Constrained Stories of Western Subjectivism

We began this book by observing that it is only with language that we can begin to write stories of our lives, of who we are, and of how we fit into the universe. Philosophers and scientists have written many such stories. One story has been especially fundamental since Newton—the one about a mechanical universe that lacks meaning. Such a story makes no sense from an Eastern meditative perspective, in which what grounds us in our universe is ultimately a shared consciousness or the “formless dimension.” We could say that in a desecularized world without Aristotle’s final causes, we in the West are left with a picture of the universe as devoid of meaning. We could have adopted the Eastern notion of the formless, and that could have grounded us, but it never happened. Instead we clung to belief structures and explanations in terms of form. To put it more bluntly, the basic idea is that the thought process of naturalism leads to a picture of a pointless universe, as physicist Steven Weinberg has put it:

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. (Weinberg 1977, p. 154)

Many other Western intellectuals have made remarks similar to this, such as philosopher, mathematician, and logician Bertrand Russell:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Russell 1914, p. 46)

Now, how is it possible to go from being part of a conscious universe (a greater whole), as a newborn, to one that seems pointless? What sort of world picture or basic metaphysics must be acquired? A child’s first words are not “The universe is pointless!” so how did we, in the Western intellectual tradition, get to that position of declaring the universe as pointless? What mental picture or pictures must we have acquired? The Western intellectual tradition has, itself, many answers to how its own nihilism could have emerged. One such idea is that the enlightenment had built into it a ticking, self-exploding bomb, something inherently destructive. Max Weber wrote in his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism about how, in a secularized society, we become specialists without spirit:

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” (Weber 2005, p. 124)

For Weber, rationalization—as part of the secularization and evolution of modern capitalist society—empties the “spirit” of values. Adorno and Horkheimer would later describe in their 1944 book Dialectic of Enlightenment (Horkheimer et al. 2002) how there is—inherent to the whole enlightenment project—a tragic contradiction. The enlightenment project starts out with good intentions and visions of how a new and better society can be built through science, technology, and rationality. But whatever good intentions there were from the beginning are forgotten as fascism inevitably arises from minds that lack moral values and cultural grounding. Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis of modern society shares much similarity with Weber’s but is also influenced by the atrocities of war, as well as by Freudian ego psychology and Marxian historicism.

It is interesting to note how Weber, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer, all saw ideology mixed together with scientific and cultural change as determinants of troubled, alienated Western minds. They painted pictures of destructive, rational, inflated modern egos without grounding in traditional cultural values. Adorno and Horkheimer followed Freud in trying to understand those destructive egos, including fascist egoic minds. Just as Freud was blind to the formless dimension of consciousness, so were Adorno and Horkheimer. We can speculate here what would have happened if Freud or Nietzsche had acknowledged the formless. The development of the intellectual tradition would have come to look very different. But both Nietzsche’s and Freud’s rejections of the formless dimension of consciousness helped to close the door for the formless dimension in the Western intellectual tradition and further cemented a subjectivist, essentially ego-oriented approach to philosophical and psychological inquiry.

As an example of Nietzschean egoic subjectivism, think of when he wrote that God was dead and then explored a picture similar to Weinberg’s, in his doctrine of eternal recurrence, in his 1882 book The Gay Science (Nietzsche 1974) and in his late 1880s work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Nietzsche 1978), where he came to think of the universe as consisting of a finite number of particles that he thought would recombine over and over again, according to his interpretation of thermodynamics. He then asked himself if he could find meaning in such an endlessly repeating world. His answer was that he could but only by accepting his destiny. This is a remarkable example of Western subjectivism, and its similarity to the position of

Weinberg is striking. Nietzsche has a theory in his mind that he believes explains how the universe consists of particles that keep recombining over and over again, so that history repeats endlessly. He then finds himself as an alienated self within a universe and tries to find a way out through a creation of a story about himself and how to find meaning in a seemingly pointless repeating universe. Nietzsche is, like Weinberg, making an analysis of reality exclusively in terms of form. They are both blind to the conscious universe that they themselves are. Both are overlooking the mystery of consciousness, and both are blinded by theories, to the extent that the formless is not part of their analysis.

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