"The Conspiracy against the Human Race," by Thomas Ligotti

by Callmesalticidae15 min read13th Aug 20204 comments

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PhilosophyPhilosophical PessimismNegative UtilitarianismBook ReviewsSummariesWorld Optimization
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This is part of a series of abstracts, commentaries, and reviews on philosophical articles and books.

The Conspiracy against the Human Race is renowned horror writer Thomas Ligotti's first work of nonfiction. Through impressively wide-ranging discussions of and reflections on literary and philosophical works of a pessimistic bent, he shows that the greatest horrors are not the products of our imagination. The worst and most plentiful horrors are instead to be found in reality. Mr. Ligotti's calm, but often bloodcurdling turns of phrase, evoke the dreadfulness of the human condition. Those who cannot bear the truth will pretend this is another work of fiction, but in doing so they perpetuate the conspiracy of the book's title.

Highlights

  • Consciousness is the parent of all horror.
  • Pessimism is not a popular philosophy.
  • People naturally resist the idea that life is not okay.
  • Our sense of self, or our sense of "being someone," is illusory.
  • There is not really any such thing as free will.
  • The burden of proof rests on those who claim that life is good.
  • In the absence of any such proof, the default position is that reproduction inflicts harm on the one who is born.
  • Only human extinction can end human suffering.

New or uncommon terminology

  • There are 10 types of people, those who are familiar with worn-out binary jokes and those who are not. There are also two types of people: optimists, who believe that human life is good and should be perpetuated, and that being alive is basically all right (as Ligotti spells it); and pessimists, who believe that happiness cannot make up for suffering and that, far from being "basically all right," life is something that should not be.
  • The Uncanny is not an objective quality but a subjective experience of perceiving something that has two opposing qualities and therefore should not be. It begets a feeling of wrongness.

Chapter-by-chapter

Introduction: Of Pessimism and Paradox

The public dislikes uncompromising pessimism. We are resistant to the idea that the state of living, at least by default if not in all cases, is not positive.

Supernatural horror is commonly about encountering a paradox in the flesh, something that is but ought not to be–the living dead vampire, the self-mobilized puppet. We are willing to believe almost anything about ourselves–that we are apes or angels–but not that we are puppets.

  • "Everything is engaged in a disordered fantasia of carnage. Everything tears away at everything else...forever."
  • "Once you begin to feel you are making a go of it on your own–that you are making moves and thinking thoughts which seem to have originated within you–it is not possible for you to believe you are anything but your own master."

The Nightmare of Being

There is no formula by which we can conclusively convert hedons to dolors, or the other way around. Were this possible, either the optimists or the pessimists would finally prevail. The question of whether it is fundamentally all right to be alive is therefore one that is impossible to resolve, but this book is an attempt to make an argument.

The fact that we are always and continuously searching for meaning is a sign that something is not right. Because there is no meaning inherent to the universe, this is a hunger that cannot be authentically satisfied. We maintain our sanity by suppressing our awareness of death, and finding meaning in things is a kind of self-hypnosis. To distract ourselves, we look for metaphysical sureties or securities like God and patriotism. These are things that are larger than ourselves, in which we can lose and delude ourselves, believing anything but that the world is "MALIGNANTLY USELESS," as Ligotti proclaims in all-caps.

We must cease reproducing; every birth inflicts horror on the one thus born. Conversely, a person who has not been born cannot suffer, either directly or through an absence of happiness. Because the living always experience some amount of harm, forcing a person to exist, even if only a tiny bit of suffering will result, is a crime because harm is being inflicted on the person without consent.

We always think that we are living in a world whose future will not be begrudged by our children. For all his philosophical pessimism, though, Ligotti can still be an optimist in the sense of having hope: he speaks wistfully of how "the last of us" might also be "the best of us," realize the horror in begetting life, and either all at once or slowly over time, cease to reproduce. Ligotti hints that there may be an active component to their behavior as well in the form of ecocide, or the destruction of all life, even nonhuman life. In varying places Ligotti's motivation is an act either of revenge (for it is nature that inflicted consciousness on us) or of compassion (for another species like us might someday evolve and suffer if we do not make that impossible).

  • Peter Wessel Zapffe: "No future triumph or metamorphosis can justify the pitiful blighting of a human being against his will. It is upon a pavement of battered destinies that the survivors storm ahead toward new bland sensations and mass deaths."
  • Philipp Mainländer: "Life is hell, and the sweet still night of absolute death is the annihilation of hell."
  • "For those who have given thought to this matter, the only rights we may exercise are these: to seek the survival of our individual bodies, to create more bodies like our own, and to perish from corruption or mortal trauma. This is presuming that one has been brought to term and has made it to the age of being reproductively ready, neither being a natural birthright. Stringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die. No other right has ever been allocated to anyone except as a fabrication, whether in modern times or days past."

Who Goes There?

Ligotti points out other fabrications beside the self: family, nation, ethnicity, religion. Perhaps these have to erode before the self can, with gods already half-evaporated and nations and ethnicity apparently on the brink. On the other hand, neurological revelations may have disrupted this and made a shortcut by which the self will be destroyed ahead of schedule.

Much of the chapter is concerned with the philosopher Thomas Metzinger. According to Metzinger, we are not really people as we think we are but the product of a self-modeling mechanism that simulates people. To put it another way, the sensation of having a self comes when the brain, already equipped to make mental models of how other brains are thinking, turns inward and makes a model of itself. Our sense of self is rooted, not in the real thing, but in the mirror's reflection.

Metzinger refers to the illusion of the self (and our consequent fear of death) as "the tragedy of the ego," which "dissolves because nobody is ever born and [therefore] nobody ever dies." In other words, his comfort to the death-fearing is that there is no "you" there to die in the first place.

Determinism is the doctrine that we can choose anything except what our choices will be. Nobody feels determined, though we might reason that we are. Metzinger wonders if one can really believe in determinism without going insane: If you were to really know that you are a puppet and then act accordingly, the result would look like lunacy from the outside.

To truly feel that one's life has meaning, particular emotional substance is required. Depression destroys this, removing the color–or the special effects, say. The lesson of depression is that nothing is inherently compelling. It all depends on internal, subjective meaning.

  • Bringing up Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ligotti speaks fondly, even enviously, of the way in which the body snatchers kill people, destroying their personalities without harming their bodies.
  • Richard Double: "Meticulous precision can enable us to remain happy and engaged at the expense of averting our eyes from the disturbing big picture."
  • Thomas Metzinger: "Evolution is not something to be glorified. One way–out of countless others–to look at biological evolution on our planet is as a process that has created an expanding ocean of suffering and confusion where there previously was none. As not only the simple number of individual conscious subjects, but also the dimensionality of their phenomenal state-spaces is continuously increasing, this ocean is also deepening. For me, this is also a strong argument against creating artificial consciousness: We shouldn't add to this terrible mess before we have truly understood what is going on."

Freaks of Salvation

Ligotti discusses various philosophies in this chapter: Nietzsche is a pessimist who takes a wrong turn at the last fork in the road. Buddhism is pessimistic, laying great emphasis on how living and suffering are inseparable conditions.

As first described in The Nightmare of Being, to the pessimist any activity that does not concern itself with understanding and addressing suffering is a form of recreation. Therefore, Ligotti emphasizes again in this chapter, (almost) all human activity is a means of killing time.

The story of U. G. Krishnamurti, as given in this chapter, is most interesting: a man who claimed to have experienced enlightenment and ego death, not on purpose but by calamitous accident. Similar stories are told in this chapter: John Wren-Lewis, who likewise experienced enlightenment after a brush with death and suggested that near-death experiences, or the process of dying, may shut off important parts of selfhood that usually but do not always return after recovery. Tem Horowitz, who was temporarily enlightened but lost it. Suzanne Segal, who experienced ego death and apparently went a little nuts after, as she spoke of something called the vastness, which "created these human circuitries in order to have an experience of itself out of itself that it couldn't have without them."

  • In the notes to this chapter, Ligotti gives an interesting quote by U. G. Krishnamurti: "I still maintain that it is not love, compassion, humanism, or brotherly sentiments that will save mankind. No, not at all. It is the sheer terror of extinction that can save us, if anything can."

Sick to Death

Too many books appear pessimistic as first and then chicken out, "slipping out the back door." Most people just can't write bleakly enough (and mistake partial bleakness for a full dose or more). Bleakness must be final in order to be true.

Ligotti discusses Terror Management Theory, which argues that the primary impetus for human activity is thanatophobia, or a need to distract ourselves from the reality of death. We likewise look for ways to convince ourselves of permanence–if not of one's personal will, then of one's legacy.

  • Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, Sweeney Todd: "For what's the sound of the world out there? It's man devouring man, my dear."
  • "Also worthy of mention is a clique among the suicidal for whom the meaning of their act is a darker thing. Frustrated as perpetrators of an all-inclusive extermination, they would kill themselves only because killing it all is closed off to them. They hate having been delivered into a world only to be told, by and by, 'This way to the abattoir, Ladies and Gentlemen.' They despite the conspiracy of Lies for Life almost as much as they despise themselves for being a party to it. If they could unmake the world by pushing a button, they would do so without a second thought."
  • Tolstoy: "The dullness of these people's imagination enables them to forget the things that gave the Buddha no peace–the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, which today or tomorrow will destroy all these pleasures." It brings to mind Effective Altruism, insofar as EA rejects this forgetfulness.

The Cult of Grinning Martyrs

There's some stuff here about psychological egoism and pleasure, and Ligotti discusses his entirely novel discovery that pleasure is temporary.

Children are always made either on mistaken grounds (the belief that a nonexistent being would be better off living) or for our personal satisfaction: "Among the least praiseworthy incentives to reproduce are parents pipe dreams of posterity–that egoistic compulsion to send emissaries into the future who will certify that their makers once lived and still live on, if only in photographs and home movies. Vying for an even less praiseworthy incentive to reproduce is the sometimes irresistible prospect of taking pride in one's children as consumer goods, trinkets, or tie-clips, personal accessories that may be shown off around town. By primary among the pressures to propagate is this: To become formally integrated into a society [or accepted as an adult], one must offer it a blood sacrifice."

The burden of proof rests on natalism, because the opposite position is really the default, seeing as it merely states that there should be no action and no life. We simply assume that there is a reason for us to keep on going, that something important will be lost by our extinction, but this is patently untrue.

Ligotti compares reproduction to defecation, each the culmination of a particular pressure–as is all activity. In his terms, we are all just making bowel movements of various kinds, and generally striving to make them in the socially accepted manner.

  • "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."
  • "One must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise."

Autopsy on a Puppet: An Anatomy of the Supernatural

This chapter is principally a discussion of the supernatural horror genre, which Ligotti claims is a way to discuss the ideas of pessimism without putting our hands too close to the fire. In the process, Ligotti gives some good writing advice.

Horror fiction depends on atmosphere. More important than what is witnessed by the reader is what is felt. It may be about about horror in the world (e.g. good vs. evil) or horror of the world. The success of Good in the former serves to assure the reader that being alive is all right after all. You do not learn about an author's mindset from the story's theme, but from how the theme is resolved.

Death–or more accurately the awareness of death–is the parent of supernatural horror.

Ligotti really does have it in for life and for living: in his view, the only bummer about some of the stories that he describes is that the protagonists don't kick it. At the end Ligotti advocates one last time for the "death of tragedy," via human extinction.

  • "As the horror story matured and branched out, so did the qualities of its atmosphere, most of all among the great names of this literary genre. For these writers, the atmosphere of their works is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint."

Comments

I appreciate that Ligotti admits that writing this book is ultimately an attempt to make non-suicide less intolerable. I likewise appreciate that he acknowledges that this is not an irrefutable argument that he is making. You have to buy into at least some form of utilitarianism for most of the book to work. Even if one is a negative utilitarian, however, I don't think that his conclusion (extinction is the answer) is a slam dunk. He appears to disregard the possibility that suffering could be engineered away altogether, which may be a difficult feat to accomplish but is no less so than his dream that everyone will join the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

Ligotti is subdued in his anger, but it exists and sometimes rises up, as in his all-caps declaration that the world is MALIGNANTLY USELESS.

Anti-natalism brings up an interesting attack against consent-based ethics (e.g. voluntaryism), at least when it is rooted in utilitarianism. I'm not sure that I've seen many proponents of consent-based ethics also advocate for anti-natalism. That isn't to say that we can toss "informed consent" in the dustbin of history, mind you, just that, unless you want to bite the anti-natalist bullet, you'll have to justify it on some other ground that can allow exceptions rather than make it into the foundation of your ethical system. People cannot consent to anything until they exist, so according to a strict view of consent-based ethics, reproduction is an act of violence against the person is born.

His description of Buddhism (see under "Freaks of Salvation") does seem to conflict with Ligotti's position that religions are just another way to distract from the truth. This is not a fatal flaw, but it seems worth mentioning. Suzanne's references to "the vastness" likewise seem to conflict, as she is described as having experienced ego death but at the same time appears to have developed a religious tendency.

I also feel like Ligotti thinks that nobody is genuinely trying to figure things out and make a sensible order out of them. Also, he states that "no scientist knows why or how sexual reproduction came to be, because it is a cumbersome and inefficient means of procreation, or it used to be." This is just...very extremely wrong.

The contrast between Ligotti (and Zapffe, Mainländer, et al.) and Richard Dawkins is incredibly interesting. Per Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder: 

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?

Ligotti's position is that everyone is taking part in the titular "conspiracy against the human race," which is to convince us that life is worth living and that producing more lives is not an awful crime, but I imagine that, if asked, he would consider Dawkins to be a conspirator among conspirators.

On the difference between human and animal suffering

It seems that, in his thinking, suffering requires a self to comprehend the pain that is being experienced. He does make a distinction between pain and suffering. I'm not sure that a sense of self or an ability to form complex thoughts necessarily leads to greater suffering. Brian Tomasik has written many essays from a negative utilitarian position, and has enough of an overlap with Ligotti that one of them is even about his concern that the animal-rights movement encourages wilderness preservation. Even so, Tomasik might contest Ligotti's position.

Kelsey Piper, who writes at The Unit of Caring, has this to say on the matter of animal suffering:

I experience pain. I think that the most intense pain I've experienced in the last year was when I accidentally poured hydrogen peroxide in my eye. It was bad. It was bad on a level that didn't have much to do with conscious processing, because I wasn't doing much conscious processing.
There wasn't a reflecting self observing that I was a person with continuity of experiences and therefore my pain was bad. It wasn't unpleasant because I had the expectation that I would continue to be in pain, or unpleasant because I had a complicated self-concept which was conscious to be experiencing suffering. In fact, by the time I had enough of a handle on the pain to think 'this pain will continue until I get the contact lens out of my eye' and 'I shouldn't scream I will scare my roommate', the pain was significantly less bad, because I could crowd it out with other considerations.
I think if you put hydrogen peroxide in a dog's eye or a pig's eye or an elephant's eye, they would have the exact same internal experience I did.
[...]
'What does it feel like to be a dog' is a complicated question. 'What does it feel like to be a dog whose ribs are kicked in' is almost certainly answered 'exactly what it feels like to be a human whose ribs are kicked in, at least for the first few horrible seconds before conscious processing can reassert itself.

It is these last few lines that I think that are the most important. Conscious processing, far from increasing the pain, may actually help to suppress it by allowing the suffering to "crowd it out with other considerations." The dog whose ribs are kicked in may or may not be able to do the same, but there is definitely some floor limit to intelligence beneath which this cannot be done.

I don't mean to submit the above as a slam dunk argument against Ligotti, because there are several reasons that it could be wrong (e.g. there might some forms of suffering which are more intense than raw, physical agony, or consciousness might work radically different than how we suspect and maybe dogs are all philosophical zombies). It's worth mentioning, however.

Ligotti also states that nonhuman animals are unaware of death. This is again something that could be contested, but...how much of Ligotti's argument is affected if the above criticisms are true? If we grant that beings with simpler minds actually suffer more, all else being equal, and if we say for the sake of argument that even bacteria are aware of death, does Ligotti's argument fall apart?

I'm not so sure. He might have to argue more for a "compassionate extermination of all living things," rather than relegate it to a couple of off-hand remarks, but his argument still works pretty well even if it's turned into "The ability to perceive pain as any kind of observer at all is really bad and inevitably leads to some amount of harm, whereas nobody is harmed by not being brought into existence. "

On transhumanism

Ligotti appears to believe that, because determinism is correct, the transhuman project to create a new humanity is somehow undoable or paradoxical. Ligotti just doesn't seem to understand transhumanism.

Ligotti even claims that transhumanism has failed to confront the idea that extinction is preferable to human enhancement, which I'm not so sure about. Maybe it's true that a card-carrying transhumanism would not accept this idea, but that's a far cry from saying that transhumanism has failed to confront the idea, which is rather like saying that science has failed to confront the idea of luminiferous aether. People who argue that humanity ought to go extinct may not be transhumanists, by definition, but some of them are transhumanist-adjacent, so to speak, and debate transhumanists as a matter of course. Also, within transhumanism there are concepts as Abolitionism and Fun Theory, which again suggests that the philosophy has not simply ignored Ligotti's ideas as he claims. The latter, for example, explicitly discusses whether and how we might be able to enjoy ourselves after living for an arbitrarily long period of time.

I do like the term "New Genesis," though.

On complaining to your friends

To go by what he says in "The Cult of Grinning Martyrs," Ligotti lives in a world where complaining about your miseries will cause you to lose your friends, which makes me wonder about his social network and how much of this book he would have written if he just had better friends, to say nothing of some sort of operation to cure his anhedonia.

Ligotti is just pissed off about other people. Just read the following passage, meant to explain the mindset and reaction of normal people, or "insiders," who reject what Ligotti is trying to say in this book:

The universe was created by the Creator, damn it. We live in a country we love and that loves us back. We have families and friends and jobs that make it all worthwhile. We are somebodies, not a bunch of nobodies without names or numbers or retirement plans. None of this is going to be overhauled by a thought criminal who contends that the world is not doubleplusgood and never will be.
Our lives may not be unflawed–that would deny us a better future to work toward–but if this charade is good enough for us, then it should be good enough for you. So if you cannot get your mind right, try walking away. You will find no place to go to and no one who will have you. You will find only the same old trap the world over. Lighten up or leave us alone.
You will never get us to give up our hopes. You will never get us to wake up from our dreams. We are not contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox.

This is just the middle portion of a rant that continues for at least a couple of pages in a long wall of text (the paragraph breaks were added by me).

Favorite passage

To be alive is to inhabit a nightmare without hope of awakening to a natural world, to have our bodies embedded neck-deep in a quagmire of dread, to live as shut-ins in a house of horrors from which nobody gets out alive, and so on.

Author biography

Thomas Ligotti is one of the foremost authors of supernatural horror literature. In this genre, he has been classed with Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. His works include Songs of a Dead Dreamer, Grimscribe, My Work Is Not Yet Done, and Teatro Grottesco. Ligotti lives in Florida.

Philosophers & works mentioned

Philosophers given significant attention include:

  • Philip Mainländer, who wished to awaken in us a "will-to-die." He thought that it was granted to us by a creator who had, in turn, committed suicide, the only way for an ageless deity to cease existing. God's death created the universe but it cannot be full until all living things are dead and still and cold.
  • Thomas Metzinger, a German philosopher whose work focuses on the ramifications of discoveries in neuroscience. As described elsewhere, his most well-known argument is that our sense of self is sort of an accidental byproduct of other functions of the brain.
  • Karl Popper, whose greatest contribution to philosophy was the concept of falsifiability, the idea that we could distinguish science from non-science on the basis of whether the claims being made could be falsified. In The Open Society and Its Commentary, he also made some comments on negative utilitarianism: "It adds to clarity in the field of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness."
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher whose work was most notably inspired by Kant and various Indian religions, and was a major force within the field of philosophical pessimism. He would have become a Buddhist monk, but his ship sank on the way to India.
  • Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian philosopher whose work "The Last Messiah" reinterpreted Nietzschean concepts in a more purely pessimistic light, arguing that humanity was "a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature." He also promoted and popularized the concept of biosophy, "a discipline that would broaden the compass of philosophy to include the interests of other living things beside human beings."

Other articles & books on this subject

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Sometime ago I tried to come up with a theory to Make Sense Of It All, it went something like this - suffering is a tool of evolution, but in us evolution came up with creatures that can achieve creativity with joy instead of suffering. We're agents who should bring that change about more widely, and also living proofs-of-concept that it's possible.

This was really in-depth and I enjoyed it (heh).

To me Ligotti reads like someone stuck in the "pit" of nihilism or a dark night of the soul. From the view of many spiritual traditions and from some theories of developmental psychology, this is a necessary phase where a person sees a side of reality we might here usefully call emptiness (but "vastness", as mentioned in the article, works too), but importantly gets stuck on that emphasis and fails to remember or discover the value of form or what we might here simply think of as the mundane everyday experience of things. If this is right, then it suggests he's been stuck there a long time; at least long enough to bother to write this book!

I say this because this all feels familiar, and yet I keep getting on with life anyway. I guess Ligotti would argue I resumed my role in the conspiracy as a trade off to temporarily suffer a little less or something like that, but I think there's a bit more to it than that. Just what that is, though, I won't say.

Oh, absolutely. Ligotti suffers from regular bouts of anhedonia, where his brain just can’t be bothered to experience pleasure, and his anhedonic states can last for years. It’s no mystery why Ligotti thinks everything is terrible, because he’s incapable of feeling happy for more than a couple months here and there...

I’m glad you liked this! Thank you for reading.

Great post. :)

Tomasik might contest Ligotti's position

I haven't read Ligotti, but based on what you say, I would disagree with his view. This section discusses a similar idea as you mention about why animals might even suffer more than humans in some cases.

In fairness to the view that suffering requires some degree of reflection, I would say that I think consciousness itself is plausibly some kind of self-reflective process in which a brain combines information about sense inputs with other concepts like "this is bad", "this is happening to me right now", etc. But I don't think those need to be verbal, explicit thoughts. My guess is that those kinds of mental operations are happening at a non-explicit lower level, and our verbal minds report the combination of those lower-level operations as being raw conscious suffering.

In other words, my best guess would be:

raw suffering = low-level mental reflection on a bad situation

reflected suffering = high-level mental reflection on low-level mental reflection on a bad situation

That said, one could dispute the usefulness of the word "reflection" here. Maybe it could equally well be called "processing".