The world is an illusion; it has no real existence. And this is what is meant by ‘imagination’ (khayāl). For you just imagine that it (i.e., the world) is an autonomous reality quite different from and independent of the Absolute Reality, while in truth it is nothing of the sort’…. Know that you yourself are an imagination. And everything that you perceive and say to yourself, ‘this is not me’, is also an imagination. So that the whole world of existence is imagination within imagination.
I like to point out to anyone who may want to listen, that the world we live in, and we consider an indisputable fact of existence, it’s not so, contrary from what most of us think, we do not live in the World, the World lives into our subjective consciousness.
When we go to sleep the world we know, disappear totally, and if we dream ( We all do, some of us just do not recall the dreams, or are easily forgotten.) a new reality emerge during our dreams, were images, colors, ideas, emotions, and actions acquire a confusing atmosphere, of incomprehensible, or unintelligible gibberish, completely meaningless, sometimes with flashes of profound intuitive insights, that are totally mysterious in nature, but appear as some sort of connection, or an ethereal link to our particular everyday reality.
There is nothing new to this fact, except our ignorance about the subject.
Mind Bending Movies
Artist, like novelist, movie directors, aware of this fact had produced all kind of films were our basic principles about reality are questioned like The Matrix, Dark City, What Dreams May Come, The thirteen Floor, and others.
The Matrix draws from and makes reference to numerous cinematic and literary works, and concepts from mythology, religion and philosophy.The Matrix also makes reference to the ideas of Buddhism, Christianity, Gnosticism dualism, Hinduism, and Judaism. The Matrix‘s premise resembles the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Andrew Godoski from Screened.com observed Neo’s “virgin birth”, his doubt in himself, the prophecy of his coming, along with many Christianity references. In The Matrix, a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation is visible on-screen as the book used to conceal disks, and Morpheus quotes its phrase “desert of the real”. The book was required reading for the actors prior to filming. Baudrillard himself said that The Matrix misunderstands and distorts his work. Check my post MANICHAEISM, AN ONTOLOGICAL, DUALISTIC VIEW ON THE NATURE OF EXISTENCE March 2017
Baudrillard’s published work emerged as part of a generation of French thinkers including Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan who all shared an interest in semiotics, and he is often seen as a part of the post-structuralist philosophical school. In common with many post-structuralists, his arguments consistently draw upon the notion that signification and meaning are both only understandable in terms of how particular words or “signs” interrelate. Baudrillard thought, as do many post-structuralists, that meaning is brought about through systems of signs working together. See my posts:
DELEUZE, WESTERN PHILOSOPHY AND THE ENDLESS REVERSING OF THE SOCK. April 2013)
LANGUAGE AND CONSCIOUSNESS February 2013
One can make a connection between the premise of The Matrix and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave; once one accepts that The Matrix is an illusion, then the allegory of the cave becomes clear. The allegory is related to Plato’s theory of Forms, (Archetypes) which holds that the true essence of an object is not what we perceive with our senses, but rather its quality, and that most people perceive only the shadow of the object and are thus limited to false perception. See my post:
THE WORLD WITHOUT DUST, GEOGRAPHICAL ARCHETYPES OF THE SOUL March 2012
Morpheus of the matrix paraphrases the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi when he asks Neo, “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you weren’t able to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference from the real world and the dream world?”
I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.
In the movie Inception (2010) the character Dom Cobb says: ‘Well dreams, they feel real while we’re in them, right? It’s only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange.’
Khayāl-The World of Creative Imagination
“Now in a dream, our mind continuously does this, we create and perceive our world simultaneously and our mind does this so well that we don’t even know it’s happening.” –Cobb
One of the most important concepts in Ibn ‘Arabi’s writing, which Inception illustrates beautifully, is a term called khayāl, which scholars translate as “imagination” or “imaginal faculty” to separate it from the illusory or derogatory connotations of the word “imaginary.” The world of khayāl is imaginary in that it the same stuff which dreams are made of, but this stuff is real, at least partially so. For example, most of us spend our lives in this imaginal world, not only during dreams, but also during our ordinary, everyday lives. When we see a color, or smell perfume, or feel an itch, our minds/souls are actually creating these sensations out of physical stimuli. We don’t see electromagnetic radiation with a 700 nm wavelength, we see red. Our minds “imagine” the sensory reality in which we live, simultaneously creating and perceiving these experiences, much like how Cobb described the process of dreaming to Ariadne during her first shared dream. In fact, Ibn ‘Arabi writes that one of the purposes of dreams is to alert us to this aspect of our existence, writing that “The only reason God placed sleep in the animate world was so that everyone might witness the Presence of Imagination and know that there is another world similar to the [everyday] sensory world.” For Ibn ‘Arabi, this imaginal world encompasses all human experience, and the imaginal faculty of ours gives form not only to physical but also metaphysical realities or archetypes. If you’ve ever written a melody or a poem, or drawn a picture, you’re already familiar with the magical process of imagination, the process of giving tangible forms to intangible ideas, concepts, and emotions. This is the function of the imaginal faculty, to bring together “pure ideas” and meanings and clothe them in sensible forms. But what of the reality of these things behind their imaginal forms, and what of reality itself? Most of us take these sensory, imaginal forms to be our reality, and are happy living out our days in this seemingly solid world. But Ibn ‘Arabi takes a different stance. Quoting the famous Prophetic tradition, “People are asleep, when they die, they awaken,”
It doesn’t matter if the top is spinning or not Before I continue, a quick aside about the much-debated end of the film is in order. I take the position that the film’s end is meant to be ambiguous and ambivalent, and I am completely uninterested in the director’s intentions or if, at the end, Cobb is “really” in a dream or back to reality. Part of the point is that the film is a dream, a phantom, a story, an illusion, so there is no “what really happens” on that level of reality. Dreams, like good movies and literature, are ambiguous and resist being pinned down to simple, literal descriptions, and this is simply the nature of all imaginal reality (more on this later). For the purposes this essay, I will take the perspective that whether or not the top stopped spinning, the film ends with Cobb still in a dream state, and in fact, Cobb has been in a dream state throughout the entire film. The entire action of the film takes place in a dream, the impossible dream technology with all of its logic-bending features, all the characters, everything, is part of a dream. In short, even if the top falls, he’s still dreaming because the top we see only ever existed in a dream.
Imagination and the limits of reason One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of Ibn ‘Arabi’s work for modern readers is his critique of reason. As Ibn ‘Arabi is fond of pointing out, one of the Arabic words for “reason,” ‘aql, 64 comes from the verb ‘aqala which means to “bind” or “fetter.” In this sense, reason is useful in that it allows us to get a handle on things and deal with them conceptually. However, in doing so, reason necessarily distorts reality by trying to delimit, define, and “bind” it in its rational schemas. Reason cannot deal with paradoxes and seeks to resolve ambiguities into “either/or” relations, while the worlds of imagination are characterized by the relations of “neither/nor” and “both/and.” But for Ibn ‘Arabi, reason and imagination are not opposed to each other; rather, they are complementary. Reason is critical and analytic, while imagination is creative and synthetic. A balance of both is needed to achieve the correct view of things, which Ibn ‘Arabi calls “seeing with two eyes.” The eye of reason distinguishes the real from the unreal, and the eye of imagination sees the images, reflections, and dreams that make up our world as simultaneously real and unreal. This formulation is particularly apt, because you need two eyes in order perceive the third dimension correctly, just as you need both reason and imagination to understand the metaphysical dimension of the world. With the eye of reason, we can discriminate things from each other and see the multiplicity of the world, and with the eye of imagination, we can see the many things as one. Ibn ‘Arabi argues that in order to understand things properly, we have to see both ways at once.
In Inception, Eames represents the pole of imagination, while Arthur represents that of reason. Eames calls Arthur a “stick in the mud,” and during a gunfight, tells him, “you mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger darling,” before mysteriously producing a grenade launcher. Their friendly rivalry in the planning stages of the mission, in which Arthur demands “specificity,” while Eames calls inception a “subtle art,” teases Arthur for his condescension, and declares, “to perform Inception, you need imagination,” wonderfully illustrates the creative tension between imagination and reason. The ensuing fantastical fight scenes and Arthur’s ingenious (and wonderfully shot), gravity-free “kick” vividly depict the process of “seeing with both eyes,” of thinking simultaneously inside and beyond a given dream level. The team’s ability to think both vertically and horizontally, to “see with both eyes,” is what allows them to navigate the labyrinth of dream worlds. Similarly, for Ibn ‘Arabi, “seeing with both eyes” is what allows people to navigate the labyrinth of the imaginal worlds that make up our existence both before and after death. Unaware of the various levels of reality, the unimaginative projections are bound to one level of reality and its rules, while with the aid of imagination, Cobb and his team jump from level to level, bending and breaking the local laws of logic as they go. Reason is a tool and like most tools, works best in conjunction with others. In fact, pure reason has to be coupled with imagination and insight in order to work at all.65 This fact, and the limitations of reason, can be somewhat difficult for us to grasp today, because we live in a world that undervalues insight and imagination, and is simultaneously irrational and corroded by over-rationalization. Turned against imagination and insight, instead of working in conjunction with them, modern reason has tried, and then given up on addressing issues it can’t handle on its own, such as metaphysics, ethics, and teleology. For this reason, fundamental questions such as “What is real?”, “What is right?”, and “What are we here for?” are often better engaged by artists (such as filmmakers) than by scientists and academic philosophers.
What Dreams may come
The title comes from a line in Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy, namely, “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.” The plot outline in the novel contains several allegorical references to Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy (1308–1321).
The prologue is narrated by a man telling of his visit from a psychic woman, who gives him a manuscript she claims was dictated to her by his deceased brother Chris. Most of the novel consists of this manuscript.
Chris, a middle-aged man, is injured in an auto accident and dies in the hospital. He remains as a ghost, at first thinking he’s having a bad dream. Amid a failed séance that ends up reinforcing his wife’s belief that he didn’t survive death, an unidentified man keeps approaching Chris, telling him to concentrate on what’s beyond. Chris disregards this advice for a long time, unable to leave his wife Ann. After following the man’s advice, and focusing on pleasant memories, he feels himself being elevated.
He awakens in a beautiful glade, which he recognizes as a place where he and Ann traveled. Understanding now that he has died, he is surprised that he looks and feels alive, with apparently a physical body and sensations. After exploring the place for a while, he finds Albert, his cousin, who reveals himself as the unidentified man he had been seeing.
Albert explains that the place they occupy is called Summerland. Being a state of mind rather than a physical location, Summerland is practically endless and takes the form of the inhabitants’ wishes and desires. There is no pain or death, but people maintain occupations of sorts and perform leisure activities. The book depicts Summerland at length, through Chris’s eyes.
Divine “Imagination” and the Intermediate World: Ibn ‘Arabî on the Barzakh.
For centuries after the time of the Andalusian mystic Ibn ‘Arabî, his remarkable discussions and conceptions of the “Imagination” (al-khayâl) were elaborated by Islamic philosophers, poets, artists and critics in order to explain, interpret and justify the full range of artistic and creative activities carried on within later Islamic cultures, as far away as India and Indonesia.1 Modern western students of Ibn ‘Arabî writing on such themes have tended to focus on the development of those ideas in his celebrated Fusûs al-Hikam (“The Bezels of Wisdom”) and its long line of traditional philosophic commentaries.2 But another major source of those classical Islamic understandings of the Imagination was in the Shaykh’s many discussions of the eschatological “Barzakh” or “intermediate world” of the divine Imagination–as well as his accounts of his own striking experiences and decisive spiritual encounters there–which are scattered throughout his magnum opus, al-Futûhât al-Makkîya (“The Meccan Illuminations”). One of his most extensive and widely influential discussions of the Imagination/Barzakh, in all its humanly relevant dimensions, was in the set of five eschatological chapters (61-65) within the long opening section of the Futûhât–chapters first brought to the attention of a wider Western audience in the famous studies by Asin-Palacios of Islamic themes in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
See my post:
EROS SUBLIMATED , THE MUNDUS IMAGINALIS April 2013
Now there are some people who perceive this imaged-object (al-mutakhayyal) with the eye of the (physical) sensation, and there are others who perceive it with the eye of imagination. Of course I’m referring here to (our perceptions) in the waking state, since during sleep (everyone) definitely perceives with the eye of imagination. So if a person wishes to distinguish between (those two modes of perception) in their waking state, whether in this world or at the Day of Resurrection, they can determine (which sort of perception it is) by looking at the imaged-object. Thus if [a] the states of what one is looking at continue to change as it changes its shape and characteristics, even though you can’t deny that it is still the same thing, and [b] the fact of observing it does not stop it from changing its shape and formation–as when a chameleon, when you observe it, stops changing its colors–then that is undoubtedly (being seen) with the eye of imagination, not with the eye of the senses. For you perceive what-is-imagined (al-khayâl) with the eye of imagination, not with the eye of (physical) sensation.
Indeed few of those who lay claim to the unveiled vision of spirits, whether of fire (i.e., jinn) or of light (angels), really understand how this is. When (those spirits) take on the image of perceptible forms, (most people) don’t know whether they are perceiving them with the eye of the imagination or with the eye of (physical) sensation–since both sorts of perception involve the sensing activity of the eye. That (inner sensing activity) is what presents the perception through both the eye of imagination and the eye of (physical) sensation. So this is a subtle form of knowledge: I mean the knowledge of the distinction between the two “eyes,” and between the sensing activity of the eye and the eye of (physical) sensation. One can know that (what one perceives) is indeed sensible, not imaginal, and that one has perceived it with the eye of sensation, not the eye of imagination (by the following conditions): [a] when the eye perceives the imaged-object and, without being distracted, sees that its shape and characteristics don’t change; [b] when it doesn’t see that imaged-object in different places at the same time, assuming it is definitely a single reality; and [c] that imaged-object doesn’t become changed or transformed into different states.
This is how you should understand how a human being can perceive their Lord–may He be exalted!–in a dream, even though He transcends any form or image, as well as how that perception of Him takes place and its limitations. And through this you may understand what has come down in the sound report (of the famous hadith) concerning the Creator’s “manifesting Himself (to souls at the Resurrection) in the most unlikely of forms among those in which they saw Him,” and concerning His “transformation into a form which they knew (before then),” after they had been denying Him and taking refuge from Him (in more agreeable forms of His manifestation).
So you should know with which eye you are seeing Him! For I have already let you know that (the divine) Imagination is perceived either through itself–I mean through the eye of imagination–or through the (physical) vision. And which of those two is the sound one on which we should rely?! Regarding that we (wrote these verses): When my Beloved appears to me, with which eye do I see Him? With His eye, not with mine: for none sees Him but Him! (This is only) in accordance with the transcendence of His Station and confirming His Words, since He says: “The gazes do not perceive Him, [but He perceives the gazes…]” (6:103), and He did not specify any particular Abode (of this world or the next), but sent it as an Verse unrestricted (in its applicability) and as a definite, confirmed matter. For none other than Him perceives Him, so it is with His eye–may He be praised!–that I see Him, as in (the famous divine saying in) the sound hadith-report: “…I (God) was his gaze through which he sees.” So wake up, you who are asleep and heedless of all this, and pay attention! I have opened up for you a door to forms of awareness and inner knowing that thoughts can never reach, though intellects can come to accept them, either through special divine Providence or by “polishing hearts with dhikr and recitation (of the Qur’an).” Then the intellect accepts what the divine Self- manifestation (tajalli) gives it and knows that that (imaginal revelation) is beyond its own power with respect to its thinking, indeed that its thinking could never give it that. Therefore (that person) gives thanks to God–may He be exalted!–Who created their constitution (nash’a) so that it could receive things like that: this being the constitution of the (divine) Messengers and prophets and those among the saints who are the recipients of special divine Providence. This is so that (such a person) may know that their receptivity (to what is bestowed by God) is higher and more noble than their own thinking. So realize, o my brother, from now on Who it is that is manifesting Himself to you from behind this door (of the imagination)! For this is a prodigious matter, where even the innermost hearts become bewildered.
In a world of darkness, controlled by time, images and roles shift and change in an ongoing nightmare as if part of a mad experiment. Everyone seems under the spell of sleep and forgetfulness, just vaguely remembering a distant memory of light and home, but unable to remember how to get back there. When the plan of darkness, attack thoughts and projection is finally uncovered and exposed, the upside-down world is turned right-side-up and bathed in the light of innocence—the present moment. There is no memory of a past. The games of fear and guilt are ended in the light of true love. In the light, Christ is recognized anew, as if for the very first time with no memory of the past.
John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakens alone in a strange hotel to find that he is wanted for a series of brutal murders. The problem is that he can’t remember whether he committed the murders or not. For one brief moment, he is convinced that he has gone completely mad. Murdoch seeks to unravel the twisted riddle of his identity. As he edges closer to solving the mystery, he stumbles upon a fiendish underworld controlled by a group of ominous beings collectively known as the Strangers.
The Strangers bring Murdoch to their home beneath the city and force Dr. Schreber to imprint Murdoch with their collective memory, believing Murdoch to be the final result of their experiments. Schreber betrays them by inserting false memories in Murdoch which artificially reestablish his childhood as years spent training and honing his psychokinetic skills and learning about the Strangers and their machines. Murdoch awakens, fully realizing his skills, frees himself and battles with the Strangers, defeating their leader Mr. Book in a psychokinetic fight high above the city.
After learning from Dr. Schreber that Emma’s personality is gone and cannot be restored, Murdoch exercises his new-found powers, amplified by the Strangers’ machine, to create an actual Shell Beach by flooding the area within the force field with water and forming mountains and beaches. On his way to Shell Beach, Murdoch encounters Mr. Hand and informs him that the Strangers have been searching in the wrong place—the mind—to understand humanity. Murdoch turns the habitat toward the star it had been turned away from, and the city experiences sunlight for the first time.
He opens the door leading out of the city, and steps out to view the sunrise. Beyond him is a pier, where he finds the woman he knew as Emma, now with new memories and a new identity as Anna. Murdoch reintroduces himself as they walk to Shell Beach, beginning their relationship anew.
Ibn Arabi The Horn of Light
Hence the imagination (as indicated in many familiar hadith) sees knowledge in the form of milk, or honey and wine and pearls; and it sees Islâm in the form a dome and pillars; and it sees the Qur’an in the form of butter and honey; and it sees Religion in the form of a bond; and it sees God (al-Haqq) in the form a human being and in the form of light…. As for this “horn” (of the Barzakh/Imagination) being made of “light” (according to the hadith mentioned above), that is because light is the immediate cause for (things) becoming unveiled and clearly appearing, since without light, vision would perceive nothing at all. So God made this Imagination as a “light” through which could be perceived the Bringing-into-form (taswîr) of every thing, whatever that might be, as we’ve already mentioned. His Light passes through the absolute nothingness so that He might shape it into the forms of being. Hence the Imagination is more deserving of the (divine) Name “the Light” (al-Nûr) than all the created things ordinarily described as “luminous,” since Its Light does not resemble the (created) lights and through It the divine Self-manifestations are perceived.
And It (or ‘He’) is the Light of the eye of imagination, not the light of the eye of sensation. So understand this! For if you understand how (the divine) Imagination is Light, and you know in what way it is (always) correct, then you will have an advantage over those who don’t know that–the sort of person who says: “that is only a false imagination!” That is because such people have failed to understand the perception of the light of imagination which has been given them by God. This is just like their saying that our senses are also “mistaken” in some of their perceptions, when in fact their sense-perceptions are sound, while the judgment (regarding the meaning of those perceptions) belongs to something else, not to the senses themselves. It is the judgment that is false, not the sensation. Likewise the imagination perceives with its light whatever it perceives, without passing judgment. The judgment only belongs to something else, which is the intellect, so the error can’t be attributed to the imagination. Thus there never is any “false imagination” at all–indeed all of it is correct!
The deepest aspect of your being resides in the inseparable, formless dimension of Eternal Presence.
Inception and Ibn Arabi by
Divine “Imagination” and the Intermediate World: Ibn ‘Arabî on the Barzakh.
James W Morris
Posted in Ancient Religions, Archetypes, Avatar, Barzakh, Baudrillard, Cinema, Consciousness, Dante, Deleuze, Divine Comedy, Dreams, Dualism, Ferdinand de Sassure, Gnosticism, God, Ibn Arabi, Imagination, Inner Journey, Inspiration, Jacques Derrida, khayāl, Know Thyself, Light, Manichaeism, Mundus Imaginalis, Myth, Oneiromancy, Science Fitction, Symbols, The Subjective, Uncategorized, Watching Movies
Tagged Barzakh, Dark City, Ibn Arabi, Imaginal, Inception, Mundus Imaginalis, Reason And Paradox, Summerland, The Horn Of Light, The Matrix, What Dreams May Come
I would not want to give you cause for finding me disobedient in anything, so I have set the bridle of your injunction on the words which issue from my unbounded grief; thus in writing at least I may moderate what it is difficult or rather impossible to forestall in speech. For nothing is less under our control than our heart – having no power to command it we are forced to obey. And so when its impulses move us, none of us can stop their sudden promptings from easily breaking out, and even more easily overflowing into words which are the everready indications of the heart’s emotions: as it is written, ‘A man’s words are spoken from the overflowing of the heart.’ I will therefore hold my hand from writing words which I cannot restrain my tongue from speaking; would that a grieving heart would be as ready to obey as a writer’s hand!
Heloise on the Third Letter to Abelard.
‘Heloise and Abelard’ is one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories. The nine hundred year old love affair of the 12th century philosopher and theologian and his student Heloise continues to inspire and move us. Their passionate relationship scandalized the community in which they lived. The details of their physical and spiritual intimacy is also a cautionary tale for our time.
There are still societies whose policies result in rigid attitudes of intellectual, theological and sexual repression. This great love story, and the courage and passion of its protagonists, has much to teach us about our own understanding of religious tolerance, sexual equality and intellectual freedom.
Here is an admonitory tale screaming to us from across the centuries to reason, and to question, question, question!
In twelfth century Paris, the intellectually gifted young Heloise, the niece of Notre Dame’s Canon Fulbert, strives for knowledge, truth and the answer to the question of human existence. It soon becomes apparent that only one teacher in Paris can provide the education that she seeks. Though twenty years her senior, Abelard quickly becomes intrigued by Heloise’s uncommon wit and intelligence, for Heloise is on par intellectually with Abelard.
They soon find themselves so entwined that neither can resist the spiritual and physical desires of their bodies, yet they both know that the laws of the time forbid such a relationship. But their physical love and the strength of their passion proved to be a power impossible to resist.
When Heloise becomes pregnant, they realize it is not safe for her to remain in Paris. They flee for Brittany, Abelard’s place of birth. In a scheme to protect the dignity of his fallen niece, and return Heloise to his home, Canon Fulbert arranges a secret marriage between Heloise and Abelard. But shortly after the two lovers are wed, they discover Fulbert’s true plot is to ruin Abelard and keep Heloise for himself. For her safety, Heloise escapes to the convent at Argenteuil, but it is too late for Abelard and he is brutally attacked in Paris.
As a result of his humiliating punishment, Abelard no longer considers himself capable of continuing as a teacher at Notre Dame, and he and Heloise understand what they must do. Canon Bedell pleads with Abelard to not force such a fate upon Heloise, but both Heloise and Abelard agree that they must take Holy Orders as Monk and Nun. In a heartbreaking moment, Heloise must give up her child, knowing that she will never see him again.
Through their famous correspondence of twenty years, their love continues to flourish, in spite of their separation. After many years pass, in a chance meeting, Heloise and Abelard are briefly reunited at a ceremony in Paris. Though they have been physically apart all these years, at last in the sight of the other, the former lovers realize that the love they share is the reason for human existence. As the glorious ceremony begins, they triumphantly promise to remain “Forever One”.
They never met again, yet through their famous letters, their love endures.
“You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you.”
Six hundred years later, it was Josephine Bonaparte, so moved by their story, the she ordered that the remains of Abelard and Heloise be entombed together at Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris. To this day, lovers from all over the world visit the tomb where the remains of Heloise and Abelard rest eternally together.’
Now the above story, it’s a simplified versions, somewhat sweetened of the real struggle, on a Men dominated society, common, not only to Heloise, but of injustice for many women through the annals of History.
Heloise (1101-1164) was the niece and pride of Canon Fulbert. She was well-educated by her uncle in Paris. Abelard later writes in his autobiographical “Historica Calamitatum”: “Her uncle’s love for her was equaled only by his desire that she should have the best education which he could possibly procure for her. Of no mean beauty, she stood out above all by reason of her abundant knowledge of letters.”
John Marenbon, in his book on Abelard, has two chapters in which he deals with Heloise’s contribution to his ethics. The first of the two chapters is about dismissing claims that Heloise did not write her own letters. That, in itself, is telling. Take any woman philosopher who is not actually around to fight her ground, and chances are, someone will argue that she did not author her own work. Marenbon’s defense is spirited and convincing, but it does not go far towards building up an account of what Heloise might have had to contribute to the philosophy of her age. The second of the two chapters does a little better, as it claims that Abelard’s later account of Caritas as unconditional love of God was influenced by Heloise’s description of her love for Abelard. She, was, Marenbon said, a writer he had to take seriously, and this is reflected in his revisions of his own ethical thought.
‘Many commentators dealing with the question of Heloise’s tumultuous “inner life” as an abbess have focused primarily on Heloise’s refusal to relinquish her sexual desires for Abelard. In these cases, her desire has been construed as a form of subversion and transgression, thus relegating her to the position of the unruly female who must accept the “bridle of the [monastic] injunction.” Instead of being used as a heuristic for dialogue, it places the female subject into a position that must be controlled and subjugated. Rather than desire being an agent of actualization for the female subject, it shuts down avenues for negotiations of subjectivity. Furthermore, the inordinate focus on Heloise as a romantic heroine obscures the fact that she is also acutely anguished by the uncertainty of her heavenly reward. Despite claiming that she has done everything for the love of Abelard, Heloise still expresses her anxiety about her spiritual salvation. She believes that in her struggle against her own body and subjectivity, God will grant her a little “corner of heaven.” Thus, Heloise’s sudden redirection in the third letter should be approached for what it simply is, as a well-calculated rhetorical move on her part, for she knows that Abelard will not confront the question of her continued desire directly. Heloise starts afresh on another subject which she knows he would be more amenable to discuss, the management of the Oratory of the Paraclete. As such, though Heloise’s third letter to Abelard is submerged in mundane theological concerns, Robert Edwards argues that the third letter of Heloise continues an ongoing struggle and negotiation of and for desire. Desire here, however, is not only the overtly passionate eroticism that suffuses Heloise’s first two letters to Abelard, but desire in the broader sense, encompassing her own longing to attain intellectual communion with him. Prior to this letter, Heloise has already been sending a deluge of complaints to Abelard. She demands remuneration for the infinite debt he supposedly owes her; she pesters him to address her old perpetual complaint against God; she demands consolation for her emotional distress. In a sense, Heloise is seeking recognition from Abelard, asking him to realize that he has left her mired in their past, that he has forgotten about her after his castration. Abelard’s conversion is a continued source of anxiety and despair for Heloise, as she can no longer request the same sort of idealized engagement with him she so treasured from their past. Her dilemma arises from a desire explicitly forbidden by traditional monastic profession: a desire to let her past shape and influence her present and future religious life and a desire to construct a new order that would allow her to continue upholding her cherished notions of secular love.
And what a love it was. Until recently, we could read it directly only in eight letters discovered in the 13th century and composed long after the lovers’ entry into monastic life. The first, from Abelard, isn’t even directed to Heloise. Written for an unnamed monk, it’s what a medieval reader would have called a “letter of consolation,” meant to comfort a troubled friend by convincing him that your problems are greater than his. This early variant of schadenfreude, the so-called “Historia Calamitatum,” is how we learn of Abelard’s first arrival in Paris, of his growing renown as a teacher and his encounter with the well-educated young Heloise. Here too we learn of Abelard’s rash decision to move into her uncle Fulbert’s home and become her tutor, of their love and her pregnancy, of Fulbert’s rage, Abelard’s attempt to pacify him by proposing marriage and Heloise’s resistance — at least in part because of the damage it would do to her lover’s reputation. We learn that Abelard prevailed over his pupil, that the wedding was initially kept secret and that Fulbert ordered a terrible act of vengeance. Days after thugs broke into Abelard’s bedroom at night and castrated him, the newlyweds took vows of celibacy and repaired to their respective religious institutions.
The letters written after the “Historia Calamitatum” are the richest, containing the rash, ringing, reckless and altogether impious declarations of love for which Heloise will always be known. Here is a voice that refuses to stay in the Middle Ages; it reaches through the centuries and catches us at the throat. “Men call me chaste,” she writes. “They do not know the hypocrite I am.” Even during the celebration of Mass, she confesses, “lewd visions” of the pleasures she shared with Abelard “take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.” She asserts the primacy of desire, boldly professing the amorous, sacrilegious motives that drove her into the convent: “It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone. . . . I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of him. . . . I would have had no hesitation, God knows, in following you or going ahead at your bidding to the flames of hell.” Her bravado, her defiance, her ruthless honesty and her apotheosis of eros over morality are everywhere apparent — and still today they are shocking.
Love is Heloise’s religion, even when she’s wrapped in the robes of a nun. And in the practice of this religion, she is as uncompromising as she is unconventional. For her, love has no business with the law or money or social safety nets. It is for this reason, more than any other, that she opposes Abelard’s desire to wed: “I never sought anything in you except yourself. . . . I looked for no marriage bond.” Indeed, she proclaims,”if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore.”
The dust will not settle on such words. At once intrepid and idealistic, transgressive and submissive, taboo-busting and sweet-natured, noble and naughty, they have seduced scholars for centuries. This woman, this prioress, who was prepared to sacrifice not just earthly reputation but heavenly salvation for the sake of her secular love, is a literary original. Petrarch couldn’t read her without scribbling exclamations in the margins; the three letters to Abelard that have come down to us from her monastic confinement have sufficed to make her name as a writer.
Only recently — and miraculously — has a new cache of material turned up, fragments of 113 letters that many scholars believe Abelard and Heloise exchanged before Abelard’s castration. Copied in the 15th century by a monk named Johannes de Vespria, discovered in 1980 by Constant J. Mews and finally published as “The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard,” these short but eloquent missives present two people vying — with no coyness or gender typecasting whatever — to outdo each other in expressions of adoration. “To a reddening rose under the spotless whiteness of lilies,” the woman addresses the man. “To his jewel, more pleasing and more splendid than the present light,” the man addresses the woman. The letters have unleashed a new storm of interest in the couple; it is to this that we owe the British filmmaker James Burge’s biography, “Abelard and Heloise.”
Burge spends much time glossing the new correspondence — unfortunately, trivializing rather than illuminating it. “This sounds to modern ears like a promise of sex,” he tells us at one point, then rushes to explain: “The question of when exactly they first consummated their love awaits more assiduous scholarship.” Given that scholars are still arguing about Heloise’s birth date (she’s been put between 15 and 27 years of age at the time of her encounter with Abelard, who would have been in his late 30’s), you shouldn’t hold your breath waiting for this golden factoid. But what’s really missing in Burge’s biography is an ear for the lyricism of his subjects’ correspondence, a feel for the mystery of their bond.
Antoine Audouard’s novel “Farewell, My Only One” doesn’t draw explicitly on the new letters, but it’s substantially truer to their spirit. It also has an ingenious narrative scheme: the story is told from the point of view of a wandering student, William, who falls in love with Heloise at the same time that he becomes Abelard’s disciple. When he has outlived both, at the end of the tale, we discover an even closer connection.
Audouard, a former director of the French publisher Laffont-Fixot, evokes in gritty and poetic detail the streets of 12th-century Paris (where the narrator tells us he “stumbled over a pig”). He’s also very good at conveying the process of infatuation: William falls for Heloise when she loses consciousness in a crowd: “I am not strong. I have never carried a woman,” he marvels. And yet he does, and even lunges after the flower that has fallen from her hair. “A few crushed petals” are all that remain, though, when he opens his “clenched fist” — a foretaste of what happens when we grasp what we love too firmly.
But Audouard spends too much time alone with William — building churches, cleaning grates, making friends — and we resent being taken away from the lovers. Then again, anyone writing about Abelard and Heloise must compete with their own eloquence. The early letters are so clear and beautiful they can be read alone, without anachronistic glossing or fictional superstructures. Like the later letters — recently reprinted in a volume edited by the British medievalist and Abelard biographer Michael Clanchy — they glow. Together they preserve the myth of a shining couple, persecuted by authority and hounded by circumstance but true to each other, ready for all sacrifice, passionate even to the grave.
It’s a potent myth and a necessary one — but it is a myth. The reality of Abelard and Heloise’s story may be no less moving, but it’s less than perfect. You could argue, first off, that their relationship was already on the decline by the time Abelard was castrated. And that Fulbert’s vengeance was taken because Abelard was insufficiently, rather than excessively, close to his niece. Heloise already lived in a convent at the time of Abelard’s mutilation — not as a nun, but nevertheless under the protection of the nuns. Ostensibly this was a tactic to preserve the secrecy of their marriage; to Fulbert, however, it may have suggested that Abelard was planning to get rid of his wife. Is this what it meant to her? The arrangement, in any case, was neither ideal nor particularly gallant, and Abelard’s visits were decreasing in frequency: “You sadden my spirit,” Heloise writes in the last of her early letters.
Is it possible that Fulbert’s crime saved rather than sank the lovers’ passion? That by turning Abelard into a romantic martyr at the very moment his interest was flagging, Fulbert reinvigorated Heloise’s loyalty and gave Abelard an excuse to ignore her without blame?
This is, in fact, what he did for the next 12 years. It wasn’t until Heloise had become abbess of her own convent and stumbled upon his “Historia Calamitatum” that she was able to draw Abelard back into communication with her. And even then religion had changed him; the passion and warmth of the early letters had fled.
In the later letters, Abélard has become pious and self-centered. When Heloise entreats him to take pity on her loneliness, he sends her a set of prayers to say for him. When she serenades their love, he moans about the trouble he’s having with the other monks at his abbey. Never an easy man to get on with, he has made blood enemies of men whose well-being he is supposed to preserve: they are, he assures Heloise, relentlessly trying to poison him. Therefore the refrain, “Pray for me.”
It is Heloise’s tact and generosity that allow the dialogue to continue and even attain exemplary dimensions. Seeing that her beloved is no longer capable of the language of passion, she smothers her love song (“the loss,” as Burge states, “is history’s”) and addresses him on the only terms he still knows and values. Like the star student she once was, she begins to quiz him on every biblical, monastic and moral question she can think of. In doing so, she inspires much of the most valuable — and satisfying — work of Abelard’s life. Disdained by his own monks as well as by the Vatican (he was twice condemned for heresy), he found an enthusiastic audience in Heloise and her nuns. It is for Heloise that he undertakes what one scholar has called “the most substantial writings of the 12th century on women’s place in Christianity”; it is for Heloise that he writes countless sermons, hymns and disquisitions on spiritual themes. Heloise’s convent becomes, in some sense, the couple’s joint project, their spiritual child. Their cooperation struck onlookers as a dazzling example of friendship between a man and a woman.
If Heloise didn’t get what she most wanted from Abelard, she got the very best he had to give. His reflections, his confidences and his final, all-important confession were addressed to her; his most urgent worldly plea was to be buried where she would be near him. Is their story a fraud because Abelard, as Mews has written, was “tagging along behind” Heloise in matters of the heart?
The love stories that touch us most deeply are punctuated by human frailty. Look at them up close and you see the fault lines, compromises and anticlimaxes. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo is just as intemperately in love with a girl called Rosaline as he is later with Juliet. Tristan and Isolde’s passion could well be the fruit of substance abuse, of a love potion they drank unknowingly. And Abélard and Heloise? They weren’t equally strong or passionate or generous. Still, they put their frailties together and begat a perfect myth, as well as something perhaps even more precious — a surprising, splendid, fractured reality. “There is a crack,” the Leonard Cohen lyric goes, “a crack in everything: that’s how the light gets in.”
The Problemata Heloissae, And My Motivation
In all honesty my original intention was to focus on Heloise’s as:
Problemata Heloissae (The “Questions” of Heloise): Prefatory Letter, Heloise to Abelard.
The letter introduces 42 questions (the “Problemata”) that have arisen from the daily biblical readings Heloise and her nuns do. The questions involve issues of sin and judgment, intention versus action, law and punishment, damnation and repentance, as well as contradictions or odd references in the Bible. Heloise does not hesitate to draw an analogy between herself and Marcella, Jerome’s celebrated and very learned colleague and correspondent.
However I understood that focusing on such letters the main story would be lost and that it’s Heloise main love’s requital to Abelard, so the Theological letters would be of no interest to most readers anyway, the real story is told above.
Too much had been said about the couple to add new insights into their story, so I just put together from several sources what I thought would be interesting to the readers if unfamiliar with the story.
Also I would like to remind to our readers how different the times in the Middle Ages were compared to our contemporary values, Religion was, how we should say? No a fact of Life, but ‘the major fact of Life’ that took precedence over anything else.
Books Discussed in This Essay
SHARON JANE GO SHUA A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Arts and Letters of Georgetown University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English
HELOISE AND ABELARD A New Biography. By James Burge. HarperSanFrancisco,
FAREWELL, MY ONLY ONE By Antoine Audouard. Translated by Euan Cameron. Houghton Mifflin,
ABELARD AND HELOISE By Constant J. Mews. Oxford University, cloth, $74; paper,
THE LETTERS OF ABELARD AND HELOISE Translated With an Introduction and Notes by Betty Radice. Revised by M. T. Clanchy. Penguin, paper,
THE LOST LETTERS OF HELOISE AND ABELARD Perceptions of Dialogue in Twelfth-Century France. By Constant J. Mews. With Translations by Neville Chiavaroli and Constant J. Mews. Palgrave Macmillan.
Cristina Nehring Eloise and Abelard: Love Hurts. writes regularly for The Atlantic. She is the author of the forthcoming “Women in Love From Simone de Beauvoir to Sylvia Plath: A Feminist Defense of Romance.”
Posted in Courtly Love, Criticism, Feminism, Heart, Heloise And Abelard, History, Love, Marriage, Medieval Romance, Memories, Myth, Religion, Romance, Theology, Uncategorized
Tagged A Story of Love and Sublimation, Contemporary Views, Early Feminism, Heloise And Abelard, Historica Calamitatum, Love & Religion, Medieval Romance, Middle Ages, The Letters, The Problemata
“As for you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
Make merry day and night.
Of each day make a feast of rejoicing.
Day and night dance and play!
Let your garments be sparkling fresh,
Your head be washed; bathe in water.
Pay heed to a little one that holds on to your hand,
Let a spouse delight in your bosom.
These things are alone the concern of men.”
Siduri the Barmaid to Gilgamesh.
Which may represent the first recorded advocacy of a hedonistic philosophy.
The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet X
Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure and happiness are the primary or most important intrinsic goods and the proper aim of human life. A hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain), but when having finally gained that pleasure, either through intrinsic or extrinsic goods, happiness remains stationary.
Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them. It is also the idea that every person’s pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Ethical hedonism is said to have been started by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good.
Hedonism is a sub-philosophy of utilitarianism, which says to act in a way that maximizes utility. Hedonists equate pleasure with utility and believe that pleasure is the master of all humankind, and acts as the ultimate life goal. Hedonists believe that there are only two motivators of human action, pleasure and pain, and that decisions should only be made that further our pleasurable experiences and minimize or completely eliminate our painful ones.
David Pearce is co-founder of Humanity, formerly the World Transhumanist Association, and a prominent figure within the transhumanism movement.
Based in Brighton, England, Pearce maintains a series of websites devoted to transhumanist topics and what he calls the “hedonistic imperative”, a moral obligation to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto, The Hedonistic Imperative(1995), outlines how pharmacology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and neurosurgery could converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience from human and non-human life, replacing suffering with “gradients of bliss”. Pearce calls this the “abolitionist project”.
A vegan, Pearce argues that humans have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animal within human society but also to redesign the global ecosystem so that animals do not suffer in the wild.
Hedonistic Transhumanism Manifesto
This manifesto outlines a strategy to eradicate suffering in all sentient life. The abolitionist project is ambitious, implausible, but technically feasible. It is defended here on ethical utilitarian grounds. Genetic engineering and nanotechnology allow Homo sapiens to discard the legacy-wetware of our evolutionary past. Our post-human successors will rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem, and abolish suffering throughout the living world.
Why does suffering exist? The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved only because they served the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. Their ugliness can be replaced by a new motivational system based entirely on gradients of well-being. Life-long happiness of an intensity now physiologically unimaginable can become the heritable norm of mental health. A sketch is offered of when, and why, this major evolutionary transition in the history of life is likely to occur. Possible objections, both practical and moral, are raised and then rebutted.
Contemporary images of opiate-addled junkies, and the lever-pressing frenzies of intra-cranially self-stimulating rats, are deceptive. Such stereotypes stigmatize, and falsely discredit, the only remedy for the world’s horrors and everyday discontents that is biologically realistic. For it is misleading to contrast social and intellectual development with perpetual happiness. There need be no such trade-off. Thus states of “dopamine-overdrive” can actually enhance exploratory and goal-directed activity. Hyper-dopaminergic states can also increase the range and diversity of actions an organism finds rewarding. Our descendants may live in a civilization of serenely well-motivated “high-achievers”, animated by gradients of bliss. Their productivity may far eclipse our own.
Two hundred years ago, before the development of potent synthetic pain-killers or surgical anesthetics, the notion that “physical” pain could be banished from most people’s lives would have seemed no less bizarre. Most of us in the developed world now take its daily absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as “mental” pain, too, could one day be superseded is equally counter-intuitive. The technical option of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of political policy and ethical choice.
Pearce’s ideas inspired an abolitionist school of transhumanism, or “hedonistic transhumanism”, based on his idea of “paradise engineering” and his argument that the abolition of suffering—which he calls the “abolitionist project”—is a moral imperative.
Transhumanism(abbreviated as H+ orh+) is an international and intellectual movement that aims to transform the human condition by developing and making widely available sophisticated technologies to greatly enhance human intellect and physiology.
Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human as well as ethical limitations of using such technologies. The most common transhumanist thesis is that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into different beings with abilities so greatly expanded from the natural condition as to merit the label of posthuman beings.
The contemporary meaning of the term “transhumanism” was foreshadowed by one of the first professors of futurology, FM-2030, who taught “new concepts of the human” at The New School in the 1960s, when he began to identify people who adopt technologies, lifestyles and worldviews “transitional” to posthumanity as “transhuman”. The assertion would lay the intellectual groundwork for the British philosopher Max More to begin articulating the principles of transhumanism as a futurist philosophy in 1990 and organizing in California an intelligentsia that has since grown into the worldwide transhumanist movement.
Influenced by seminal works of science fiction, the transhumanist vision of a transformed future humanity has attracted many supporters and detractors from a wide range of perspectives, including philosophy and religion. Transhumanism has been characterized by one critic, Francis Fukuyama, as among the “world’s most dangerous ideas”, to which Ronald Bailey has countered that it is rather the “movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative and idealistic aspirations of humanity”
Here are three scenarios in ascending order of sociological plausibility:
b) Utopian designer drugs
c) genetic engineering and – what I want to focus on – the impending reproductive revolution of designer babies
a) Recall wireheading is direct stimulation of the pleasure centres of the brain via implanted electrodes. Intracranial self-stimulation shows no physiological or subjective tolerance i.e. it’s just as rewarding after two days as it is after two minutes. Wireheading doesn’t harm others; it has a small ecological footprint; it banishes psychological and physical pain; and arguably it’s a lot less offensive to human dignity than having sex. Admittedly, lifelong wireheading sounds an appealing prospect only to a handful of severe depressives. But what are the technical arguments against its adoption?
Well, wireheading is not an evolutionary stable solution: there would be selection pressure against its widespread adoption. Wireheading doesn’t promote nurturing behavior: wireheads, whether human or non-human, don’t want to raise baby wireheads. Uniform, indiscriminate bliss in the guise of wireheading or its equivalents would effectively bring the human experiment to an end, at least if it were adopted globally. Direct neurostimulation of the reward centers destroys informational sensitivity to environmental stimuli. So assuming we want to be smart – and become smarter – we have a choice. Intelligent agents can have a motivational structure based on gradients of ill-being, characteristic of some lifelong depressives today. Or intelligent agents can have our current typical mixture of pleasures and pains. Or alternatively, we could have an informational economy of mind based entirely on [adaptive] gradients of cerebral bliss – which I’m going to argue for.
Actually, this dismissal of wireheading may be too quick. In the far future, one can’t rule out offloading everything unpleasant or mundane onto inorganic supercomputers, prostheses and robots while we enjoy uniform orgasmic bliss. Or maybe not orgasmic bliss, possibly some other family of ideal states that simply couldn’t be improved upon. But that’s speculative. Whatever our ultimate destination, it would be more prudent, I think, to aim for both super happiness and super intelligence – at least until we understand the full implications of what we are doing. There isn’t a moral urgency to maximizing super happiness in the same way as there is to abolishing suffering.
[It’s worth noting that the offloading option assumes that inorganic computers, prostheses and robots don’t – or at least needn’t – experience subjective phenomenal pain even if their functional architecture allows them to avoid and respond to noxious stimuli. This absence of inorganic suffering is relatively uncontroversial with existing computers – switching off one’s PC doesn’t have ethical implications, and a silicon robot can be programmed to avoid corrosive acids without experiencing agony if it’s damaged. It’s debatable whether any computational system with a classical von Neumann architecture will ever be interestingly conscious. I’m skeptical; but either way, it doesn’t affect the offloading option, unless one argues that the subjective texture of suffering is functionally essential to any system capable of avoiding harmful stimuli.]
b) The second technical option for eradicating suffering is futuristic designer drugs. In an era of mature post-genomic medicine, will it be possible rationally to design truly ideal pleasure-drugs that deliver lifelong, high-functioning well-being without unacceptable side-effects? “Ideal pleasure drugs” here is just a piece of shorthand. Such drugs can in principle embrace cerebral, empathetic, aesthetic and perhaps spiritual well-being – and not just hedonistic pleasure in the usual one-dimensional and amoral sense.
We’re not talking here about recreational euphoriants, which simply activate the negative feedback mechanisms of the brain; nor the shallow, opiated contentment of a Brave New World; nor drugs that induce euphoric mania, with its uncontrolled excitement, loss of critical insight, grandiosity and flight of ideas. Can we develop true wonder drugs that deliver sublime well-being on a sustainable basis, re calibrating the hedonic treadmill to ensure a high quality of life for everyone?
A lot of people recoil from the word “drugs” – which is understandable given today’s noxious street drugs and their uninspiring medical counterparts. Yet even academics and intellectuals in our society typically take the prototypical dumb drug, ethyl alcohol. If it’s socially acceptable to take a drug that makes you temporarily happy and stupid, then why not rationally design drugs to make people perpetually happier and smarter? Presumably, in order to limit abuse-potential, one would want any ideal pleasure drug to be akin – in one limited but important sense – to nicotine, where the smoker’s brain finely calibrates its optimal level: there is no uncontrolled dose-escalation.
There are of course all kinds of pitfalls to drug-based solutions. Technically, I think these pitfalls can be overcome, though I won’t try to show this here. But there is a deeper issue. If there weren’t something fundamentally wrong – or at least fundamentally inadequate – with our existing natural state of consciousness bequeathed by evolution, then we wouldn’t be so keen to change it. Even when it’s not unpleasant, everyday consciousness is mediocre compared to what we call peak experiences. Ordinary everyday consciousness was presumably adaptive in the sense it helped our genes leave more copies of themselves on the African Savannah; but why keep it as our default-state indefinitely? Why not change human nature by literally repairing our genetic code?
Again, this dismissal of pharmacological solutions may be too quick. Arguably, Utopian designer drugs may always be useful for the fine-grained and readily reversible control of consciousness; and I think designer drugs will be an indispensable tool to explore the disparate varieties of conscious mind. But wouldn’t it be better if we were all born with a genetic predisposition to psychological super-health rather than needing chronic self-medication? Does even the most ardent abolitionist propose to give cocktails of drugs to all children from birth; and then to take such drug cocktails for the rest of our lives?
c) So thirdly, there are genetic solutions, embracing both somatic and germ line therapy.
By way of context, today there is a minority of people who are always depressed or dysthymic, albeit to varying degrees. Studies with mono- and dizygotic twins confirm there is a high degree of genetic loading for depression. Conversely, there are some people who are temperamentally optimistic. Beyond the optimists, there is a very small minority of people who are what psychiatrists call hyperthymic. Hyperthymic people aren’t manic or bipolar; but by contemporary standards, they are always exceedingly happy, albeit sometimes happier than others. Hyperthymic people respond “appropriately” and adaptively to their environment. Indeed they are characteristically energetic, productive and creative. Even when they are blissful, they aren’t “blissed out”.
Now what if, as a whole civilization, we were to opt to become genetically hyperthymic – to adopt a motivational system driven entirely by adaptive gradients of well-being? More radically, as the genetic basis of hedonic tone is understood, might we opt to add multiple extra copies of hyperthymia-promoting genes/allelic combinations and their regulatory promoters – not abolishing homeostasis and the hedonic treadmill but shifting our hedonic set-point to a vastly higher level?
Three points here:First, this genetic re-calibration might seem to be endorsing another kind of uniformity; but it’s worth recalling that happier people – and especially hyperdopaminergic people – are typically responsive to a broader range of potentially rewarding stimuli than depressives: they engage in more exploratory behavior. This makes getting stuck in a sub-optimal rut less likely, both for the enhanced individual and posthuman society as a whole.
Secondly, universal hyperthymia might sound like a gigantic experiment; and in a sense of course it is. But all sexual reproduction is an experiment. We play genetic roulette, shuffling our genes and then throwing the genetic dice. Most of us flinch at the word “eugenics”; but that’s what we’re effectively practicing, crudely and incompetently, when we choose our prospective mates. The difference is that within the next few decades, prospective parents will be able to act progressively more rationally and responsibly in their reproductive decisions. Pre-implantation genetic screening is going to become routine; artificial wombs will release us from the constraints of the human birth-canal; and a revolution in reproductive medicine will begin to replace the old Darwinian lottery. The question is not whether a reproductive revolution is coming, but rather what kinds of being – and what kinds of consciousness – do we want to create?
Thirdly, isn’t this reproductive revolution going to be the prerogative of rich elites in the West? Probably not for long. Compare the brief lag between the introduction of, say, mobile phones and their world-wide adoption with the 50 year time-lag between the introduction and world-wide adoption of radio; and the 20 year lag between the introduction and world-wide penetration of television. The time-lag between the initial introduction and global acceptance of new technologies is shrinking rapidly. So of course is the price.
Anyway, one of the advantages of genetically re-calibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than abolishing it altogether, at least for the foreseeable future, is that the functional analogues of pain, anxiety, guilt and even depression can be preserved without their nasty raw feels as we understand them today. We can retain the functional analogues of discontent – arguably the motor of progress – and retain the discernment and critical insight lacking in the euphorically manic. Even if hedonic tone is massively enhanced, and even if our reward centers are physically and functionally amplified, then it’s still possible in principle to conserve much of our existing preference architecture. If you prefer Mozart to Beethoven, or philosophy to pushpin, then you can still retain this preference ranking even if your hedonic tone is hugely enriched.
Now personally, I think it would be better if our preference architecture were radically changed, and we pursued [please pardon the jargon] a “re-encephalisation of emotion”. Evolution via natural selection has left us strongly predisposed to form all manner of dysfunctional preferences that harm both ourselves and others for the benefit of our genes. Recall Genghis Khan: “The greatest happiness is to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters.”
Now I’m told academia isn’t quite that bad, but even university life has its forms of urbane savagery – its competitive status-seeking and alpha-male dominance rituals: a zero-sum game with many losers. Too many of our preferences reflect nasty behaviors and states of mind that were genetically adaptive in the ancestral environment. Instead, wouldn’t it be better if we rewrote our own corrupt code? I’ve focused here on genetically enhancing hedonic tone. Yet mastery of the biology of emotion means that we’ll be able, for instance, to enlarge our capacity for empathy, functionally amplifying mirror neurons and engineering a sustained increase in oxytocin-release to promote trust and sociability. Likewise, we can identify the molecular signatures of, say, spirituality, our aesthetic sense, or our sense of humor – and modulate and “over-express” their psychological machinery too. From an information-theoretic perspective, what is critical to an adaptive, flexible, intelligent response to the world is not our absolute point on a hedonic scale but that we are informationally sensitive to differences. Indeed information theorists sometimes simply define information as a “difference that makes a difference”.
However, to stress again, this re-encephalisation of emotion is optional. It’s technically feasible to engineer the well-being of all sentience and retain most but not all of our existing preference architecture. The three technical options for abolishing suffering presented here – wireheading, designer drugs and genetic engineering – aren’t mutually exclusive. Are they exhaustive? I don’t know of any other viable options. Some transhumanists believe we could one day all be scanned, digitized and uploaded into inorganic computers and reprogrammed. Well, perhaps, I’m skeptical; but in any case, this proposal doesn’t solve the suffering of existing organic life unless we embrace so-called destructive uploading – a holocaust option I’m not even going to consider here.
2: WHY IT SHOULD HAPPEN
Assume that within the next few centuries we will acquire these Godlike powers over our emotions. Assume, too, that the signalling function of unpleasant experience can be replaced – either through the re-calibration argued for here, or through the offloading of everything unpleasant or routine to inorganic prostheses, bionic implants or inorganic computers – or perhaps through outright elimination in the case of something like jealousy. Why should we all be abolitionists?
If one is a classical utilitarian, then the abolitionist project follows: it’s Bentham plus biotechnology. One doesn’t have to be a classical utilitarian to endorse the abolition of suffering; but all classical utilitarians should embrace the abolitionist project. Bentham championed social and legislative reform, which is great as far as it goes; but he was working before the era of biotechnology and genetic medicine.
If one is a scientifically enlightened Buddhist, then the abolitionist project follows too. Buddhists, uniquely among the world’s religions, focus on the primacy of suffering in the living world. Buddhists may think that the Noble Eight fold Path offers a surer route to Nirvana than genetic engineering; but it’s hard for a Buddhist to argue in principle against biotech if it works. Buddhists focus on relieving suffering via the extinction of desire; yet it’s worth noting this extinction is technically optional, and might arguably lead to a stagnant society. Instead it’s possible both to abolish suffering and continue to have all manner of desires.
Persuading followers of Islam and the Judaeo-Christian tradition is more of a challenge. But believers claim – despite anomalies in the empirical evidence – that Allah/God is infinitely compassionate and merciful. So if mere mortals can envisage the well-being of all sentience, it would seem blasphemous to claim that God is more limited in the scope of His benevolence.
Most contemporary philosophers aren’t classical utilitarians or Buddhists or theists. Why should, say, an ethical pluralist take the abolitionist project seriously?
Here I want to take as my text Shakespeare’s
“For there was never yet philosopher That could endure the toothache patiently.
[Much Ado About Nothing, Scene Five, Act One (Leonato speaking)]
When one is gripped by excruciating physical pain, one is always shocked at just how frightful it can be.
It’s tempting to suppose that purely “psychological” pain – loneliness, rejection, existential angst, grief, anxiety, depression – can’t be as atrocious as extreme physical pain; yet the reason over 800,000 people in the world take their own lives every year is mainly psychological distress. It’s not that other things – great art, friendship, social justice, a sense of humor, cultivating excellence of character, academic scholarship, etc – aren’t valuable; but rather when intense physical or psychological distress intrudes – either in one’s own life or that of a loved one – we recognize that this intense pain has immediate priority and urgency. If you are in agony after catching your hand in the door, then you’d give short shrift to someone who urged you to remember the finer things in life. If you’re distraught after an unhappy love affair, then you don’t want to be tactlessly reminded it’s a beautiful day outside.
OK, while it lasts, extreme pain or psychological distress has an urgency and priority that overrides the rest of one’s life projects; but so what? When the misery passes, why not just get on with one’s life as before?
Well, natural science aspires to “a view from nowhere”, a notional God’s-eye view. Physics tells us that no here-and-now is privileged over any other; all are equally real. Science and technology are shortly going to give us Godlike powers over the entire living world to match this Godlike perspective. I argue that so long as there is any sentient being who is undergoing suffering similar to our distress, that suffering should be tackled with the same priority and urgency as if it were one’s own pain or the pain of a loved one. With power comes complicity. Godlike powers carry godlike responsibilities. Thus the existence of suffering 200 years ago, for instance, may indeed have been terrible; but it’s not clear that such suffering can sensibly be called “immoral” – because there wasn’t much that could be done about it. But thanks to biotechnology, now there is – or shortly will be. Over the next few centuries, suffering of any kind is going to become optional.
If you’re not a classical ethical utilitarian, the advantage of re-calibrating the hedonic treadmill rather than simply seeking to maximize super-happiness is that you are retaining at least a recognizable descendant of our existing preference architecture. Re-calibration of the hedonic treadmill can be made consistent with your existing value scheme. Hence even the ill-named “preference utilitarian” can be accommodated. Indeed control over the emotions means that you can pursue your existing life projects more effectively.
And what about the alleged character-building function of suffering? “That which does not crush me makes me stronger”, said Nietzsche. This worry seems misplaced. Other things being equal, enhancing hedonic tone strengthens motivation – it makes us psychologically more robust. By contrast, prolonged low mood leads to a syndrome of learned helplessness and behavioral despair.
I haven’t explicitly addressed the value nihilist – the subjectivist or ethical skeptic who says all values are simply matters of opinion, and that one can’t logically derive an “ought” from an “is”.
Well, let’s say I find myself in agony because my hand is on a hot stove. That agony is intrinsically motivating, even if my conviction that I ought to withdraw my hand doesn’t follow the formal canons of logical inference.
If one takes the scientific world-picture seriously, then there is nothing ontologically special or privileged about here-and-now or me – the egocentric illusion is a trick of perspective engineered by selfish DNA.
If it’s wrong for me to be in agony, then it is wrong for anyone, anywhere.
3: WHY IT WILL HAPPEN
OK, it’s technically feasible. A world without suffering would be wonderful; and full-blown paradise-engineering even better. But again, so what? It’s technically feasible to build a thousand-metre cube of cheddar cheese. Why is a pain-free world going to happen? Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking. Perhaps we’ll opt to retain the biology of suffering indefinitely.
The counterargument here is that whether or not one is sympathetic to the abolitionist project, we are heading for a reproductive revolution of designer babies. Prospective parents are soon going to be choosing the characteristics of their future children. We’re on the eve of the Post-Darwinian Transition, not in the sense that selection pressure will be any less severe, but evolution will no longer be “blind” and “random”: there will no longer be natural selection but unnatural selection. We will be choosing the genetic makeup of our future offspring, selecting and designing alleles and allelic combinations in anticipation of their consequences. There will be selection pressure against nastier alleles and allelic combinations that were adaptive in the ancestral environment.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a rigorous argument, but imagine you are choosing the genetic dial-settings for mood – the hedonic set-point – of your future children. What settings would you pick? You might not want gradients of lifelong super-happiness, but the overwhelming bulk of parents will surely want to choose happy children. For a start, they are more fun to raise. Most parents across most cultures say, I think sincerely, that they want their children to be happy. One may be skeptical of parents who say happiness is the only thing they care about for their kids – many parents are highly ambitious. But other things being equal, happiness signals success – possibly the ultimate evolutionary origin of why we value the happiness of our children as well as our own.
Of course the parental choice argument isn’t decisive. Not least, it’s unclear how many more generations of free reproductive choices lie ahead before radical anti-aging technologies force a progressively tighter collective control over our reproductive decisions – since a swelling population of ageless quasi-immortals can’t multiply indefinitely in finite physical space. But even if centralized control of reproductive decisions becomes the norm, and procreation itself becomes rare, the selection pressure against primitive Darwinian genotypes will presumably be intense. Thus it’s hard to envisage what future social formations would really allow the premeditated creation of any predisposition to depressive or anxiety disorders – or even the “normal” pathologies of unenhanced consciousness.
Posted in A Brave New World, Consciousness, Future, Genetics, Hedonism, Historical Evolution, Philosophy, Project Utopia, Science Fitction, Transhumanism, Transmutation, Uncategorized, Utopia
Tagged David Pearce, Genetic Engineering, Hedonism, Pharmacological Solutions, Post human Beings, Project Utopia, Reproductive Revolution, The End Of Suffering, The Hedonistic Imperative, Transhumanism, Universal Hyperthymia, Utopian Designer Drugs, Wireheading