Spending “our time in the desert” carries a long-running history in Western religious and philosophical literature. The desert provides clarity of analysis to the Observer by escaping the subjectivity of densely-populated areas. Whether prophet or philologist, escaping the world of privileged life to find an alien world without our feelings, fears, and troubles; this has long been a clarifying moment. However, as we will find, even the “desert of the real” no longer holds the same significance. We have experienced to many living deserts, too many virtualizations of false lifelessness, smiling at us and walking around out of habit.
In Western philosophy, the desert represents a partial answer to what the world might be when it is absent of life. Many of the problems of philosophy emerge out of linguistic or stylistic flaws, existential particularized instances that thought transforms into generalization prematurely, or abstractions that take on a “life of their own” and run amok in the civilized mind. The spectacle of human society is too full of symbols and signs, leaving the philosopher in search of “bare life” in the wilderness, to at last secure a hold on the sublime. There is immediately a textual question, were one to note it: why the desert? Nietzsche, like his own retreat to Switzerland, has Zarathustra retire to the mountains. Henry David Thoreau escapes to Walden pond, painting a scene of a small cabin among American pines, praising self-sufficiency. In similar fashion, we may try our own hermitage to mountains or forests to escape the confused misrepresentations of society and fashion. The desert, in contrast, represents an alien reality, one that does not welcome us or praise us, a physicality that humbles the consciousness that believes reality manifests for life.
In the process of enduring the desert, we see an escape of the noise, light, and concerns of Others. Yet this escape requires there be something to escape into as well. The desert holds the appeal of an absence of signs, representation, and symbolic exchange. The comforts of the mountain or the forest still let us believe we can make a home, then construct a metaphysics that justifies our selfish human privilege. The alien forms of the desert, self-sufficient without the presence of human mechanization and machination, reveals the Observer’s alienation. The unintended consequences of society become clear in the desert of the real. The alien landscape of human lifelessness reveals the alienation of human society. Then we see that enclosure within the social machine encroaches upon individual moral systems of valuation and signification.
For this, we must strip representation down to bare life, then even forget life itself. At the extremes, the cosmos is a lush paradise, phenomenon created by the human mind and for the human mind; else it is an enormous desert, a system of objects that entraps us, an enormous machine in which matter is more real than our lives ever might be.
The inescapable social machine creates the need to distance thought from its comfortable privilege, opening the individual value system to the experiments of alien reality. The long-running contemplation of inhuman reality as a desert represents a stance on metaphysics. The weight of our decisions in the desert are the moral responsibility of bare life; every metaphysics carries extreme implications for moral systems.
Plato told us that there is a perfect and sublime realm of pure forms, triangles, circles, concepts, and virtues, all complete and wholesome in the full light of the sun. Meanwhile human existence is a sad misrepresentation of the true reality, like shadows cast on the wall of cave, create by puppets and trifles in a flickering fire. The allegory of the cave inspires a long lineage of mathematicians, astronomers, and rationalists, all trying to wake up from the dream of this world so that they may see the true world in all its sublime glory. This effort to deny the significance of bodily life makes its way to the Rationalists, like Descartes and Spinoza. The rationalists insisted that a perfect reality lay outside the material reach of humanity, except through total conceptualization and pure reason.
Aristotle takes a more encyclopedic approach (an apt description of the method by William James). Describing the attributes of human experience, cataloging the ideas found in agreement, and attempting to summarize the most probable and consistent explanation for the full sum of human belief, Aristotle established the framework for the division of our major sciences. The lineage of Aristotle, ending with the British Empiricists, insist that the material perception of humanity is the only reality upon which we can base our judgements. Anything abstract is either self-evident, as the result of a system of abstract machines like 1+1=2, or they are generalizations of experience, hypotheses that must undergo continuous experimentation for validity.
Insisting on exclusively a priori grounds, Descartes builds out a moral system based on the perfection of axiomatization, aspiring to find God-given precepts as pure as mathematics. Descartes wants an ontologically self-evident deity, with a moral code as self-contained – in the absence of any believer – as Euclidean geometry. Insisting on exclusively a posteriori grounds, Hume insists that human nature and justice must arise from probability, experiments, and patterns.
As good literary critics, we must look to the context of these arguments and read between the lines. The foundations of metaphysics and physics, its implications for ontology and epistemology, these were the formal concerns of their arguments. Between the lines, the first modern philosophers were finding that the “pagans” of Rome and Greece were not so different from Europeans and that the divine right of kings ought not trump the sovereignty of individuals. On the one side, the rationalist denial of the validity of human life and the Christian attitude toward worldly pain and desire, whatever the intended consequences, had resulted in abuses of despotism, outlandish inequality, disposability of slaves and peasants, as well as a long series of wars, killing and torturing lives in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Hume’s skepticism laid out a groundwork for methodical naturalism that had terrible implications for personal beliefs about the burden of moral responsibility humanity bears. By what means do we justify enslavement, castration, starvation, domestication, or carnism – there is no grounds for any of these injustices without a social machine producing it. Empirical logic dictated that the ontological argument for a deity only gave the cosmos itself the name of God. All the injustices of human life, and many abuses against nature, originate in human prejudices, perpetuated by justifications provided by organized religion.
Hume awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and likewise startled into action all Western philosophy that followed. Hume stated, “All knowledge degenerates into probability.” Indeed, centuries of improvement in stochastic econometrics proves above all that the average human keeps economics and statistics as far away from their domesticated habits as they can. Probability of two united representations of the senses provide us with increasing certainty, but generalization of correlation into causality can only be an optimism bias imposed by the mind itself. Necessity, power, force, causal agency are thus projections of the mind superimposed on the consistent union of representations in the constant conjunction. Like heat, color, weight, sound, taste, and smell gain signification relative to the context of the Observer, Hume closes the book on generalization from certainty of probability. There is no cause and effect, nor causality and causal agency at all, only a probability we forecast and trust based on consistency of experience; “Anything may produce anything,” and by implication, any king, master, government, or religion who tells your otherwise are deluding you for the purposes of undeserved access to resources, labor, and moral hypocrisy.
Kant takes the extremes of the two approaches and attempts a “Copernican Revolution” by embracing both sides wholesale. Kant argues that the mind produces causality, not as a forecasted probability, but as a category of the mind itself. The representations of the senses, cause and effect, are all produced by the mind, as are space and time, but the mechanical determinism we see outside the mind tells us nothing about the freedom of the will “inside” the mind. The machine may look predetermined and predictable from the outside, reactive within a chain of causes and effects, but the ghost within this shell is free and moral. While causality is consistent beyond a reasonable doubt, the feeling of freedom of the will and moral valuation is likewise consistent beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, he argues, it must be the mind itself that adds everything other than freedom of will and pure reason to our representations of space, time, appearance, and causality. This lensing applies to the perception of other rational agents, and any of our interactions among intelligent beings, so their determinism and our freedom cannot contradict one another.
Based on this approach to bridging the gap between free will and determinism, Kant builds causal agency upon the synthesis of internally true freedom and externally apparent determinism. Without insisting on the rationalist freedom necessary for moral choices or insisting on the naturalist determinism necessary for moral consequences, Kant breaks the world in two. On one side of life we find the phenomena that the mind generates, but on the other side the mind builds this upon the numen of metaphysics, the thing-in-itself about which we can reach no conclusions. This separation is essential to the moral agency we take for granted anyway, because in a purely deterministic world we would have no ability to make choices, and therefore bear no burden of responsibility; while in a purely free world we would have no control over the outcome of our choices, and therefore bear no burden of responsibility. When we begin with the axiomatics of Western philosophy, it is only if we are both free to make choices and the world contains enough determinism to link our choices to consequences that we bear any moral responsibility for actions.
Kant short-circuits the arguments for either extreme by separating human reality from actual reality. This allows for the belief that each choice is its own causa prima without undermining our responsibility for the consequences in deterministic perception. However, this separation, and the postulated numen as a thing-in-itself devoid of human perceptions, built a wall between humanity and the metaphysical realm. The intended consequences of this mechanization lay in finding a logically necessary system of morals. The unintended consequences of this machination are precisely where philosophy finds its desert: a world of numen in which mind refuses to live.
While Kant placed a wall in the individual mind, separating the senses and intellect from the metaphysical reality of the thing-in-itself, Hegel takes this license into senseless material abstraction, under the premise that any narrow view of the material whole may find through its self-reflection the complete understanding of the whole.
Schopenhauer criticizes the entirety of Kant’s approach, saying that it is recycled Platonism. Ironically, it was only Kant’s popularity that drew so much attention to Hume’s methodological naturalist skepticism. Schopenhauer surveyed the full history available from multiple cultures for the first time since the fall of Rome, finding new insights in Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucius, and Taoism. In practice, Kant’s method was too convenient for the morality that submits to the prevailing ideology. If the creation of phenomena occurs in the mind of every self-conscious rational observer, and moral imperatives only apply to self-conscious intelligence, Kant’s prioritization of human valuation over the will expressed in all forms-of-life violated the principle of sufficient reason; instead, Schopenhauer argued our physical experience itself alienates us, the world of representation separates itself from the metaphysical will as a lonely expression of selfish altruism among the collective desire for consciousness.
The will was Schopenhauer’s thing-in-itself, and the will-to-live was far more coextensive than humans or civilization. In the world of will and representation, we experience thorough determinism of signs and even the choices we believe we make are representative interpretations of the movement of the one will; as generator of the forces driving all representational things. Finally, we arrive at the desert of Western philosophy. Stripping away the layers of representation, removing the system of values, both in concept and precept, and anything specific to the strategic goals of the human species, he lands upon the will by wandering into the desert, realizing the will cannot stop willing. Simply, being cannot stop becoming even throughout infinite revolutions and recurrence:
But let us suppose such a scene, stripped also of vegetation, and showing only naked rocks; then from the entire absence of that organic life which is necessary for existence, the will at once becomes uneasy, the desert assumes a terrible aspect, our mood becomes more tragic; the elevation to the sphere of pure knowing takes place with a more decided tearing of ourselves away from the interests of the will; and because we persist in continuing in the state of pure knowing, the sense of the sublime distinctly appears.
– Schopenhauer, World as Will and Idea Vol. 1
The inescapable desert of pure knowing led him to immense pessimism, and he believed even the honesty of systems like Stoicism and Buddhism were insufficient for this desert. At one point he articulates this as a conversation among two friends, one wishing to be certain of the eternity of the soul, the other explaining the foolishness of wanting such assurance. In the end, the two call each other childish and part ways with no resolution; this may have been the underlying insight of all his philosophy, that all representation is childish non-sense. The will-to-live expressed in any one life was helplessly biased, and only self-conscious intelligent humanity was fully aware of the terrible burden of moral responsibility implicit in the recurrence.
Supposing anyone agrees to the groundwork of the pessimistic view reacts in the negative, treating its conclusions with any level of anger, indignation, and indolence, where might such a warrior take his passion? For this we find Friedrich Nietzsche, ready to reject the asceticism of any collective religion. He paves the way for a new method of nihilist existentialism that requires individualist positivism. While religious systems had long founded their origins on the ideas of prophets spending their time in the desert, seeking the truth-in-itself, Nietzsche rejected the notion that anyone may meaningfully appropriate these insights from another.
Going even further than Feuerbach or Schopenhauer, Nietzsche deploys his powers of literary criticism to show how the organization of religions around the insights of prophets provides us with the opposite guidance exemplified by their embrace of the desert. We ought to echo these as free spirits, creating our own system of values, not follow blindly the dogma institutionalized complacency. Within the mechanization of an ideological, dogmatic, axiomatized belief system, built in the shadow of these warrior-philosophers, we find the machination of the priests and clerics who, too weak to spend their own time in the desert, prevent all others as well.
The only answer for Nietzsche is to run into the desert, like a camel that has escaped with its burden, shrug it off, become a lion, and battle the enormous dragon “Thou Shalt” so that one may become a child, making new games and values:
“In that the NEW psychologist is about to put an end to the superstitions which have hitherto flourished with almost tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul, he is really, as it were, thrusting himself into a new desert and a new distrust […] he finds that precisely thereby he is also condemned to INVENT—and, who knows? perhaps to DISCOVER the new.”
– Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil
Nietzsche sets the tone for the personal responsibility to become our own prophet in the desert, a warrior-philosopher far removed from the falsehoods of entrapment in the social machine. Albert Camus, who fought as a rebel during the Nazi occupation of France in WWII, took this moral responsibility as the essential meaning of human existence.
In the face of immense human suffering and depravity, surrounded by casualties of war and hopelessness actualized through countless suicides, Camus likewise found a desert in which we must fight for meaning and purpose. He called this desert the “absurd” – the self-consciousness speculative reality we experience, that is neither the material objects nor pure representation of mind. Representation distances us from the simple possibility that consciousness can distrust itself for some strategic reason; or that humanity repeatedly utilizes abstractions to justify murder. Therefore, we must revolt against the absurd and continuously fight for meaning.
It is here that the full history of philosophers rejecting naïve realism, with comprehensive skepticism that we may ever attain objectivity, finally reaches its absurd conclusion from the phenomenologists, that nothing is certain, “evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them!” The desert of the real is the end of the power of thought, a limitation few philosophers were willing to accept.
This inability to find justification in knowledge of reality forces the burden of responsibility for our actions on our own shoulders. Thought will not attain certainty of material determinism or spiritual unity. We can only look to other humans for the depravity of the absurd. The mechanization of institutionalized values, which machinate unintended consequences, should not become our complacent acceptance.
“At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there […] to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.”
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
When we reach this realization, that nothing human can be certain, that nothing behind or under perception justifies our life, pleasure, suffering, or death; this is where all the interesting and dramatic intricacies of systems of living representations occur.
The absurd is a desert of the mind, the distance or distortion that lies between what the material of the cosmos might be without representation in consciousness and signification by intelligence. The absurd is everything that painfully fails to make sense, such that we reject the validity of our senses, or even put an end to sensory experience. The revolt against this denial and delusion described by Camus, as well as the reality of our moral systems within the social machine, reflects the prophetic independence of Nietzsche’s warrior-philosopher.
Camus concludes that if the absurd is the quintessential defining attribute of human life, he must maintain the discipline of methodological naturalism in his authentic appraisal of the system: “I must sacrifice everything to these certainties and I must see them squarely to be able to maintain them. Above all, I must adapt my behavior to them and pursue them in all their consequences” (Ibid).
He likewise takes stock of the problem of re-valuation of all values and the cowardice to do so. While Nietzsche treats this fear with disgust, Camus treats it with empathy. The desert of the real, the fact that we and all those we love will die, that the world will forget us and everything we ever hoped or desired; to fear the reality of this supposition is only natural:
“But I want to know beforehand if thought can live in those deserts. I already know that thought has at least entered those deserts. There it found its bread. There it realized that it had previously been feeding on phantoms. It justified some of the most urgent themes of human reflection.” Ibid.
For Camus, there is no doubt of how difficult and terrifying it may be to reconsider everything once held valuable, meaningful, and true. An individual re-valuation of all values must proceed when we finally strip away the mechanization and machination that filter our reality. Our time in the desert reveals the alienation and denial that it has brought us, that we are party to the machine, and it prevents us from prioritizing with any lucidity or acumen.
Bertrand Russell summarizes the long-running battle for objectivity similarly in Some Problems of Philosophy, and the alienation it represents, saying, “If we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we shall be left alone in a desert — it may be that the whole outer world is nothing but a dream, and that we alone exist.”
Unfortunately, we have a new problem today. The same mechanization of general intellect implicit in capitalism is a machination that undermines virtuosity and moral responsibility. The interlinked supercomputers in our pockets free us to access more information than ever, but too much information too fast leaves us unable to find any significance in it. This is the decisive step in the process of alienation humanity pursued with the successive objects placed between us: tools, weapons, religion, governments, enclosure, property, currency, contracts, machinery, corporations, computers, the spectacle. The “war of all against all” described by Hobbes, the social machine can finally reduce our natural state of civil war to isolated individuals, so long as they carry their own chains of self-enslavement in their pocket.
We no longer find enclosure in the social machine mechanization of labor, we enclose the machination alienation within our personal machine. The spectacle and virtualization prevent us from reaching any desert of thought and any authentic life. In Simulacra & Simulation, Jean Baudrillard calls this problem hyperreality: “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” When social engineering precedes our understanding of rational normative valuation, when the full globalization of economic Oedipalization leaves us with no unaltered experience, we are only able to recognize patterns that Others created ahead of time for us to recognize.
Hyperreality is the universally unauthenticated life. It represents a loss of significance by managing all mystery ahead of time. We do not experience any event authentically because the genuine physicality experience is not the anchor, a virtual experience anchors us ahead of time. If we go camping, virtualization anchors us to what camping is and who campers are through movies, commercials, and social media. To be certain, this is not a new and unexpected result of technology, it is the very essence of technology. Where we once spent time in the desert to escape the representations of the social machine, now we recognize its total inescapability.
Philosophers once inspected the distinction between the world of the mind and the world the mind perceives, some claiming everything was virtual, others claiming everything was machines. Repeatedly, some dualism became established, such that our virtualization, though developed and enclosed by machines, we could feel confident we could escape them. Today our understanding of either loses its innocence, precisely because we finally know how to engineer the patterns. It is no longer a few power-hungry men and the herd instinct of the masses that develops the unintended consequences of our morality, we can no longer claim ignorance or escape. Today we are all party to the data, the algorithms are intentional, and intelligent people fight to manage or mismanage the collateral damage.
“The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory […] It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. – Baudrillard
Just as the chains of hyperreality prevent us from knowing the distinction between the real and the virtual, between our mechanization and our machination, the desert of the real is no longer a problem between us and material physicality, nor between us and the social machine. Now the absurd reality is within us. As we trace this lineage of the desert, we come full circle to the machines and automata from which self-consciousness attempted to distance us. The remainder of our philosophy will face the ethical and political dilemma in which we awake, to understand the moral weight of decisions, even if these we pursue in a dream within a dream, even if our awakening is only to another dream. We must establish what moral values ought to carry significance regardless of how deep in Plato’s cave we might be. Any mechanization that prevents this personal responsibility to life and existence is a machination.
Regardless of its original evolution, the intended consequence of formalization in written language was to bring humanity together. Abstraction became a powerful tool, trading on the currency of truth-values. Generalization allowed anchored, consistent existential instances to become probable patterns that we could exchange and test against reality. Once language became typography, the rules of grammar formalized and analyzed, and the lexicon of significations network into a matrix of signs, we realized the tool meant to bring us together resulted in our separation. The signs of language are simulacra, words that have definitions prior to our experience of an object. Together, full literacy creates a simulation of the world that we project upon it, distorting its significance. The signs of images in media do the same, so that instead of recognizing an object as a particularized word, we have experiences the name, the image, and the normative reactions of others in advance. Finally, we take all these simulations and place them on our own body, first in the pocket, then as wearable, with a goal to achieve further integration. Virtualization consumes us prior to any experience of reality.
Our time in the desert of the real means that we cannot look to a higher or lower plane of existence, or base our morality on the significance of rules outside ourselves. Now there are no rules outside us, only the axiomatization of our simulations, rules which we either manage or mismanage. For Schopenhauer, the desert was our capacity to resist the will and engage in pure simulation. For Nietzsche, the desert was the struggle to create new systems of significance and new patterns of understanding. For Camus, the desert was the absurd distance that alienates us from objectivity. In Baudrillard, we finally face our desert of the real, that the loss of any objectivity leaves everyone equally speculative, in a simulation we create and cannot escape. We are party to all the unintended consequences of the system and must build a better machine.