Roy Scranton, New York Times, December 21, 2015
The time we’ve been thrown into is one of alarming and bewildering change — the breakup of the post-1945 global order, a multispecies mass extinction and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. Not one of us is innocent, not one of us is safe. The world groans under the weight of seven billion humans; every new birth adds another mouth hungry for food, another life greedy for energy.
We all see what’s happening, we read it in the headlines every day, but seeing isn’t believing, and believing isn’t accepting. We respond according to our prejudices, acting out of instinct, reflex and training. Right-wing denialists insist that climate change isn’t happening, or that it’s not caused by humans, or that the real problem is terrorism or refugees, while left-wing denialists insist that the problems are fixable, under our control, merely a matter of political will. Accelerationists argue that more technology is the answer. Incrementalists tell us to keep trusting the same institutions and leaders that have been failing us for decades. Activists say we have to fight, even if we’re sure to lose.
Meanwhile, as the gap between the future we’re entering and the future we once imagined grows ever wider, nihilism takes root in the shadow of our fear: if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway.
You can feel this nihilism in TV shows like “True Detective,” “The Leftovers,” “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” and you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred. It defines our current moment, though in truth it’s nothing new. The Western world has been grappling with radical nihilism since at least the 17th century, when scientific insights into human behavior began to undermine religious belief. Philosophers have struggled since to fill the gap between fact and meaning: Kant tried to reconcile empiricist determinism with God and Reason; Bergson and Peirce worked to merge Darwinian evolution and human creativity; more recent thinkers glean the stripped furrows neuroscience has left to logic and language.
Scientific materialism, taken to its extreme, threatens us with meaninglessness; if consciousness is reducible to the brain and our actions are determined not by will but by causes, then our values and beliefs are merely rationalizations for the things we were going to do anyway. Most people find this view of human life repugnant, if not incomprehensible.
In her recent book of essays, “The Givenness of Things,” Marilynne Robinson rejects the materialist view of consciousness, arguing for the existence of the human soul by insisting that the soul’s metaphysical character makes it impervious to materialist arguments. The soul, writes Robinson, is an intuition that “cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds, its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence.”
The biologist E.O. Wilson spins the problem differently: “Does free will exist?” he asks in “The Meaning of Human Existence.” “Yes, if not in ultimate reality, then at least in the operational sense necessary for sanity and thereby for the perpetuation of the human species.” Robinson offers an appeal to ignorance, Wilson an appeal to consequences; both arguments are fallacious.
Yet as Wilson suggests, our dogged insistence on free agency makes a kind of evolutionary sense. Indeed, humanity’s keenest evolutionary advantage has been its drive to create collective meaning. That drive is as ingenious as it is relentless, and it can find a way to make sense of despair, depression, catastrophe, genocide, war, disaster, plagues and even the humiliations of science.
Our drive to make meaning is powerful enough even to turn nihilism against itself. As Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Western philosophy’s most incisive diagnosticians of nihilism, wrote near the end of the 19th century: “Man will sooner will nothingness than not will.” This dense aphorism builds on one of the thoughts at the core of Nietzsche’s philosophy, today so widely accepted as to be almost unrecognizable, that human beings make their own meaning out of life.
In this view, there is no ultimate, transcendent moral truth — or, as Nietzsche put it in an early essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” truth is no more than a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms.” If we can stomach the moral vertigo this idea might induce, we can also see how it’s not necessarily nihilistic, but in the right light a testament, rather, to human resilience.
The human ability to make meaning is so versatile, so powerful, that it can make almost any existence tolerable, even a life of unending suffering, so long as that life is woven into a bigger story that makes it meaningful. Humans have survived and thrived in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, from the deserts of Arabia to the ice fields of the Arctic, because of this ability to organize collective life around symbolic constellations of meaning: anirniit, capital, jihad. “If we have our own why in life,” Nietzsche wrote, “we shall get along with almost any how.”
When he wrote “Man will sooner will nothingness than not will,” Nietzsche was exposing the destructive side of humanity’s meaning-making drive. That drive is so powerful, Nietzsche’s saying, that when forced to the precipice of nihilism, we would choose meaningful self-annihilation over meaningless bare life. This insight was horrifically borne out in the Götterdämmerung of Nazi Germany, just as it’s being borne out today in every new suicide attack by jihadi terrorists — even as it’s being borne out here at home in our willfully destructive politics of rage. We risk it as we stumble toward another thoughtless war, asking young men and women to throw their lives away so we might continue believing America means something. As a character in Don DeLillo’s novel “White Noise” put it: “War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country”— which is to see war as an active nihilism supplanting a passive one.
Nietzsche wasn’t himself a nihilist. He developed his idea of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” into a more complex philosophy of perspectivism, which conceived of subjective truth as a variety of constructions arising out of particular perspectives on objective reality. The more perspectives we learn to see from, the more truth we have access to. This is different from relativism, with which it’s often confused, which says that all truth is relative and there is no objective reality. Fundamentally, Nietzsche was an empiricist who believed that beyond all of our interpretations there was, at last, something we can call the world — even if we can never quite apprehend it objectively. “Even great spirits have only their five fingers breadth of experience,” he writes. “Just beyond it their thinking ceases and their endless empty space and stupidity begins.”
Nietzsche’s positive philosophical project, what he called his “gay science,” was to create the conditions for the possibility of a human being who could comprehend the meaninglessness of our drive to make meaning, yet nonetheless affirm human existence, a human being who could learn “amor fati,” the love of one’s fate: this was his much-misunderstood idea of the “overman.” Nietzsche labored mightily to create this new human ideal for philosophy because he needed it so badly himself. A gloomy, sensitive pessimist and self-declared decadent who eventually went mad, he struggled all his life to convince himself that his life was worth living.
Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world. Peril lurks on every side, from the delusions of hope to the fury of reaction, from the despondency of hopelessness to the promise of destruction.
We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point. We’re already one degree Celsius above preindustrial temperatures and there’s another half a degree baked in. The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.
Accepting our situation could easily be confused with nihilism. In a nation founded on hope, built with “can do” Yankee grit, and bedazzled by its own technological wizardry, the very idea that something might be beyond our power or that humans have intrinsic limits verges on blasphemy. Right and left, millions of Americans believe that every problem has a solution; suggesting otherwise stirs a deep and often hostile resistance. It’s not so much that accepting the truth of our situation means thinking the wrong thought, but rather thinking the unthinkable.
Yet it’s at just this moment of crisis that our human drive to make meaning reappears as our only salvation … if we’re willing to reflect consciously on the ways we make life meaningful — on how we decide what is good, what our goals are, what’s worth living or dying for, and what we do every day, day to day, and how we do it. Because if it’s true that we make our lives meaningful ourselves and not through revealed wisdom handed down by God or the Market or History, then it’s also true that we hold within ourselves the power to change our lives — wholly, utterly — by changing what our lives mean. Our drive to make meaning is more powerful than oil, the atom, and the market, and it’s up to us to harness that power to secure the future of the human species.
We can’t do it by clinging to the progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism. We can’t do it by trying to control the future. We need to learn to let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality and practice humility. We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.
Most important, we need to give up defending and protecting our truth, our perspective, our Western values, and understand that truth is found not in one perspective but in their multiplication, not in one point of view but in the aggregate, not in opposition but in the whole. We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.
We were born on the eve of what may be the human world’s greatest catastrophe. None of us chose this, not deliberately. None of us can choose to avoid it either. Some of us will even live through it. What meaning we pass on to the future will depend on how well we remember those who have come before us, how wisely and how gently we’re able to shed the ruinous way of life that’s destroying us today, and how consciously we’re able to affirm our role as creators of our fated future.
Accepting the fatality of our situation isn’t nihilism, but rather the necessary first step in forging a new way of life. Between self-destruction and giving up, between willing nothingness and not willing, there is another choice: willing our fate. Conscious self-creation. We owe it to the generations whose futures we’ve burned and wasted to build a bridge, to be a bridge, to connect the diverse human traditions of meaning-making in our past to those survivors, children of the Anthropocene, who will build a new world among our ruins.
Roy Scranton is the author of “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization” and the forthcoming novel “War Porn,” and is a co-editor of “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.” He has written for The New York Times, The Nation, Theory & Event, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. Twitter @RoyScranton.