There’s liable to be equivocation in this discussion of what’s “natural.” And there’s also some strawmanning or misunderstanding of what’s being argued, I think.

My point about slave morality, Stockholm syndrome, and the hedonic treadmill isn’t that morality is unnatural. What I was arguing is that the peace that comes from living a good life in the traditional sense is indeed based on a coping mechanism. You can define that mechanism as natural or as artificial, if you like. What’s more important is that this mechanism occurs in the context of a great theodicy: what’s especially natural is the domination of the weak by the strong, which means amorality is universal in the animal kingdom, and the weak cope with that amorality by devising morality. That’s essentially Nietzsche’s argument, which I was laying on the table.

Again, you can interpret that as saying that morality and the contentment of the domesticated flock are “natural.” Morality arises naturally in sufficiently intelligent and social creatures, but what I emphasize is that implicit in this inner peace is an existential revolt against nature, not an acceptance of the world’s amorality (of its “will to power,” in Nietzsche’s terms). Yes, the slaves and the domesticated herds inure themselves to their suffering, making the best of natural chance and injustice (the domination of the conscientious majority by the tyrannical or otherwise corrupted minority). But they do so by fantasizing, by conjuring into being ideals which lead to the creation of effectively and even intentionally anti-natural culture.

I have an article coming out soon on how Christians did this with their rationalization of Jesus’s execution. Christianity begins as theodicy: Why was Jesus, an innocent, charismatic, wise man tortured and executed as a common criminal? The (roughly Nietzschean) reality was horrific and to cope with that horror, early Christians devised a moralistic, theological scheme to vindicate the world’s apparent godlessness. Jesus died as a sacrifice for all of us, as the creed would have it.

So is that theology “natural”? Well, yes, in the sense that we can explain how the values arise without needing to appeal to theism or to anything literally miraculous (to a violation of physics). But we miss the point of the novelty if we think of culture as just natural. Culture is artificial and often explicitly anti-natural in intention, not just in effect. Christian fantasies are implicitly anti-natural in that they posit an apocalyptic reshaping of the secular order when God will reign directly over “nature.” The fallen world will be perfected and everything will be supernatural.

Likewise, conventional morality is natural, but only in so far as nature is able to undo itself, to add incommensurable layers to itself, to complexify, ramify, and evolve worlds within worlds. Again, we see a striking case of nature’s creative destruction in the case of black holes (especially if entire universes exist inside them, including ours, as some cosmologists think). Morality and culture (artificiality) are transformative or perhaps just ultimately destructive in that sense.

Is chimpanzee society unnatural? As I said, these things come in degrees. The divide is between the absurd, amoral, godless wilderness, and an existential revolt against that order by intelligent, imaginative creatures that rebel by creating a new world, namely one that achieves cultural ideals by largely technological means. Obviously, we do that far more than do chimpanzees, but perhaps some such recognition is implicit in chimpanzee (or elephant, dolphin, octopus, raven, or ant) behaviour. I see no reason to deny the possibility of a continuum here. I’m interested in the distinction between animals and persons in the existential sense; the more species of people (of visionary rebels against the wilderness), the better.

I’m a little surprised you agree with much of my article on unconditional love (retitled “The Dark Secret of Spirituality”).

As to the reality of illusions, I had a long argument on my blog about that with R. Scott Bakker, the fantasy author and eliminative materialist. He would say consciousness, semantic meaning, and values are tricks played by the brain, and I’d agree. But he’d go on to deny the efficacy of those tricks, whereas I’d speak of them as emergent properties. Personhood, subjectivity, and so forth do have potency, which is why I emphasize the existential revolt and the novelty of culture’s unnaturalness. The fact that nature’s devouring itself on this particular planet proves that we exist as sentient creatures. Mystics, too, call this illusion, but some illusions are evidently real enough to have this surprising impact, this recognition of the wilderness’s fallenness and the promethean effort to build a better world.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store