Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti


Thomas Ligotti is best known as a horror writer. Though I have not read his fiction, a perusal of book descriptions and reviews make me suspect that his short stories and novels are both literary and offbeat. In The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, Ligotti tries his hand at philosophy. I find his thinking and writing to be bold, at times brilliant, though also deeply flawed. The worldview advocated by Ligotti is simply the most pessimistic that I have ever encountered. The “Conspiracy” of the title refers to what the author contends to be a universal fiction, that “Being alive is all right.”  Ligotti believes that human consciousness is a terrible accident, a tragedy and the ultimate horror of horrors, and that life is MALIGNANTLY USELESS (Ligotti’s capitalization). He goes on for pages and pages explaining why he uses both of those words.

Though the book is not organized as such, Ligotti seems to focus upon three reasons for his conclusions. The first is that death, in a universe with no God or afterlife, is unendurable to the human psyche. 

Ligotti writes,

“Undeniably, one of the great disadvantages of consciousness— that is, consciousness considered as the parent of all horrors— is that it exacerbates necessary sufferings and creates unnecessary ones, such as the fear of death.“

Second, the considerable amount of suffering built into the lives of conscious beings can never be compensated by pleasure. He describes the pleasure that one experiences in life as, 

“a few crumbs left by chaos at feast”

Third, humans are not really independent selves, as we like to think. Instead, we are an amalgamation of chemical and physical processes; we are literally survival and reproduction puppets. Everything that we believe to be meaningful, such as love, loyalty, honor, patriotism, the wonder of nature, etc., are just the result of neurons firing in the brain and are ultimately vacuous.

Ligotti further contends that consciousness, which he labels an accident of evolution, should bring us face to face with the above horrors and we should thus all be insane. However, everyone who is supposedly sane is instead in a perpetual state of denial based upon illusions aided by certain mental repression mechanisms. He goes further and ascribes many types of mental illness to the failure of these safeguards. Thus, many neuroses and psychoses are simply the results of people perceiving the universe and themselves as they really are, without the normal set of protective delusions. 

He writes,

“Once the facts that repressional mechanisms hide are accessed, they must be excised from our memory— or new repressional mechanisms must replace the old— so that we may continue to be protected by our cocoon of lies. If this is not done, we will be whimpering misereres morning, noon, and night”

In order to end what he views as the abomination of consciousness, Ligotti advocates for the voluntary extinction of the human race through attrition. That is, by people deciding to stop having children. 

Finally, Ligotti conducts a literary and psychological analysis of supernatural and horror literature. He contends that much of it, particularly the works of Ann Radcliffe, Edgar Allen Poe and, most of all, H. P. Lovecraft are attempts to illustrate the underlying malevolence of existence.

Ligotti mines copious amounts of Western and Eastern culture while drawing his conclusions. He devotes numerous pages to ruminating about the writings of various authors and philosophers. He is particularly enamored with the viewpoints of Arthur Schopenhauer, Ernest Becker and Peter Zapffe. He makes references to both Western and Eastern religion and scripture, including Gnostic thought. The Gnostic idea that something is very wrong with the universe resounds throughout this work.  He delves into scientific discoveries and research, particularly in the area of human consciousness. At times, the book - really a series of connected essays - seems disorganized, repetitive and is peppered with unsupported contentions. At other times, the writing seems thoughtful, extremely insightful and goes to great lengths to support the author’s views.

For the most part, I reject Ligotti’s ultimate conclusions. Yet, his reasoning is of particular fascination for me. First, in regard to the bedrock understanding of the facts and construction of the universe, Ligotti’s beliefs are very much in line with mine. That is, we live in a universe without a creator or God, and that all that we experience and observe, including human consciousness, can be broken down into physical laws and explainable processes. Finally, at least to a degree, humans go through life with all kinds of illusions in their heads about themselves as well as about humankind in general. Thus, a thinker who shares such an underlying view of the facts of existence with myself is going to garner my attention.

The second reason that I am drawn to Ligotti’s reasoning is that I believe he expresses something that is an important piece to the puzzle of life. There is darkness inherent to existence. However, what I believe are vital pieces, Ligotti argues is the entire puzzle.

I have many arguments against Ligotti’s all encompassing final conclusions. Two in particular seem to me most important. First, I believe that there is a gaping hole in Ligotti’s logic. One of the author’s main points is that when everything that people value as the basis of human lives, such as love, family, honor, morals, etc., is deconstructed into physical processes, it becomes apparent that theses things are essentially neurons firing and chemical reactions that arise out of survival and reproduction strategies (he seems not to mention, and therefore disregards, the concept of Memes, or any idea of independent, self-perpetuating human ideas). I believe that there is some truth behind Ligotti’s contention (though I think that there is something independent going on relating to human culture and ideas). 

However, Ligotti goes much further. He argues that the nuts and bolts scientifically explainable origins of these values and concepts render these values and concepts utterly meaningless. Such meaninglessness renders life a horrible abomination. 


The problem here is that by this same logic, the concepts of meaninglessness, horror, undesirability of life, etc. are themselves the result of “neurons firing” and have no real meaning either. In a universe where these concepts are unreal, the horror that Ligotti obsesses over is also unreal. The dreadfulness that the author imagines is also an illusion.

Ligotti sees this differently and seems to give “horror” a special place.

“And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.“  

The argument that “horror” occupies such a privileged position is, to me, unsupported and unconvincing. One could substitute many words for “horror” in the above passage and it would have the same meaning.

Another problem that I have with Ligotti’s views is that he equates deep understanding of the human mind and consciousness with the belief that human values and principles are meaningless. Once again, this nihilistic way of viewing things can be interesting and perhaps even at times useful in gaining understanding, but it is not the entire story. 

Perhaps all those Carl Sagan books have deluded me. I strongly believe that the incredibly complex mechanisms that go into the human mind, thought, consciousness and ultimately into human values, in no way diminish people or these value systems. In fact I would argue that the natural processes that gave rise to such wonders as life, the human mind, human principles, etc., enhance and give weight to humans and to these values. It is apparent that Ligotti has no sense of wonder or awe at the natural processes, human ideas and culture that that have arisen in our Cosmos.

In fact he writes,

“One cringes to hear scientists cooing over the universe or any part thereof like schoolgirls over-heated by their first crush. From the studies of Krafft-Ebbing onward, we know that it is possible to become excited about anything— from shins to shoehorns. But it would be nice if just one of these gushing eggheads would step back and, as a concession to objectivity, speak the truth: THERE IS NOTHING INNATELY IMPRESSIVE ABOUT THE UNIVERSE OR ANYTHING IN IT.”  (Ligotti’s Capitalization).

The above is very different from how I view the world. Though I am not a scientist, I am very much with the “Gushing Eggheads.” Scientists like Carl Sagan are expressing opinions when they ponder the wonder of the natural world, there is no requirement that everything that they write in this context be scientifically objective, just as there is no requirement that Ligotti be scientifically objective when expressing his opinions.

The above is also an example of Ligotti’s unfortunate tendency to name call and exhibit intolerance that borders on hysteria towards beliefs that he does not agree with.

I have many other qualms with Ligotti’s conclusions. Yet, I believe this to be a valuable work. At times, Ligotti’s reasoning is elegant, and he ties intriguing cultural, literary, philosophical and scientific threads together. Furthermore, I think that Ligotti is on to something. There are terribly dark, horrifying aspects to life and existence. Ligotti brilliantly zeros in upon and explores these aspects of reality. 

This darkness is all that Ligotti sees, however. For the most part, it is not in the facts that I disagree with in terms of his worldview. Thus, to some degree, it can be argued that this viewpoint is just one way of looking at life, no more or less valid than another viewpoint based upon the same facts (I understand that not everyone agrees that these are the facts and that there is plenty of room for honest disagreement on this).  I contend, however, that there are other equally important ways of looking at the Universe.

Those interested in modern, extremely pessimistic worldviews may also want to read Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar. My commentary on that book is here. Ligotti makes several references to Benatar’s work in this book.

27 comments:

Suko said...

This sounds very bleak and depressing. I'm glad you have many arguments against Ligotti’s all encompassing final conclusions. Where there is darkness, there is also light.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - The funny thing is that I did not find this depressing at all. Sometimes very negative reasoning does not have that effect upon me.

seraillon said...

I'm curious to know if you got a sense of Ligotti being deliberately provocative in a satirical manner. Is he funny at all? I mean learning, for example, that we have billions more bacteria in our gut than there are cells in our entire body, and thus are more walking communities rather than individuals, isn't that hilarious?

Sounds like someone needs to curl up on the sofa and watch a Marx Brothers movie, and mix some Northanger Abbey into his Ann Radcliffe.

argumentativeoldgit said...

An obvious question to be asked is that if Ligotti does indeed believe this, what rational argument prevents him from committing suicide?

Human emotions, feelings, states of mind that one may describe as spiritual, Ligotti reduces to various electrochemical processes inside our minds. Does Ligotti really think this answers the question of what causes emotions? Could not these electrochemical reactions and our feelings both be effects of some other cause? And even if our feelings are indeed caused by this electrochemical activity - what has caused this electrochemical activity?

Pleasure can never compensate for pain, he says. Perhaps not. But some of us think joy is more than a mere surplus of pleasure.

For me, if one takes such a reductive view of life, then life will inevitably appear reduced. And if one further believes that any perspective of life different from his own s illusory, then even the prospect of debate is closed off.

What Ligotti puts forward (I am going by your description: I haven't read the book) is a very impoverished view of life, and not one to which I subscribe. Indeed, I find it deeply alien to all my values. If Ligotti really does believe all this, he might just as well kill himself: wherever he goes, or doesn't go, he'll have a far better time than he seems to be having here! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Serallion - Though at times he seems a bit intentionally provocative I sense not much much irony in Ligotti.


He is at times humorous, but usually when making fun of belief systems that he does not agree with. In a particular he seems to really enjoy mocking the authors of positive self help books.

The Marx Brothers might not be a bad thing for him sto spend some time with!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - Ligotti does indeed argue that suicide should be more accepted and even supported in society for those who choose it. He does not talk about himself in this regards but in all fairness he does not advocate that others do so only that it be not be vilified if folks choose to do so.

He does not use the word impoverished but as he admits that he hates consciousness and uses all sorts of negative adjectives to describe his own worldview I think that he would wholeheartedly agree that his view of life is impoverished.


I tend to agree that if one breaks it down our emotions and selves are likely the result of electrochemical reactions without an external creator, but I also think that we are more then the sum of our parts so to speak and that consciousness is a natural marvel beyond description or comprehension. Obviously Ligotti does not feel that way.

James said...

I share your "sense of wonder or awe at the natural processes" of the universe. This writer sounds interesting but, like Schopenhauer who I enjoy reading, is undoubtedly too pessimistic for my sense of life.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Kneed if one is not in the mood for pessimism Ligotti is not the one to read.

I have not read Schopenhauer but I really would like to.

vb said...

Amazing commentary Brian especially because when you do not particularly agree with him still enjoy the same..For me when Im unable to agree with a particular author that creates a mental block that doesn't let me to enjoy and relish the unlikable..His thoughts on universe and death seems interestingly gloomy..I have felt Freudian philosophy to be pessimistic in many ways ..well I might be the only one who feels so...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - I think that many, perhaps a majority of history's great thinkers were pessimistic, at least to a degree. I have not actually read Freud, but have studied him in school but at least too a point I do think that he was pessimistic.

Ligotti is exceptional in that he is extreme.

I disagree with a fair share of what Ligotti believes in but that is true of almost every philosopher and thinker who espouses their view on life and existence. I just love to explore ideas.

....Petty Witter said...

Too deep for me I'm afraid to say but Husband dearest would love this.

stujallen said...

sounds dark and maybe one of these books that is written to cause people to talk about the ideas behind by being dark and bleak ,all the best stu

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - At times Ligotti does dig deep into philosophical thought, but at other times he can actually be very down to earth.

If your husband read it I would love to know what he thought about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stu - Without a doubt Ligotti was dying to express his ideas in a work such as that. He seems to very much want folks to consider and discuss his ideas.

I am beginning to read some of his fiction and I am seeing that many of these ideas have been percolating in his mind for years.

Caroline said...

Sounds a bit like Cioran to me. You don't mention him as an influence but i wouldn't be surprised if he did mention him in the book.
I think it's interesting that someone with this kind of world view writes horror. I think I'm not brave enough to read his fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Ligotti devotes several paragraphs to Cioran. Ligotti clearly admires him.

This work makes reference and analyzes a great number of philosophers and authors bot that Ligotti agrees with and those he does not. I could not come close to mentioning mentioning them all.

Guy Savage said...

Well now we can all go off and end it all...

Did this depress you?

Actually I see his point in many ways. Sometimes I think animals have it easier (not all ways, of course thanks to the meat industry, abusive people and shitty owners), but they don't know what their life expectancy is and don't seem to trouble themselves past the here and now. A good attitude if you think about it.

Life has moments of joy, and obviously some of us have it a lot harder than others. Sometimes I see or hear of young children who are born with, and die of, horrible birth defects or diseases and I can't really imagine how anyone copes with that sort of thing.

So on a bad day, I'd agree with this author, and it now seems understandable why he writes those horror books. I think some of us see horror is everyday life more than others.

Guy Savage said...

"Ligotti further contends that consciousness, which he labels an accident of evolution, should bring us face to face with the above horrors and we should thus all be insane. However, everyone who is supposedly sane is instead in a perpetual state of denial based upon illusions aided by certain mental repression mechanisms. He goes further and ascribes many types of mental illness to the failure of these safeguards. Thus, many neuroses and psychoses are simply the results of people perceiving the universe and themselves as they really are, without the normal set of protective delusions."

Quoting from the review there, and it's a passage that particularly struck me.

One of the things I've noticed is that sometimes (not always) people do really nutty things as they age. I've known several people who've launched themselves off into these really risky situations as though they have an indefinite time to live. I suppose we could call it denial.

I've seen people dying of cancer start to build their dream homes or people in their 70s launch off for life in S. America where they can employ "cheap" servants when really they're in no state of health to do that and probably only have a few years left at best.

Sometimes I think most people go bonkers as they age. It just depends on what I see in any given day.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - it actually did not depress me at all. I tend to find gloomy people and thought systems do not bring me down. Plus, I think about these issues a lot, life, death, the futility and/or the meaning of existence.

As i noted I agree with some, but not all of Ligotti's points, there are definitely situations that I can envision where I would prefer not to live. One key point about Ligotti's contentions however is that no human life is worth the pain of existence and that everything is futile.

Though I will not go as far as Ligotti, who seems to define sanity as a form of denial, there really is a lot of denial going on out there. I think that your examples are right on the money.

Sharon Henning said...

The author uses graph theory, or logical deduction to make his points. If A is true, then B is also true, which makes C true and so on.

Based on the premise that there is no God I find his conclusions logical. Atheism inevitably leads to nihilism.

However, it's a self-defeating argument because to make an absolutely negative statement ("There is no God") one is claiming to possess infinite knowledge, which is actually another way of claiming to be God.

Take care and God bless, Brian! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I agree one cannot be certain that there is no loving and/or omnipotent God. However, I think that the existence of God is unlikely. If he does not exist I do not believe that the only conclusion is nihilism.

I do think that humans, through a combination of what we are biologically, and what we have developed in our culture and society, embody something extremely meaningful in the form of morality,kindness, art, our endeavors to understand the universe], etc.


I do want to say that I so like and appreciate your comments comments Sharon. They really are well thought out and help to keep me on my toes:)

Thanks for your blessing. May you have happiness and good health.

Take care!



Naida said...

This sounds deep and thought provoking. I agree with your view on that horror quote. Fascinating post as usual Brian.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Thanks so much!

I really wish that Ligotti had elaborated upon and supported the horror quote. Unfortunately he does not do so sufficiency.

Maria Behar said...

From your excellent commentary, I can see that this is a brilliantly written work, if a bit on the hysterical and intolerant side, as you've stated. I would love to read it, but then again, probably shouldn't. By nature, I tend to be a bit on the pessimistic side, so reading this book would probably be very, very depressing for me, even though it would at the same time be highly fascinating.

I've gone through periods of varying faith and doubt in my life, and am currently in a period of doubt. However, I find myself reaching out to God in moments of fear and worry, asking for His protection. Ironic, isn't it?

In my darker moments, I do indeed become an existentialist. I think that the whole universe is meaningless. This can happen to me in those moments of solitude -- such as late at night, when I'm still up after my husband has already gone to bed. At such times the whole thing really hits me like a ton of bricks....and it's then that I reach out to God.

Ligotti's views, however, are much too oppressive and dark. As you sate in your review, reality CANNOT possibly be entirely meaningless. And you make an excellent point when you state that Ligotti's viewpoint is as much the result of neurons firing in the brain as the opposite, optimistic viewpoint.

On the other hand, isn't it rather simplistic to say that the processes of the mind are nothing more than the result of neurons firing? Thinking, visualization creation, plain old daydreaming -- none of these can be totally explained by physiological processes. They can be, but only to a certain extent. In short, human creativity and imagination are mysteries of the mind. And, as the Buddhists are fond of saying, "You are not your mind." They point to an entity they call "The Observer" who cannot be explained away through a process of neurons firing, because this entity is really BEYOND the mind, not to mention the brain.

Phew! What a FASCINATING topic!

Let me give you some Amazon links you might be interested in. They're all related to this topic, and the reviews are great reading!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0915144514/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=380GXOBKMX0U8&coliid=I2SGV8BEW6PWLI

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0226516687/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=380GXOBKMX0U8&coliid=I2FRWK0T9KW677

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0879728302/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=380GXOBKMX0U8&coliid=I1KHKJWBAK2CY3

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0974935972/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pd_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=380GXOBKMX0U8&coliid=I11Z416XH4E2LY

http://www.amazon.com/dp/0231137524/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_S_ttl?_encoding=UTF8&colid=380GXOBKMX0U8&coliid=I1ZX7S7XH1L1KT

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Thanks for such insightful, thoughtful and in depth commentary.

Existentialist fears can indeed be disturbing. I believe that if God does not exist life still can have a lot of meaning. I am with some of the existentialists who argue that humans can make their own meaning. Personally I find meaning in things like love, morality, friendship, art. The search for scientific and less tangable truths, etc.

Your point about daydreaming and other activities that I like to call consciousness is something that I think about a lot. It may be just neurons firing. But that just SEEMS so not the case. David Benetar calls this the hard problem of consciousness. It often befuddles me. Those books that you linked to look terrific. I have already read a couple of books by Daniel Dennett and David David Benatar on as well as articles by others including John Searle. They all have interesting ideas Ligotti makes reference to some neuroscientists and psychologists who believe that conciseness is something of an illusion. Admittedly nothing seems satisfying and if I were to argue for the existence of God, the presence of consciousness would be a major component. in that argument.

Nevertheless I do believe that as enigmatic as it is, consciousness is the result of real world processes and absolutely think that computers, if not already, will some day reach conciseness.

Like myself you clearly like to think about these things and are not afraid to question. Lets keep on exploring these amazing and mind bending aspects to reality!

Maria Behar said...

Thanks for your own in-depth reply to my comment! You know, perhaps when I get through with all of these blog tour commitments, we can mutually pick a book to read and discuss. I just wish I had more time....my blog has gotten heavily weighted toward young adult fiction, specifically paranormal romance. I LOVE reading this stuff, but would like to read other genres, too, such as serious nonfiction. After all, my blog IS supposed to be eclectic. But for a long time now, I've been SO concerned with getting a lot of followers, and it seemed to me that blog tours and reviews of YA books was the way to go... I was also worried about not getting enough comments.

Ay, yay, yay....the thing is, I have varied reading interests. I did try to start a blog strictly for nonfiction, but I simply don't have the time! It's SO frustrating!! Right now, I'm having trouble getting to sleep, so I decided to come over and read your replies to my previous comments (I also commented on another post).

I have been struggling with the perennial question of the meaning of existence, and the nature of consciousness, for years now. My daily schedule does not allow me the time necessary to devote to an in-depth examination of these vitally important issues. So I sort of feel a certain emptiness, on certain days, and despair rears its ugly head....

Well, I don't want to go into a pity party here....but one thing I do think Ligotti is right about: if we start to ponder these things -- really sit down and ponder them, it can bring about a very unsettling feeling of malaise...what Sartre called "nausea". (I haven't read this famous work of his, though.)

Oh, geez....do these sound like the ramblings of an insomniac? Lol.

But seriously, I would indeed love to explore these issues with you. Perhaps we could even get a little group together. Just a thought.

I'm going to go try to get some sleep....Goodnight! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Sometimes I too have trouble sleeping. Last night I did OK.

Without a doubt these existentialist pondering can bring one down. I have not yet read Sartre but I want to. One thing about Ligotti, is that he was so over the top, and at times illogical, he was unintentionally amusing and he had the opposite effect upon me.

I tend to think that you should read what you feel like reading at the time. Your Blog devoted to non - fiction was really good, but as you say keeping two blogs is so time consuming.

I would be totally into reading a book together, in a group if others want to join in. Whenever you are ready. I will start thinking about it. Fell free to email me.