Wednesday 31 October 2007

Nihilism and the Appetite for Apocalypse

Although the end of the world of man does not happen very often, unless I am very much mistaken, we can nonetheless have a good idea of how people would react to its imminence; for not only do we have the testimony of those who have believed it to be nigh, as well as of those who have observed the behaviour of those who have believed it to be so, but also we possess that intuitive understanding of mankind that allows us to predict to some extent the behaviour that would become manifest in diverse ways. Some would run rampage; others would simply fold their socks and go to bed; but notably, some would look forward to it.
.....In the case of apocalyptic doctrines of spiritual salvation, one can more easily understand such an attitude; for in effect the believers are not looking forward to the destruction of the true world as they see it, but rather to the destruction of the shadow-world of suffering and trial which this mundane and material world represents to them, wherefrom all that is highest and most noble escapes and thereafter endures; but in the case of those who believe in no such otherworld, the destruction of this world of man would mean that all that is highest and most noble and most beloved would be lost for ever without a trace. Now, I make no claim here about the truth or falsity of this latter view, but I do ask: Why would anyone look forward or be indifferent to its occurrence? Three examples follow:
I’m not sure why everyone is so bothered about global destruction anyway. . . . It’s happened before it’ll happen again. We’re not special, we don’t matter any more than bacteria or mould, life is commonplace and ephemeral. It comes and goes.
And then we have the deterministic angle, albeit with an imputation of intentional agency to nature itself:
It is all nature’s fault. . . . All of man’s deeds — whatever they are — can be traced back to nature’s experimental design. . . . Nature is simply opting for slow suicide.
Then we have the bitter-gleeful stance:
So the Hairless Ape prepares to march off into the Sunset? Good riddance, the planet will be better off without him, and anyway, since when did Homo sapiens get exclusive rights to Earth? His arrogance is his undoing, for what he had, what he learned and what he achieved, he is, under that, just another lump of genetic and biological material and no more worthy of this planet than its last tenants, the Sauropods. No, say your farewells, Ape, because extinction is just a few more centuries away and well deserved it is too. [1]
Out of its abstraction, the claim that humanity matters no more than bacteria or mould or any other lump of biological material amounts to the claim that none of its particulars — one’s mother or wife or best friend or favourite composer — matters any more than bacteria or mould or any other lump of biological material. (Psychopathology and genuine nihilism aside, this view is probably owed to pretension.) From the assumption of the truth of materialism [2], which all three examples exhibit, it does not follow directly that one ought to be indifferent to or even welcoming of the consequences of its truth. A psychological step must be taken. Perhaps nihilism is a strategy after all, a way of coping. From great care for a humane view of the world, one falls to great disappointment in belief of the untenability of the view, and then, to dull the pain, one proceeds to great carelessness or even to a perverse glee in the destruction of all monuments to hope or meaning—in short, to the view that nothing matters or that life’s annihilation is a blessing after all.
...............Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. [3]
Materialism is the assumption of modernity. It is the view that there lies alongside or behind matter no primacy in mind or meaning, that is, that matter is the sole primary substance, and that mind — if it is admitted to exist at all [4] — is merely a secondary phenomenon that reduces to matter and is thus illusionary as a seemingly primary phenomenon. It is important to appreciate that this is indeed an assumption, and not a datum; but it is also important to understand that it is widely assumed to be true amongst the moving spirits of mass-society, perhaps simply on account of its practical-scientific and no-nonsense utility, and that from such an assumption modernity derives its character: economism, politicism, utility as sole value, want of spiritual earnestness, nihilism, and not a little despair.
.....One cannot surely say that the world is not as the materialists hold it to be; for it is a distinct possibility in view of both our ignorance and our knowledge; but it is not a view that can be taken lightly, except by the levity or carelessness of nihilism; for — in a meaningless swirl of physical process — love, friendship, music, poetry, philosophy, scientific discovery, and so on, all arise from meaningless physical processes in the brains of beings for whom any belief in the significance of those things is itself the product of these processes, whereupon falls apart the flinching materialist’s fudge-consolation that one can, after all, choose to give meaning to this swirl. [5]
.....In the nineteenth century, Dostoevsky sketched a formula for a materialist’s suicide-note, one who hadn’t flinched at the discrepancy between his sentimentality and his metaphysical view:
My consciousness is certainly not a harmony, but just the opposite, a disharmony, because I am unhappy with it. . . . ... [C]ontinually posing questions to myself, as I do now, I cannot be happy, even with the supreme and direct happiness of love for my neighbour and the love of humanity for me, since I know that tomorrow it will all be annihilated. I, and all this happiness, and all the love, and all of humanity will be transformed into nothing, into the original chaos. And under such a condition I simply cannot accept any happiness—not from my refusal to agree to accept it, not from stubbornness based on some principle, but simply because I cannot be happy under the condition of the nothingness that threatens tomorrow. This is a feeling, a direct feeling, and I cannot overcome it. . . . And no matter how rationally, joyously, righteously, and blessedly humanity might organize itself on earth, it will all be equated tomorrow to that same empty zero. [6]
The nihilist has no time for such sentimentality, and has no concern about the “empty zero” of life except in his appetite for making it so. [7]
[1] I have taken the liberty of correcting the punctuation of the third example. All three examples come from pseudonymous comments to George Monbiot, “Civilisation ends with a shutdown of human concern. Are we there already?The Guardian, 30th October 2007. Mr Monbiot is a keen apocalypse-monger. Other journalists are also in on the racket. Johann Hari, for instance, professes the view that “these apocalyptic weather-events are unlikely to be freak one-offs.” (“While California burns, Hurricane Giuliani looms”, The Independent, 29th October 2007; my emphasis.) Mr Hari is of course no stranger to hyperbole.
[2] I am using “materialism” in its commonly-conceived reductive, non-agentive, and non-experiential sense: that everything reduces to the physical, and that nothing that is physical has agency or experiential qualities.
[3] Macbeth, in the words of William Shakespeare, Macbeth, act 5, scene 5, ll.25-30.
[4] Eliminative materialism denies its existence.
[5] If materialism is true, one cannot choose, for one is not an agent who has the power of choice, and thus all meaning that one supposedly chooses to give to a meaningless world is merely the meaningless product of that meaningless world. If, moreover, mind is simply identical or reductive to its physical process, and all physical processes have no inherent meaning and can bestow no meaning on the world, then mind has no inherent meaning and can bestow no meaning on the world.
[6] Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Sentence”, October 1876, in A Writer’s Diary, Vol.1 (1873-1876), tr. K. Lantz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994), pp.654-5; original emphasis.
[7] As for imagining what the immediate aftermath of this apocalypse would be like — a world without humanity or culture — one can get a small inkling of its effects if one strolls through the centre of Stockport on a Wednesday afternoon: it is a little like a post-apocalyptic world, but with a Woolworths.

Thursday 25 October 2007

Corrupting the Young

“For longer than anyone can remember in our pseudoliberal times it has been the accepted rule of our newspaper press to ‘defend our young people’: from whom? from what? The answers to these questions sometimes remain in a fog of uncertainty, and thus the matter takes on a most ridiculous and even comic aspect, especially when it involves attacks on other organs of the press in the sense that ‘we’re more liberal than you are, you see; you are attacking young people and so must be more reactionary’. . . . It’s worth pondering this: ‘I’ve demonstrated that I am a liberal, that I praise our young people and take to task those who don’t praise them—that’s enough to keep our subscribers happy, and the matter’s done with, thank goodness!’ Indeed, ‘the matter’s done with’, for only the bitterest enemy of our young people could undertake to defend them in this way.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, “One of Today’s Falsehoods”, 1873, in A Writer’s Diary, Vol.1 (1873-1876), tr. K. Lantz (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994), p.281.

Monday 22 October 2007

Agnostic Huxley

“Tolerably early in life I discovered that one of the unpardonable sins, in the eyes of most people, is for a man to presume to go about unlabelled. The world regards such a person as the police do an unmuzzled dog, not under proper control. I could find no label that would suit me, so, in my desire to range myself and be respectable, I invented one; and, as the chief thing I was sure of was that I did not know a great many things that the -ists and the -ites about me professed to be familiar with, I called myself an Agnostic. Surely no denomination could be more modest or more appropriate; and I cannot imagine why I should be every now and then haled out of my refuge and declared sometimes to be a Materialist, sometimes an Atheist, sometimes a Positivist, and sometimes, alas and alack, a cowardly or reactionary Obscurantist.”
T.H. Huxley, Aphorisms and Reflections From the Works of T. H. Huxley, selected by H.A. Huxley (London: MacMillan & Co, 1907), CCLVI [C. E. ix 134], published online at The Huxley File.

In Roepke's Reckoning

“I cannot here draw the portrait of the progress-minded modern who, in my reckoning, accounts for so much that is wrong in our world, but I can list a few of the things that attend him: the dissecting intellect, lacking wisdom and even common sense; the radicalism going in short relays from humanitarianism to bestiality; the nihilism of intellectuals who have lost hold of ultimate convictions and values and ceased to be true clercs; the relativism tolerating everything, including the most brutal intolerance; the egalitarianism that, presupposing an omnipotent state machinery, leads to extreme inequality in the most important respect, the distribution of power, and unleashes the soul-corroding forces of envy and jealousy; the grimace of an art called modern whose one achievement is to mirror our society’s inner disintergration. Who has seen these things needs no extraordinary illumination to know toward what they tend . . . and no one, seeing all that has been the work of men and not of blind forces, can come to any other conclusion than that men must take council with themselves and set their faces toward another way.”
Wilhelm Roepke, “The Economic Necessity of Freedom”, Modern Age, Vol.3:3, Summer 1959, pp.235-6.

Thursday 18 October 2007

A Chief Claim to Notice

“To-day I notice that every political passion is furnished with a whole network of strongly woven doctrines, the sole object of which is to show the supreme value of its action from every point of view, while the result is a redoubling of its strength as a passion. . . . Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds. It will be one of its chief claims to notice in the moral history of humanity.”

Julien Benda, The Treason of the Intellectuals (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2007), pp.26-7; original emphasis.

Fewtril #214

Any failure to take into consideration that the highly intelligent are also capable of great stupidity is not a sign that one is not highly intelligent; it is a sign that one is capable of great stupidity.

Fewtril #213

The greatest thing about a state-education is that it gives one the opportunity to spend a lifetime trying to overcome it.

Fewtril #212

A most subtle test of character is set in the absence of adversity.

Conspecific Controversy

James Watson is in trouble again, this time for claiming differences in intellectual capacities between races. “It is sad to see a scientist of such achievement making such baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments,” says Keith Vaz [1], holding to the baseless, unscientific, and extremely odd belief that the forces of nature must necessarily conspire over time and space to make all groups of the same species equal in their capacities, at least as regards the species Homo sapiens. [2] None of this is cause for a tantrum, except amongst the race-class-sex reductionists; for a man is, after all, more than simply his race, class, and sex; indeed he is a person insofar as he is more.
[1] The Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, quoted by Cahal Milmo, “Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners”, The Independent, 17th October 2007.
[2] Perhaps those who believe so should begin the search for the natural mechanism of it, to which they could give a fancy name, the Conspecific Law of Equalising Inertia, or somesuch. Speciation might take some explaining, mind you.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Europe in the Frame

It is trivially true that one cannot give one’s opinions on some matter without the possibility of colouring that matter to some extent with those opinions, though one trusts that everyone of at least moderate sensibility is aware of this, and can distinguish between fact and mere opinion, or between what is established and what is asserted or argued, and that he has his own mind to discriminate between probable and improbable, fair and foul, temperate and harsh, and so on, such that he is not led insensibly or mindlessly to accept one’s own colouring of the matter, but rather he comes sensibly and mindfully on his own terms to accept it as the true or proper or sensible colour if it be so.
.....It is regrettable, however, that words can work upon men much as bells did upon Pavlov’s dogs [1], and furthermore that many a man is swayed by the most intemperate or unfair of opinions, even against his better judgement, if it be that they whisper in his mind’s ear what he wishes to hear, or set fire in his belly against his enemies, and if he has not first guarded against the inferior part of his constitution. [2] All effective propagandists understand this, and appreciate moreover that the mass-mind is a dumb and ignoble one, albeit with the power to overthrow the nobler part of a man’s constitution.
.....All of which brings me to the matter of the framing-technique of political language — not, that is, of the incidental colouring of matters by language, which might arise through the expression of one’s opinions, but of the intentional setting of the terms of debate for deceitful purposes — and in particular to a ready but rather humble example thereof, though, it must be said, not humble par crapulence: that of Ms Polly Toynbee of The Guardian. [3]
.....If one is susceptible to the framing-technique of political language so crudely displayed by Ms Toynbee, one might register the impression that those who oppose the European Union are “fanatical Europe-hating”, “malevolent and xenophobic” “Euro-crazies” who are given over to “Euro-hysterics” about the “the work of devious” and “filthy federalising foreigners”. [4] Now, I am aware that she aims some of these epithets at the newspapermen, who themselves, as chefs of discontent, are not averse from over-egging the pudding, but still, we all know which frame Mr Toynbee is seeking to strengthen: that against so-called Eurosceptics, wherewith such people are to be seen as narrow-minded, xenophobic, and silly baboons who think Belgium is a dirty word (well . . .) and Germany, a land fit only for carpet-bombing. That is to say, in terms of the “debate”, such people are to be seen to be beyond the pale. The terms are set to foster the view, above all, that hatred or dislike for the European Union is in fact hatred or dislike for Europe itself. Well, I shall not speak for anyone else, but for my part, it is because I love Europe—or rather, what it has been—that I hate the European Union.
.....By the way, if citizens of the smaller nations of Europe want a good reason why they should not be part of the European Union, Polly Toynbee inadvertently gives them a hint of one:
At the crucial Nairobi climate summit, it was a bad idea that the president of a very small country represented all of Europe, and not very well. [5]
For, you see, whilst it is seen as legitimate that a representative of a large nation of Europe may represent the European Union, it is not seen so with a representative of a small one. The small nations must submit to the interests of the big nations. Citizens of small nations, therefore, might heed the words of Leopold Kohr:
In contrast to his counterpart in great, populous states, the small-state citizen has much greater personal dignity, representing, as he does, not an infinitesimally small share of the state sovereignty, but a proportion that can definitely assert itself. Since the concept of sovereignty does not increase in quality with the increase in population . . . the effect of increasing population is the diminution of individual importance. [6]
Besides, there is some reason to believe that Europe’s richness of culture is owed in part to the many and diverse particularities of its peoples living in its many and diverse states and parishes. As far as I can see, if the European Union is the only hope for Europe, then there is not much hope for it at all.

[1] Just think of all the men who have come to espouse values attached to the honorific title of the Enlightenment, who might never have done so if those values hadn’t had that title attached, yet who wouldn’t know enlightenment from a slap in the face — which, come to think of it, and considering their insensibility, might be better suited to bring it.
[2] “Let a man first firmly establish the nobler part of his constitution, and the inferior part will not be able to take it from him.” Meng Tzü (Mencius), Mencius, VIa, 15, quoted by Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 1: The Period of the Philosophers (from the Beginnings to circa 100bc), tr. D. Bodde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p.122. I take that as a good prescription for the role of a basic education.
[3] One never knows: my preamble might serve in part to forestall the accusation that I am myself framing the language against Ms Toynbee, but, if it does not, then to those not satisfied, all I can say is that it is my honest judgement that Ms Toynbee provides an example par crapulence of a framing-technique that is in her hands quite crude. (I certainly cannot see it as refined, sophisticated, or even bog-standard.) Let the reader make of it what he will. One may reply that the framing that Ms Toynbee applies is, after all, a reflection of her honest opinions; and so it may be, in which case I can see no good reason not to call her a fanatic too.
[4] All these words and phrases come from one article: Polly Toynbee, “We can’t let the Euro-crazies drag us out of the club”, The Guardian, 16th October 2007.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2001), p.118.

Monday 15 October 2007

Abiding Mystery

When a man acquires much or all of the knowledge that has been revealed in his field of study concerning some aspect of physical reality, or when he sees all avenues of research exhausted and a coherent body of knowledge attained such that the study is said to be complete, he is wont to assume that he knows much or all about that particular aspect of reality. But it is a false assumption; for, although he knows the extent of his knowledge, he does not know the extent of his ignorance. [1]
.....Our knowledge of the world is a circle of light, as it were, but we do not know how much of the whole we have illuminated since, firstly, we do not know the extent of the whole, and secondly, we cannot see beyond that part of it which we have illuminated; nor should we assume that the circle will grow ever wider until we know it to encompass the whole; for not only must there be a limit to human understanding, but also we do not know where the limit of our understanding lies in relation to the whole, such that we could never know whether we had reached the limit of our understanding or the limit of the whole.
.....This acknowledgement of abiding mystery flies in the face of promissory materialism — as Karl Popper and John Eccles called it [2] — that peculiarly modern optimism which, in lieu of knowledge, promises nonetheless that materialism will reveal all. Yet from the fact that today’s knowledge is yesterday’s mystery, and from the sight of countless days upon which such has been the case — days that stand together as a monument to man’s understanding — it does not follow that today’s mystery must be tomorrow’s knowledge. At the edge of knowledge, there is mystery, and since there must always be an edge of knowledge, there must always be mystery.
[1] Physics, for instance, provides us with knowledge only of the structural or relational properties of matter, and leaves open the question of its intrinsic character. In this fundamental sense, “[t]he only legitimate attitude about the physical world seems to be one of complete agnosticism as regards all but its mathematical properties.” Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Matter (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp.270-1
[2] K.R. Popper and J.C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.)

Amis and Son

Kingsley Amis was “a racist, antisemitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”. [1] It is true he was so much more interesting than his son.
[1] Terry Eagleton, quoted in “The ageing punk of lit crit still knows how to spit”, The Sunday Times, 7th October 2007.

In Mere Oppugnancy

If we have eyes to see the ramshackle condition of our own society and culture, wherein an antipathy against authority and hierarchy prevails, then shouldn’t we at least take seriously the words of those men who, throughout the ages, have warned that, should authority and hierarchy be undermined, a ruination of society and culture would follow, or are we to continue to dismiss such words for the sake of our own dreams?
.................O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong
— Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Ulysses, in the words of William Shakespeare, Troilus And Cressida, act 1, scene 3: ll.101-124.