Friday, March 28, 2014

Nihilism at the Heart of Secularism

3/28/2014—In order to understand law, or art or architecture or science, or any of our highest values, you have to come to terms with Nietzsche. According to a perceptive review article by Tamsin Shaw in the October 24, 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books, entitled “Nietzsche, ‘the lightning fire, ’” Nietzsche found that all of Western culture, all that had made him feel that life is meaningful, was a series of tricks. And he identifies some of these tricks, which he finds apparent in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and Richard Wagner, that produce in the viewer a feeling of an uncanny and elevated state, despite their underlying hollowness. So, for example, a sense of profundity, of emotional depth, is often created by mixing apparently contrary emotional states.

Shaw is reviewing the book, The Flame of Eternity: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s Thought, by Krzysztof Michalski. I am not relying on the rest of the review or on that book. For Shaw, there is a great deal more to Nietzsche than this.

What I wish to show here is how this one fragmentary insight of Nietzsche has infected all of American thought, actually all of Western thought. I find the direct heir of Nietzsche and the trick in episode 3 of the series, Cosmos.

At the beginning of episode 3, Neil deGrasse Tyson asserts that before the rise of science, humans associated the arrival of comets with momentous events, usually bad ones. The comet, in other words, was a sign from some god. As Tyson puts it, “They took it personally. Can we blame them?”

As you can see from the word blame, Tyson feels that ancient humans were mistaken in all this. He calls it a phenomenon of “false pattern recognition.” And there is a reason for this mistake. Tyson says of humans, “We hunger for significance. For signs that our personal existence is of special meaning to the universe. To that end, we are all too eager to deceive ourselves and others. To discern a sacred image in a grilled cheese sandwich.”

Now, I doubt that Tyson would have the fortitude to consistently apply this insight, at least in public. If the last sentence had read, “to discern a sacred image in the cry of a child,” Tyson would probably have a moment’s pause in his breezy nihilism. If I asked Tyson whether Martin Luther King’s statement that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice, is also an instance of false pattern recognition, he would hesitate. And if I pointed out that this error means that nothing humans do, including the achievements of science, has any meaning whatsoever, and then asked him why he is bothering with the series, Cosmos, he would have no answer.

But the main point here is that the line from Shaw’s trick to Tyson’s false pattern recognition is a direct one. All of our sense of the meaningfulness of existence can be seen as a result of error.

This is the current direction of our secular civilization. And we cannot cure it, lament it or deal with it, until we first admit it.

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