Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Aphorisms on Modernity

Intelligence exists at various levels: individual, sociocultural, historical, instinctual. What makes a modern individual reject anything but what seems individual intelligence?

The alienation of the modern individual has a history beginning with the formation of the neo-cortex. To be "nature" is not alienating. To mold it, consciously, is the beginning of separation, the end of "innocence".

Innocence of a child, or of an animal, is the absence of its ego-self, its neo-cortex based identity. A child, or an animal, is more "natural" than an adult.

With the cumulative historical knowledge of the neo-cortex, and with its successes in the outer world (the power of applied thought), there is an inevitable growth in its importance.

This emphasis on the ego-self is an inevitable consequence of a world where thought is more important than feelings. You cannot be an empathetic being and beat the market.

As structured thought becomes more preeminent in its abstract and its applied forms, the other forms of intelligence, which are unstructured, lose their force.

Hence the modern man is amoral, not having a sense of history, rejecting the cultural mores, focused on himself, living for himself, and so on and so forth.

The breakdown of religion and morality is inevitable with the advent of science and technology, because religion and morality are forms of mass intelligence, whereas science and technology makes the individual more choice-capable and powerful. As you become more powerful, you will reject external power and influences.

Of course, indirect influences (which seem to bolster your sense of power and ego-identity) become more and more potent, without you realizing it. That is modern media, advertising, etc.

The collective and primal forms of intelligence are crude, and sometimes are at odds with individual wishes, as well as have contradictions within them (the primal lust being opposed to the religious injunction to be monogamous).

The disengagement from primal and historical forms of intelligence makes one an autonomous individual, but also, alienated and disconnected. What drives his choices now except hedonism (pleasure seeking) and narcissism (me and me alone)?

The breakdown of family, society, community, traditional religions, traditional morality, and the advent of the hedonistic-narcissistic modern man, is not the fault of an individual. And therefore, neither is it possible to completely reverse this, even at an individual level, by the force of individual will.

You cannot regenerate the potency of morality, once you are out of it and once you are knowledgeable about the evolutionary forces which shaped moral behavior. The force of morality depends on its mystique and awe-inspiring origins.

The fate of the knowledgeable man in the modern world is autonomy. Can autonomy be separated from alienation? Can a man live for himself, without illusion, and not feel the angst of absurdity and meaninglessness, inside?

When biological goals lose their importance, when survival and comfort is easy to achieve, and when social cohesion and objectives are no longer meaningful, the goals of living have to be invented. Each day, sometimes.

This is the emptiness of the modern man. There is no getting out of this. For someone whose neo-cortex is far too much in the know to fall again into the pursuit of a social or biological goal, emptiness (meaninglessness) is inevitable.

One can keep it at bay by distraction. By indulging in sensory and cognitive smothering. But not for long.

Some say: act as if. As if your actions have significance, even if at some level you know that they don't. It is the same as believing in God.

Beware of shattering someone's delusions. You may leave him empty (-handed).


inscribed said...

Hahahahaaa! Harman, you always write about such bleak things. But talking about the Human Condition will necessarily become bleak.

I've been wondering about this so much today. I've been thinking about human vulnerability. I've been wondering: Why do we come to the earth at all? To insure against the weak moments -- ours and those of others -- and is this why we must relate with -- enter relationships of all kinds-- with people on this earth?

Ketan said...

I may return with a longer comment because of a few points I disagree with. But for the time being following is what struck me the most:

"Beware of shattering someone's delusions. You may leave him empty (-handed)."

I had resolved long back that I won't make others aware of the purposelessness of human life that I had come to acknowledge on turning atheist & realizing lack of genuine free will. Because the personal crisis I had experienced on both occasions was so great, that I could not even discuss it with anyone fearing lest they 'contract' the same frightening 'facts'!

But on many occasions I have broken that resolve. Surprisingly, most of the people with who I have discussed this, either keep on believing in existence of a personal God rejecting my contention or they do not consider the full implication of lack of free will if they are already skeptics. The latter group indulges in some kind of thought suppression (the ego defense mechanism), I think. There are some who have acknowledged this fact, and I see, they suffer from nihilism (includes myself to an extent), they do not find competitions enticing and they do not retain the vigor to achieve targets directly or indirectly defined by others. I too indulge in thought suppression. To keep on 'enjoying' life & at the same time acknowledge lack of external purpose to it, seems to be impossible. So though I know life has no purpose, I do not remember it all the times. :)

One psychiatry teacher had talked of a research in an offhand manner saying, majority of influential people are suspected to suffer from dysthymia. It is to escape their intrinsic emptiness that they keep on setting higher goals & aggressively try to achieve them. Some also turn to altruism to escape the same emptiness & give themselves a surrogate purpose.

When I see someone very determined to try to achieve something (say, good rank at exams), I experience two almost contrasting emotions! One is of contempt enmeshed with pity, thinking, he's a fool, takes himself so seriously! The other one is of envy, because I want to feel the same sense of purpose, but now I never can! Leading life this was is like watching a movie through hazy filter - colors can be appreciated, but in much diluted saturation! Hope, you get what I mean.

S. Hall said...

Greetings Harman,

Nietzche's philosophy delt directly with this problem facing man: that of an all-encompassing meaninglessness. In fact, he viewed it as a great tragedy. (I recommend anyone who recognizes the truth of Harman's aphorisms to read Nietzche's work).

There still seems to be only three choices to deal with this meaninglessness: Deny it, struggle against it, or accept it. I think most intellectuals slide between the three with relative ease. And this sliding brings a whole new set of problems.


S. Hall said...


I'm a bit confused on one symantic point. What's the difference between thought based on "feelings" and hedonistic thought. Doesn't hedonism have its roots in the intelligence based on feelings? If so, then how is that type of intelligence in decline, while hedonism is on the rise?


tazmic said...

Harman, you ask:

"Can a man live for himself, without illusion, and not feel the angst of absurdity and meaninglessness, inside?"

But you have gone too far.

"Can a man live for himself, without illusion?"

I would suggest, no.

Ketan, just because you cannot intellectually construct or justify a wider significance to your life doesn't mean there mustn't be one.

(And that would be a logical fallacy similar to the spiritual notion that there is nothing beyond ones own perception.)

Harman has described, very well, the fatal trajectory of our 'progress', but it works as a justification also, sealing it's fate, and yet, there is much left to question.

It's also perfectly Cartesian: with Homunculus Harman complaining about the void he has polished for himself ;)

I think you may have described the inevitable trajectory of the ego.

Harmanjit Singh said...


What's the difference between thought based on "feelings" and hedonistic thought. Doesn't hedonism have its roots in the intelligence based on feelings? If so, then how is that type of intelligence in decline, while hedonism is on the rise?

Feelings can be about others also (the nurturing and empathetic and altruistic feelings). But in the modern world, such feelings are becoming fainter and fainter, and self-centered feelings are becoming more prominent. The question is: Why? What is leading to this epidemic of self-centered behavior?

A long history of economic and technological progress is at the back of it. You can't just shake it off. The whole point of modernity is to be autonomous, free from external authority and influences, and hence, to be self-seeking.

The intervening levels of intelligence, which moderated this crudest level of intelligence (to seek pleasure and survival), are no longer effective.

It is the id and the ego, without the super-ego.

The death of "conscience" and the no-holds-barred cultivation of "identity".

Harmanjit Singh said...

An interesting take on Nietzsche, supermen, and a call to reduce awareness/intellection by a modern philosopher tackling existential despair:

S. Hall said...


The wiki summary of Zapffe's essay was very interesting. It seems he's encouraging the very sort of anti-intellectualism (through the means of the intellect, at least) that I find so unfortunate in today's mass society.

Perhaps he didn't foresee the negative consequences of his philosophy. Namely, that mankind would ultimately choose to "anchor" into the shallow waters of hedonism and identity. I wonder if he would find that preferable to super-consciousness.

Thanks for the link.


Anonymous said...

Harmen wrote "The whole point of modernity is to be autonomous, free from external authority and influences, and hence, to be self-seeking."

Consider this:

"The emerging modern individual places his confidence not in society's norms, not religion's rules, nor parents' dictates, but in his own changing experience. He is, in a very deep sense, his own highest authority. He chooses his own way."

from here:

"The success of globalism rides on the back of manipulating the minds of students to reflect patterns of global dogma. These students may be academically inferior to their 1970 counterparts, but scholarship was easily traded for the globalist-friendly character traits of a global citizen -- traits that will not question the globalist agenda, but that will indeed welcome it as an inevitable evolution of civilization."

S. Hall said...


You might be interested in this blog focused on Peter Zapffe:

I had never heard of him before reading the wiki link you posted above.

If you happen to know where I can find "The Last Messiah" essay in English, please let me know. The only research I've done points to, which requires a subscription.


Harmanjit Singh said...

@MM: The essay seems to be linked from the wikipedia page for it ( ):

Or am I missing something?

S. Hall said...


Nope, it looks like I was the one missing something. :)


Anonymous said...

Emptiness of the modern man is inevitable.. The shuffle of thoughts here are good to argue and criticize and be sarcastic by the weight of one's own emphasis, but it cannot give any nourishment. Nietzsche was right when he said god is dead, and hence the man is free. It definitely is half the truth that leads one to emptiness and that's what may have turned him neurotic in the last years of his life. Its not only with him as some may say that it could have been an accident. Many intellectuals find themselves in mad asylums or commit suicide.

In addition from being free from the concept of God, man needs now to settle unto himself into his own silence to be able to live freely and yet responsibly without feeling meaningless.

Harmanjit Singh said...


... man needs now to settle unto himself into his own silence to be able to live freely and yet responsibly without feeling meaningless.

Can you elaborate?

ElDuderno said...

Ah Harman; since you left Richard's childish philosophies behind; me and you have seemed to found common ground, here is what I think about life enlightenment and my conclusions. I posted this in AF list but have edited it somewhat now.

I do not really subscribe to any philosophy, because the reality of life is quite clear once you get rid of all these philosophies and the metaphysics.

The universe consists of processes, many of which resemble each other, such processes we put them in one label like man, river dog etc. Now in humans there is one other (sub-process called the mind, which has a sub-subprocess of I (self). This is a perceptual error. However, this I is important for survival purposes.

In essence there is no difference between life and non life both are processes which are part of universe. In fact life is far-far-worse than non life, since for non life there is no compulsion to survive. The non life flowing the
circumstances lives in true nirvana.

Life is painful, it is always threatened and must struggle for survival and to what end: to just propagate itself, and produce more of itself, i.e. more pain and struggle.

It requires quite a bit of mental discipline and observation for it to be clearly perceived that there is no I as in a central entity that commands the body and mind, and one is a part of the universe like say the stone or the chair and that the I is again a pattern a subprocess in the mental process. However the habits and processes associated with it (the I process) do not disappear once this is clearly realized, because all of them are deep rooted habitual process, and also few of them are indispensable in a social setting.

What is the search for enlightenment. The I pattern itself is the cause of almost all the suffering, if the I can be highly diminished, the human can become closer and closer to the nonliving, it is becoming one with the universe.

The efforts towards diminishing the I are the goal or enlightenment or nirvana. This quest is like a game and not something with great cosmic significance, but a game at which as one grows better at (i.e. moves from life to death) life changes its character from suffering survival and struggle to a flow of cognition and perception unafraid and uncomplicated.

But really if you ask me as part of the universe (as we all are) it is bad luck to be alive even with or without enlightenment, it is best to be never born at all.

Harmanjit Singh said...


Interesting thoughts. About not being born as the best of all, here are some lines from the essay quoted in earlier comments (The Last Messiah):

"- The life of the worlds is a roaring river, but Earth's is a pond and a backwater.

- The sign of doom is written on your brows- how long will ye kick against the pin-pricks?

- But there is one conquest and one crown, one redemption and one solution.

- Know yourselves- be infertile and let the earth be silent after ye.

And when he has spoken, they will pour themselves over him, led by the pacifier makers and the midwives, and bury him in their fingernails.