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Monday, 16 July 2012

The "Religious Nihilist" Thought Experiment

A warning – I don’t intend this to be offensive or belittling to anyone’s religious beliefs. I am not saying the below is how religious thought is; everyone has their own personal reasons and rationale for their beliefs, convictions, faith or world-view. This is simply me trying to conceive of how I, as a weary, non-believing, faintly nihilistic type, may authentically take up something that, at least on some level, resembles a kind of intense religiosity. I am aware what’s outlined below is perversion of what religion is supposed to be, but that is kind of the point. And that’s not to say it can’t provoke thought for both the faithful and faithless. Take from it what you will.

THERE are days when my nihilistic tendencies get to me.

Probably on the long commute home from work when I’ve forgotten to put on the radio to distract me; or stuck in a doctor’s waiting room with nothing to read but some whiffle about expensive country homes and posters warning me about terrible things that might happen to my body if I don’t live a healthy lifestyle (or even if I do live a healthy lifestyle).

It’s slightly shameful to admit – I am no sixth-former, sent into a depressive tailspin by an un-prepared-for first-encounter with Sartre. As a world-view, I have been fearlessly staring the existential void in the face for well over a decade. I am steeped in it. I am a veritable creature of the abyss – I live my life perched on the edge of that chasm, and lo! laugh heartily into the howling wind that issues forth, and all that jazz... but, sheesh, sometimes it comes sharp – and I feel a sore need for a cardigan, when there is no cardigan to be found.

I’ve said before (here) that it is actually impossible to be a nihilist. Everyone has to take a world-view, everyone has a value set (in that they value some things as important, some not; some true, some not), everyone buys into some ideas and pooh-poohs others – we have to in order to get on with our lives.

But, even so, my standard position that ultimately, taking the grand overview of existence, there is no final purpose or meaning to be had, is kind of nihilistic. This isn’t usually something that gets me down, it’s kind of liberating, and means I see the universe as an awe-inspiringly strange place that will never cease to surprise; and I will never settle on one certain, tired, dull interpretation.

That ultimate meaninglessness just seems a necessary conclusion. It’s simply to say that meaning and purpose can only be found at the small, local scale, where there is a connection and relevance to you and your life. Meaning is always personal and human-centred, we create it by the patterns and links we construct around ourselves.

The further you zoom out of this local sphere, the more of an overview you take, the more alien and unknowable everything gets: You can no longer take a single, definite perspective or interpretation on things, it’s no longer obvious what the significance of anything is. The web of meaning you have weaved for yourself as you pootle through life no longer looks as relevant, solid or certain. Ultimately there is no definite meaning to be had in the face of sheer, objective truth. There is only information – as soon as you try to “meaningfully” interpret it, you are limiting it, choosing what to highlight and what to ignore, squeezing it out of shape, drawing a finite, solid line through a vague, chaotic sea of possibles.

But (again), even so, these days come when I take a long, hard look at the modern, rational, human world and feel nothing but a cold, grey, empty sinking feeling. Maybe a touch of despair, maybe a touch of horror. It’s probably much more to do with my energy and stress levels, and my brain chemistry at the time, than any rational process, but there are valid reasons for it that can’t be ignored.

And then I wonder if life without a religious myth-narrative to fill it up is, perhaps, a mistake.


What? Let me elaborate: Without the certainty of a transcendent element to existence - without a God, or a heaven, or a higher realm that one is required to remember and pay attention to daily - it is all too easy to fall into the conviction that there is no reason to consider anything greater or beyond yourself and your everyday shit at all. Life becomes grey and functional, devoid of higher meaning – since, after all, there is no higher meaning, ultimately.

Maybe we’ll coo at some big sciencey stuff that Prof Brian Cox tells us is “ameeehzin,” now and again, but that’s about it. That’s just entertainment, really. Most of the time, for the secular sectors of society, life is a largely tunnel-visioned, largely blind affair. Everyone runs around like ants, completely immersed in their own little tasks and troubles and bubble-like mindsets. And nothing encourages us reach out or beyond, to be any different. And nothing happens at all unless there is money in it.

Neitzsche thought that nihilism was just the void left over when the old myths were cast off. After killing God we would be left with a vacuum, a directionless emptiness that we would not know how to fill. But he was determined this was only a phase, and it could be turned around into a positive, brave new chapter in history, a step towards mankind becoming something else – something new. He followed Epicurus, and preceded Sartre, in suggesting that actually, by casting off the old Gods, the old myths and values, the old narrative, we were free as individuals to forge our own meaning, take on full responsibility for our actions and choices; we had no-one to bow down to or take the responsibility away from us any more. Kill the father-figure - we can become our own gods.

But (you guessed it), even so - when I’ve still not turned that radio on to distract me - I’m not sure that, rather than nihilism giving way to a brave new world, it’s not vice versa. Once the adrenaline and novelty of that noble, high-minded God-jettisoning moment has worn off, the tendency is then to retreat into a rather nihilistic, selfish, self-absorbed existence, just living from day to day – because what else is there?

The tendency is to fall into instrumental rationality, where everything in the world, in life, is only valued by how useful it is for a specific, practical purpose, a specific set of goals. Those goals might be making money, solving a logistical problem, raising the family, advancing the business or pursuing the career; sure, other things go on in your life, but they are mere frivolities, luxuries, leisure activities – nothing is of any real worth or importance unless it advances the functional goals of that instrumental rationality. Very businesslike, very practical, very rational – and very grey, very joyless, very narrow, very dehumanising. And, of course, all utterly pointless, in the grand scheme of things.

The Examined Life Is Not Worth Living... no, hang on...

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living,” but he was full of it. Yes it is, Socrates, it very much is, and often a lot happier and less complicated than the "examined" life. Because, when I’m on one of these downers (for chrissakes, turn on that radio, Simon Mayo will sort you out...) it seems all the years of rational analysis and truth-seeking have only served to add an extra layer of complicated angst to my mortal existence. All of it has only served to lead here – an awareness of being trapped in a futile, absurd situation, with all the accompanying emptiness, ennui, mild horror and slight despair that goes with that revelation. The price of knowledge is a fall from grace - Adam and Eve found that out. I wish, in moments like this, that I could just flick a switch and turn it off, Socrates old chum.

But I cannot flick that switch. So, if I cannot stand to be a contemplative sort in a nihilistic world any longer, maybe I should re-imagine my world: If I cannot stomach instrumental rationality, perhaps I belong with those who believe in something transcendental... even if I can’t believe in it myself. Hmmm. How could I resolve this?

Cosmic Horror

Maybe rational atheism was a mistake. Maybe secularism is a dead-end. Maybe the only way out of this interminable bleakness is to get a myth, escape into a dream of my own making.

Because, if you find it more evident and likely that there is no guiding intelligence behind the universe; that the idea of a single purpose to life just doesn’t make any sense; and even if there were an intelligence and a purpose to things they would not be benevolently centred on us and our wellbeing – if all of that, then there is no reason to believe that knowledge of the “true nature of reality” would be a pleasant thing to have.

From the perspective of rationality the “true nature of reality” is as likely to appear senseless, wasteful and cruel, as it is inspiring, purposeful and empowering. There is no reason why it wouldn’t appear crushing, maddening, soul destroying, like a form of Lovecraftian cosmic horror without the cool aliens. The universe is utterly blank and indifferent to our struggles and our fate, our concepts of good and evil, significance or insignificance. We are part of a blind process playing out. Maybe we are simply not built to have too much awareness of this, or to deal with this without a mythological buffer. Maybe fully comprehending the “true nature of reality” can only destroy us.

Or – maybe that is the logical conclusion of rationality: to realise rationality is a death-force - trying to hold the blank meaninglessness of everything in your head while you go about your business is actually anti-life and untenable; it gets in the way, it encourages you to give up, curl up and quietly wither away and die. Maybe the logical conclusion of rationality is to realise there are no answers, so you may as well make up your own.

The New Narrative

And here is the thought experiment – what if I did that? What if I decided this nihilistic thinking was simply all too much, and I should get myself religious? What if I enacted a kind of tactical retreat, an “ongoing suicide of reason” (as Nietzsche put it), and got a New Mythological Narrative, with my own God or Gods, heavenly realm and afterlife? Wouldn’t life become so much more meaningful, so much more purposeful and serene?

Here is the thought – a religion born of nihilism: maybe I can’t fully, really believe that there is an ultimate purpose to life, that there is a benevolent, anthropomorphic intelligence watching over us, that any concept of a heavenly afterlife I’ve ever come across makes any coherent sense... but I can believe in the necessity of believing in such things.

It wouldn’t be God, or a saviour, or a heaven that I would have faith in, it would be the necessity of the myth to living a good, happy, meaningful life. And that faith would be authentic.

How would such a faith manifest? Well, for a start I would consider myself saved. Genuinely, my life would have been transformed by this. The world would look different, I would have been given strength by the unshakable certainty that I have to believe in, and live by, the New Narrative. That would give me considerable armour against whatever the world could throw at me.

I would have purpose – I could devote my life to the New Narrative, and the more I did this, the better I would feel. Life without it is a mistake, I’d know, so there would be no doubt in my mind of its importance, no matter what anyone else said. The effect of day-to-day power-politics and the demands of instrumental rationality would be softened by my assurance that there was more to life, and as long as I stuck with the Narrative, I was doing the right thing, and all was ok with the world.

I would meet non-believers with a missionary zeal. I would want to save them too, and communicate the revelations I had had. I would shake my head sadly to watch them go about their meaning-poor lives. They had not got to the stage I had, I’d think, they were not far enough along the road. They have not seen the True Light. They do not understand how ultimately awful and hollow existence is without the New Narrative, because they have not thought about it enough.

I could still consider and contemplate, so long as it was refracted through the New Narrative, and the Narrative itself was ring-fenced as a no-go area. In fact I’m sure it would be a boost to have whole new areas of thinking to explore, and artistic inspiration to be had.

The thought I astonished myself with was that to all intents and purposes my behaviour, though coming from a different justification, would appear identical with someone of a deeply religious conviction. The truth of the New Narrative would not matter - a faith is a faith.

All the stresses and strains of life, all the complications and tragedies, would be swaddled by the comforts of having the Narrative. No more existential-abyss staring. I’ve done that, I'd think, that was a mere phase that led to this.

A life at peace, secure and confident in my beliefs, with a comforting transcendental dream of God or Gods, and a heavenly realm, to escape into at will, without any guilt or doubt that doing so wasn’t the logical, justified, good thing to do...

Simon Mayo's Drive Time

Of course, this is a fantasy. I almost wish I could do it. If I ever do become intensely religious over-night, this is very possibly what has happened.

But in truth, though I make a big noise about my nihilistic tendencies and existential angst, I don’t think in such a bleak way most of the time. Well, not all of the time, anyway. I don’t think it is really possible to know “the true nature of reality” at all, but any reaction we have to knowledge is all about what we bring to the table ourselves. We don't have to react with anguish. I do think any step towards knowing the nature of reality can, and should, be possible to experience as an enlightening, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring and – yes – empowering thing, if you just approach it right, with an open and clear mind, letting go of your day-to-day angst.

Anyway, life is full of beauty and wonder and laughter and meaning, actually, on that small-scale local-sphere level. You just have be in the right mood, receptive to it, know where to find it, and recognise it and appreciate it when you do. And learn to shrug off that instrumental rationality stuff when it gets too much – avert the gaze, go check something different out, enjoy the glorious so-called "irrelevancies" of life, they are as important as anything else, if you want or need them to be.

Ultimately meaningless or not, being in the world is utterly, berserkly, fascinating. There is so much out there to check. If you ever have a problem with existential ennui and encroaching nihilism, it’s usually no more then a sign that you’ve got stuck in a rut and need a change of mental scenery: go learn something new, get out more, speak to someone different, travel a bit maybe.

I mean, what was I thinking anyway? I love the ultimate, empty, meaninglessness of existence, that stuff fills me with a buzzy rapture, the sublime mystery of that is my religion – it’s just the humdrum, work-a-day, over-familiar human sphere that I often find restrictive, grey and mean – that is the problem.

Whatever, that’s enough. Probably the most telling thing of all is the fact that if I’d just turned Simon Mayo on, none of this would have happened. It’s drive time, folks. I'm off to laugh heartily into the howling abyss for a bit. Ha ha.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Shopping Failure #2 (F*** grocery shopping)

~or~ Do not go to your secondary supermarket when you are slightly elsewhere.

YOU are going to the secondary supermarket because you want to find specific items. Specific items from a specific range of meat-in-sauce pouch products that were particularly delicious when you had them last weekend.

That is all you want, that and some rice to accompany. Your primary supermarket does not do that range, though it is cheaper and easier to find stuff there, because you know it so well.

You have been dozing after work. It’s hot – the collar is popped, the sleeves are unevenly rolled and, hell, the shirt is even un-tucked on one side, but that suits your lazy shuffling mood just fine tonight.

Your mind has been intensely pre-occupied with an irrelevant but seemingly intensely important train of thought on the way there. You are properly thinking this guff, whatever it is, properly through. As you stride loose-of-limb through the swish-glass you are having interesting revelations about something or other – hmm, never thought of it that way before, that’s good stuff, must remember that.

The first inkling that maybe you’re not in the right frame of mind for Taking Care of Grocery Business is when you realise you have walked all the way down two aisles and only just noticed what’s missing. Ah. No basket.

That’s fine. You grab one. Feeling good. Hell, yeah! Got yo basket, let’s groove.

Now it’s all very well enjoying swinging the empty basket around like a five-year-old, wondering how much of that you can get away with before people will think you’re weird. But now you are by the breads, and you didn’t come here for breads. Get a grip: focus on the task at hand.

You wander back down the aisles looking for likely pouches. Ah! Here is the rice. Good. Shopping half done. But... shouldn’t the meat-in-sauce product also be here? There’s rice. There’s sauces. No. Where would it be? With the tinned goods? Here are the tinned goods... oh, no, that’s just tinned tomatoes. Apparently an aisle of tinned tomatoes. Where are the tinned goods that are not tomatoes?

But, hmm, yeah, that really was an interesting revelation you were having before... oh hang on where are you now?

You are by the cheese. That means just round the aisle is the chilled meats on one side and ready meals on the other, maybe one of those will be where the meat-in-sauce is and... kettles?! You fool! You were getting confused with the primary supermarket. You are not there now. Your unconsciously ingrained store map will not help you here, in the exotic realm of the secondary supermarket. Here you have to look and think, use your stealth and cunning.

Another aimless amble around, seeking only to spot the familiar pouch, and nothing is doing.

Right, this is getting silly. Let’s do a systematic, aisle by aisle sweep. Chilled meats, no. Ready meals, no. Miscellaneous refrigerated items, no, but now you’re hungry and you like the look of those unhealthy cheese-based snacks. Just one, or two, and moving on. Ah here’s the tinned goods – and there they are, there’s the sneaky pouches... oh no, they’re all soup. Same brand, just soup. What gives?

“World foods”, no. Spices and sauces, no. Back to the rice and pasta, no, but now you’re damn hungry and you like the look of that penne. Just one, or two, and moving on. Sugar and coffee, no. Cakes, no... and you’re back at the f***ing breads! F*** you, breads! You didn’t come here for no muthaf***ing bread!

All that lies beyond this point is the "adult cereals", and you’re not venturing down that sleazy avenue. Far too racy, you wouldn’t know where to look.

The signs are not helping. It’s possible the fabled-in-myth pouches would be in the “meal solutions” section. They do constitute, after all, the solution to your meal problem that you were after. You’re not interested in all this damn food, you want solutions, dammit!

But the meal solutions have gone, or moved, since your last visit, there are no solutions here. Another hazard of the occasional nature of the secondary supermarket experience: things move around.

You do a second, quick but neck-snappingly efficient sweep, and then a third, back down but via a different route. Nought. It’s like you imagined the aeons-craved-after meat-in-sauce pouches in a delirious, feverish night-vision. Or they have simply all turned into soup overnight.

Enough. You have been here too long. You’re going. You rock up at the self-service check-out and plonk your extremely light basket down.

Well, what a failure. But still, what was that interesting revelation you were having earlier... ah yes, that was interesting. What a thought that was... You get your wallet out, put your card in the chip-and-pin machine and it’s two beats before you realise you haven’t scanned any items yet.

Oh, Holy Moses! What's wrong with you? You are seriously elsewhere tonight. You let out a nervous half-laugh, hoping no-one saw you do that. You casually scan the items you never came in here for, and wander out, shaking your head, sans elusive, delicious meat-in-sauce pouches and worried about your sanity. Maybe the secondary supermarket has just run out of stock.

Rice, pasta and two unhealthy cheesed-based snacks it is, then. Sounds like tea to you.