A Necessary Nihilism — Facing the Elephant in the Room with Ray Brassier

“Natural science produces ancestral statements, such as that the universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old, that the earth formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago, that life developed on earth approximately 3.5 billion years ago, and that the earliest ancestors of the genus Homo emerged about 2 million years ago. Yet it is also generating an ever-increasing number of ‘descendent’ statements, such as that the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda galaxy in 3 billion years; that the earth will be incinerated by the sun 4 billions years hence; that all the stars in the universe will stop shining in 100 trillion years; and that eventually, one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now, all matter in the cosmos will disintegrate into unbound elementary particles. Philosophers should be more astonished by such statements than they seem to be, for they present a serious problem for post-Kantian philosophy.“

-Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007), 49-50.

Ray Brassier may be the rightful heir to Friedrich Nietzsche's wrestle with nihilism, in no small part because I think Brassier possesses a far more articulate and considered version of nihilism than most.

When many use the term, I think they usually mean pessimism, which is not necessarily nihilistic as pessimism assigns value to the universe; even if that value is in the negative, it is still a valuation, and not genuinely nihilistic. Brassier grasps this: if the universe persists as is, earth will die in the expansion of our sun into a red giant, then the sun itself will evaporate. The last stars, all red dwarfs in the end, will each blink out of existence. Then the universe will then expand into a thin nothingness and beyond.

I believe Brassier is correct that, as Western philosophy now stands, few if any have sufficiently addressed this conundrum: that, as things now stand, the universe is simply bound for extinction, evaporation, all our lives, cares, worries, values, meanings to vanish with it. I think Ray Kurzweil expresses a uniquely transhumanist hope that our distant descendants, more advanced than us as we are than our pre-human ancestors, will decide what to do when that time comes---for now, it's irrelevant. I largely agree with Kurzweil, if only in saying that this extinction only seems inevitable to humanity at present, but that this delusion plays into the naive belief that evolution stops with us, Homo sapiens. Evolution carries on and up, or it collapses; it never stops.

I'm still ambivalent, though: there's some “pie in the sky” to assuming our descendants will fix things down the line, and maybe some futility in planning for an event I don't plan to be around for. My extinction will come long before that of the last stars. What about the prospect of genuinely ultimate cosmic extinction that captivates me, though? If it's an inevitability, then, as Brassier says, in logical space-time everything is already dead. There's no argument to be made against it. Maybe it's how one wishes to respond, then.

Total cosmic extinction seems only depressing if one sticks to what the Bhagavad Gita calls karma, which despite its Western bastardizations is not "you get what you put out," but the attachment to valuing action based on results. Depressing though it may (initially) seem, extinction only scalds the soul if one sees the value in his or her actions in their results. But there are actions which are valuable in themselves, the Gita insists, not because they leave a lasting effect but because they are.

The pessimism of extinction comes from mourning for lost possibilities, perhaps; but what alternatives are there to an inevitability? What's to be said of a universe bound for nihil yet capable of producing affectation so powerful one may end or begin life because of it? I'm not pompous enough to give a verdict on where the universe will be in trillions of years, or to suggest how one should respond, but I will say I'm unconvinced that depression or pessimism must go hand-in-hand with nihilism, or that nihilism cannot possess beauty, wonder. Brassier's nihilism, at least, seems to me not antithetical to these things. He's against attempts to re-instill the universe with meaning after our collective disillusionment, but I"m unsure what 'meaning' he wishes to eschew. At the very least, if absolute extinction is the total future, inevitable, perhaps the Gita and Eastern thought may have something to say here: don't find value in 'the winding-up scene'; even if you eschew 'value' and 'meaning,' act for action's sake, be for being's sake.

A scene from Nietzsche's The Gay Science may be apropos: the mad man coming to tell the laughing masses that God is dead and they've killed him. He's a panicky, hopelessly nostalgic fool who can't deal with the death of his old scheme of meaning, but the crowd is not innocent. The crowd scoffs, but only at the madman; they can't quite laugh off his point. The Gay Science's thesis seems to be not just that our old system of meaning is no longer viable, but that, with the gift of science, we've uncovered a world we no longer know how to live in.

Modern science since the nineteenth century has only exacerbated Nietzsche's thesis. We've dislodged ourselves (for the most part) from inadequate systems of meaning, but in stumbling from the bind we've yet to catch our balance.


Image: Artist's conception of a red dwarf, the most common type of star in the Sun's stellar neighborhood, and in the universe. Although termed a red dwarf, the surface temperature of this star would give it an orange hue when viewed from close proximity.

Borrowed from Wikipedia.