The Nihilistic Art

By Jin-yeong Yi

In discussing the marketability of nihilism, philosopher Vijay Prozak wrote, “In theory, nihilism could even be used to sell products, but only of the entertainment type. ‘This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!’ somehow fails a basic test of credibility.”[1]

Some weeks ago, it was my turn to clean one of the restrooms at the company I work at. Armed with a can of Scrubbing Bubbles, a mop doused in watered-down Lysol, and a ream of paper towels, I set to work, clearing the filth that had been accumulating on the sink, floor, and toilet.

As my rubber glove protected hands moved back and forth, carefully scraping away the dust, dirt, and dried urine, at some point it occurred to me that cleaning was not only an art, but also the most nihilistic of arts. In the same way that nihilism is about stripping away that which is unreal, cleaning is about stripping away that which is unnecessary. A cleaning tool, whether it be a broom, a mop, or a vacuum cleaner, is the artistic equivalent of a philosophical hammer. Ultimately, nothing is added to the thing that is cleaned–it’s all about subtracting, eradicating, erasing the unessential. Whereas most arts entail putting a picture on a canvas, cleaning entails removing superfluous and undesirable bits from an already-completed picture. To clean something means to restore it to its original state, nothing more.

In conclusion, I daresay that, pace Mr. Prozak, “This is the most nihilistic vacuum cleaner on the market!” can not only be a credible promo, but also a most fitting one.

Notes

[1] “Reality is Nihilism”

Meditating on Nothingness

By Jin-yeong Yi

Guatemala sinkhole

“There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that… is always but a vain and fleeting appearance….”

—Joseph Conrad

“Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

—Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

In a universe where Murphy’s Law prevails, it’s all too easy to get disheartened and depressed, to feel that you’ve reached a dead end in life. If you happen to be caught up in the drama of existence, it may help to step back from it all and remember that there’s no “correct” way to feel about anything and that you’re not in any way obligated to feel the way you do.

Clear your mind.

If you accept the nihilist view like I do, you accept that there are only ‘is’s and no ‘ought’s, and that labels like “good” and “evil” are merely human projections onto the blank void of nothingness.

The universe is neither good nor evil. The universe just is.

Humanity is neither good nor evil. Humanity just is.

Life is neither good nor evil. Life just is.

Empty your heart.

We’re not here to serve a God. We’re not here to serve nature. We’re not here to serve each other. We’re not here to serve ourselves. We’re just–here.

There is no God but Nothingness. Nothing is sacred, nothing is holy. We were once nothing. We are responsible for nothing. We are obligated to do nothing. We deserve nothing. Our lives mean nothing. Before long, we will be nothing.

Vincent van Gogh - Wheatfield with Crows

Stare into the abyss. Contemplate its endlessness, its eternalness–and accept it. And if that doesn’t kill you, it just might make you stronger.

The world is your canvas. Paint on it what you will.

The Master, Motorcycles, and Meaninglessness

By Jin-yeong Yi

The Master motorcycle scene

“The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

One evening my brother-in-law and I went to see Paul Anderson’s The Master at the cinema. Afterwards, as we were driving back home, we discussed the scene where Lancaster and friends are in the desert, where they choose an arbitrary point in the distance and ride in its direction by motorcycle.

“That pretty much sums up [the pointlessness of their religious movement],” my devoutly Christian brother-in-law chortled. “Pick a point…and go for it!”

I thought about what he said, and I realized that, while the motorcycle exercise was indeed pointless, it was, in the grand context of things, not much more pointless than the other activities we do from day to day. I realized that the scene ironically did a good job of illustrating how a nihilist approaches the problem of finding purpose in life.

To have a goal is to have a certain end to work toward. If you are a working adult in a country with a relatively high degree of personal freedom, chances are that you have a number of hours each day in which you have nothing to do but what you will, empty stretches of time that you need to find some way to fill.

Let’s assume that you are a working adult with no hobbies. You have nothing to do after returning from the commute except watching TV or drinking at the local bar. But one day, you wake up and decide that you’re sick of having nothing except work and trivial pleasures to look forward to, so you decide that you’re going to take up an avocation to complement your vocation.

But where to start? There are so many options, and nothing in particular strikes your fancy. Learning death metal drumming looks about as appealing as learning computer programming, you have as much interest in studying Finnish as you do French, and you have as much motivation to write a novel as you do to paint a picture. You can’t think of a compelling reason to choose one goal over another.

What to do? You pick a point, any point, and go for it. Roll a die or flip a coin if you have to. Then you stick to your chosen course and don’t stop until you’ve reached your destination. It’s OK if the destination is arbitrary, because you just might be rewarded by the journey you take to reach it.

An Atheist Goes to Confession

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”

—H. L. Mencken

“The Eye with which I see God is the same Eye with which God sees me”

—Meister Eckhart

I went to confession last month in preparation for Easter.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and was confirmed as a Catholic in my teenage years, shortly before becoming an atheist. Technically, I am still a Catholic. Like Martin Scorsese once said, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic, there’s no way out of it.” In addition to my qualifications, I attend Mass every Sunday morning and recite the prayers, sing the hymns, exchange signs of peace, and receive the body and blood of Christ. I do it because I think it gives my devoutly Catholic parents some comfort to know that their son is keeping in touch with the Lord.

My mother had called me about the mass confessions that were to take place at her church, and at first I refused to go. (“I have no sins to confess.”) Attending Mass was one thing, but going to confession was a bit much. I’d already gone last year, and, though I didn’t believe in right and wrong, I’d felt guilty about it, because in a way I’d been betraying the priest’s trust by pretending to be a believer. However, I didn’t want my mother to feel that I was missing out on the opportunity to receive God’s forgiveness, so I ended up going. This was to be my second confession as an atheist. Since I didn’t believe in sin, I would, like last time, enumerate the things I wasn’t proud of.

After a fairly brief wait at church, I walked into the confession room. There I was once again face to face with the elderly Irish priest I’d met last year.

The following is a rough reconstruction of the conversation that took place:

“How long has it been since your last confession?” the priest asked.

“Three, four months, I think.”

He nodded, as if in approval. I wondered if he remembered who I was.

“So, do you have any sins to confess?”

“Well, yes; that’s what I’m here for.”

If I was going to go through with this, I wanted to at least be sincere about it. My strategy this time around was to make use of Christian language. Last time, I’d spoken in such a way that the priest might have wondered if I was a closet secular humanist.

“I don’t honor my father and mother as much as they deserve,” I began. The priest nodded knowingly as I spoke.

I proceeded to the next item on the short list I’d written up. “Gluttony—I often eat more than I need to. Sloth—I often procrastinate, and don’t make the best use of my time. Wrath—I often get angry at others even while knowing that they’re ultimately not responsible for what I blame them for. Envy—oh, this is a big problem for me.” There was a hint of something resembling enthusiasm in my voice, and part of the reason for that was that envy really was one of my biggest problems, if not the biggest one. “I often feel envy when I see that someone has something that I don’t have, and I feel jealousy when I see that someone has something that I do have.”

Thus ended my confession.

“How are you feeling right now?” inquired the priest.

“How am I feeling?”

“Are you feeling good, or bad?”

“Well, I guess you can say I feel kind of bad.” (Because I’d failed myself, because I wasn’t able to meet my own expectations.)

Then the priest asked, “If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be?”

The million dollar question. I was prepared this time, or so I’d thought. For a moment I couldn’t remember what it was I wanted to say. I fumbled for words before the answer clicked back into place.

“I want determination.”

For some reason the priest couldn’t understand, so I tried “passion.”

“I want to have passion for my goals,” I clarified.

“Does anything about what you’ve just said strike you?” asked the priest.

“Strike me?” I racked my brains to try to figure out what that could possibly be.

After a long pause, the priest supplied the answer I wasn’t able to find.

“It’s somewhat self-centered. What about other people? Don’t you think about what you can do for others?”

“Well, yes. I do help others…but not as much as I can,” I said.

The priest waited for me to elaborate.

“It’s kind of the opposite of a slippery slope,” I explained, struggling to find the words.

“Ah,” the priest said, appearing to have immediately grasped what it was I was clumsily trying to convey.

“I can do things for others, but there’s always something more I can do,” I continued. “There’s no limit. There’s always…more.”

I thought of the countless ambitions I had, the personal goals that I would not be able to achieve in two lifetimes.

“Complete self-sacrifice…is something I can never do,” I concluded.

The priest administered my penance: 5 Our Father’s and 3 Hail Mary’s. I started to get up from my chair when the priest started to speak again.

“When I was about your age, I wanted to be a pilot,” he said.

“An airplane pilot?” For some reason I’d felt the need to ask for clarification.

“Yes. But my eyesight wasn’t good enough. So I became a missionary. I worked in Korea, then Koreatown, and…here I am.”

Then the priest asked me to pray for him. Not sure I’d heard him correctly, I got him to repeat what he’d said. After crossing myself and exchanging words of thanks, I got up, left the room, and headed toward the parking lot. I was puzzled. Why did he want me to pray for him? It was as if he’d somehow felt humbled by something I’d said.

Either way, I’d agreed to pray for him. So on the drive home, I, a godless nihilist, prayed for a Catholic priest. As far as I was concerned, I was talking to no one but myself. I don’t quite remember what I “prayed” for; I think it was for the laws of physics to operate in ways that would be favorable to the priest. Since the laws of physics were blind and indifferent, all one could do was hope. I also did my penance, reciting the Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s over the roar of Incantation’s “Blasphemous Cremation.” Why did I do it? Because the priest was trusting that I would do it, and because I wanted to honor the agreement between us. God wasn’t watching me, but I was.

In the same way, the confession was ultimately not between me and God, or even between me and the priest, but between me and myself.

The Freedom of Nothingness

By Jin-yeong Yi

Tasting the forbidden fruit

“Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

—Thomas Jefferson

Atheistic nihilism isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Well, actually, it is objectively neither good nor bad, because according to nihilism, nothing is objectively good or bad. So trying to “sell” this viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas is pretty much a lost cause from the beginning. And I don’t think I would have it any other way; I like the idea that atheistic nihilism is territory that angels fear to tread.

Still, the question is worth addressing: “What’s so great about having no intrinsic meaning or purpose to life?”

Well, one advantage that the nihilist has, depending on how you look at it, is the fact that he can afford to get his hands dirty. Liberation from religion, liberation from my beliefs about sin and morality in particular, left me free to explore avenues of the mind and soul that I had hitherto never dreamed of exploring: the penetralia of science, of religion, of philosophy, of the occult, of sexuality. Of Life itself.

No longer am I bound by anything, except the limitations of my intellectual equipment and how far I dare to go. The forbidden fruit of knowledge is mine for the picking.

Voivod – “Technocratic Manipulators”

I’ve passed the entry of the system
They taught me with an anthem
It seems like I’m one of them
A kind of people I can’t describe
They got a number between their eyes
Identity has been commanded
Subconscious has recorded
The orders from the big head
I’m now a part of this machine
Supervised by the telescreen
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
During the night my soul is hearing
Usual advertising
Message that I’m still learning
One thousand times it’s a routine
Should be enough to fall asleep
That’s not for me, too much for me
That’s all for me
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
Is it the same message
For the preconceived children ?
Let me know, before I go…
Death of their liberty
Feeds the supremacy
Under hypnosis I take a walk
Controlled people have to stop
Robotic voice starts to talk
Why we must be listening
I think we all had the same dreams
And they’re going nowhere
To find better somewhere
But can’t get out of there
I’d rather think
But there’s something strong
I’d rather think
But there’s something wrong
I’d rather think (6)
I’d rather think
Coz my mind despairs
I’d rather think
Coz I can’t live there
I’d rather think…think !

Nihilism and the Emotion Machine

By Jin-yeong Yi

Manga emotions

“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb’s fleece dipped in shellfish’s blood; and in matters of sex intercourse, that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations, going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see the kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“The Humean predicament is the human predicament.”

—W. V. Quine

In c. 1935, analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer wrote:

“[T]he fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, inasmuch as there is no criterion by which one can test the validity of the judgements in which they occur. So far we are in agreement with the absolutists. But, unlike the absolutists, we are able to give an explanation of this fact about ethical concepts. We say that the reason why they are unanalysable is that they are mere pseudo-concepts. The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, ‘You acted wrongly in stealing that money,’ I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, ‘You stole that money.’ In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You stole that money,’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. The tone, or the exclamation marks, adds nothing to the literal meaning of the sentence. It merely serves to show that the expression of it is attended by certain feelings in the speaker.”[1]

About 76 years later, literary critic S. T. Joshi echoed this analysis in his critique of Sam Harris’s updated scientific approach to morality:

All ethical judgments are expressions of a preference. They may be based on facts (or falsehoods), but they are not in themselves facts (or falsehoods).”[2] 

He also effectively explains how having preferences (i.e., not being indifferent to outcomes arising from cause and effect) is consistent with not believing in moral absolutes:

“D’Souza, in What’s So Great about Christianity, maintains absurdly that I would have no reason to object if D’Souza punched me in the face, because I would simply have to maintain that he and I share different moral standards based on our education, upbringing, etc. But my objection would stem from my preference that people not be punched in the face without reason; it violates my moral code even if that code is not itself a fact but a preference. I happen to like my preferences and, in certain circumstances, will go pretty far in defending them. 

Having accepted that there are no intrinsic “ought”s, that there is no inherent reason to favor one outcome over another, one eventually arrives at an unsettling and uncomfortable conclusion: the emotions that drive us are not absolute. While there are natural ways to feel about some things, there is no correct way to feel about anything. We don’t need to feel proud when we overcome an obstacle or achieve something. We don’t need to feel guilty about lying, cheating, or stealing. We don’t need to feel indignant when someone slanders us. We don’t need to feel jealous when a lover or spouse cheats on us. We don’t need to feel envious when a friend wins the lottery. We don’t need to feel horrified when we hear of a murder, rape, or genocide. We don’t need to feel afraid when we are told that civilization will self-destruct tomorrow or next week. Indeed, we don’t need to feel uncomfortable about this conclusion in the first place. It is natural to have these feelings, and it is certainly not “wrong” to have them, but there’s no inherent necessity, no obligation, no reason why we “ought” to have them.

Three years after the end of the Second World War, philosophers Frederick Copleston and Bertrand Russell debated the existence of God on BBC Radio. At one point, the Jesuit priest drove the atheist humanist into a corner:

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

In the end, the absence of objective morality does not change the fact that we are driven by our strongest motives. We act on them and make choices not so much because we are somehow “obligated” to do so, but simply because—we do. Because we are emotion machines. To have reason and nothing but reason is to be a computer. To have reason and emotions is to be human.

Somewhere between the 17th and 18th centuries, the French Catholic priest and closet atheist Jean Meslier penned these words to conclude his antireligious manifesto:

“After this, let people think, judge, say, and do whatever they want in the world; I do not really care.
Let men adapt themselves and be governed as they want, let them be wise or crazy, let them be good or vicious, let them say or even do with me whatever they want after my death: I really do not care in the least.
I already take almost no part in what is done in the world. The dead, whom I am about to join, no longer worry about anything, they no longer take part in anything, and they no longer care about anything.
So, I will finish this with nothing.
I am hardly more than nothing and soon I will be nothing.”

To be indifferent is to be dead. To care is to be alive.

“It is obvious, that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carried to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction. It is also obvious, that this emotion rests not here, but making us cast our view on every side, comprehends whatever objects are connected with its original one by the relation of cause and effect. Here then reasoning takes place to discover this relation; and according as our reasoning varies, our actions receive a subsequent variation. But it is evident in this case that the impulse arises not from reason, but is only directed by it. It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.

Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion. This consequence is necessary. It is impossible reason could have the latter effect of preventing volition, but by giving an impulse in a contrary direction to our passion; and that impulse, had it operated alone, would have been able to produce volition. Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse; and if this contrary impulse ever arises from reason, that latter faculty must have an original influence on the will, and must be able to cause, as well as hinder any act of volition. But if reason has no original influence, it is impossible it can withstand any principle, which has such an efficacy, or ever keep the mind in suspense a moment. Thus it appears, that the principle, which opposes our passion, cannot be the same with reason, and is only called so in an improper sense. We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

—David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

Notes

[1] Language, Truth and Logic by Alfred Jules Ayer

[2] The Unbelievers: The Evolution of Modern Atheism by S. T. Joshi

Projection and Purpose (or, Meaning and Purpose in a Nihilistic Universe)

By Jin-yeong Yi

“The world is ambiguous. It does not come tagged ‘This is my Father’s world’ or ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot.’ It comes to us as a giant Rorschach inkblot. Psychologists use such blots to fish in the subterranean waters of their patients’ minds. The blots approach the patient as invitations: Come. What do you see here? What do you make of these contours? The sweep of philosophy supports this inkblot theory of the world conclusively. People have never agreed on the world’s meaning, and (it seems safe to say) never will.”

—Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Roland Barthes was on to something with his “Death of the Author”[1] concept, except that he apparently got it backwards: there is no such thing as inherent meaning in the text, only intended meaning, and intended meaning is not inherent meaning.

The best illustration of this fact can perhaps be found in language itself.[2] There is no intrinsic meaning to the collocations of lines, squiggles, and dots your retinae are picking up right now; the only reason why they mean anything to us is that we were trained to interpret them to mean something, that is, to refer to objects and ideas. In other words, we project meaning onto what is otherwise meaningless.

So while there is no inherent meaning in the sounds we utter or the symbols we put to paper, we can generally understand each other because we have a general agreement that certain sounds and symbols comprising a system of communication (what we call a “language”) denote certain things, and because we usually know what each other’s intentions are, given conditioning and context.

Needless to say, however, it is not always clear what someone is trying to communicate. This is why there are always clashing interpretations within literature, the conflict never being resolved when the author isn’t there to clarify what he or she meant by this or that.

Life is the same way, except that the story of life is written by no one, and its meaning and purpose are therefore open to infinite interpretations, which are, I daresay, equally true or false, because there is no inherent or intended meaning or purpose to it whatsoever. However, much as we can see sentences emerging from letters, and stories from sentences, we can see meaning emerge from the meaningless, and purpose from the purposeless. Though the meaning and purpose are, in the last analysis, merely human projections onto the black void of nothingness, I, for one, find them to be enough of a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Notes

[1] See the eponymous essay.

[2] See Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Chapter 8 (“The Brain Does Everything without Thinking About Anything at All”), for a detailed discussion of this topic.

Life Lessons from They Live

By Jin-yeong Yi

“This is how you create meaning. Recognize that life itself and your life are both sacred, and that no instant is anything but pure joy. Even the horrible moments have a certain epic quality to them, like a necessary part of the story. You need the greatest darkness before dawn in order to have dawn be breathtaking and inspiring. This means that in order to have good you need bad, and vice-versa. Most people focus on the bad because they feel bad about themselves. The first step is seeing the whole thing as an adventure.”

—Brett Stevens, “Life”

“If we accept life as not absolute, we see that we ourselves are not absolute, and that we should find a goal for which to aim which makes our daily struggles and eventual deaths pale in comparison to the meaning we find in life.”

—Spinoza Ray Prozak, “Crux”

I watched John Carpenter’s They Live for the third time last weekend. If you’ve seen it before, then you know that it’s a conspiracy theorist’s fantasy come true. (There are people who swear that the film accurately depicts the dark powers allegedly controlling the world from the shadows.) It might also be seen as John Carpenter’s Guide to Life.

For me, one of the most noteworthy aspects about the movie is the admirable attitude of the protagonist. In the beginning of the story, he stays positive in spite of the grim economic conditions and the fact that he doesn’t have a stable job or a home. When he finds himself enveloped in a massive extraterrestrial conspiracy, faced with extremely powerful foes that he has little hope of conquering, he gets discouraged at times, but he never despairs. He’s never bitter; he never asks himself, “Why me?” He only asks himself, “What’s my next move?” He recognizes that the universe owes him nothing and promises him nothing, and that if he wants something, it is up to him to pursue it. And when he’s mortally wounded and about to die, he accepts his fate, flipping the bird at the alien oligarchs he has defeated, a satisfied smile on his face. He lives like a badass and dies like a badass. His is the sort of courageous, heroic, life-affirming attitude that gloomy pessimists like me can learn a thing or two from.

Destiny in a Meaningless Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

“All philosophies, while disagreeing about all else, agree on one thing—they all recognize the reality of death, its inevitability, even when recognizing, as some do, nothing real in the world. The most skeptical systems, doubting even doubt itself, bow down before the fact of the reality of death.”

—Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov

“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)

“There is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe.”

—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality

Last month, there was a death in my extended family. The deceased was one of my cousins, who was an attorney and apparently very much looked up to by our nephews. I didn’t know him very well at all, but when I heard the eulogies, which described how he would always be there for the people in his life, I felt I understood why he was so beloved.

As far as I can remember, it was actually the first wake I’d ever attended. It was also the first time I’d seen a corpse in real life. Carefully prepared though he was, how cold and lifeless he still looked! My relatives and my mother were weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably, as if the world had come to an end. It all felt quite surreal, as if I were in a movie.

Afterwards, my family gathered at a large buffet where we had dinner in honor of the departed. I got a rare opportunity to chat with kin that I only saw about once a year, if not less.

When I left, I gave one of my late cousin’s brothers a small hug before heading to the parking lot. He was shattered; he looked like an abandoned child, homeless and lost in the cold of winter. Now that the celebration had ended and everyone was going their separate ways, there was going to be nothing left to distract them from their grief.

While I was in college I realized that living in this world was as futile as building sandcastles on the seashore. Now I see just how thoroughly succinct the metaphor is. We are living on borrowed time. Unless humankind finds a way to reverse the laws of thermodynamics, as Nikolai Fyodorov hoped, the day will eventually come when the race will go the way of the dinosaurs. Everything that this ambitious species will have built will eventually crumble to dust. Civilization, culture, art, learning, everything. Even the gold-gilded pages of history, which have given a number of people a sort of life beyond death, will disappear, and there will be no one to read them anyway. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the things that humans have found worth striving for and living for will fade away into nothingness along with the fruits of their efforts. The abyss will spare nothing and no one.

“Why, then,” one might ask, “should I care about any of this?”  As an atheist and a nihilist, I can offer very little in the way of comfort, unlike the preacher who confidently promises that every tear will eventually be wiped away by the hand of God. I certainly can’t offer “objective” reasons for caring about the future. Indeed, indifference is not invalid. It’s not wrong; it’s not even unreasonable. We don’t have to care. But by the same token, neither do we have to be apathetic. The choice is ours. And I choose to care.

Even if we don’t have all eternity, we do have the moment, the here and now. And we can choose to throw it away or make the most of it.

The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes advises:

“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou taketh under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave wither thou goest.”[1]

Life is a lost battle from the very beginning, but for my part, I reject a hedonistic lifestyle simply because I find that excess leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied. What appeals to me personally is the idea of having goals, of having ends to work toward. With the right goals, not only the accomplishment of goals but also the process leading to accomplishment can make life feel worth living, with the hope of achievement giving meaning to the future, and the efforts toward achievement giving meaning to the present.

As easy as it is for me to take my time for granted and go by a vague assumption that tomorrow will always be there for me, I see wisdom in living each day as if it were my last, because for all I know, each day could be my last. As Corliss Lamont observed, “Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”[2]

I believe in actively pursuing knowledge and acquiring new skills, in bettering myself, even if I won’t last forever. I believe in helping others, even if they won’t last forever. I believe in having dreams and never giving them up, even with the yawning abyss of nothingness before me. I see wisdom in living prayerfully, reverently, setting my goals for the day and striving to accomplish them. To work hard so that, when it is time to sleep, I will be able to tell myself that I’ve spent the day well enough to deserve another–even if it’s not in the stars for me.

If there is one thing that can tip the scale between apathy and interest, it is love. Love for others, love for learning, love for everything one regards as noble and beautiful, even love for oneself. In other words, love for life.

I will let Shelly Kagan have the last word:

“The fact that billions and billions of years from now it’s all going to be the same doesn’t mean it’s all the same now.”

Notes

[1] The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 (King James Version)

[2] Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont

Until Everything Rots in Hell

By Jin-yeong Yi

“[The] knowledge of the non-freedom of the will protects me from losing my good humor and taking much too seriously myself and my fellow humans as acting and judging individuals.”

—Albert Einstein

“Conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and deeply interested therein, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. Now such is this freedom of man’s will that everyone boasts of possessing, and which consists only in this, that men are aware of their own desires and ignorant of the causes by which those desires are determined….As this misconception is innate in all men, it is not easily conquered.”

—Baruch Spinoza

“To understand everything is to forgive everything”

—Gautama Buddha

“Pardon’s the word to all! Whatever folly men commit, be their shortcomings or their vices what they may, let us exercise forbearance; remembering that when these faults appear in others, it is our follies and vices that we behold. They are the shortcomings of humanity, to which we belong; whose faults, one and all, we share; yes, even those very faults at which we now wax so indignant, merely because they have not yet appeared in ourselves. They are faults that do not lie on the surface. But they exist down there in the depths of our nature; and should anything call them forth, they will come and show themselves, just as we now see them in others. One man, it is true, may have faults that are absent in his fellow; and it is undeniable that the sum total of bad qualities is in some cases very large; for the difference of individuality between man and man passes all measure.

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World”

“Happiness and misfortune, rise and fall, health and sickness, glory and dishonor, wealth and poverty; everything comes from God and must be accepted as such.”

—Elder Michael of Valaam

“Feeble, vain mortal, thou pretendest to be a free agent. Alas! dost thou not see all the threads which enchain thee? Dost thou not perceive that they are atoms which form thee; that they are atoms which move thee; that they are circumstances independent of thyself, that modify thy being; that they are circumstances over which thou hast not any controul, that rule thy destiny? In the puissant Nature that environs thee, shalt thou pretend to be the only being who is able to resist her power? Dost thou really believe that thy weak prayers will induce her to stop in her eternal march; that thy sickly desires can oblige her to change her everlasting course?”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“Everything begins with choice,” says Morpheus. I disagree, not because I think choice is an illusion (pace the Merovingian), but because I think there is something that precedes choice: predilection. The latter makes the former possible. Ultimately, our decisions are predicated on our preferences for (or inclinations toward) one outcome over another, and we certainly could not have chosen our preferences.

As someone who not only believes that free will doesn’t exist, but that it is impossible even in theory, I look upon ressentiment as being utterly empty and meaningless. I can blame and condemn people as much as I want for the “evil” that they do, but I recognize that it is mistaken to believe that the root of “evil” lies within them. The notion that it does rests on the assumption that people somehow designed their natures before coming into the world, which is absurd. It is practically tantamount to saying that acorns determine what kind of trees they will grow into, or that the apples which grow on trees choose to be fresh or rotten. In other words, people did not choose to be who they are. They did not choose their level of intelligence, physical constitution, or character. They did not choose their place of birth, which means that they did not choose the options available to them or the cultural influences that shaped them in their earliest formative years. In other words, they did not choose the initial parameters of the trajectory of their lives, which in turn proceeds via an unbroken process of cause and effect.

The futility of acting on ressentiment is a major, underlying theme of the anime series Hell Girl[1]. Someone requests the damnation of a certain person at the cost of their own soul, convinced that the permanent removal of the offending individual will pave the way for a happy life , or at least a peaceful one, when all they will have done is destroy a manifestation of conflict, not its fundamental cause (a la the classic example of the hydra and its many heads). Conflict manifests itself in an infinite variety of forms, and none of these forms are self-created. The true cause of conflict is not this or that entity, but a whole web of connections between entities. But we tend to blame the manifestations because they are readily perceivable; they have faces, unlike the unseen forces which drive them.

We see the consequences of ressentiment in our world all the time, whether they come in the form of shooting sprees, ethnic cleansing, domestic violence, individual murder, or systematic passive-aggression. These are the ramifications of the mistaken notion that people have chosen to be what they are. If there is something that bears true responsibility for the human condition, it is God–that is, the laws of nature as revealed by mathematics and science. God is the ultimate source of all pleasure and pain, all kindness and cruelty, all joy and sorrow, all love and hatred, all beauty and ugliness. God determines what is possible, what is probable, and what actually takes place, and God’s decrees are absolute. Nonetheless, if we desire change, we must act. If we desire to live in harmony as a civilization, as a species, in the brief time we are together on this earth, we have little to gain from turning on each other under the pretext of “justice.” We can start looking upon what we regard as “evil” as an illness to be cured, rather than a choice to be punished, and treat it accordingly.

Maybe unconditional forgiveness, then, is the way of the future. We might acknowledge that responsibility extends far beyond the level of the individual and learn to forgive others–as well as ourselves–unconditionally, not because we are somehow obligated to do so, but because that may be the only way humanity can break free from the age-old cycle of self-destructive hatred and start looking for methods of healing instead of vengeance. We do not have to forgive or heal. But neither do we have to withhold forgiveness and healing.

Ai Enma, the anti-heroine of Hell Girl, declares that there will be no end to resentment, that it will persist “until everything rots in Hell.” Maybe she’ll be proven to be right. But fatalism is unjustified as long as the future is uncertain. I daresay there’s still hope for us, even without free will, because we still have the capacity to learn and change our ways. We can never turn this world into Heaven, perhaps, but we can always move in that direction, away from Hell. Whether that is something we actually want or not is up to us.

Notes

[1] See Hell Girl: Two Mirrors, episode 6 and Hell Girl: Three Vessels, episodes 9-10.