(This is not an essay about the outcome of the 2016 American general election.)
All human thought exists along one axis.
Inside <————> Outside
Either you are retreating into a fantasy, or you are going out to face observable reality.
The observable reality is apparently this: we are piles of atoms organised into piles of cells, shuffling around on a pale blue dot. The electrical activity inside our brains is strapped to the wheels of “time” and “self” and “consciousness” that create the perpetual notion of I – Exist – Now. Our minds and bodies are built to inflict us with things called ’emotions’ in response to certain stimuli, which is what in turn gives rise to ‘suffering’. ‘Suffering’ is the evolutionary sign that whatever’s happening isn’t conducive to further life. A few billion of us are currently shuffling and suffering on the dot. At some point we started thinking about and emotionally investing in the whole “I exist now” idea, which caused a slight emotional problem when we realised that this was only temporary. As we encountered more and more things outside our own realms of knowledge and understanding, The Big One kicked in – specifically, fear. Existence became inherently uncertain and frightening.
Over a few thousand years, we developed many, many coping strategies. Maybe winning the most followers will save me. Maybe money will save me. Maybe my skin colour will save me. Maybe having a penis will save me. Maybe crushing other civilisations will save me. Maybe being normal and getting rid of the freaks will save me. If I find some way to be right and superior, then everything will be fine. If I just settle into a nice routine, I can stave off the terror.
The key trait linking all of these is fantasy. The decision to retreat into a miniature, bubble world. To become deaf to reason, to become blind to the suffering of others, to reject reality.
Look at any of the things generating suffering today. Any of them.
- Economic inequality? Perpetuated by rich people living a fantasy.
- Terrorism? War? Perpetuated by fanatics living a fantasy.
- Racism? Perpetuated by members of the ‘dominant’ race living a fantasy. (Extrapolate for other forms of bigotry e.g. misogyny, queer- & transphobia… Anything that involves denying other fleshbags equal fleshbagness is delusional.)
- Inhuman labour conditions? Destruction of the planet? Perpetuated by corporations living a fantasy so that we can all live our own fantasies.
- Ignorance and delusional conspiracy theories? Doesn’t even need saying.
- And more, too many to count.
Even the basic act of one human inflicting suffering on another is an act of fantasism; one must become closed to the inherent horror and perversion of making someone else suffer.
It’s all so simple when viewed this way. You could become lost in the technicalities of these things for decades, but the fundamental act is always the same.
Reject and ignore everything outside your own head.
Cling rabidly to what exists inside.
Other people’s suffering isn’t real/doesn’t matter/is a good thing, because I said so/my cult said so/my custom Facebook feed said so/who cares? This world is fine. This way of living is fine, because it means I don’t have to open the door. Opening the door is scary.
Alternatively: I am suffering. Could it be because the entire system and our way of being is fundamentally broken? That’s scary. Should I look outside my comfort zone for research and information? Those things are scary. Or should I have faith in my narrow media bubble as it tells me to dehumanise and caricature others, to deny that their suffering exists alongside mine, or perhaps to believe in a sinister Foucault’s Pendulum-style Plan that orders and explains a bizarre world? That makes me feel right, which is slightly less scary (and also for some reason I was never taught critical thinking, which is surely fine and not a horrible consequence of socioeconomic inequality).
No-one is innocent of this. The current model of the human race is built on delusion. Investing in mini fantasy worlds, whether they be countries, races, products, or arbitrary ways of living. Telling ourselves there’s a point to doing these stupid things.
And pretty soon, it’s going to kill us all.
Because if a species that doesn’t adapt to its environment dies out, it follows that a species that can’t even live in reality will die even faster.
Outsideist terminology refers to everything described above as ‘Insideism’, a fun made-up word that helps express how all forms of evil fundamentally begin at that basic, instinctive impulse to retreat inward. We’ll probably never get rid of it entirely. A more likely outcome at this point is that we eventually all upload ourselves onto brain-ready computers, leaving our uncouth fleshy bodies behind, and live timeless, suffering-free virtual fantasy lives long after the Sun has roasted the Earth. Maybe we’ll fly around the universe as digital beings of pure consciousness, making art out of nebulas and programming our own emotions. That would be funky.
But while we’re still stuck down here, Insideism is a deadly danger. Plus, that version of the future hinges on a few factors, like the rushing progress of technology and such, all of which could be quite dramatically halted by the kind of apocalyptic event we’re so gleefully setting ourselves up for. (Unless you think that’s a Chinese hoax, of course.) In any case, let’s stick to the present.
Speaking of which: the world is hell. By the standards of any Homo sapiens who is basically opposed to suffering and slaughter, the world is an unfathomably hideous, bottomless vortex of pain. Kindness, success, cute kittens, are all just glimmers of refracted heaven-light fallen from above into the hell we have made for ourselves. A comfortable life is just a ramshackle stick fortress blocking out some of the hell-screams from beyond.
And that’s scary. That’s pure horror. The idea that we are stuck here, and the truth that this pain is all unnecessary, is where cosmic horror comes from.
But every time we recoil from that, when we put our fingers in our ears and insist that our lives and ideas and traditions can carry on as is, we are complicit in making that hell worse. The Insideist human race is inherently doomed. Ultimately it’s not just a new version of politics we need, or a new version of money. It’s a new version of humanity.
As a side note, there’s an idea called ‘accelerationism’ – generally proposing that since this version of the world is doomed anyway, we might as well speed up its death so the next one can take its place. Some recent decisions seem to be steering us onto this path. It’s tempting to imagine how, say, a real worldwide human crisis – or a superintelligent AI, I dunno – would shatter all of the meaningless Inside bubbles and forcibly reconfigure humanity’s relationship to itself and to reality. But this could go two ways – either it unites the species, or divides it even more irrevocably. One way or another, at a certain point in time, things are going to be radically different. Perhaps even alien to you and I.
If we’re going to end up with a new kind of human at the end of this miserable process, what do we want it to be?
One that indulges in all the same worthless fantasies we did – one that has arrogant notions of self and tribe to protect, and thus, in panic, ignores the transcendent? One that values constructing a personal comfort bubble over facing the real ethical cost? One that sits placidly within the archaic mental frameworks handed down to it, so it can keep dragging them on into the future? One that views unfamiliar people as no more than two-dimensional cutouts, subhuman extras in the Story Of Me?
Or one that believes in empathy?
What about a kind of human who understands that empathy is the only reason we deserve life (if that can even be said to be true) – our one built-in reminder that suffering must be stopped – and that shutting off empathy makes you unworthy of that life? A kind of human who handles the uncertainty of existence not by shrinking, but by embracing the many possibilities that creates…new, unfamiliar information and ideas, many diverse and surprising perspectives? A human who understands themselves not as a universe unto themselves, racing towards obliteration, but as a tiny, transient fragment in the system of cells and atoms and quantum unlikelihoods that makes up the actual universe? A human who finds that beautiful?
Maybe if that kind of human existed, if when the old ideas inevitably died with their owners this one replaced them as the new human idea, if communities and lands and worlds’ worth of these humans came together and decided to share this fundamentally Weird existence…perhaps the problem of consciousness could be solved. Perhaps peace could be real.
Until then, all we can do is live a bit better. Think a bit better.
Even as hordes of Insideists insist on hating and killing and making us all suffer, in their pitiful fantasist fashion.
Time will bury them. And when that happens, we will need people who believe in empathy. People who kept the idea alive, even as this cluttered world died a ghoulishly spectacular death.
The key to overcoming the Insideist fear of reality is embracing the horror. To be able to look upon it with fascination, even in the midst of the rage and sorrow. As a culture, we are fascinated by horror stories like those of Lovecraft, yet we are too scared to actually look upon the biggest one of all (us) – what are we worried will happen? We might realise it can’t go on? We might want to change things?
The advantage of comparing reality to a cosmic horror story is that it encourages us to break out of the ‘real-world’ frame of reference, something constructed by our own myopic cultural norms. A crucial part of surviving the final centuries of cultural Insideism, and maybe preparing a path for something better to replace it, is destroying imaginative restrictions in order to enable imaginative resistance. The idea that any of our existence is normal and something to be taken for granted is inherently Insideist. Fact is, we are Weird. We are inexplicable, supernatural. Look at us like an alien lifeform might.
It’s not about casting a distinction between “the boring real world” and “weird supernatural stuff”, nor – god forbid – about convincing yourself that supernatural stuff is happening when it actually isn’t. It’s about being able to look at the ‘normal’ from an estranged point of view, as if it’s something supernatural, so that you might gain a new understanding of it.
For example, some very clever people have put forward the case that by putting these strange, twisted little symbols (“letters”) in this order, and causing people miles away to in turn think about them, I am effectively performing magic. This is consistent with the entire history of magical practices, where by manipulating a few symbols in an artistic way – whether they were words, runes, songs, rituals, stories, drawings like those above each post on this blog – wizards and priests and cultists alike attempted to make real changes happen. And sometimes they succeeded, though not by the otherworldly intervention they perhaps believed in, but rather by changing people’s minds. Shifting the consciousness. Art and expression has, in this ‘magical’ way, swept the human race through enormous changes by being a vehicle for ideas. (Alan Moore, magician and world-famous author, argued this superbly in Fossil Angels.) That’s incredible; an example of something we take completely for granted suddenly gaining a deep, mystical resonance – and all because we can choose to imagine it that way, without ever sacrificing our grip on reality.
Most human thought about our own existences has been neutered by the continual Insideist loop of tradition and culture. Art can help with that, but freeing our imaginations can help even more. The challenge is to do this while still living in the world of cause and effect and of empathy, rather than sinking into an Insideist bubble of delusion. This might sound contradictory, but it isn’t at all. Insideism is the limitation of mental possibility to a pathetic doctrine. The alternative – which if you didn’t guess, is Outsideism – must necessarily involve imaginative play and infinite possibilities, the embrace and exultation of the Weird, all while thoughtfully treading the line of double-awareness between fiction and fact.
Good ideas are what will outlive us and shape the next version of humanity, if such a thing comes to pass (e.g. we don’t get hit by a meteor). If the Earth suddenly becomes a plane of art, potential for meaning and strangeness and wonder spilling out of every crevice, what brilliant ideas could erupt forth? And who could possibly stop them, what poverty possibly starve them, what fascist possibly contain them, what bigot possibly kill them?
Imaginative resistance can’t truly happen within the imaginative framework of the system in power, of the prevailing destructive logics. It has to break free. It has to go Outside.
A final word
The truth is, I’m still sat writing this, you’re somehow still sat reading it, and we will all get on with our lives, many of us without a massive number of problems. Our lively imaginations won’t erase suffering, or fix the irredeemably corrupt world. We’ll keep doing what we’re trained to – consuming things, distracting ourselves, forcing ourselves to do things we don’t really want to do so we can achieve arbitrary objectives in order to become able to consume things and distract ourselves more completely. Occasionally we will help people and fight for them, but in the meantime we’ll keep supporting industries that kill the world, and political establishments that kill people, and we’ll stay sheltered from all the ill effects because what else can we really do? A way of life doesn’t vanish on its own. It will take brain-computers, or the apocalypse, or superintelligent AI, to finally kick our fleshy arses into a different way of living.
But while we’re trapped in this cycle, what we can do is nurse the idea of Outside. Keep it alive. Anyone can do this, from the comfort of their own mind space. Nearly all human suffering spawns from the foul rectum of Insideism, and it must not remain unopposed. Too many attempts at identifying modern-day evils are content to stop simply at the surface – e.g. “white supremacist” – while failing to penetrate through to the truth; that they are all born of the same type of terrified fiction, all shields against existential panic, all habitual reversions Inward to the place of mental delusion.
It’s so easy to fall into that trap. So many people, myself certainly included, will have seen a piece of information suggesting that they are complicit in suffering or that their way of thinking needs to change, and thought ‘it’s probably just hyperbole’, ‘I bet they’re just crazy’, ‘they should just deal with it’, ‘god I’m such a rational realist’. That’s our instinct. I think that’s a concept far more accessible and understandable than the endless jargon of good and evil, left and right, progressive, reactionary, all of these merely fragment-terms focusing on one small part of the elephant in the room.
If we’re aware of that dangerous instinct, then we can start doing something about the way we think. Even if it’s just on a personal, individual level. If we can free our imaginations to stop flinching away from possibility, and to instead go Outside – where an unfathomable reality, endless imaginative interpretations, and unpredictable human connections await us – then we can salvage something interesting from this winding-down world, and pass it on. And if even one interesting thing makes it to the end of Humanity 1.0 and the start of Humanity Mark II, it might be enough to break the cycle.
It might be better next time.