Levi Bryant's Dark Ontology

Levi has been on one of his prolific blogging tears again, including a couple posts listing axioms for a dark ontology (here and here). You can read through them all of course, but here are the ones that interest me the most:

1. There is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe.  Life is an accident and has no divine significance (though it’s obviously important to the living).

2. Nonetheless, many living beings give meaning to the universe.  It’s just not inscribed in the things themselves.

5. There are no purposes in being (in the Aristotlean, Platonic, and Christian Sense), nor is there any goal or aim of history.  All eschatologies are thus shams.  With that said, organic and technological beings arise in nature that appear to create purposes and goals for themselves.

6. There is no plan to being, but rather it’s all anarchy and accident.

21.  Humans are a particular type of animal among other animals and are not the pinnacle of being or existence.

22.  All human cognitive powers are biologically rooted or grounded.

23.  These cognitive powers evolved for the sake of getting around in a hostile world pervaded with other predators and for  reproduction.  It does appear, however, that our nervous systems are able to deploy themselves in ways that go beyond these original evolutionary aims.

24.  Our cognitive systems did not evolve for the sake of knowing the world or representing it as it is; which is why we must perpetually engage in critique in our knowledge-producing practices to protect against the insufficiencies of our cognitive structures.

29.  Everything that exists is the result of a genesis or development.

33.  Culture is not a domain outside of nature, but is a formation within nature.  Cultures are one more ecology among others.

34.  Nature is not harmonious nor does it strive for harmony, though harmony does occasionally happen for a brief period of time.

36.  The world is riddled with antagonisms and always will be.

39.  Existence is indifferent to us, our sufferings, how we live our lives, and whether we continue to exist.  We aren’t, however, indifferent to each other.

These principles all operate within my own work at one level or another. What does it mean to say that there is no meaning to existence but that beings can attribute meaning to others (and themselves)? First, it means that there is no external creator (God) that created a universe with inhered meaning. Second, it means there is no hidden secret purpose to the universe. However, objects do have meaning in the sense that they are defined. They are one thing rather than another. These meanings are the products of a natural history. I am a human, not a dog or a meteor, and these differences have meaning., just not the kind of meaning that attributes purpose or value (as in humans are more important than dogs in some fundamental way).

I am particularly interested in these principles of cognition and how they relate to the construction and communication of meaning. #24 is curious in this regard. I think Levi means here that we did not evolve for the purposes of building perfect knowledge about the world. We did, of course, evolve for the purpose of constructing useful knowledge about the world, knowledge that was close enough to “true” to keep us alive. Pattern recognition is crucial in this regard. There is no doubt that we see patterns that end up being arbitrary, like animal shapes in clouds. We also see patterns that are arbitrary (or correlations rather than causes) but are productive about the real world (e.g. navigating by constellations or the North Star). In this regard, I like DeLanda’s example in Philosophy and Simulation of early humans connecting moon phases, tides, and the availability of shellfish to be harvested. Such patterns and meanings are possible because objects have an inherent expressivity. Our ability to sense those expressions are limited by our own sensorium and cognitive ability. But this is where the minimal rhetorical relation emerges: between the expressivity of one object and the ability of a second object to sense the first’s expression.

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t create meaning or value the meaning that we create. Nor does it mean that we can create any meanings we want. History carries inertia and the universe has real limits, even if we can’t know them fully or purely. Instead, the idea is to compose patterns, meanings, and purposes in relation to one another. Many of Levi’s other axioms are directed specifically against religion and theology. However there is one last axiom that I find amusing and strange.

40.  If aliens ever visit our planet they won’t be nice and they’ll be up to no good.  Star Trek is not a documentary.

His explanation, in the comments,

I threw that in for amusement, though there is some theory behind it. Biology teaches us that predators develop bigger brains due to the need to hunt other animals and the larger amount of proteins in their diets (providing them with the calories needed for big fuel burning brains or the equivalent of v-8s in nature). It’s therefore likely that alien beings capable of interstellar travel will thus be aggressive.

As it is for amusement, I won’t take ti too seriously, though the explanation makes sense. It’s hard/impossible to know if evolution on other planets, in different ecologies, would follow the same patterns are ours. That is, I don’t know if the lessons of biology will necessarily apply. The old sci-fi argument is that any civilization that advanced to the point of being capable of interstellar travel would have needed to overcome its agressive tendencies. If humans developed such technologies they would likely be as different from us as we are from cave people. Mostly we imagine that aliens won’t be nice. They aren’t nice in Star Trek, for that matter (at least not all of them). What we might deduce from these axioms is that if the universe if indifferent to us and we can construct our own meanings, then maybe we can make something different for ourselves than a future of aggression.

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