Gott Ist Geboren: Nihilism and Nirvana
I saw a post recently with this chart on the skyrocketing levels of atheism among Gen Z. It was shocking not just because the absolute % of religious folk was so low, but because the curve that showed its recent trajectory was so steep compared to the modest decline of belief among millennials. The obvious upshot of this is of course Nietzsche’s nihilism and the two world wars that sprung from it. But there’s a more optimistic upshot. Consider the optimism inherent in the straight line that connects Schopenhauer, who was all misery, to Nietzsche who was an individualized ball of misery but with recognition of the heroic in man, to Jung who reveled in the wonder of life. This trajectory, I’d argue is inherently optimistic, from Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer to modern day interpretations of the very same philosophies. Today we read those philosophies with an almost spiritual bliss, seeing in it the Upanishadic and Buddhist interpretations of the universe that were missing in the 19th century. If I were to put a finger on the cause for optimism in the same philosophy, it is the idea that delving into the infinite complexity of our own minds is not only a neverending and neverendingly rewarding enterprise, it is by definition renewed afresh for each person since they can never know my mind, and therefore a completely new yet entirely recognizable shared experience among all conscious minds.
The reason I point to this is a fundamental distinction between the body of knowledge in science and religion. For 6000 years, religion and scripture have dominated the body of knowledge and ideas available to man. Even in the cultural goldmine that was ancient Greece, I could likely finish consuming and analyzing and interpreting all the works of Plato, Herodotus and Sophocles within a single lifetime. Religion on the other hand gave our society enough not only for a single lifetime, but for generations and generations and generations to pore over, continuously parsing apart new details, finding new insight, and understanding human existence in a new light. It never threatened to run out. And this very hermeneutic activity added even more to the body of knowledge, made the depth of scripture that much more.
Why does this matter? I argue that dimensionality and complexity of subject matter are what constitute dominance, not truth and practicability. A potboiler best-seller I pick up at the airport keeps me engaged for 2 hours. But I would never re-read it, analyze it, pore over it constantly to pick apart every single nuance. That nuance simply isn’t there. Sooner or later, I hit a dead-end, and that dead-end sucks. It literally sucks all my energy into itself, like a black hole. Lovecraft glimpsed this terrifying nature of the end-point of mind when he said the most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the mind to correlate all its contents. That, to me, is the essence of what it is like to be Cthulhu. It is extra-dimensional not in the traditional sense of space and time, but of space and mind. To Cthulhu, the mind is not an internal dimension but just another external dimension that can be easily traversed, put side by aside and manipulated like space. It is a pity Carl Sagan did not take the Flatland metaphor to its logically terrifying conclusion. If a Flatlander did in fact manage to transcend his dimension and perceive his 2 dimensions from an external point, it might well drive him insane. That same perception that we think nothing of. Cthulhu thinks nothing of the ability to perceive thought like he perceives space, but it drives some of us insane. It drove Lovecraft insane. It likely drove Nietzsche insane, and every other genius we think of.
Yet it does not drive all of us insane. It did not drive Jung insane, and it did not drive the Buddha insane, even though this transcendence and universal perception of thought is exactly what we would define to be Nirvana. Why? Perhaps like Dr.Manhattan, or a dumber version of it, Starlord in GotG, he was capable of re-composing the constituents of his mind having gained the ability to perceive its inner dimensions, the same way an X-ray perceives the inner dimension of the human being. This translates to the competing activities of Samkhya and Yoga, the root of frustratingly pseudo-nonsensical statements in Buddhism like to become everything you must become nothing, and other transparently juxtaposed opposites. But to remain with our theme of translating the inner dimension of mind to the outer dimension of space, there is an equivalent for this as well. In 2-D analytic geometry, it is the hyperbola of conic sections, and in 3D topology it is the Klein bottle, where the inside is outside. Everything is nothing. Linguistic nonsense that is semantically void unless wielded by a Frege or Russell, a symptom of the incompleteness of language rather than the nonsense of the idea.
But these mark experiences at the extreme. For most of us, the choice isn’t between nihilism and nirvana. We don’t get that far. This is because we never quite abstract away our constant social interaction into the realm of ideas. Consider the annoying saying that small minds discuss people, ordinary minds events, and great minds ideas. This is a low resolution representation that obfuscates a terrible truth. 90% of minds are average. When they discuss people they do so averagely. When they discuss ideas, they do so averagely. The 1% of extraordinary minds discuss ideas, events, and people all extraordinarily. The problem is that if you remove the statistical frequency of discussion, we get a pure counting exercise that results in the fact that there are more abstract variations available to us in the realm of ideas viz. permutations and combinations that can be postulated and discussed. The same way the symbolic representation 1+1=2 is far more powerful than its underlying real-world analog ie 1 apple and 1 more apple is 2 apples, or more accurately, 1 and 1 apples. The superiority of this symbol is not in terms of accuracy, truth or even ingenuity, but in its procedural ease of generating more combinations. Far far more than the combinations available to us while discussing people. In pure set-size, ideas outnumber people. But in terms of discussion, the same abstract form that underlies a discussion on people is translated to the realm of ideas, and somehow we get the impression the latter is more intelligent when it is exactly the same. What is fantasy and myth but the exploration of forms and ideas available to us in abstract form but not in real world examples? Every possible solution state of the 3-body problem can literally be translated into a story involving 3 people. Most of them we see already. We call that a social life. Some of them are not disallowed by the rules of the universe governing physical bodies and indeed social structures of our size and shape. We call that history and non-fictional art/science in general. Few are valid solutions of the 3-body problem but disallowed by what we take for granted as human existence. That we call fantasy and myth. But the form of the idea remains exactly the same, and the ingenuity that is assumed from the arbitrary superiority of ideas over people is negated by the freedom with which we can imagine human affairs.
Remove this arbitrary distinction, and science and religion should technically start to converge once more. Here’s why. We are a social species, and our entire reason to indulge in the discussion of ideas is the discussion part not the ideas part. Given this, a successful body of knowledge or ideas is that which keeps us socially engaged across time. Back to our complexity and dimensionality argument. Why is Jung more optimistic than Nietzsche about godlessness? Because our body of knowledge in science and art are infinitely more complex than in the 19th century, not linearly more, but orders of magnitude more. There is no way we can fully learn what is available, and what we have already learned is enough to keep many generations occupied and aligned. Our science, art, and religion, are all Cthulhu’s equivalent of User Generated Content. In the beginning he thought, why would anyone consume this garbage instead of content that comes from outside, content that is accurate, true, and high-quality. But who cares about those things. UGC has proved beyond doubt that we consume ideas as a social exercise in the shared experience of ideas the same way we engage in social play and interpersonal interactions. Any pessimism when it comes to the inevitable nihilism of our increasing godlessness is predicated on the suspicion that one day we will run out of things to investigate using the scientific method. That we will hit a limit on known and knowable knowledge. That we will find all there is to find. Woe be to the generation that reaches that point, because the sucking vacuum of that level of finality is what we today fear nebulously as the singularity. At which point we can simply rebrand that point to be, as it has been for most of humanity’s 6000 years of cognitive experience on earth, God. And just like that, Gott ist geboren.