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The Necessary Nihilism
The only way out is through
This week’s Moment of Zen episode is about the SVB collapse and whether crypto fixes finance with guest Byrne Hobart.
Note: This is part 3 in me trying to summarize Brett Andersen’s ideas. Read Brett here for the full dose.
In the last piece I mentioned that Slave Morality required a metaphysical justification, but I didn’t explain what that meant. In this piece, we’ll unpack the metaphysical justification as well as the conflict it created.
In the Bronze Age world, before the introduction of Slave Morality, people experienced the world in what's been referred to by Charles Taylor as "the continuous cosmos". In other words, human beings thought of themselves as being continuous with both the rest of nature and with the gods.
But with the introduction of slave morality, the continuous cosmos was replaced by the two-worlds mythology (aka religion), which separated humans from the gods. Before the two-worlds mythology, we did not even have the concept of religion as separate from anything else. We could not conceive of life outside of religion, so there was no need to have the term “religion”. We were like the fish swimming in water, unaware of anything else.
How did this two worlds mythology provide the metaphysical foundation for slave morality? It put “God” as the ultimate authority, prioritized over our instincts, which helped justify Slave Morality. As we covered in the last piece, Master Morality was self-evident and didn’t require abstract concepts like karma or religion to justify itself, whereas Slave Morality required a justification like religion. Master Morality said the powerful is better than the powerless because, look, the powerful win! Slave Morality said the powerless is better than the powerful because God said so. Or some other abstraction, like human rights.
So the two-world mythology was born, and it ruled for over 2,000 years.
The Crack in Slave Morality’s Foundations
But in the last few hundred years, thanks to Charles Darwin, there have been great cracks in the two worlds mythology, and thus in Slave Morality more broadly.
Darwin’s theory of evolution made it hard to retain conviction in the all-seeing creator God, since organisms could now be explained by natural selection.
Darwin’s theory also made it hard to believe in solely altruistic actions. Although altruism is common in nature, it can also be explained by the benefits altruism provides for the organism that demonstrates it. So it’s self-interested altruism, disguised as selfless.
In summary, for at least the last 2,000 years in the Western world, slave morality relied on some version of a two-worlds mythology. But Darwin shattered the two-world mythology. This shattering, according to Nietzsche, led to nihilism. For if Slave Morality is built on a faulty foundation, why adhere to it?
Now, while this led to nihilism, Nietzsche saw this evolution as a great opportunity. Partly because slave morality and master morality alone cause absolute chaos: Think Russia (communism) and Germany (nazism) respectively during WW2. Sure, those were terrible applications of both moralities, but those extremes are the risk if you don’t have the other to counter-balance. You need a synthesis of the two, as encapsulated in Nietzsche’s phrase, “the Roman Caesar with Christ’s soul”.
Nietzsche saw Nihilism as an opportunity because it opened the way for something new. Only when you lose everything can you really have anything. Only when we no longer believe our previous mythologies can we create new and better ones.
There are two mistakes we are susceptible to: First, avoiding nihilism by pretending that Darwin didn’t disrupt the two worlds mythology. This is what some religions do. Sure, metaphorical truth over literal truth, but it’s hard to have enduring faith in the metaphorical truth when you can’t believe the literal truth. It’d be better if there were a literal truth you could believe in.
Secondly, and I’ll quote Brett Andersen directly for this one: “The other mistake is to wallow in, or even celebrate, nihilism — to accept it as an end state and as the necessary consequence of the scientific revolution. Nietzsche believed that the correct path was not to avoid nihilism or to accept it as an end state, but rather to pass through nihilism as a necessary stepping stone on the way to something better. Nietzsche believed that we must allow our previous conception of the world to die off, but we should not wallow in or celebrate this death as an end point. Rather, we must find a new conception of the world that once again re-establishes meaning.“
Summarizing Brett further: There are two other forms of nihilism to avoid. “Passive nihilism” accepts Darwin but offers nothing in its place, implying there are no values or it’s just “what you make of it”, aka relativism. This is a dark path. “Radical nihilism” is even darker: it says not only is the world value-less, it’s also evil.
Nietzsche, despite being often labeled as a nihilist, believed that nihilism was a pathology to be overcome, to be passed through.
Sure, the metaphysics underlying our morality for the past two thousand years ago were debunked, that doesn’t mean we can’t conjure up a new metaphysics. We did it once before after all, shifting from continuous cosmos to two worlds mythology, and ironically, we might be returning to the continuous cosmos after all. This is what Nietzsche meant when he urged us to be “faithful to the earth”.
Quoting Brett again: “For too long have we believed that the true value of things is to be found in an other-worldly realm, a “true” world, a heaven, or whatever it may be. To argue that true value can only be obtained by positing a transcendent world is to commit slander against the only world that actually exists. Value is to be found in the world, or nowhere.”
So, in summary, nihilism was necessary, but as a transitional stage to be eventually replaced by a new worldview that re-enchants the world without needing to invoke the lie of the two worlds mythology.
As John Vervaeke has put it, the task here is to find the sacred outside of the supernatural. Science disrupted the coherency of the worldview of Western people and therefore disrupted our grounding of values and our sense of meaning. Could it be that science can also help us to put the world back together? Nietzsche believed that it could. We’ll explore how in future pieces.