This Inscrutable Light: A Response to Thomas Ligotti’s “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”, by Brandon H. Bell

Everyone who reads this magazine probably knows who Thomas Ligotti is, and if you haven’t read his book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (a non-fiction work), you really should.  The article below is broken up into 8 simple (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) titled sections that explore Ligotti’s assertions in TCATHR, providing enough background for readers who have not read TCATHR. The thrust of the article is one of appreciation for Ligotti’s genius while challenging his conclusions via what is intended to be both a provocative and unexpected method of contrasting his philosophical pessimism with that of religious fundamentalism, positing an optimistic atheistic counter to Ligotti’s position. The secular article uses this contrast along with copious quotes and examinations of the concepts covered, and holds surprising positive content for non-dogmatic religious believers and nonbelievers alike.


“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?”  –Soren Kierkegaard, Fear & Trembling

A Nobody’s Recollection on Supernatural Horror

I first encountered Ligotti in Douglas Winter’s anthology, Prime Evil. The story, Alice’s Last Adventure to my mid-teenage assessment, was Okay. I enjoyed Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity and The Juniper Tree better. Nonetheless, by the time I read Nethescurial in Weird Tales, I’d come across the news that Ligotti was the next big thing in Horror (soon after that, Robert McCammon jumped ship along with a bunch of folks playing Nietzsche to the genre.)

I picked up Songs of a Dead Dreamer and understood the hubbub. Even as horror was pronounced dead, here arrived a writer working very much in the weird tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, who yet refrained (most of the time) from bogging down in a morass of words or simply regurgitating tales of the type of monsters that now bear the label Lovecraftian. Ligotti wrote fictional lectures on Horror as horror stories. He wrote from a conceptual space, informed by a jaundiced perception of the universe. Not satisfied with parroting a milieu or method, Ligotti posited a cosmos not merely indifferent and filled with things vast and harmful, but one pernicious in its malignancy. His was a world filled with bad, be it sentient, instinctual, or the simple state of things, that tended to both awareness of and animosity toward humankind.

This is better, my younger self concluded.

By the time I finished Grimscribe, I came to a realization about Ligotti’s work: though often brilliant, sometimes florid, it existed in THAT universe. The tone didn’t vary. It addled the brain when consumed like I would writer’s work back then: reading everything they’d written to the exclusion of all else. The effect could be intoxicating.

I’m not interested in carrying the topic of Ligotti’s fiction much further. It’s good stuff, and if you haven’t read it you should.  Instead it is his recent nonfiction book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, that has me excited. I’d like to do something more audacious than I have any right to do, and offer an answer to Ligotti.

I recommend reading The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (TCATHR). The reader should be warned about this real-life King In Yellow: a work of such unremitting bleakness that will lay ruin to all that you hold dear… If you are not prepared to answer Ligotti.

When I first heard about TCATHR I thought, based on my previous reading, that I knew the sort of claims he’d make. I also suspected that mine was an uncommon philosophical position from which to call Ligotti. Call as in, I’ll meet your fiver and raise you ‘all in.’ It is all in, too, because Ligotti’s charge is a simple one.

What worth is life?

Mr. Ligotti’s answer is: nothing. In fact, life is not worth living.

Once I read the book, I took a deep breath and considered his positions. I noted a lack of actual responses to the charges Ligotti makes of existence. In looking through the reviews of the book, all that I found fell into three basic positions:

1. Ligotti’s got it right! I ‘get it’ too!

2. Ug, I read this? and

3. Waste of time except as a key for understanding his work.

No one I’ve noted has offered a considered answer to Ligott’s claims. I’d like to do that here, and I don’t need a whole book to do it. Like his fiction, TCATHR soars into brilliance only to get bogged down in the nihilism it seeks to espouse. Toward the end of the book, in all caps, the author, I guess you might say ‘exclaims,’ “EVERYTHING IN EXISTENCE IS MALIGNANTLY USELESS!”

Whoa there, kimosabe.

I will summarize Ligotti’s claims, then outline different ways we may view existence. Last we’ll look at how we’d answer Ligotti from those alternate positions and I’ll conclude with what I feel is the most robust answer.

This is perhaps The Question in one’s existence. If the reader carries this into conversation elsewhere, I’ll consider this a success. In particular, I’d like to offer a rationale for those folks who find themselves unable to latch on to the ‘Revealed Truth exists’ position I’ll describe below, but remain of the mindset that life is worth living.

Oh, and a few notes on my approach. Like Ligotti, I’m no philosopher, and while I’m happy to draw from those sources, I don’t claim to use my terms with the rigor expected of a philosopher. Due to the nature of some of Ligotti’s claims, I address him on a level I would typically consider off-limits. This is not an attack on the man, but rather an argument based on facts at hand and the position he takes. My belief is that Ligotti is a sentient being who yearns for happiness and wishes not to suffer. I fear one day I will pick up the paper and find he made good on his pronouncement about the value of life. That would be a tragedy. Ligotti speculates that pessimism may be chemically ordained: something one may not overcome. It is also conceivable that pessimism is a coping mechanism like any other belief system, and shouldn’t be overcome.

That acknowledged, let’s begin.

The Truth Positions

Position One: There is no revealed truth. Whatever the nature of existence, no one is talking, there may not be anyone to talk, and it is up to us to determine a functional definition of truth… or not. That too is up to us.

Position Two: There is a Revealed Truth. All questions are answered and there is no ambiguity, or what little their might be are matters of degrees/ denominational choices. One could reject the Revealed Truth but one would be wrong.

Position Three: There is Truth but it is not revealed. There is no way we can be certain to know this Truth. Our conclusions are inferences only. There are reasons we infer this Truth that remains unrevealed.

Position Four: Truth exists but there is no Revelation per se; it is revealed via experience. Some process or set of processes or practices lead to an understanding of truth. Truth, in this understanding, is not a belief, but an experience or the results of the fore-mentioned process/practice.

Ancillary to the Four Positions: I decide the Truth (or lack thereof), and so do you.

Ligotti’s Assertions

– Consciousness is an existential liability, and the source of all horror and suffering, due to the awareness of sickness, suffering, and death.

– Life, the Universe, and everything is MALIGNANTLY USELESS. All caps on that one, every time.

– Through various tactics, we are actors in the biological conspiracy against ourselves, compelling us to believe that life is worth living.

– We are not real. Consciousness fools us into believing that we are real instead of a puppet of our biology. We are akin to supernaturally animate puppets, who believe themselves real.

– Life is not worth living.

– Because existence is composed of suffering (mostly) procreation may rightly be deemed an act of violence against the unborn.

– And, all this in mind, the human race should stop procreating, at least, or perhaps engage in a species-wide suicide.

These points are paraphrased, but present the essence of Ligotti’s assertions.

Both Ligotti and the author of the foreword, Ray Brassier, make short order of the most obvious objection to Ligotti, that the mere act of writing is a life-affirming action in contradiction to his stated position. Essentially, Ligotti is mired in the same condition and, thus functioning, cannot be faulted for maneuvering that condition with whatever coping mechanisms at his disposal, especially if they shed light on our predicament.

Fair enough, but this is where the crack in his doctrine begins.

Jesus loves me?

“The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair. —Joseph Campbell

Ligotti presents the writing of Richard Double, Thomas Metzinger, and other cognitive psychologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists to make the argument that we are acting out “the tragedy of the ego” as mechanistic simulations of personhood.

In an aside of sorts, we are told in TCATHR that no one can really, fully be a determinist and remain sane. It is a constant hedging that grows tiresome.

I don’t have the time, space, or expertise to adequately cover the state of the art in cognitive theory. Peter Watts gives a great treatment of these ideas in his first-contact novel, Blindsight, and mentions Metzinger’s Being No One as the toughest book he’s ever read. In his Blindsight notes, Watts briefly and in lively fashion describes Metzinger’s hypothesis about the subjective sense of self and why ego would emerge in cognitive systems like us homosapiens. Watts suggests it would be easier to list those who haven’t tried to explain consciousness, and mentions theories from diffuse electrical fields, quantum puppet shows, and a range of conjectured physical locations of consciousness in the brain.

The question to Watts is: What good is consciousness? He provides examples where consciousness is effectively kept out of the decision process because it just isn’t as good at it (think of that drive home you can barely remember, and you have an example of this from everyday life.) Aesthetics might be an exception, an area where self-awareness is needed. Interesting, given Ligotti’s own sense that aesthetics represent a valid domain. But the cost of sentience? It may ultimately be that of extinction because aesthetics entails the ability to gain unearned rewards. Negative feedback loop.

It is, to my mind, a reductionist take on our situation as sentient beings, but when posed as a question of evolutionary adaptiveness, over Ligotti’s “Is life worth living?”/EVERYTHING IS MALIGNANTLY USELESS conceptual dyad, it is a more anchored and useful meditation on the subject. This idea of sentience as evolutionary liability is not new to readers of fantastic fiction (the Shaper-Mechanist stories from Bruce Sterling spring to mind, among others) and I suspect we’ll see more populist explorations of these ideas to come.

Ligotti cites valid sources. The function of consciousness is a valid talking point. To be clear: I don’t suggest a denial of the truths Metzinger and others like him discover. That consciousness is an emergent system, as opposed to a pit at the center of our individual avocados, is very likely true. Metzinger suggests a naive realism is our nature, but also says that we “can wake up from our biological history.”

Whatever our nature as sentient beings, cogito ergo sum. Furthermore, Ligotti never suggests the ultimate hell of being, that of solipsism. And he bases his affront at existence on the endless suffering of sentient beings.

The suffering is real. The sufferers are not.

This is meaningless.

Whatever systems give rise to these sufferers, within that system they are functionally real. We are real. Or, we are no more or less real than anything else.  I invoke the law of the excluded middle. One could still say: the suffering is not real, and neither are we. I don’t agree, but it would at least be a logical position. It would make meaningless a statement like EVERYTHING IS MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Since we all, including Ligotti, believe in the reality of the suffering, then let us acknowledge this fallacy in the position that we are fake but our suffering is real.

What about warrantability? Most of what we regard as warranted is little more than things that we believe, like ‘Jesus loves me’ or EVERYTHING IS MALIGNANTLY USELESS. We can believe these things, but they are hard to prove, which relates back to our positions on revealed truth. I find a similar failure when talking about correspondence tests for the truth. The faithful Christian will say “Of course Jesus loves me,” and Ligotti will say EVERYTHING IS MALIGNANTLY USELESS. Both speak with equal conviction, and with assurances to their cogency. And both views (and many others besides) would pass a coherence test, even though they are diametrically opposed views and thus they cannot both be true. Warrants, correspondence, and coherence tests don’t help us much in this dialog.

When faced with a truth test based on pragmatism, though, the Ligotti position does not fare well. We could cite various pursuits that a reasonable person would deem worthwhile, and even Ligotti would agree that creative works appealing to a sense of aesthetics have validity and worth, and on this basis we can say that living as though today were the day, as Nietzsche said—as though we have work to do and a purpose to fill—carries with it a pragmatism that Ligotti’s pessimism lacks.

In Search of…

Any of the Truth positions could take a pessimistic, ambivalent, or optimistic mode. Ligotti’s is a pessimistic Position One (no revealed Truth.) For many readers, the conversation ended with the list of his assertions. These ideas are idiotic and wrong at a glance. This stance is particularly bolstered by a Position Two on the Truth question (there is a Revealed Truth.) These folks are often followers of a religious tradition, fundamentalist in their interpretation, though other backgrounds are conceivable. The defining characteristic of this mode is belief that one has access to Truth as revealed by an ultimate Source or Ground of Being. Typically this is God, Allah, Brahma, though nontheists like some of the more strident Nichiren Buddhist and more dualistic eastern traditions could fall under this mode.

These folks have found the Truth. They have the answers to the questions of the universe, provided them via a holy text or texts of divine origin. Perhaps some have living prophets who speak on behalf of the Absolute. Such a position, Ligotti notes, reflects the multifarious nature of Truth despite our tendency to believe Truth a monolithic thing. I don’t believe a revealed Truth exists, or at least it has not yet been revealed. But for the person who does, all this talk adds up to so much belly gazing and liberal pessimism.

And yet, Ligotti’s book was a finalist for the 2010 Bram Stoker awards, signifying that at least some significant portion of the community aware of nonfiction works related to the horror genre, considered this book among the most important of the year. Ligotti’s oeuvre to date suggests his place among writers like Lovecraft, Poe, and Beckett is assured. Ligotti has called us all on our ensnarement in a world of becoming and unbridled desire. Ligotti is, on these points, absolutely correct. If you have a Revealed Truth, then lucky you. You can toss aside this dour read and pursue some other pastime.

Position Three on Truth says there is a Truth, but it has not been revealed. Functionally no different than Position One, but for one odd quirk a human being is capable. Faith. This is the faith of the Gnostic perhaps, the liberal Christian, Jew, or Muslim. It is the faith of the theist who claims no specific religious ties. This person of faith acknowledges the human origin of the given holy book (thus no revelation) but uses it nonetheless as a guide for living. She has faith, while knowing there is no way to know or to prove the object of worship is real or True. Some might say that it is the act of faith that matters.

This is, in my estimation, the most defensible western religious mode, when applied to one’s self and one’s life. When coupled with an evangelical zeal, it morphs into the most grating. Those folks think they’ve found the Truth, and think you should find the same. Because there really is no revealed Truth (unlike Ligotti, I will cry foul on the idea of unending relativism [which I understand is contradictory on the surface as I declare ‘there is no Revealed Truth,’ but bear with me…]) all traditional religious people fall into the type three position. Some of them just don’t know it.

Finally Position Four suggests there is a Truth, but it is revealed through experience. Here is the Buddhist path, where belief is only ever a raft to cross a river or stream, but not the destination. Truth is ephemeral, subjective, and given more to heuristics than commandments. Truth is not easy. But along that path lies the solution to suffering and its causes.

Carl Sagan’s might be a good example of an optimistic Position One. No revealed Truth, and yet his perception of the universe, its beauty, served him.

Ligotti says of Truth:

“Renowned for stating his convictions in the form of a paradox, as above, Chesterton, along with anyone who has something positive to say about the human race, comes out on top in the crusade for truth. (There is nothing paradoxical about that.) Therefore, should your truth run counter to that of individuals who devise or applaud paradoxes that stiff up the status quo, you would be well advised to take your arguments, tear them up, and throw them in someone else’s garbage.

Ligotti here refers to the tendency of human optimists, in this case a Christian apologist, to treat logic as secondary, irrelevant, or as a liability, and once Truth is reached via paradox, metaphor, faith, intuition, or a myriad other contrivances, the conversation is at a close. Through inference, Ligotti may also suggest that logic followed without sentimentalism or irrational thought-structures would lead one to a pessimistic conclusion. Ligotti, while claiming a Pessimistic Position One (no Revealed Truth) in fact exposes himself as a Position Four seeker (Truth exists but is not Revealed except through experience) who has lapsed in the face of Revelation into a Position Two believer (Revealed Truth exists.)

I think he said ‘yo mama.

“The unconscious is always the fly in the ointment, the skeleton on the cupboard of perfection, the painful lie given all idealistic pronouncements, the earthliness that clings to our human nature and sadly clouds the crystal clarity we long for. In the alchemical view, rust, like verdigris, is the metal’s sickness. But at the same time this leprosy is the vera prima materia, the basis for the preparation of the philosophical gold. —Carl Jung, Dreams

We divided up our positions in our conversation with Ligotti based on the question: “Is there a Revealed Truth?” It would have been obvious to readers of TCATHR to instead ask, “Is life worth living?” and to general seekers after Truth (at least in the West), “Does God exist?” and perhaps secondarily, “Does He [sic] love us?”

Critically examined, our four categories have a problem, don’t they?

There is no Revealed Truth. Fair enough.

There is a Revealed Truth. Also fair.

There is a Truth but it is not Revealed. Ligotti won’t be the only one to roll his eyes. Basically here stands Chesterton and his derision of logic. Here is the faith that Christians speak of (the honest ones, at least.) We are prevaricating, our language lacks precision, our thoughts are not cogent. I suggest the stance is different enough from the certainties of the first two positions to warrant consideration. Even though so many who advocate for the position, as they become ‘stronger in their faith’ grow to believe that along with their faith, hope, and charity, they also received the Bat Phone.

Last there is Truth, but it is not Revealed and found only through practice. The objection is: if the Truth exists, at some point it is found. And thus we have our Revealed Truth and no need for a separate category. I suggest a different understanding of what Truth means gives rise to validity. This understanding of truth is purely experiential. The path may be defined but not the experience. The map written, but the journey must be undertaken by each who would have understanding. And that understanding is only ever provisional, incomplete, and never quite the encompassing Truth with a capital T that the first two positions deny or proclaim.

Ligotti never comes right out an states as much, but from his criticism of Chesterton’s flippancy toward logic, it is fair to infer that Ligotti views himself as a champion of logic in the question of ‘Is life worth living?’ Using logical deduction, studying the work of others who seem to see what he also perceives, and applying the true-state experience of the depressed mind, Ligotti has followed a path leading to Revelation. Ligotti holds the Truth of the entire universe. He has dropped anchor, as all believers are wont, and after some consideration as to its merits, chosen to share with the world the Truth that he has found.

Now read that last paragraph over again with this understanding: not sarcastic in tone and written by a man that is no believer in any theological dogma; who is, in fact, an atheist.

I no more agree with Chesterton than I do with Ligotti but I will give Chesterton this much more credit over Ligotti: though he may be the sort that evangelises a doctrine he surmises to be True (something I have nothing but contempt for) on the face of it he at least realizes that logic cannot justify his position. Ligotti contrariwise would have us believe that he exposes the meat grinder Truth. There is no path ahead, there is no uncertainty, and there is no room for disagreement with this John the Baptist of Pessimism. One cannot argue or disagree with Ligotti’s position without essentially proving his premise, that we are unwitting automata working against our own best interest—aka our annihilation.

Because, recall, Ligotti believes himself to be a wooden puppet, come to life: a ‘not real’ thing, realizing itself in the stage of horror that is consciousness. As a Buddhist, I don’t believe in an immortal soul. According to the doctrine of Dependant Origination, which in its most basic form states ‘because of this, that’, we are aggregate things, us sentient beings. From all the non-human components the universe brings to bear, humans are formed, consciousness included. Buddhism allows for a clear understanding of the suffering and its causes that Ligotti perceives and uses as the basis for his doctrine of hopelessness. But Ligotti, like many Christian critics of Buddhism (strange bedfellows, indeed!), stops short of a full and honest account of the picture this philosophy of the mind (that sometimes plays at being a religion) offers.

I don’t want to ‘go all Buddhist on ya’ and in particular I intend this to remain foremost a humanist document. Nonetheless, Ligotti singles out Buddhism, and in this point only will I follow suit. Buddhism is based on suffering and its causes, but does not stop there. The last two of the Four Noble Truths are: The cessation of suffering and the causes of that cessation. In other words, this doctrine does not try to paint a happy face on the disatisfatoriness of the world, but offers a prognosis and a prescription that suggests while life may have no cure, there is a treatment.

With that I’ll return to my humanist-orientation by offering a counter to his living puppet analogy. Instead of the stark uncanny-valley puppet-on-its-strings, lurching about an empty stage, screaming a silent scream, one presumes, I suggest human beings—perhaps any sentience that arises in the universe—are more akin to that other genre trope of emergent intelligence: the AI, born; the life that arises out of software and wires and a billions connections. Such an intelligence might pursue any sort of existence it chooses; it might find the universe a place of wonder or horror. It could posit for itself any role.

And, thus, humanity.

Can you see the real me?

“‘One must go further, one must go further.’ This need to go on is of ancient standing. Heraclitus the ‘obscure’ who reposited his thoughts in his writings in the Temple of Diana (for his thoughts had been his armour in life, which he therefore hung up in the temple of the goddess), the obscure Heraclitus had said ‘one can never walk through the same river twice.’ The obscure Heraclitus had a disciple who didn’t remain standing there but went further and added, ‘One cannot do it even once.’ Poor Heraclitus to have such a disciple! This improvement changed the Heraclitian principle into an Eleatic doctrine denying movement, and yet all that disciple wanted was to be a disciple of Heraclitus who went further, not back to what Heraclitus had abandoned. —Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

One must ask of Ligotti, “what does real mean?”

How is it that these imaginary or fake things that we are experience real suffering? Would we be real if there was some pith at our center that did not end? Is it this lack of god-stuff that makes us irreal? Ligotti mourns for a Ground of Being that is not there. A Shore that might stand strong against the tides of time, and in a deficit of such, he cries out in an empty universe, this wooden puppet that has realized itself for what it is, in anger, grief, horror.

If we start from the assumption that there is no god-stuff, nothing more or less eternal than anything else, our perspective shifts. My pain is an affliction of my own attachment to that which I never could hold or own. Why did I ever believe otherwise? Maybe I needed that belief, because I am a small and frail thing and there is so much I do not understand.

“In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. —Albert Camus, An Absurd Reasoning: Absurdity and Suicide

And there, lost, alone, hopeless, we may remain. Or we could proclaim some revelation of Truth, and hope to convince ourselves of its veracity. Or we could take the next step into an emptiness neither nihilistic nor revelatory. The emptiness of our own nature.

“What did I learn from my teacher? Nothing! He took everything away from me. When I became attached to what he was saying, he took it away from me. By meeting him I had taken everything away from me….. He crushed and crushed and completely crushed me…. He never let one hang on to anything. And that was his theory of teaching Buddhism…. After he died, people called me a heretic, but I am not good enough to have a heresy, because I have nothing. There is no Pure Land or Zen or Buddhism or philosophy. Nothing to hang on to. Nothing controls me. I was raised as a real, free man. And I am deeply grateful….—Haya Akegarasu, Shout of Buddha

Go Further

It would be easy, to get stuck with Ligotti, his book like some modern day surrogate to Heraclitus’ disciple.

The fault of Ligotti’s argument is the fault of every argument that posits to depict the end of all questions, to portray the Truth, of a whole and defined cloth. Because it requires one to stop questioning and accept. And though Ligotti will deny such an interpretation, he has, just like those religious folks who believe you are going to hell if you don’t join them, come up with a bullet-proof rationale for why we might object and by doing so prove our participation in his conspiracy. It’s all a little too neat.

In the final analysis, I find myself, despite myself, giving a favorable review to the position of Faith, and have quoted Keirkegaard not once but twice in this treatment. As soon as Faith (aka Truth exists but is not Revealed) morphs into doctrinal or dogmatic certainty (aka Revealed Truth exists), as is the case with most modern religious movements, it becomes a liability to the seeker.

Ascendant over all the positions on the revealed truth question is Position Four: Truth exists but is revealed only through experience, with the caveat being the experiential and subjective nature of that truth. When, as with Ligotti, our search leads us to a Revealed Truth that kills inquiry and offers some final summation of existence, the Truth exposes itself as tarnished, rusted, a forgery.

What Ligotti offers us is a deep look into suffering and its reality. Don’t stop, as Ligotti advocates. Mine is not a suggestion for Buddhism or any particular path, other than endless inquiry and curiosity. Although I did want to note that Science fits the bill as a valid position four (Truth exists but may be revealed only via experience.) How cool is that?

These ideas and considerations are not in the realm of philosophers, scientists, writers, poets, monks, priests, and outside of the realm of the every day person. In the end, only each individual may decide what the ultimate Truth of the universe might be. I choose to believe in a path forward that is rational, and in which I might never cease to find wonder in the present moment, and to find strength to stand against the suffering that will come, and to remember that once I gave you, Dear Reader, a wink and said…

Who ya gonna trust? Me, or the weird wooden dummy beside me?

Brandon H. Bell is a writer of weird fiction and co-editor of The Aether Age: Helios & Fantastique Unfettered: A Periodical of Liberated Literature.  His work has appeared in publications from Hadley Rille and M-Brane SF, as well as zines such as Everyday Weirdness, Nossa Morte, and Eschatology Journal.  He is an advocate for sensible copyright and Creative Commons licensing, a member of the Outer Alliance (supporting his GBLTQ counterparts in the genre community) and a Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist.  He is working on a novel tentatively titled Shah Ferdowsi Space.

If you enjoyed this article, let Brandon know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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18 responses to “This Inscrutable Light: A Response to Thomas Ligotti’s “The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”, by Brandon H. Bell

  1. Thank you for your excellent comment! I’d like to add that calling our existence ‘useless’ is meaningless unless one tells us what ‘useless’ means. In our everyday use of the word, we may think of a task at hand and call a tool or a procedure ‘useless’, if it isn’t fit to fulfill the task. So, denoting our existence as ‘useless’ seems to picture it as a means to an end. If there is no end the word ‘useless’ is meaningless. I suspect that Ligotti thinks that the end of life is its ‘end’. So, everything hampering the dying process is then ‘malignantly useless’. Only that death isn’t what life means to most people, even if they realize that it is the end. Ligotti seems to be unwilling to concede that he has made a choice: ‘Death is what life means, so anything prolonging or reproducing life is useless. Now I feel terrible about my choice, I have to write books about it to feel better.’


  2. Brandon, I’ve only just finished reading ‘Conspiracy’ and had been thinking of doing a piece for these pages… you have saved me the bother!

    This is excellent; and really says everything I wanted to say.
    Oddly enough, you come at it from a Buddhist perspective. I would have been doing so from a Roman Catholic one. And yet we seem to agree. I can’t help wondering how Lovecraft would have viewed such strange bedfellows….?

    With his customary good humour and raising of the eyebrows, I hope!

    (And now that I think of it, isn’t it rather great that those of all persuasions can enjoy Lovecraft? And all for their own very distinct reasons?)

    One thing that I would add: Ligotti’s comparison between Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ and HPLs ‘Case of Charles Dexter Ward’ is superb, as is his all-too-quick look at Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

    Thanks for a wonderful article….


  3. My interpretation of the work isn’t that life is not worth living. Rather, if one just so happens to be born into the world, then one should choose not to have children. That way, the effects of limits to growth may be avoided.


  4. I think Ligotti concedes many times in the book that he may be wrong. In fact, he goes so far as to admit that he too is delusional like the rest of ‘them.’ That he writes fiction is another way to deal with the fact that all is useless, sublimation, which really is only another form of distraction. Instead of believing he’s found the revealed truth, Ligotti has not only not found it, but he would say that it wouldn’t matter if he had. Even your take, that any claim to a truth which would deter the question is the wrong way, bolsters his thesis; for if the only way is a way which never provides an answer, and endless seeking is the goal, then the quest is certainly malignantly useless. Ligotti never advocates an abandonment of curiosity. He merely has written a book about his current perception of our place in the universe. Though I disagree with you, nice review. I enjoyed reading your answer to Ligotti.


  5. @Richard… Thank you!

    Regarding meditation, my practice is the Odaimoku, but as I find myself prioritizing my physical fitness my most meditative moments lately have become my jogging/walking/exercise time. The drive home from work is another time that I’ve found useful if I don’t have phone calls to make.

    In the fall of 2015 I have a story coming out in Apex called The Teratologist’s Brother that may be of interest to LovecraftZine readers. We also have the initial anthology coming out from Weirdbard Press, called Torn Pages. That is due in just a few months and stems from events you might also enjoy reading about (Check out the Weirdbard site for more info.)

    Thanks again,



  6. Excellent essay and response to. the rather depressing view of Ligotti. My question is how do you find time to write such amazing stuff and still have time to sit ? ( which it seems clear you do). Keep up the skillful work my friend !


  7. Matthias, you write “I know that there are many Buddhists who think they don’t believe in a soul, but they do of course. ” Semantics maybe, but I disagree with your ‘of course.’ Buddhist rebirth is more subtle than the popculture reincarnation concept.

    And as clarification, I as a product of Western civiliation certainly skew more toward materialism than a pure Buddhist POV. Not to hedge but to be honest.

    Buddhist emptiness means a thing is empy ‘from it’s own side’ and is not existent apart from its causes and conditions. So, one could use the word ‘soul’ to talk about the nature of the individual ego but the term is laden with meaning that is inauthentic in the Buddhist understanding of the self. Those folks who do so I suspect intend to combat a purely materialist or (oh no!) nihilistic POV.

    Trying to keep this short…( grin ) … So YES, there is the materialist in me that is inclined to answer that there is indeed no heaven, no hell, no eternity, no forever and ever amen. BUT… That is not an authentic Buddhist take on the question. I’d say instead that the nature of the self is illusory. That the assertion that the ego will die is equally wrong as the assertion that it is eternal. Cognition of this (jnana [sp?]) is tied, in my limited understanding, to Buddhist enlightenment. It is insight beyond intellectualism or cleverness. (And thus, something that our mutually admired Mr. Ligotti would probably find of little worth, since it looks a bit like ‘Faith’)…

    To answer your direct questions… Yes, our physical embodiment returns to the environment. The Self is a more complex question and the classic answer might be some inscrutable koan.

    Effing Zen, right?

    But there is a point beyond mere ‘The Master has spoken her koan’ cuteness. Buddhism is, in the end, and most importantly, a practice. Without the attempt to experience reality, it becomes exactly what the historical Buddha is supposed to have said was useless speculation on questions that don’t really matter.

    In the interest of pursuing compelling ideas in this vein, I recommend the Frederick Franck edited anthology The Buddha Eye. In the interest of direct experience, I know of no other option than meditation.

    As an answer to your questions, this is unsatisfying. But I don’t believe I can describe the ultimate nature of reality or the self to you, but I do believe you are capable of the experience of those things, which you can then fit into whatever philosophy is functional for you.



  8. Brandon,
    you write: ‘I don’t believe in an immortal soul. According to the doctrine of Dependant Origination, which in its most basic form states ‘because of this, that’, we are aggregate things, us sentient beings. From all the non-human components the universe brings to bear, humans are formed, consciousness included.’
    I know that there are many Buddhists who think they don’t believe in a soul, but they do of course. The immortal soul in those cases comes in through the backdoor by reincarnation / rebirth. I totally agree with your description above. I interpret it as such that after the decomposition of our body, our consciousness, our individuality is extinguished. We as individuals are not any more. Yes, our body parts will go on to be part of other manifestations. But our consciousness is totally extinguished.
    Would you agree on this compared to your intrerpretation of Buddhism?
    In this interpretation of dependent origination, there is no soul, no life after death in any form whatsoever? If there is rebirth, it cannot be about individual survival. From my viewpoint, it can only be seen as the new composition of material parts. What do you think?


  9. Patsy and Angela: thank you for your kind comments about the article. These are fascinating topics and one of my favorite things about True Detective is how it has led to many extended philosophical ‘conversations.’


  10. i also ran across your article via researching aspects of True Detective; this is excellent. i wonder if Ligotti name his character based on your quote above ? (Rust- from the Jung quote above)


  11. I really loved this article. I don’t pretend to be a philosopher of any sort, and would never have been interested in any of this if I hadn’t been watching the HBO Series “True Detective.” However, I am so happy I ran across this. I have constantly battled with the “Truth”– if there is such a thing, and if anyone really had it. I thought I was inclined toward pessimism. Your four categories clarified this concept for me to the point that I now know that I fall firmly into number 4. As you so eloquently stated, “In the end, only each individual may decide what the ultimate Truth of the universe might be.” I have happily shared this with others. Thank you so much. It’s been a revelation.


  12. Thank you, @Julio.

    @Manolito regarding solipsism, perhaps the only easy addition I can offer on the point is that most of us are Position 3 faithful in our belief in the existence of minds other than our own. To go further would entail a whole other article, (at least.) I’m glad you enjoyed this one.



    • It would indeed entail another article (and I’m not about to ask that of anyone!) – especially since I’m actually in the opposition of this one; I would say that the problem of other minds and that of the outside world is actually more or less the same problem, insofar as it shares the same problematic root.

      Thanks again for the article and your reply.


  13. Good pragmatist rebuttal to Ligotti that sums up my basic problems with him; though I’m a pessimist myself (follower of Julius Bahnsen, a philosopher of the Schopenhauer school of thought), I don’t really see why one needs to be a pessimist if one has no foundation for one’s belief – other than aesthetic reasons, perhaps. Personally, I’m one of those people in a similar boat as position four – but I make a sharp distinction between describing what is actually experienced, and what is deduced or inferred in the abstract from that experience. The former seems undeniable to me, while the latter is the problematic territory of “well, this could all be a dream, an illusion, etc.”. One has to answer the solipsist’s charge, and most people simply refuse to do so.

    So anyway, good essay. When I saw that this sort of essay was coming out, I was thinking of writing a defense of Ligotti’s pessimism (since I thought optimism would be the main point of it), but since you approached it via the truth angle, there is nothing to really reply to – this essay is an effective counter to Ligotti’s particular position, and that’s that.


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