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.


Anonymous said...

As always, a pleasure and, for me, an education, in reading you.

Anonymous said...

"Nature is simply opting ...": nature, then, is a moral agent. Is that Materialist, or just dim?

Deogolwulf said...

Thank you, Mr Duff.

It struck me too as odd, dearieme.

James Higham said...

Easy on the Dostoevsky, Deogolwulf. Dangerous stuff.

Jon said...

Very interesting analysis, if I may say so, Mr Deogolwulf. Relishing the prospect of the apocalpyse is an understandable reaction in people who are alienated and disenfranchised, as more and more of us are becoming. The problems confronting humanity (most of them self inflicted) are so many and various, and serious, that it is easier just to despair.

Sky Captain said...

Who will save humanity from itself?

Deogolwulf said...

Dostoevsky is a pleasure, James.

Thanks for the interesting comment, Dennis.

"Who will save humanity from itself?"

Search me!

Sean Jeating said...

not having your email-adress, I chose this way.
Serendipity? - What a posting! I shall have to come back and re-read.

As for my reason to 'appear' o/t (and sorry about it; you may delete this after reading):

The other day, by scrolling along your blogroll in order to 'find' another interesting blogger, I realized you have (had?) added me.
Thank you very much, indeed.

So, after all, I feel encouraged to ask you what I use to call 'my question of courtesy': Would you mind me adding your brilliant blog to my 'seldom borings'? :)

My email-address:

Deogolwulf said...

Not at all, Mr Jeating. You would be doing me an honour.

Sean Jeating said...

Done! Herewith you are 'integral part of Omnium', Sir Deogolwulf. :)
Thanks a lot and: Welcome.