nothing is mere

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Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms.

Nothing is “mere.”

I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part — perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together.

What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

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Nothing is mere?

Nothing? That can’t be right. One might as well proclaim that nothing is big. Or that nothing is undelicious.

What could that even mean? It sounds… arbitrary. Frivolous. An insult to the extraordinary.

But there’s a whisper of a lesson here. Value is arbitrary. It’s just what moves us. And the stars are lawless. And they nowhere decree what we ought to weep for, fight for, rejoice in. Love and terror, nausea and grace — these are born in us, not in the lovely or the terrible. ‘Arbitrary’ itself first meant ‘according to one’s will’. And by that standard nothing could be more arbitrary than the will itself.

Richard Feynman saw that mereness comes from our attitudes, our perspectives on things.  And those can change. (With effort, and with time.) Sometimes the key to appreciating the world is to remake it in our image, draw out of it an architecture deserving our reverence and joy. But sometimes the key is to reshape ourselves. Sometimes the things we should prize are already hidden in the world, and we have only to unblind ourselves to some latent dimension of merit.

Our task of tasks is to create a correspondence between our values and our world. But to do that, we must bring our values into harmony with themselves. And to do that, we must come to know ourselves.

Through Nothing Is Mere, I want to come to better understand the relationship between the things we care about and the things we believe. The topics I cover will vary wildly, but should all fall under four humanistic umbrellas.

  • Epistemology: What is it reasonable for us to believe? How do we make our beliefs more true, and why does truth matter?
  • Philosophy of Mind: What are we? Can we rediscover our most cherished and familiar concepts of ourselves in the great unseeing cosmos?
  • Value Theory: What is the nature of our moral, prudential, aesthetic, and epistemic norms? Which of our values run deepest?
  • Applied Philosophy: What now? How do we bring all of the above to bear on our personal development, our relationships, our discourse, our political and humanitarian goals?

Saying a little about my background in existential philosophy should go a long way toward explaining why I’m so interested in the project of humanizing Nature, and of naturalizing our humanity.

Two hundred years ago yesterday, the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard was born. SK was a reactionary romantic, a navel-gazing amoralist, an anti-scientific irrationalist, a gadfly, a child. But, for all that, he came to wisdom in a way very few do.

It sounds strange, but the words his hands penned taught me how to take my own life seriously. He forced me to see that my life’s value, at each moment, had to come from itself. And that it did. I really do care for myself, and I care for this world, and I need no one’s permission, no authority’s approval, to render my values legitimate.

SK feared the furious apathy of the naturalists, the Hegelians, the listless Christian throngs. He saw with virtuosic clarity the subjectivity of value, saw the value of subjectivity, saw the value of value itself. He saw that it is a species of madness to refuse in any way to privilege your own perspective, to value scientific objectivity so completely that the human preferences that make that objectivity worthwhile get lost in a fog, objectivity becoming an end in itself rather than a tool for realizing the things we cherish.

The path of objective reflection makes the subject accidental, and existence thereby into something indifferent, vanishing, Away from the subject, the path of reflection leads to the objective truth, and while the subject and his subjectivity become indifferent, the truth becomes that too, and just this is its objective validity; because interest, just like decision, is rooted in subjectivity. The path of objective reflection now leads to abstract thinking, to mathematics, to historical knowledge of various kinds, and always leads away from the subject, whose existence or non-existence becomes, and from the objective point of view quite rightly, infinitely indifferent[…. I]n so far as the subject fails to become wholly indifferent to himself, this only shows that his objective striving is not sufficiently objective.

But SK’s corrective was to endorse a rival lunacy. Fearing the world’s scientific mereness, its alien indifference, he fled from the world.

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what then would life be but despair? If it were thus, if there were no sacred bond uniting mankind, if one generation rose up after another like the leaves of the forest, if one generation succeeded the other as the songs of birds in the woods, if the human race passed through the world as a ship through the sea or the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless whim, if an eternal oblivion always lurked hungrily for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrest it from its clutches — how empty and devoid of comfort would life be! But for that reason it is not so[.]

SK shared Feynman’s worry about the poet who cannot bring himself to embrace the merely real. He wanted to transform himself into the sort of person who could love himself, and love the world, purely and completely. But he simply couldn’t do it. So he cast himself before a God that would be for him the perfect lover, the perfect beloved, everything he wished he were.

[H]e sees in secret and recognizes distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.

But everything moves you, and in infinite love. Even what we human beings call a trifle  and unmoved pass by, the sparrow’s need, that moves you; what we so often scarcely pay attention to, a human sigh, that moves you, Infinite Love.

To SK’s God, it all matters. But SK’s God is a God of solitude and self-deception. Striving for perfect Subjectivity leads to confusion and despair, just as surely as does striving for perfect, impersonal Objectivity. SK saw that we are the basis for the poetry of the world. What he sought in fantasy, we have now to discover — to create — in our shared world, our home.

Five years have passed, and I still return to Kierkegaard’s secret. He reminds me of what this is all for. We’re doing this for us, and it is we, at last, who must define our ends. I remain in his debt for that revelation. Asleep, I did not notice myself. Within a dream, I feel him shaking me awake with a terrifying urgency —— and I wake, and it is night, and I am alone again with the light of the stars.

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3 Comments

  1. Laurie

    I really like this post! It’s quite beautiful.

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