Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

The Visions of Eternity, by reason of narrowed perceptions,

Are become weak Visions of Time & Space, fix’d into furrows of death.

-William Blake

Read the engaging and wide-ranging post hereThe Cosmology of Nick Land: Bataille, Gnosticism, and Contemporary Physics

I have noticed my own tendency to waver between a less extreme version of the cosmic pessimism Hickman describes and a more tempered cosmic optimism akin to that of philosophers like Whitehead or the cosmologist Brian Swimme. My wavering largely corresponds to my mood (prediction: I will swing violently to the pessimistic side after watching the GOP debate tonight). In general, I agree with Hickman that nihilism is not something we can undo or escape from. I’ve argued it is a necessary stage in the development of our species (whether developing past this stage will leave us recognizably “human” or not, I don’t know). It is not a destination, it is an existential trial we must confront head on. The old ontologies and traditional theologies no longer capture our imaginations. We are in between stories at the moment. No doubt the very nature of story-telling and myth-making will itself require transformation if we recover. But that we might live without myth all together? I just don’t see that being possible. That said, there is a real chance that we will not make it through this nihilistic cultural phase to tell new stories. Myth is non-negotiable. It is an intrinsic part of the very biology of our social species. Life on the other hand…

I’ve written a few posts bringing Whitehead into conversation with Nietzsche that unpack my perspective a bit regarding nihilism as a pathological transitional phase.

converted PNM file

I posted the following on Hickman’s blog in response to his reading of the metaphysical implications of neuroscience:

I’ve no doubt neuroscience will continue to increase our medical and military power over consciousness, its pathologies and its potentials. The military power it affords will be doled out rather widely, while the medical power will be reserved for the few who can afford it. As for our *understanding* of consciousness, I’m not sure how much neuroscience can help. The dominant paradigm at the moment has already decided in advance that consciousness is produced inside the skull through some sort of molecular magic to be determined later, so of course it will continue to find evidence supporting that theory. There is always the possibility that the 4EA paradigm will win more converts, but so far these related approaches don’t seem as appealing to DARPA, so they will probably remain underfunded in the hands of mere philosophers and neurophenomenologists. Power is more appealing to the powerful than understanding, as I’m sure you’d agree. That said, I don’t believe philosophy should ever try to outdo the sciences; rather, I see its task as that of the critic of the abstractions of the specialized sciences (Whitehead). It’s not that neuroscience should drop everything and consult philosophy. I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.


16 thoughts on “Cosmic Pessimism: Response to a post by S.C. Hickman

  1. Dear David,

    Nihilism: the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated?

    This is clearly false. It is obvious that science cannot establish absolutly true basis for knowledge but it is not necessary for us to know something to be worrthwhile communicating. Everywhere in the above text indicates that you try to resist nihilism Why is it that you also think that it is not something we can undo or escape from?

    1. No, nihilism is not about the belief that all values are baseless. It’s about where those values are based. What it attacks under the sign “God is Dead” is just the notion that values can be based in some external system or norm. Now we have to center those values immanently in immanence, but we’ve seen the old notion of the Death of Reason as that center of the Mind, die too. So the search in our generation begins anew.

  2. I agree that Nihilism is part of life and in some sense it is positive thus because It eliminate buys
    I mean a Christian is buys regarding his own faith , over other religions , but still religion is important as adding value to life . conversely physics is like nihilism and philosophy is religion they should compliment each other in developing our cosmological understanding .

    1. Of course for Nietzsche there were two forms of nihilism: passive and active. Passive nihilism lead to complete defeat and fatalism of Schopenhauer. While Nietzsche’s led to an active nihilism of joyous affirmation of what he termed amor fati of “love of fate” which was brought to head in his statement: “Christ or Dionysus?” The Hanged God of external law and death, or the energetic god of pure cosmic energy of base matter. Bataille and Nick Land would expand on this active of virulent form of nihilism…

  3. We both are in agreement here where you say: ” I just think neuroscience would be better served not making thinly veiled metaphysical claims about the nature of consciousness when all it can actually provide are ever-more ingenious (and, in DARPA’s hands, ever-more insidious) instrumental interventions upon consciousness.”

    I agree, neuroscientists fall into the presumption of philosophical speculators the moment they try to translate their findings into natural language conceptuality. Language is tied to a long history of error. It was this history that Kant’s philosophy arose. For two hundred years philosophy has become not a footnote to Plato, but to Kant reiterating the circular logic of his doubts and errors following his dismissal of the noumenon for phenomenon. Nihilism was an admission that the external values of Judaic-Christian and Platonic norms were now in abeyance. Now begins the search for new values. Yet, as Nietzsche believed and discovered these values cannot be centered in Reason, either. So since the split between Continental and Analytical schools of philosophy the search of some other center of value has been ongoing.

    I do think we’re coming to a break in this endeavor, Philosophers are pushing the limits, forcing the issue, seeking for understanding from the sciences, poetry, and other realms of thought in ways that the twentieth-century did not. Think of it, modernism of the early twentieth-century pushed abstraction to its limits, beyond representationalism and into non-representational thought, broke the back of our connection with reality in all the postmodern shibboleths of anti-realism (deconstruction, post-structuralism, etc.). Now in our time the swing of the pendulum seems to be swerving back toward a revisionism of realism. We see it transformed by the mathematical sciences, physics, and semiology (Peircean). We’ve seen the blending of semantic/non-semantic forms in Deleuze/Guattari, etc.

    The rise of Black Metal, Abject Horror, hypernihilism, hyperstition, etc. have led to a post-nihilist investigation that is bringing us back to a revisioning of that underbelly of Gnosticism, Occult, Esotericism in all their scientific and political aspects in the arts and criticisms of the age. The twofold weave of Transcendence and Immanence will need more clarification without throwing out the baby with the wash. I think we have to push both sides of that equation to the extremes, force both Transcendent and Immanent traditions to unload their diagnosis, unbuild the false coin of both traditions and see what lies in the borderlands between… it is the in-between stage, the wavering between transcendence and immanence without being drawn to the pole of fixity in either one or the other.

  4. It may very well be that nihilism is indeed be a transitional stage, or an existential trial, but my observation/experience is that this really does seem to largely afflict the rich and powerful. I never grow tired of Marcuse’s criticism of existentialism; nihilism (and its cousin absurdism) could properly be understood not only as very Western and individualistic, but as a type of bourgeois idealism that projects “specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics.” Leave it to well-to-do European and American white dudes, living in a modern, individualistic and oppressive society, to project feelings of anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself. HA!

    1. To bad you take such flippancy for insight, and the enemy of all idealisms as its supposed harbinger. Sad. And, blame the very history of European intellectuals for the cause rather than the effect of historical consciousness. If you agree with such a prognosis then I think we can agree we are ideological enemies. Tout Court!

    2. @S.C. Hickman

      Admittedly, Marcuse’s criticism may be flippant, but it shares a deep isight with other criticisms of nihilist/absurdist outlooks which come from perennial, mystical, and Eastern philosophical traditions; namely that faith in reason, human substantial self and its autonomy and separation from nature are prerequisites for belief in the absurd/nihilistic…add to this the process-relational insight that human consciousness is not an anomaly in nature, but merely a more developed form of experience which is prevalent throughout nature, and any sort of nihilism really begins to look trivial and less intimidating, imo.

      Anyway, coincidentally, I came across this quote from Black Liberation Theologian Charles Long on Death of God theology the other day. I think it’s relevant here:

      “This tendency of Americans “in the main” to “conceal even from themselves,” as Sidney Mead puts it, the tragic dimensions of their cultural experience constitutes a critical area of misinterpretation. In the same manner we may point to the fact that this Divinity School pioneered in the area of church history, specifically, American church history, but no major work or courses have ever been devoted to the churches of the black community. We might continue these misinterpretations in several other areas.

      These misinterpretations have been noted by the popularity of the “death of God” and “secular” theologians of a few years ago. A certain kind of radicality and feverish dilettantism is a mark of their style. While they are aware of the misinterpretations, they have no particular touchstone, no specific understanding of any reality as ultimate from which to launch a truly radical attack on these issues. They suffer from a linguistic confusion — an inability to assign the proper words to reality. They are like that religious figure, the trickster, who has the power to create but no sense of what or how to create. And thus their works burst above and around us as the ephemeral balloons that they are.

      When, for example, Thomas J. J. Altizer speaks of the “death of God,” is he not in fact trying to refer to the decline of the West, or the death and end of the American dream? Why assign the category of death to God when you really mean something else?”

      1. no Altizer (fer christsake) wasn’t talking about the decline of the West/US, I’m gonna guess you never read folks like Winquist who’s Epiphanies of Darkness should be required reading at all the trendy seminaries that love no-nothings like Catherine Keller and co. as a kind of cold shower…

    3. I’ll echo Jesse’s passage here: “… namely that faith in reason, human substantial self and its autonomy and separation from nature are prerequisites for belief in the absurd/nihilistic…add to this the process-relational insight that human consciousness is not an anomaly in nature…”

      At least in my own reading nihilism is not about imputing any meaning or non-meaning as ontological, but is rather about the subtraction of meaning from what we presume to be the ontological and ontic.

      As for “faith in reason”: this is the very core of the nihilist attack, it no longer centered meaning in Enlightenment Reason.

      The “human substantial self”: another attack was on the whole Platonic/Aristotelian tradition of substantial formalism… Nietzsche’s use of both decadence (from Nisard) and nihilism (his readings in the Russians) was that the self is not substantial, nor is reality fixed and stabilized in forms; rather the self is nothing (-ness), emptied of content, a mere illusion and linguistic trick; and, reality a chaos unbounded (Dionysian).

      As far as imputing consciousness into Nature or the ontic and ontological as you read Whitehead and other process-reality philosophers, nihilism would say that it is imposition that is Idealist rather than the substractive or eliminative move of nihilism.

      Nihilism is more of a stance toward things, an epistemic relation rather than an ontology. It does not construct meaning but subtracts from our human impositions of reality and leaves us with both and unnaming and a process of revisioning of the Real. I think you confuse what appears within the inheritors of Dada, Surrealism, and Existentialism as nihilism when what they have done is far different that the eliminative nihilism of Nietzsche and his followers, Bataille, Land, and others… at least this is my take on it.

      1. The question that remains for me is whether the nihilist’s subtraction of *all* meaning and value from the Universe as though it were simply human projection/imposition is not just more anthropocentrism. Humans are the only value creators in this Universe? Really? If nihilism means reigning in our tendency to project narrowly human values onto the world, then I think it provides an important distillation that will hopefully allow more cosmic values to shine through. But I’m with Whitehead: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe” (“Modes of Thought,” 111). Shaviro has a helpful post unpacking the implications of this comment here:

        Also, on my reading, Nietzsche is far closer on this issue to Whitehead than you are letting on (I unpack why in the comparative pieces I link to above).

      2. You’re quote: “We have no right to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the Universe.”

        And, one might ask: How does Whitehead know this? Has he been given some inner knowledge that tells him so, and would not this knowledge be from within his Mind rather than some reading of a Universal Scripture of Nature?

        The nihilist would not say that humans are the only value creators. The nihilist would admit to only one thing – as far as he knows (epistemically) humans are the only source of reputed values “for humans”. If values exist for other species or for the Universe itself would be to impute a knowledge that humans just do not have (yet).

        And, of course, this was Nietzsche’s point: that the only way to move beyond nihilism is to revalue all here-to-fore values, to admit that for humans we are the creator of values for ourselves. That there is no external source for our valuations, our norms. That is the whole point of nihilism. And, he goes further, stating that we cannot center in in Reason, either. We need something else… it is this something else that we others are left with, for Nietzsche did not finish his project.

        So we are in that transitional moment between nihilism and postnihilism… this is where my project is situated. I’m not a defender of nihilism, but rather of what comes next. Some may think or misunderstand me for a nihilist because I non-philosophically speak about it so much, but that is the belly of the beast of our era. We all strive within various philosophical heritages toward that postnihilistic goal of a revaluation of our human heritage.

      3. Whitehead spends more time deconstructing received notions of representational “knowledge about nature” that perhaps any other inherited mode of thought. His reconstructed account of perception in terms of causal efficacy allows him to argue that the values of non-human creatures are directly felt and form the massive basis of our flitting conscious experiences. In short, our human values depend on non-human values as the condition of their actuality. Part of the tragedy of modernity has been the complete divorce of human value from the values of the earth community and wider cosmos. Not that medieval Europe’s worldview was rooted in the earth and synced up with the sky, but if we go back further to pre-axial archaic society and even further back to primal societies, the contrast is stark. And I’m not suggesting that modernity has been entirely tragic; there are many reasons I would definitely not want to turn back the clock.

        More recently, even more tragic has been the reduction of all human value to economic exchange value. This divorce and reduction has had catastrophic consequences for the ability of the rest of the life-forms on this planet to continue to (re)produce their values, and indeed, though our human population has benefited from the petroleum interval over the past century, my sense is that the next century will prove just how catastrophic the modern bifurcation is for our species, as well.

        And I think “we” should be careful not to universalize the “we” that must move beyond nihilism.

      4. My problem with much of the new disparagement of the human – this move toward the non-human is that it smells of one more academic grindfest, a new tactic to produce more texts and gain careers through at the expense of humans in favor of some strange denial of the human. Of an abandonment of the human project in favor of a relocation of value back into reality beyond – a new transcendence ideology of the non-human rather than the reevaluation of our immanent relation to the Unknown. This notion that we can get out of the Kantian correlation by some sleight of hand trickery of linguistic innovation seems to me just one more grand mystification.

    4. I want to respond in more depth today to say exactly why I agree with the point Jesse is raising. I find it problematic to say that nihilism is a necessary developmental stage for all of humanity when in reality it may be a uniquely European affliction. Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy if all human beings followed the same sort of Hegelian developmental pathway to Absolute Knowledge of their own nothingness? In a post-colonial context, it is clear that this pathway is not universal, that for the most part (outside the Euro-American context, and indeed, even within this context among the less educated) human beings are still entirely mythical and magical in general outlook. Nietzsche’s announcement of God’s death is hardly relevant to those for whom no such monotheistic notion of value existed in the first place.

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