Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Beyond Nihilism

My dear Basil of Baker Street, how are you? I am pleased to see that you have maintained a wonderful and optimistic view of human existence, in spite of the resounding amount of evidential substantiation to the contrary. It demonstrates your sprightly nature; and I daresay, a bit of your naïveté, but a naïveté of a sort that we can’t help but be captivated by – like a touching, heroic moment at the end of a war movie, a moment that traps our emotions and minds into somehow feeling that all of the destruction and death was worth it somehow. Of course, we may detect the falseness of the situation, but from our plush leather couches and piping hot cups of chi tea, we are willing to smile despite the spurious nature of our smiles.

Communion? Unity? I had hoped you were a better reader of history, literature, and philosophy. It seems painfully apparent that the history of the existence of humanity has long since exposed man’s ultimate isolation in the world. The random thrown-ness of our existence [it is amazing how much power we give to the world ‘existence,’ as if in attaching great and nearly supernatural meaning to its definition, we are replacing the deep pettiness of mankind’s existence with significance simply through semantics] is painfully observable through the reading of history, literature, and philosophy.

Since Descartes’ sincere but counterfeit trumpeting of a new Certainty, we have never been truly Certain of anything since. I may be giving Rene a bit too much credit; and I am sure that many thinkers had come to this conclusion much before the disastrous Frenchmen. But the fact remains: As soon as we fully face the ultimate subjectivity of our existence, any belief in some ‘supernatural’ or ‘non-material’ connection between individuals appears as it is: hollow and shallow.

Our experience of the past and present, the rise and fall of civilizations, genocide, murder, death, and much, much more: it all points a lot more clearly and steadily to a basic disunity between peoples --- not any sort of unity. Even basic science does not show us a world of connect and unity; it shows us a world of brutal randomness, entropy, and un-meaning. An anxious desire to see a communion is understandable, but at the very least flawed. To arrive at this conclusion, so much must be ignored, reinterpreted, or labeled as mystery.

Man’s persistent desire to find himself as not alone in a meaningless world is simply a confirmation that he increasingly feels the pressure and anxiety of life without meaning. This battle between objectivity and subjectivity finds its place as the foremost intellectual [although this may not be the correct word] battle of the last few centuries. But it must be read for what it is: man simply desiring – and desiring quite impractically and emotionally – to prove something beyond his own feeble consciousness. Perhaps this desire is evolutional: we had based our place at the top of the hierarchal chain of existence by disclaiming our random thrown-ness. Being forced to disagree with our prior reckoning, we have been squirming in our seats for centuries, looking for a reason to RE-prove our connection to the rest humanity and nature. The fallacy is obvious: assuming what we desire to prove, and therefore proving it. Any intellectual structure used to explain man’s existence as something beyond meaningless solitude is more an attestation to our deep anxiety about solipsism than anything else.

But the battle is always the same. Fight or squirm as we may, we always end like Camus’ Stranger: “To be honest, I knew that there was no difference between dying at their years old and dying at seventy because, naturally, in both cases, other men and women will live on, for thousands of years at that.... It was still I who was dying, whether it was today or twenty years from now.” The last few centuries of true thought have come to the same solipsistic conclusion. The rest of the pattern has as its basis an anxious, irrational desire to disprove what we experience by any means necessary.

Is this nihilism? It would seem that way, if we believe the true battle is between meaning and non-meaning, between solipsism and communion, or between the supernatural and the material. But what a shallow battle we are fighting here; what use is there in this? The fighters are all the same: the naïve and young idealists, the cantankerous nihilists, the anxious religious, and the smug atheists. But is this the battle we should be fighting? Should not we, like Nietzsche, step beyond nihilism? Should not we, like Nagel, question why things should have meaning in the first place? Then, like the phoenix from the fire, we shall rise and begin thinking truly.


  1. Someone had to call him to task and defense of his theology and theory, glad our resident mad skeptic has done so, not that I dislike or even disagree, but from the principle that nothing should be left untested.

    Further ammunition I offer, from the "Myth of Sisyphus" in which Camus expounds on the notion that not only does the world reject the notion of unity (for it "is not irrational but unreasonable") but this comes is in contrast to the "deepest desire of our Mind" to unify. We are left with desire that cannot be fulfilled, which hails only absurdity, nothing more.

  2. My dear Skrignov! What ho, Old thing! I confess I am much impressed by the persistency of you skeptics. Remember the dwarves in the Last Battle, who would never let themselves be “taken in” so that eventually they could not be taken in (literally)? Once again Lewis provides strikingly fitting illustration of a deep truth. This discussion touches upon my previous comments about epistemology, but more about that later.
    I shall begin by addressing the peripheral points, lest they cloud the argument later on.
    1- Descartes and the “subjectivity of our existence”: dear Rene was stuck in the epistemological rut, I’m afraid, confusing proof with knowledge. I certainly agree that existence, reality, and morality is subjective (as it all revolves around a relationship between subjects and not anything as immaterial as material objects), but it is certainly not relative. Even if we pander to his childish (or rather his boorish adult) concept of knowledge, and hold that I only know the contents of my consciousness, be they veridical or false, within my own consciousness those contents fall neatly into categories of light and shadow, of love and non-love. I am not saying this phenomenon should convince you of the existence of an all-good loving God, but neither do I say that about the same phenomenon occurring at large in reality beyond my subjective experience. Descartes said “cogito, ergo sum.” An important statement in epistemological circles no doubt, but any child will tell you that his maxim is only a proof; the reality is: “sum, ergo cogito.”
    2- basic science shows us that belief in non-material or supernatural is hollow and shallow? My dear Skrignov, it’s time you attended to some basic science. “material” as a term is almost meaningless. What is matter? That which has mass. Matter cannot exist or change on its own. The “material universe” is literally impossible and inconceivable without the immaterial. At the time of the Big Bang, there was no matter; it formed in the seconds afterward (for unclear reasons) and its history since has been one long account of matter being acted upon by non-matter ( the electro-magnetic force, strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity). It is the height of arrogance to assume that because our little optical instruments merely pick up on a small portion of matter, that is all that exists. Matter doesn’t even explain our sight (which works by light) or our vision (as supernatural a concept as a soul).
    Now to the main point: Human history and misery points to disunity and meaninglessness. You speak of the pressure of meaninglessness (what B16 called the “creeping despair” of this age) causing our “anxious, irrational desire to disprove what we experience by any means necessary.” I do not deny the large amounts of apparently meaningless suffering and disunity in our history. I suppose the difference lies in that I find remarkable not the presence of pain but the presence of wonder at the pain, the universal sense of “why me? Why would God allow this? This should not be!” Imagine if we similarly bemoaned our inability to perceive non-existent colors; we have no concept to work with. In the case of suffering and disunity we seem to have a concept of wholeness and integrity. No one says, “this should not be!” in reference to a pleasant experience. The only difference in our experience of pain and pleasure is a fairly insignificant variance in our nervous systems. My views are not, unfortunately based on experience of full communion. Neither is the approach of the doctor to your body; there has never been, in the history of the world, a perfectly healthy body. Yet this stubborn concept of “health” is persistent in recorded history; where does the word come from if there is no experience on which it is founded? In my view disease suggests health, shadow suggests a light, a lie suggests the truth. Thus, as in the case of health, there is no “macro” example of Communion, but there are many “micro” examples of it, in my own experience, in nature, in sex, in human society, in evolution, in history. You say that man searches in vain for meaning, but we at least agree that man searches, and there is some meaning to be found in that fact. Why does he search? I admit I am unable to prove that his search is the result of some preternatural amnesis of meaning and Communion, but I am not really interested in proving it. To me it is just as interesting that I automatically lean toward seeing meaning in man’s search. All I can offer is a gigantic IF. IF God is Love; IF Love created us; IF Love meant for us to join in love such that we have freedom; IF we abused that freedom and threw a stick in the spokes and went against the love for which we were made; THEN indeed we would see widespread suffering but also aversion to that suffering and a desire for the unity towards which we are fundamentally oriented. I do find these things in my experience.
    I look forward to hearing back from you.
    Your faithful Basil

  3. Ah Basil you are good at wording stuff…

    “preternatural amnesis of meaning and Communion”


    Anyway. I of course cannot speak for he, whose hospitality gives us this place to meander. But while our Skeptic is out I would offer my own analysis, and by my own analysis, I mean Camus’. Albert offers us an intriguing response to your giant IF. I think that we all are leaning towards proof or non-proof as the basis of meaning. I tend towards Camus’ reading which is one of disinterest in proof, as you seem to be leaning yourself. We are all starting on our observations of the world and our (Man’s) relation to it. It is in these observations that we find the need to establish the grounds for meaning. It is an uphill battle for those that wish meaning because the World isn’t altogether reasonable in our search.

    Camus, at least my understanding of him, starts with this observation: the World does not cooperate with Man in establishing meaning. So we must build it. God is a good way of doing that, since we may build a framework that allows for us to understand the state of the world and it’s uncooperative nature to us. Camus calls the relation the Absurd, though it is not his coin, since Kierkegaard was talking about the same thing, long before. On one hand we have a world that is profoundly indifferent to us, and on the other hand a people whose heart yearns for unity, coherence and response, to which we hear a deep silence. It is important, to note that the world is not in direct conflict with us, it is not irrational, while we are rational, not black while we are white, etc. It doesn’t dislike us, it nothings us. This is something different from what one would expect from a world that we caused to fall; it does not stand in opposition to us, but neither does it stand with us. One would except from a world that has fallen to not sink into indifference, but opposition to our nature. This difference is witnessed by the fact that it is not devoid of unity or coherence, sometimes it fulfills our deep desires but a second later it does not. We see both unity and chaos, and there seems no logic to it. That however, is a digression.

    The relationship we share to this indifferent world is the Absurd (since Absurdity stems from a comparison; like a soldier armed with a spear attacking a nest of machine gunners). Camus contends that existential thought especially deals with this but rather then dealing with it tries to escape and deny it. One may deny a term in the “argument” to dissolve it, but Camus offers an interesting alternative. Rather then build a framework that explains the world as not indifferent, by, say telling your story of God, unity, and Fall, he wonders if we need to. Not a philosopher, Camus wonders, why we should try to escape the Absurd, if there is no need to. And so he offers a way of life that retains “meaning’ (highly qualified) authenticity, since it does not deny our place to the world, and dignity. So the question is, if meaning is not really apparent, or readily available without extensive theoretical (and theological) frameworks, why bother if one can live with all the same important things that they provide, without them. Interesting take on the question, and I think one that does demand a reasonable answer.