Emily Nussbaum is very smart and a good critic, and in particular she is right that the women on True Detective are paper thin.
But she is genuinely wrong about Rust Cohle! He is not “a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti.” He is instead a taut, precise rendering of an extremely specific Online Type of Guy from around 2014. I am not the first person to notice this! Emily Nussbaum probably doesn’t know this type of guy because she does not spend time on Less Wrong.
This type of guy has a set of stock-positions. Those positions are probably correct. The problem is that if you believe them you will go insane. And that is the plot of True Detective!
It is an interesting fact that if you ask non-philosophers about Rust, they dismiss it as adolescent, but if you ask actual philosophers, they say Rust is basically right about things but you just can’t live that way.
Let’s do a rundown.
One: sustained human identity over time is an illusion.
First, let’s describe the typical view of human identity: there is a sustained person who was you yesterday and will be you tomorrow, such that the future person can be reasonably held morally accountable for the past person, since they’re the same person.
We can put that in Cartesian terms: There are your experiences (what it is like to be you). Some of these experiences are happening right now, some of them happened before, and some of them will happen in the future. Then there is you, the person who is having those experiences, who had the previous experiences that you remember and will have the experiences you anticipate, and who responds to those experiences through actions: your actions, for which you are morally accountable. Seems sensible. What’s the problem with it?
Well it’s bullshit; that’s the problem with it.
Who the fuck is this you person? All you know is that there are experiences right now. It’s not a theatre; there is not a separate performance and audience. There is only the experience itself. There is no evidence of anything but experience, of any watcher in the water, because being experience is constitutive of and coextensive with being evidence.
So why does it feel so strongly like there is a “me” who has my experiences?
Well, let me tell you a plausible story. These experiences that exist are informed by several physiological systems. For example, one of those systems is called “vision.” It includes the optic nerve and the visual cortex, and it helps your present experience to be informed by the presence of electromagnetic waves in your vicinity. A more interesting example is called “memory.” It includes the hippocampus and the amygdala and it helps your present experience be informed by your body’s past neurological activity.
This “memory” causes a relationship between your current experiences and the past experiences of a body that shared many atoms with the body you inhabit.
And the memory system also makes you feel like you could be having other experiences than the ones you’re having. After all, you remember having other experiences. Ergo, you get the notion that there is a you who was having some experiences before and is now having different experiences later.
But this is an illusion. Yes, memory odes suggest that different experiences could exist than the experiences you’re currently having. But that doesn’t mean you could be having different experiences, the same as the fact you and I both exist doesn’t suggest that you could have different experiences than the ones you’re having.
Your memories don’t have anything to do with former experiences at all; they are the product of physical information storage in physical space. The connection between “past you” and “present you” isn’t that present-you can hear the reflections of past-you’s experiences through remembering them. It’s that past-you took actions that physically manifest in your present memory systems that affect your experiences right now. But this connection is just a physical relationship between two physical phenomena, with ship-of-Theseus type differences between them. It is not a metaphysical connection between two different experiential states. I find it plausible that the two experiential states (you and past-you) bear a family resemblance, but that’s just speculation.
One tends to believe in a deeper connection than the merely physical one between one’s past and one’s present. You want to believe it was really you who experienced 2019, the same you who’s currently experiencing 2022. But what is really the connection beyond the physical memories? Is there really, deep down, a you which is shared between your past and your present?
Probably not. For example, suppose that while, physically, you travel forward in time, your consciousness travels backwards in time. First it experiences 2023, then 2022, then 2021. So, experientially speaking, you’ve already finished 2023, and you’ll start 2021 in one year’s experiential time from today. Only, in 2021, you’ll have no memories of 2022, only memories of 2020, because memory is a product of the *physical* connection that follows the chain of causation from past to future, not the *experiential* connection that flows from future to past.
But, in this example, what is this experiential connection that has nothing to do with memory? What is this thing that’s being borne ceaselessly into the past? We do think there is something there, but it’s hard to put our finger on it. How can we flesh out this intuition of an intrinsic connection between past self, present self, and future self into something coherent?
The answer is that there is no answer. Personal identity is an illusion.
There are some other connections between your past/future self and your present self that inspire your intuition that personal identity is real.
- Your past self behaves basically the same way you’re currently disposed to, because mammals are more or less consistent, just like thermostats or rivers. So, your past performance is very informative of your presence character.
- Your past self is pretty bad at lying to you, so you know a lot about them.
- You have gotten into the habit of doing things as a favor to your future self (like saving money)
- Other people will hold your future self accountable for things that you are doing right now and use the same name for you across time and in general treat present you and future you as indistinguishable. For example, they might, as a favor to present-you, buy a gift to give to future-you.
Those are all very intimate connections that you have with yourself across time. But they probably aren’t enough to support things like “guilt” or “innocence.” At least, not in the way we might like.
As an example, suppose you had an identical twin. You were inseparable. You could pretty much always tell what the other was thinking. You behaved in extremely similar ways, and you were incredibly altruistic toward each other.
One day, you and your twin are going to fly to Sicily, but at the gate a technical issue prevents you from going. You tell your twin to go anyway, and she does.
While in Sicily, your twin gets a gelato in a picturesque seaside town. The gelato is delicious. In fact, it’s so delicious that when your twin sees a child get its foot caught on a buoy and begin thrashing in the water, your twin decides, instead of saving the child, to finish the gelato first. Afterward, your twin takes a stretch, undresses, carefully folds her clothes, and dives in to help the child. But then it’s too late.
You hear about it. You realize that, given the connection between you and your twin, you probably would have done just the same. You vividly imagine the town and the child from your many trips to the same place. You imagine so accurately that your daydreams might as well be memories. So, you feel horribly, horribly guilty; you are permanently haunted by the child that more-or-less you allowed to die.
Now instead suppose you don’t have a twin. Rather, you have a lot of good friends. On your birthday, your friends take you to a bar and egg you on into getting roaringly blackout drunk – something you never do. You have a great evening, and, in your stupor, you decide you’ll be fine to drive. You’re not fine to drive, and you careen into a family’s SUV, killing a child.
From then on, you know never to get drunk again. You’re a very resolute person so you know you really won’t. Accordingly, you don’t feel guilty at all.
So the two people in these stories have not had normal reactions. We would be perplexed by the former and horrified by the latter. But our response is really a little silly. In reality, the behavior of the Sicily-going-twin was much more informative of the disposition of the stateside-twin than the behavior of the drunk-self was informative of the behavior of the sober-self. So if guilt is about learning bad things about your current character through your past actions, the twin has much more to be guilty about. Also note that memory basically can’t distinguish the first story from the second.
What instead makes us feel the drunk driver ought to feel guilty while the stateside twin ought not is that the drunk driver actually killed someone.
But like that only really makes sense if we believe in this illusion of sustained identity over time.
This is the source of Rust’s attitude toward guilt, and shame, and pride, and love. It’s not that he thinks they’re wastes of time, or self-absorbed. They are fundamental errors about the nature of personal identity.
This is all implied through like two, three throwaway lines that I’m not going to find for you because you should really watch the show.
Two: Hard Atheism
I am sure you are familiar with the arguments for and against the existence of God, so I am not going to bore you with them. But this Type of Online Guy is always, like Rust, a hard, hard atheist (except! Watch the show!). This is probably because the golden age of the blogosphere was just one long fight over whether God exists.
Two Point Five: Really Hating Divine Command Theorists
If you looked at SSC comment sections from like 2010-2015 you would basically OD on people bitching at the religious for not wanting to go to Hell.
Three: the B theory of time
Remember that scene where Rust crushes the beer can? Literally such a sick scene. But also a big thing in philosophy called the B theory of time.
Weirdly, in the show this is referred to as “membrane theory” which is an unrelated interpretation of quantum physics.
Yeah so the idea is that while we feel that there is a “past” and then a “present” and then a “future,” it’s probably simpler to see “now” as only special because it is the time that we currently happen to inhabit, the same way that 42nd Street is special when you happen to be at Grand Central, even though it’s not actually any more real than 131st. It’s just where you happen to be.
[note: I am not entirely convinced of the B theory, but this very specific Type of Guy really are always B theorists. See: the sequences]
So what’s the deal with the beer can? Well, think of each point on the circle that outlines the cylinder of the can as a piece of matter. As you walk from the bottom of the beer can to the top, that’s analogous to the way that matter moves through space over time. Each circular slice of the beer can is analogous to a moment in time. Now crush the beer can; you see all the time slices superimposed over each other.
Why does the B theory matter? Well, morally, we tend to be much more bothered about future suffering than past suffering, even if it’s out of our control.
Think of how we tend to regret things we did that caused us to have a good time in the past but fucked us over going forward, while we excitedly anticipate future pleasures that we made big sacrifices for.
If you see “the past” and “the future” as fundamentally equivalent to “to my left” and “to my right” then those inclinations become very silly. There is no reason I should see the future as oncoming and the past as gone. Therefore, our present feelings should be symmetrical about future happinesses and past happinesses. But then it’s kind of hard to give a shit about anything.
[and also we should basically not care about future happiness or past happiness for ourselves any more than we care about the happiness of other people, because personal identity is an illusion]
Three Point Five: The B Theory of Time and the Eternal Recurrence
So if you believe in the B theory of time then a sort of natural corollary is that the eternal recurrence that Nietzsche toyed with as a thought experiment (not as a theory!) is true in a very literal sense. Even the tiniest moment is eternal because the flow of time is essentially illusory.
Note: this type of highly online guy is generally not way into Nietzsche, or generally any historical philosopher other than maybe Hume and Epictetus.
Four: Wanting to Die
Rust says he wants to die but is just too cowardly to kill himself. Is this just a cool line that’s fundamentally vapid? Maybe. But roll with me for a second.
Have you ever experienced real suffering? Seems like yes. How stoked would would you be if you could drift off into sleep as a way of avoiding real suffering? Separately, have you ever experienced happiness? How different was it from peace? What if, when you were so happy, you drifted off into sleep? How bummed would you be about that?
One reasonable answer would be, “I would not be that bummed if I drifted off to sleep when having a good time. In fact, I like drowsy days at the beach. However, I would be super stoked if I could drift off into sleep to escape pain.” However, if that is your answer, then maybe your life is fundamentally suffering and you should kill yourself. After all, drowsy days at the beach are a decent approximation of death, so if you like them, maybe you’d like to be dead.
For me I think this is a bit of an open question. I do like drowsy beach days, but I also like the way that bananas taste, and bananas are very different from death.
But this very specific Type of Guy does often tend to view life as suffering, which is may why so many are attracted to Buddhism/meditation. No surprise that Rust meditates, is it?
This follows naturally from seeing existence as suffering.
Interestingly, lots of this type of Highly Online Guy are actually not anti-natalists, but instead want to make sure that some day there are like 60 trillion orgasming robots pasting over the solar system.
Something something character development; something something dead daughter.
Six: Property Dualism
At one point in the car, Rust notes that man, as sentient meat, obeys evolutionary programming, but does not follow nature’s laws. There’s also the line about the locked room and the line about being a biological puppet. I read this as suggesting property dualism; that conscious entities have experience, facts about which are irreducible to facts about physical science, even though people’s physical behavior is driven by physical laws. Not necessarily epiphenomenalism!
Again, very common among these online guys. Robin Hanson is an exemplar.
This belief is not as miserable as the others. I am a happy property dualist!
There’s like a throwaway line where Rustyboy notes that he’s a big believer in studying the evolution of cultural forms basically the same way you would study biological evolution. Very, very hip among this type of Online Guy.
Nine: Various Personal Behaviors
The pull-up bar. The r/MaleLivingSpace apartment. The Jameson. The Psychedelics. LMAO to all.