Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Null-O: How Philip K. Dick prophesied liberals' desire to destroy civilization

Warning: this post contains spoilers to the short story "Null-O" by Philip K. Dick. If you have aspirations of someday reading this story without knowing the plot in advance, read no further.

Philip K. Dick is not a writer one would expect a traditionalist to praise. He was married five times, had a lifelong history of drug abuse and wrote much of his work while under the influence of amphetamines, and late in life apparently experienced paranoia and "visions" which he believed were of divine origin. Yet his stories were so thought-provoking, his psychological insights so trenchant, that one cannot help but feel that he was a prophet of the postmodern era. He was exploring the themes of reality vs. unreality and how we can tell the difference decades before such ideas became popular in movies like The Matrix. (A few years ago I picked up a copy of The Philip K. Dick Reader and read most of the stories before checking the dates of publication. I was surprised to find that most were published as early as the 1950s.)

In the short story Null-O, Dick describes the rise of a group of mutant humans called Null-Os who are somehow inherently predisposed toward logical positivism and materialist reductionism. From the Null-Os' point of view, they are gifted in being able to realize the truth that the entire universe is nothing but a vast inchoate stew of subatomic particles and that therefore all distinctions and categories are meaningless. To this factual observation they add a moral imperative: those who realize this truth must actively work to eliminate all factually incorrect, illogical distinctions and categories, such as those that lead us to see, say, a chair as distinct object with its own existence instead of merely a collection of particles that happen to be in a certain configuration at a certain time. Thus, the Null-Os initiate a program of destroying everything: they will start with the Earth, then move on to our solar system, then the Milky Way galaxy, and ultimately, the entire universe.

How does this pertain to modern liberalism? Well, there are liberals and there are liberals. We traditionalists often criticize liberals for their belief in equality, severed from any particular cultural and historical context, as the highest good, and rightly so. The belief in the supremacy of equality is destroying our society, and a large measure of the impetus for this destruction comes from the belief in non-discrimination as a moral imperative. But there is another pernicious idea at work here: the belief in equality and non-discrimination as facts; indeed, as a left-liberal might put it, as scientific facts. In this view, the notion that generalizations are not valid, that there are really no such things as categories, is considered to be a simple, observable fact; one so well established that to doubt it is like doubting that the Earth revolves around the sun, deserving of the same scorn and indignation as geocentrism. I have seen this view made manifest in many online discussions: as soon as someone takes a non-liberal view and posits the existence of categories, or tries to apply a general rule, liberals will immediately blow up at him with vicious anger for being so stupid as to think that generalizations are at all possible.

For example, one might say that Muslims, with their belief in sharia, are not compatible with the Western world and therefore should not be allowed to live in it. A typical response to this would be that there are some "moderate" (i.e., liberal) Muslims who do not believe in sharia, no matter how small a minority they may be, and so to bar all Muslims from the West would be unfair to those few and therefore is unacceptable. This objection is problematic enough, being part and parcel of the liberal contempt for the very idea of a majority, and the willingness to give away our entire civilization so that a very tiny minority does not feel put upon. There is, however, a deeper, more insidious, nihilistic objection, which goes as follows: yes, there are some Muslims who believe in sharia and thus want to destroy Western civilization. They may even comprise the vast majority of Muslims. They may even comprise the entirety of the world's Muslim population, except for one lone Muslim who does not believe in sharia. But, because there is no such thing as transcendence, because all that exists are atoms, those Muslims' status as Muslims and their desire to destroy us have nothing to do with each other. The apparent association is merely a coincidence. Each individual Muslim who believes in sharia just happens to be a Muslim, and just happens to want to destroy us. Every case, no matter how much it appears to point to a general rule, is really a case of just happens. Therefore, it is wrong to bar a Muslim entry into our society even if he believes in sharia, because his desire to destroy us is really just an isolated, causeless desire to destroy us, no different from, say, Timothy McVeigh's desire to destroy us. Even if the Muslim himself thinks there is an association, there isn't.

This line of thinking is difficult to understand when applied to political or religious principles. Dick's Null-O's are chiefly concerned with physical reality, and his exposition of their thinking on this is clearer. Consider this passage from a scene where Lemuel, the Null-O boy the story is centered on, explains his philosophy to his friend Dr. North:

Lemuel indicated the apartment with a wave of his hand. "All these apparent objects--each has a name. Book, chair, couch, rug, lamp, drapes, window, door, wall, and so on. But this division into objects is purely artificial. Based on an antiquated system of thought. In reality there are no objects. The universe is actually a unity. We have been taught to think in terms of objects. This thing, that thing. When Null-O is realized, this purely verbal division will cease. It has long since outlived its usefulness."

"Can you give me an example, a demonstration?"

Lemuel hesitated. "It's hard to do alone. Later on, when we've contacted others... I can do it crudely, on a small scale."

As Dr. North watched intently, Lemuel rushed about the apartment gathering everything together in a heap. Then, when all the books, pictures, rugs, drapes, furniture and bric-a-brac had been collected, he systematically smashed everything into a shapeless mass.

"You see," he said, exhausted and pale from the violent effort, "the distinction into arbitrary objects is now gone. This unification of things into their basic homogeneity can be applied to the universe as a whole. The universe is a gestalt, a unified substance, without division into living and non-living, being and non-being. A vast vortex of energy, not discrete particles! Underlying the purely artificial appearance of material objects lies the world of reality: a vast undifferentiated realm of pure energy. Remember: the object is not the reality. First law of Null-O thought!"

So, to the Null-O, there is really no such thing as a chair. A chair is just a collection of atoms, all of which are indistinguishable from other atoms. A chair cannot be differentiated from a rug, because the carbon atoms in the cellulose that make up the chair are exactly the same as the carbon atoms in the wool that makes up the rug. Yes, they are oriented differently and bound in different configurations, but these differences are purely coincidental: they are not the way things have to be, there is nothing requiring them in the nature of the atoms themselves, and they are not permanent. A chair isn't really a chair, it's just a collection of atoms that just happen to be oriented in a particular way at a particular time. And it's therefore a great offense against nature and truth to speak of a chair as something real or as distinct from a rug.

Is this not the way the left speaks about human differences? Dick even has another Null-O who is working on a bomb to destroy the Earth say "Ultimately, we will unify the entire universe into a homogeneous mass." Sound familiar? Unifying the entire human race into a homogeneous mass is William Saletan's solution to the existence of racial differences in intelligence he has been forced to acknowledge. The Null-O's program of universal physical leveling is akin to the left's program of universal social leveling.

This line of thinking applies in so many other ways. For example, take racial intelligence differences. Even if the left comes to admit that these differences exist and are statistically significant, they may simply progress to the Null-O argument: that the differences are coincidental and meaningless. There is no such thing as a group called "blacks" and there is no such thing as a group called "people with an average IQ of 85." There is merely one individual who happens to have dark skin and be descended from African peoples, and who also happens to have an IQ of 85. Then there is merely a second person who happens to have dark skin and be descended from African peoples, and who also happens to have an IQ of 85... and so on. All higher truths, all categories, all generalizations, don't really exist and are meaningless.

Interestingly, though not all hard leftists are materialists, many are, and there is no real reason why their denial of differences, categories, and generalizations must stop at human society. What will happen once all humans are rendered totally equal? Is it really fair for there to be differences between humans and other animals? Between animals and plants? Between plants and rocks? Is there any reason to think that the left, if unchecked, will not eventually embrace Null-O and decide that the physical world must be leveled as well?

Obviously, this is the stuff of science fiction. In the story, the Null-Os' plan to destroy the world is foiled by, as Dick describes them, "The lower forms of human life: clerks, bus drivers, day-laborers, typists, janitors, tailors, bakers, turret lathe operators, shipping clerks, baseball players, radio announcers, garage mechanics, policemen, necktie peddlers, ice cream vendors, door-to-door salesmen, bill collectors, receptionists, welders, carpenters, construction laborers, farmers, politicians, merchants--the men and women whose very existence terrified the Null-O's to their core." Or, with the exception of politicians, the men and women whose very existence terrifies the modern left to their core. Will ordinary people ever rise up and overthrow our real-life Null-O's before they destroy us? I believe they will, but it remains to be seen how bad conditions must become before that happens.


Omphale said...

I just watched 'Blade Runner' again (the theatrical release); I hadn't seen it since high school. I'm not much of a sci-fi buff, but I plan to read more of Philip K. Dick's works.

Generally, I think, the artist and the art are separate: one can be a scoundrel and still produce good art. Poe, for example, was unable to hold down a job, and was addicted to absinthe and alcohol, but wrote some great stuff. Einstein treated his wives horribly, but was a great scientist.

Off topic: Once you are out of med school and have time to read, you might enjoy the book
'Alcohol and the Writer' by Donald W. Goodwin, MD. He's a physician and explores the relationship between alcoholism and writing by focusing on several prominent American writer-alcoholics (including Poe, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and others). I found it fascinating. He writes about the biochemical aspects of alcoholism and goes into detail about their drinking and writing patterns and how they intersected. From a medical perspective, you may find this interesting.

eldritch said...

You mentioned this post last year - and it was worth the wait.

Dick was a prophet. Null-0 took the fancy name of deconstruction. Everything must be broken down - the West and the concept of Logos especially.

Though there is an equalising force in modern liberalism, there is also 'diversity'. Maybe the 'diversity' is useful only inso far as it assaults the mind and spirit and leads to a chaotic, undistinguished mess (kipple and ubiq). The distraction's of Perky Pat's layouts = on-line gaming. While actual reality, with PKD's California leading the way, gets more overpopulated and degraded.

Null-O is like the philosophy of the Inner Party in 1984. Everything must be broken down into pure power. Orwell via Winston Smith put his hope's in the proles - but was pessimistic. Dick put his hope in working people - and in this story he appears more hopeful.

leadpb said...

Fascinating post. As I read along I kept thinking "Gee, this sounds familiar". Familiar in the sense that similar viewpoints that attempt to 'transcend' subjective choice can emanate from religion as well. Buddhism and Taoism in particular point to an underlying synthesis of All, where everything is connected and our everyday experience of life is shown to be but one small section of a much wider, deeper spectrum.

The contemplation of such notions is healthy only on a spiritual plain. One can make the argument that everything we know physically, and perhaps even mentally, can be reduced to the atomic "happens to be" level. But to incorporate this realization into one's outlook and everyday life can be expected to result in a disturbance of the psyche and, ultimately, of the subject society.

ben tillman said...

...there is no real reason why their denial of differences, categories, and generalizations must stop at human society.

You are absolutely right.

ben tillman said...

The belief in the supremacy of equality is destroying our society, and a large measure of the impetus for this destruction comes from the belief in non-discrimination as a moral imperative. But there is another pernicious idea at work here: the belief in equality and non-discrimination as facts; indeed, as a left-liberal might put it, as scientific facts.

Ultimately, don't they have to argue that discrimination is factually wrong? Discrimination is an essential basis of life. Immunology, in fact, has been described as the science of self/ nonself discrimination. When you think in those terms, it becomes obvious that the result of anti-discrimination "laws" will be the same as the result of AIDS. So, we get an argument that we're all the same, that there is no self.

leadpb said...

ben tillman says

"So, we get an argument that we're all the same, that there is no self."

That is an interesting proposition, but does it not run contrary to modern liberalism's obligation to actualize the autonomy (feminism, etc) of each member of society? Besides, no self, no tax base.

It may be more a matter of recognizing the impossibility of satisfying the goals of post-modern universalism, which is now slowly happening thanks to the Internet, and placing some hope in the idea that each self has the potential to challenge its morbid hegemony.

oskar said...

in sweden, we leftists acuse liberals for their denial of categories and generalisations.

the main battle here is between leftists/socialdemocrats and rightwing liberals.