these biological twitterings makes it nearly impossible to doubt that they will stay with us as far as we can see into the future. Ask any couple who cannot imagine being without each other, a vital fiction without which, besides the fact that it often leads to procreation, no society could exist. It would have no reason to do so, because reason is merely the mouthpiece of emotion. Hume, who specialized in detaining his readers with obvious but unspoken realities, wrote in his Treatise of Human

Nature (1739–40) that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” To free reason from this slavery would mean our becoming rationalists without a cause, paralytics crippled by mentation.

In speaking of depression and its defining effect of driving its victim to the point of caring nothing for anything, the American talk-show host Dick Cavett once remarked that “when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.” No better elucidation has ever been proffered vis-à-vis the uselessness of reason in the absence of emotion. In the recumbence of depression, your information-gathering system collates its intelligence and reports to you these facts: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know. Without meaning-charged emotions keeping your brain on the straight and narrow, you would lose your balance and fall into an abyss of lucidity. And for a conscious being, lucidity is a cocktail without ingredients, a crystal clear concoction that will leave you hungover with reality. In perfect knowledge there is only perfect nothingness, which is perfectly painful if what you want is meaning in your life.

William S. Burroughs said it rightly in his journals. Using his streetwise voice, he wrote: “Love? What is it? The most natural painkiller what there is.” You may become curious, though, about what happened to that painkiller should depression take hold and expose your love—whatever its object—as just one of the many intoxicants that muddled your consciousness of the human tragedy. You may also want to take a second look at whatever struck you as a person, place, or thing of “beauty,” a quality that lives only in the neurotransmitters of the beholder. (Aesthetics? What is it? A matter for those not depressed enough to care nothing about anything, that is, those who determine almost everything that is supposed to matter to us. Protest as you like, neither art nor an aesthetic view of life are distractions granted to everyone.) In depression, all that once seemed beautiful, or even startling and dreadful, is nothing to you. The image of a cloud-crossed moon is not in itself a purveyor of anything mysterious or mystical; it is only an ensemble of objects represented to us by our optical apparatus and perhaps processed as a memory.

This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. Whatever may be really “out there” cannot

project itself as an affective experience. It is all a vacuous affair with only a chemical prestige. Nothing is either good or bad, desirable or undesirable, or anything else except that it is made so by laboratories inside us producing the emotions on which we live. And to live on our emotions is to live arbitrarily, inaccurately—imparting meaning to what has none of its own. Yet what other way is there to live? Without the ever-clanking machinery of emotion, everything would come to a standstill. There would be nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be,

and no one to know. The alternatives are clear: to live falsely as pawns of affect, or to live factually as depressives, or as individuals who know what is known to the depressive. How advantageous that we are not coerced into choosing one or the other, neither choice being excellent.

One look at human existence is proof enough that our species will not be released from the stranglehold of emotionalism that anchors it to hallucinations. That may be no way to live, but to opt for depression would be to opt out of existence as we consciously know it.

Of course, individuals may recover from depression. But in that event they had better keep their consciousness of what they went through at heel. Otherwise they might start thinking that being alive is not as all right as they once thought it was when they were being shuttled about by a relatively well-constituted emotional system. The same applies to bodily systems of any kind, such as the immune system. Because when one of your systems goes haywire, you cannot function as you think you should. You may not even be able to think about anything except how much vomit, nasal mucus, phlegm, and watery stool you are discharging from your body when your immune system cannot withstand an onslaught from a viral or bacterial infection. If that is the way you were all the time, you could not go on as a well-constituted being, which means you could not go on as your old self, whatever that might have been. But chances are you will get better after one or more of your systems has gone haywire, and as a newly well-constituted being you will probably think, “I’m back to being the real me.” However, you might as truthfully think that the real you is the one who was sick, not the one with well-constituted systems working together so cooperatively that you do not even notice them. You cannot go around thinking that the sick you is the real you, though, or you would turn into someone who suffers from chronic anxiety about all the ways your systems can go haywire. And that would become the real you.



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