It’s always a troubling experience to realize that your life sucks, but it’s also a helpful one, because that realization makes it possible to change. If the things that make your life suck are a matter of personal choices, once you grasp this, you can make different choices. If the things that make your life suck are a matter of social, cultural, or political factors—for example, the dismal quality of US public schooling or the problematic nature of the mandatory two-income family—you have two ways of taking action: you can change your own relationship to those factors (by considering the possibility of homeschooling your kids, for example, and assessing whether your family will benefit if one of its adult members leaves paid employment for the household economy) and you can also help bring about change on the larger scale (by lobbying your state legislators to support homeschooling as an option, for example, and being encouraging to other people who choose to move into the household economy and defending them against bullies who think they ought to tell everyone else what to do).
More than sudden illness, what has been shocking is the speed with which power sheds the polite fictions of a stable democratic order. The logic of crisis always serves to excuse the deepening of control. The terrible irony is that a virus – a scientific quandary, questionably neither dead nor alive – has become the occasion for managing life itself.
But life cannot be contained or managed so easily. For each new technological ploy, there are the kids who defeat it. For each new zone of abandonment, there are those in revolt. For each measure of distance imposed, there are new forms of conviviality. Not to mention all those everyday acts of courage and compassion, as communities around the world care for themselves amid failing healthcare systems. Ensuring that the elderly are checked up on, that people have enough to eat, that there is still a communal fabric even as governments seek to tear it further – these are the small triumphs of decaying circumstances.
Power’s hold over us is equally demonstrated by emergent forms of social control and by the utter disregard with which they cast aside our lives. Our inability to survive outside their broken system is rapidly being confronted by our dwindling chances of surviving within it. To resist their control has become inseparable from the urgent need to care for one another. How to treat illness, how to care for the vulnerable, how to overcome isolation, how to reinvent presence, how to live with dignity and perhaps how to die with it. These are among the revolutionary questions of our times.
The notion of the inexistence of man, that we are mere simulacrum of an alien mind, that our lives are but the tributary flow of a malevolent thought would in the tradition of religious iconoclasts be a foolish rebirth of ancient gnostic thought as if the world were the dramatic stage of some elder monstrosity, a demiurgic entity full of blind urges whose creation is a catastrophe – a kenosis, a vastation of immanent oblivion. But this would be wrong, a false estimation of ET’s work. No. He was no latter day Gnostic. His thought is closer to an alien incursion from the future, an artificial thought from some machinic world neither transcendent or parallel to our own, but rather our own world and thought known through an unknowing and non-knowledge, an immanent exploration of the Great Outdoors of our own forgotten reality. For it is us who are the fakes, the lost ones wandering in the maze of an illusory order of our own making. Long ago we built up and constructed this false order to hide from ourselves the very monstrosity of our own hideous life. We are the ones who created this counter-world, a utopia of pain and endless labyrinth of death based on our disgusting need to survive.
It is time we explored more radical alternatives. This does not mean giving up on science, it just means broadening our conception of what science is. This issue of Philosophy Now samples the work of four philosophers who specialise in consciousness (including myself). Each of us explores alternatives to conventional materialism. It is early days in the science of consciousness, and time will tell whether any of our approaches will bear fruit. But at the moment the spirit of free enquiry needed to make progress on consciousness is being hampered by an ideological insistence on the materialist paradigm – an ideological insistence not so dissimilar to that experienced by Galileo from the 17th century Catholic Church.