To me, the debate over the Overkill Hypothesis matters because it’s so often used as a justification for current destruction—as if to say: “See, ancient people caused mass extinctions, too!” in order to cover for our culture’s current clip, which last time I checked is 200 species a day. The debate also has implications on the rewilding movement. I’m not sure that rewilding is 100% ethical, but it’s sure as hell a lot more ethical than industrial capitalism.
In “The ghost at the atheist feast: was Nietzsche right about religion?” John Gray reviews The Age of Nothing by Peter Watson and Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton. Gray concludes that both Nietzsche and his intellectual descendants suffer from an internal contradiction: a tension between whimsy, mystery, and moral liberty on one hand, and the scientific method, the rule of parsimony, and cosmic determinism on the other. Also, people still believe in god, so he’s not, as Nietzsche so famously announced, kaput:
Was Nietzsche right in thinking that God is dead? Is it truly the case that – as the German sociologist Max Weber, who was strongly influenced by Nietzsche, believed – the modern world has lost the capacity for myth and mystery as a result of the rise of capitalism and secularisation? Or is it only the forms of enchantment that have changed? Importantly, it wasn’t only the Christian God that Nietzsche was talking about. He meant any kind of transcendence, in whatever form it might appear. In this sense, Nietzsche was simply wrong. The era of “the death of God” was a search for transcendence outside religion. Myths of world revolution and salvation through science continued the meaning-giving role of transcendental religion, as did Nietzsche’s own myth of the Superman.
Reared on a Christian hope of redemption (he was, after all, the son of a Lutheran minister), Nietzsche was unable, finally, to accept a tragic sense of life of the kind he tried to retrieve in his early work. Yet his critique of liberal rationalism remains as forceful as ever. As he argued with masterful irony, the belief that the world can be made fully intelligible is an article of faith: a metaphysical wager, rather than a premise of rational inquiry. It is a thought our pious unbelievers are unwilling to allow. The pivotal modern critic of religion, Friedrich Nietzsche will continue to be the ghost at the atheist feast.
Now, this selection doesn’t necessarily encapsulate Gray’s argument (how could it? I suggest reading the rest of the article), but it gives me more than enough fodder for critique. For one, “superman” is not the correct translation of Übermensch, as was pointed out by Nietzsche anthologist and translator Walter Kaufman (as I’ve previously written about here):
Shaw has popularized the ironic word “superman,” which has since become associated with Nietzsche and the comics without ever losing its sarcastic tinge. In the present translation the older term, “overman,” has been reinstated: it may help to bring out the close relation between Nietzsche’s conceptions of the overman and self-overcoming, and to recapture something of its rhapsodical play on the words “over” and “under,” particularly marked throughout the Prologue. Of the many “under” words, the German untergehen poses the greatest problem for translation: it is the ordinary word for the setting of the sun, and it also means “to perish”; but Nietzsche almost always uses it with the accent on “under”—either by way of echoing another “under” in the same sentence or, more often, by way of contrast with an “over” word, usually overman….
Secondly, why must we choose between the scientific method and a sense of wonder about the world? This straw-man choice has always been the false dichotomy of the critique of the “New Atheists.” As the now tired argument goes: one either has to enjoy the mystery of natural phenomena, or reduce it to rubble through explaining it scientifically. But why is the scientific explanation considered rubble? To me, if anything, the scientific explanation of something only increases the level of fascination about it, i.e. makes the natural world more (literally) wonderful. As Richard Dawkins and others have correctly pointed out, it’s the god explanation (if we can call it that) that’s boring; scientific explanations, by contrast, highlight the rarity, special-ness, and bind-boggling complexity of the universe in which we live.
With that said, Gray’s notion of “salvation through science” is indeed ridiculous, and approaches the level of internal contradiction that we see in almost every religion. But I don’t remember Nietzsche ever writing that salvation by any means was the goal. Yes, he did argue that we can and should transcend moral systems, especially those not based on material reality—and, in the case of Christianity, also based on a devaluing of human life, a hatred of the living world. But did he really offer the overman as a means of salvation for all? Or, rather, was the notion of the overman a challenge to all his readers to rise above: to carve their own paths, to find their own means to shed superstition, other-worldly delusions, and subjection to any kingdom (whether earthly or celestial) and finally, rightfully, protect and enjoy the terrifying beauty of the human condition?
As to the idea that god is dead, the continued prevalence of religious belief is not really the barometer by which to judge the statement. For Nietzsche didn’t really mean that people would by-in-large stop believing (if he thought that, then why even write the statement in the first place?), but rather, he was declaring, in vintage terseness, that one not need rely on god for their morality, or even for their general world-view. Religion will always be around, hence the need to always question it—and the need to kill god, over and over and as many times as is needed to inspire people to be true to the material earth and its (human and non-human) inhabitants.
A poem by Charles Baudelaire:
Sous les ifs noirs qui les abritent
Les hiboux se tiennent rangés
Ainsi que des dieux étrangers
Dardant leur oeil rouge. Ils méditent.
Sans remuer ils se tiendront
Jusqu’à l’heure mélancolique
Où, poussant le soleil oblique,
Les ténèbres s’établiront.
Leur attitude au sage enseigne
Qu’il faut en ce monde qu’il craigne
Le tumulte et le mouvement;
L’homme ivre d’une ombre qui passe
Porte toujours le châtiment
D’avoir voulu changer de place.
Under the dark yews which shade them,
The owls are perched in rows,
Like so many strange gods,
Darting their red eyes. They meditate.
Without budging they will remain
Till that melancholy hour
When, pushing back the slanting sun,
Darkness will take up its abode.
Their attitude teaches the wise
That in this world one must fear
Movement and commotion;
Man, enraptured by a passing shadow,
Forever bears the punishment
Of having tried to change his place.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Here’s an awesome “micro-history” of the poet: “Students of comparative literature will find in Baudelaire the remarkable example of a major French poet who devoted the most consistently vigorous efforts of his literary career to the furtherance of the reputation of Edgar Allan Poe, an American writer he never met but who seemed to him a spiritual brother in literary idea and execution.”
Here are my thoughts on once being startled by an owl sitting by the fence near the garden.
“The rationalist delusion has a strong grip on our culture,and that grip has been getting stronger during my lifetime,” explains Paul Kingsnorth in his most recent writing in Orion magazine (“In the Black Chamber: on seeing the sacred in nature”), adding: “Every year, it seems, the areas of life that remain uncolonized by scientific or economic language or assumptions grow fewer. The success that science has had in explaining what can be explained seems to have convinced many people that it can explain everything, or will one day be able to do so. The success that commerce has had in monetizing the things that science can explain has convinced many that everything of significance can be monetized.”
Okay let’s just stop right there. I see what Kingsnorth is getting at—that making living beings numbers on a computer screen is the first step towards turning living beings into things, i.e. into dead things, which is at heart what capitalism does—but why the automatic conflation of science and commerce, vis–à–vis this “economic language”? Why is rational thought, i.e. weighing evidence and discarding theories that don’t pass the test, seen as categorically capitalist?
Kingsnorth is undoubtedly making this association because he realizes that time is running out and all “scientific” arguments he’s heard or read aren’t moving the needle. In his article, he cites groups that are trying to resurrect extinct species, and explains his horror at the notion that science has ultimately become focused on control (something that Derrick Jensen writes about extensively), rather than on elucidation, let alone communion with or empathy towards fellow beings. He continues:
Environmentalists and conservationists are as vulnerable to these literalist trends as anyone else, and many of them have persuaded themselves that, in order to be taken seriously by those with the power to save or destroy, they must speak this language too. But it has been a Faustian bargain. Argue that a forest should be protected because of its economic value as a “carbon sink,” and you have nothing to say when gold or oil of much greater value are discovered beneath it.
As someone who has good-heartedly debated with friends for a quite a while now on this very subject, I can definitely understand Kingsnorth’s point of view. It’s the same view I defend in said debates, with more business-minded friends (some of my best friends are capitalists) arguing that if corporations speak the language of money, then the best way to convince them of the need to preserve wild spaces is to convince them of these places’ economic value (or, conversely, to put prices on activities that harm natural places—cf. carbon tax). And, if you’re thinking that putting a price on trees—not to sell them, but to cut them down—sounds bright-eyed (or insidious), then what would you call asking corporations to stop bulldozing trees of their own volition and goodwill?
And yet, I still don’t see why science is the enemy of thinking that trees have value for their own sake, simply because they’re alive. Perhaps “science” as a term has come to engulf many other facets of our world that many people see as its direct descendants: machinery, industrialism, technology—indeed, modernity itself.
“Rational” too has taken on another persona, thanks to the widespread but completely unfounded assertion that horrors of the 20th Century were due to the fact that the Nazis were rational (let alone that they were logical conclusion of the introduction of the theory of evolution by natural selection). The Nazis were many things, but perhaps the thing they were least was rational. And regardless of their thoughts on eugenics (which is artificial, not natural, selection), there is no connection whatsoever between understanding that beings adapt through heredity, or between testing assertions by weighing evidence in the first place, and taking on any of the traits lumped on to the term “rationalist”: cold, unthoughtful, ego-maniacal, amoral, selfish, ruthless, etc.
Well, I proudly count myself as a rationalist, and proponent of teaching/learning science. That’s what I do for a living: teaching kids environmental/earth science. I think we need to define “science” as the use of the scientific method, full stop. As a pro-science rationalist, I am an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-economic-growth Luddite doomer. I, like Kingsnorth, think trees are sacred, but my path to this understanding comes from the scientific evidence that other beings think, share, grow, travel, connect, communicate, etc. Besides, scientific evidence confirms that I am in the final analysis related to trees (pretty closely, actually), and so that fact alone should be enough to give a shit about them. Oh, they also produce the oxygen we need to survive, and that’s relatively important I’ve been told.
I’m not sure where I would fit in Kingsnorth’s dichotomy. He thinks that rationalism has ruined our humility in relation to the natural world (a view that Bob Jensen shares, explaining: “At least you can say that religious belief puts (or should put) people in their place when it comes to what we don’t understand about ecosystems; whatever god you believe in, you’re not it”), and that what we need is less rational thought (or to “stop worshiping reason,” as he puts it) in favor of more spiritualism, or respect for the divine as manifested in nature.
I don’t entirely disagree with his assessment that we might be better off if people took themselves down a peg, and saw our ecological homes as temples. The problem with discarding rational thought, however, is that without the weighing of evidence that is transmittable, i.e. that everyone can understand and that can be repeated in experiment, anything is permissible. This is precisely the reason that Republicans want science to be a bad word. Since the scientific method is, at heart, a doubt—a questioning—we can see why political elites would be against its popular embrace. I, for one, think this questioning is a major tool in our arsenal, and in fact is a necessity of any resistance that has a chance of success, however defined.
So keep your animism, you seers of tree spirits. If you want to stop the corporate machine from bulldozing/raking/poisoning/exploding/eroding/toxifying/radiating the very living Earth, then we’re on the same team. But when the revolution comes, I just hope enough people are down with using evidence and consensus as methods for making decisions, and not each individual’s dream-induced moon-beam whispers. That could get kind of dangerous, don’t you think?
“It’s not a race thing, it’s a poor thing.” – Paul Ryan, responding to criticism that his assertion that people in inner cities have an anti-work culture is racist
“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson