Only Hollow Idols Ring

Catherine Malabou has highlighted that one’s openness to the future, the capacities that allow one to imagine new worlds and to take on political or moral stances, is bound up with habits. Potential for novelty is cultivated, learned, and paradoxically gained only through an entrenchment into our ways. The habits are what make the world reveal itself. They condition the synthetic a priori that opens our eyes. There is no horizon of expectation, no anticipation without prior ingraining into repetitive behaviours that are hard to shake off. The irony is that these very powers of imagination that allow us to compare counterfactual scenarios themselves result from a process of entrenchment into a repetitive pattern of behaviour, a certain sedimentation into a material cultivation of these powers, but also a correlative physical dependency on them; as though each cognitive faculty is born of addiction. Like the Pythia in Delphi, evolution got us hooked on fumes rising from deep fissures in the rock, resulting in hallucinated shadows that follow us forever, long after we come down from the mountain. We never left the cave, we took it with us. Or rather, we only ever left the cave to find that the world was indiscernible from our cave paintings, because in fact we cannot in principle distinguish the map from the territory. The history of knowledge is a perpetual retreat ever deeper into our simulations.

The theory of hominization might suggest that the human entertainment of abstractions is inseparable from our troglodytic destiny: the shadows on the cave wall, but also the upside-down camera obscura landscapes that appeared when a small hole punctured our darkened shelters. The promethean gesture was to invent a game only we could play, so as to abstain from competition with other surface dwellers. New niches, new levels of complexity, are always the result of such “droppings out” of a previous ecosystem. So we obviously misrepresent the situation with false concepts like the “survival of the fittest”, as if there were just one game to play, and may the best one win. For the notion of niche construction, and the successive levels of ecosystemic complexification it implies, suggests that those who really win in the long run are those who drop out of the game and who refuse to compete, those who invent their own games to play. Is this not reflected in the drawn-out childhood and the delay of adulthood so typical of humans, and to varying degrees, all cultural animals? Culture grows at the rate of the expansion of this period of maturation which insulates us from the dangers of the outside. In childhood, we play, make believe, rehearse virtually long before ever having to engage with the “real” life and death game, where what is at stake is the possibility of even playing. Our capacity to imagine counterfactual worlds is cultivated, it is the result of practice and an exercise of virtuality and simulation.

Indeed, following Popper, we might say that what should stand as real is just whatever resists being unmasked as unreal. For the full light of day is precisely what knowledge is denied in principle: progress can only be made in the other direction. In his early notes, Nietzsche projected that his philosophy would be an “inverted Platonism: the farther removed from true being, the purer, the finer, the better it is. Living in semblance as goal.” He surmised that the allegory of the cave had misrepresented the evolution of thought. We never really escape the cave of simulations. We rather chase the shadows ever further into the darkness, tracing their nested projections and abstractions, progressively insulating ourselves from the drama occurring on the surface. Such is the asymmetry of empirical cognition and science: our assumptions can be proved wrong, but they can never be proved right.

But the power of abstraction we gained by entering the cave, seems to have also produced objects of knowledge that are somehow immune to this empirical process. Mathematical objects, the privileged example, are defined axiomatically, and seem to be unaffected by time. And indeed, their logical priority seems to flow in the opposite direction: a mathematical entity or structure seems to be eternal, to not interact with causality. We need not appeal to the empirical experiment in order to prove a mathematical theorem, only to the reciprocal effects of the axioms given certain initial states. In fact, rather than working according to a process of deductive falsification, math is suffused through and through with intuitions and informal impressions, communicated through various hand-wavings between mathematicians who share the same cultivated intuitive capacities. Even though the Kripkensteinian worry might lead us to believe that, because we cannot follow rules, there may actually be no such “eternal” mathematical entities or concepts, we can still say something about math’s difference from the empirical: is seems that the practice of mathematics and geometry does not go from obviously false to less wrong, as in empirical science, but rather from paradox to truth.

The posthuman may simply be a rebranding for this drama of the human. Perhaps its dark reboot; dark because it has a new origin story, where no God of light played any role, where humans were not at centre stage of the cosmic theatre, but simply the contingent result of a random disturbance, a happen-chance swirl of chemicals absorbed by some geological crust, that by some coincidence had the right balance of flexibility and recalcitrance, the right plasticity for the process of evolution to take hold. Dark because we realize that we never left the cave, that we were never “modern”, that we have only driven ourselves deeper into idiocy.