Sunday, January 30, 2011

Adventures in Philosophy School, Part II

Humans are probably the only creatures on earth that live primarily in an unseen world.  For a dog, all that exists are these smells, this dog dish, this food.  A human is more likely to worry about less tangible things, such as the opinions of others, the future, the past, or events in Washington D.C. 

This way of experiencing the world has its advantages, but it is also makes us much more vulnerable to lies, deceit, delusions, and madness.  Over the millennia, humans have evolved a number of psychological safeguards against being deceived by others or oneself.

One of the most important of these is the idea or feeling that something is "too good to be true."  A potential con-man's job is going to be that much harder if he has to avoid excessive or extravagant promises.

Since the rise of industrial civilization, the disappearance of most deadly diseases in the West, and the explosion of wealth and conveniences in our country over the last century, it has become fairly common for people to experience extremely intense feelings of "too-good-to-be-true-ness," especially regarding society at large.  Up until my spiritual conversion in the winter of 2009, I myself experienced this emotion frequently, and it was usually characterized by a sort of nausea at the seeming emptiness of a perfect world.  Today I was trying to think of a name for this emotion, and I decided "utopian horror" would be fitting, since it captures both the content of the vision and the visceral reaction it causes.

Utopian horror was probably the main driving force behind a number of philosophical and political movements during the past 150 years.  Nietzsche's philosophy was characterized by an utter rejection of the idea of progress. In its place he put the "eternal recurrence," and endless and exact repetition of history in all its detail (... though now I think this was probably a sarcastic alternative).  In existential philosophy, particularly Sartre's, "nausea" at the aimless freedom of modern life took center stage, even to the point of feeling that one is "condemned" to be free.  In the case of politics, I think both fascism and neo-conservatism draw heavily on the feeling that life needs to be harder and more adventurous than it is.  Hitler and Mussolini exploited this nostalgia for a simpler, more heroic age, calling their soldiers "warriors" in their speeches, and telling them that their courage would make a stamp on history that would be remembered for centuries to come.  Though more unspoken (and perhaps even unconsciously repressed), American imperialism attracts its followers through a similar kind of adventurism.

When it is not recognized for what it is, I think utopian horror can lead (and has led) to violence, paranoia, conspiracy theories, and societal oppression.  However, if recognized for what it is -- a psychological mechanism for rejecting lies and misinformation -- it can be a powerful force for good as well.  The modern movements of sustainability, environmentalism, and survivalism are all examples of positive results of utopian horror.  By facing the possibility that society is perhaps "too-good-to-be-true" we come to understand its limitations, recognize the corruption and waste that we usually ignore, and work to correct it or adapt to it.  The danger is letting ourselves become cynical about it, and doing the wrong thing because we know it doesn't bring us any closer to utopia anyway.

The role of utopian horror in my life has been very complex.  During college I often suspected that progress was too good to be true.  After my nervous breakdown, I knew it viscerally, but struggled to express the feeling.  For years I argued with people concerning the population explosion, evolution, natural selection, and the destruction of the environment, attempting to convince them directly that utopia was not here and was not even close to being here.  This culminated in the book I wrote during my break from academia, a book that does not mince words or sugarcoat the reality, but attempts to bluntly and directly demolish the utopian illusion we have built for ourselves.

Now I see that this approach was misguided, giving in completely to my gut reaction and forgetting to see the spiritual side of the picture, the side of the picture that I had struggled for years to maintain against the rampant cynicism of academic life.  In a word, I had almost become what I was struggling to fight, even after fleeing academia and attempting to strike my own path.  The reason for this is that I had fallen into thinking that one could "prove one's point" using rational arguments alone.  I thought if I could write a book that would convince my professors -- using their own logic -- that there was something seriously wrong about the paradigm they were teaching, then perhaps I would open the door for a new kind of philosophy.

I knew this was a quixotic quest, but I also knew that no great books were written without taking a risk.  I realized that my professors would not be instantly or entirely convinced, but hoped that they would at least come to respect my determination, and at least give my their support.

By the time I had made this decision, I had been in the department for four years.  So let's back up a bit so I can tell the story of how it got to this point. 

Actually, this post is already long enough.  But this was an important digression, because hopefully it explains what my motivations were in the first dissertation project that I proposed (and that didn't end up working out).

1 comment:

  1. ah you left us hanging! it's too interesting!!! cant wait for the next one !