10/8/2016—I bear some blame for looking around and crying “nihilism” at everything I see. Well, that’s because all I see is the claim that the universe is just forces. Then I try to figure out what a culture that believes or suspects that looks like. I don’t know what nihilism looks like at the cultural level.
But occasionally I get a glimpse and I just did from a Saturday New York Times story about the political fallout of the jobs report that remarked on a curious disconnect. Americans are mad, resentful, dissatisfied etc., especially about the economy. But when you poll Americans about how they individually are doing, we are doing okay and are not angry, including economically. It is as if, says the story, Americans use the economy to make a different kind of judgment about optimism and pessimism toward the future.
But in nihilism, the categories of optimism and pessimism are beside the point. There is nothing to be optimistic or pessimistic about. There is no sustaining standard. There is no narrative shape of the universe that might falter (pessimism) or go forward (optimism). In nihilism, you are trapped in a meaningless repetition—Nietzsche: the endless repetition of the same.
The first step to healing is to understand where you are. The death of God was a catastrophe. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t die. That God died. I left Judaism because that God died.
But what to do? Maybe nothing. Nietzsche also said it would take a thousand years to bury God—we are only a couple of hundred years into nihilism.
We can stop congratulating ourselves about how good we can be without God. Religious people, who had more to do with God’s murder than anyone else, can stop congratulating themselves about having been right. That much we can do.
Oh, and we can continue to do science with an open spirit. Maybe we will learn that forces do not equal chaos. Or, maybe we will learn that chaos has a shape. Maybe there is a deeper order out of which hope can emerge.