»  National Review Online Diary

  September 2010

A test of nihilism     Last month I mentioned having gotten myself into a movie about nihilism. Well, there must be something in the air: this month we got an unsettling news story about nihilism.

The nihilist here was 35-year-old Mitchell Heisman, who shot himself dead in Harvard Yard on the morning of Saturday, September 25, in front of a group of visitors touring the university. Heisman left behind what may be the longest suicide note in history. It's actually a suicide book, if not a suicide tome — 1,905 pages long. It had taken him five years to write. You can read the whole thing here.

Heisman's story was that he'd spent those five years in a deep study of philosophy, history, theology, and biology, in search of the meaning of life. His conclusion was that there isn't one, and he then acted on that conclusion in the logical way.

In his suicide note, Heisman denied he was a nihilist, though the denial is not very convincing. His intention was, he said, just to carry out a test of nihilism.

Since I do not believe in nihilism, why not test "nihilism"? Perhaps I am wrong, but if the question of whether there is an important question is the most important question, then testing this question is closest thing to importance … (p. 1,873)

Uh, right. I'll confess I haven't read all 1,905 pages of Heisman's suicide note, but I've done some browsing in it, and it's not very coherent. Mind you, it's not a crazy rant. On the evidence of the note, Heisman was far saner than, say, the Unabomber. In fact he doesn't strike me as crazy at all; nor do any of the reports of his behavior by friends and family indicate anything more than mild, bookish introversion.

My main beef with the suicide note is that Heisman just wasn't a very good writer. He did not, for example, know the difference between the verbs "to lie" and "to lay." There's also something strained about the thing. If you read much of the note at a stretch, you build up the strong impression of someone trying to intellectualize opinions he's already settled on, like a religious apologist.

And like all but the very best intellects, Heisman's is trapped in the received cant notions of his time, most particularly in late-20th-century Western hysterias about "prejudice" and "discrimination." He actually coins a word in this context: "viviocentrism," the absurd and irrational prejudice that favors being alive over being dead. No kidding:

The attempt to go beyond ethnocentrism and anthropomorphism leads towards overcoming the prejudices of what I call viviocentrism, or, life-centeredness. Just as overcoming ethnocentrism requires recognition of the provincialism of ethnic values, overcoming viviocentrism emerges from the recognition of the provincialism of life values … Overcoming the prejudice against death, then, is only an extension and continuation of the Western project of eliminating bias, especially biologically based biases (i.e. race or sex based biases). The liberation of death is only the next step in the political logic that has hitherto sought to overcome prejudices based on old assumptions of a fixed biological human nature … (p. 24)

Heisman believed he had identified the ultimate victim group — the dead!

Warn't nothin' Politically Incorrect about ol' Mitch.

Perhaps I shouldn't be making fun of Mitchell Heisman while his family members are still grieving their loss. I can't feel much guilt about it, though. Suicide is always a supremely selfish business, and Heisman inflicted far more pain on those who loved him than anything my mild mockery might add.

And for all the shallowness and muddle of his suicide note, Heisman was at least tackling a real and deep problem to the best of his ability. How exactly do you demonstrate that being alive is better than being dead? Most of life is pretty boring, and parts of it are perfectly awful. Why bother?

If you can persuade yourself that your thoughts will survive your dying, you have solved the problem. However you conceive of the Afterlife, it gives you a reason to live. It may be a grim place, entry into which should be put off for as long as possible. This was the view of the Ancients, expressed in the Homeric epics, the Odes of Horace, and the ghost-worlds of Chinese folk religion. Or there may be an alternative Afterlife, a fun place — a "metaphysical Disneyland," philosopher Thomas Metzinger calls it — but for admission to which you have to have lived correctly, according to rules relayed by the gods through their human intermediaries. That's the view taken by the Abrahamic religions. In either case you have a reason to prefer life over death — or as Heisman would see it, a justification for your viviocentric bigotry.

If you don't have those powers of self-persuasion, you are stuck with either irresolvable doubt or blank nihilism. The former was the position of most modern thinkers before the 20th century: Hamlet's soliloquy, Pascal's wager, Dr. Johnson, Darwin. The latter came to the fore with Nietzsche, and has been the majority opinion among intellectuals ever since.

In this biological age, so impatient of introspection, our thoughts drift not so much towards the contents of these various notions as towards their consequences for our species. In that regard, Mitchell Heisman's suicide at least serves a useful purpose, reminding us that whatever the truth value of nihilism, it is a biological dead end. Heisman, like Nietzsche, left no descendants.

Listen to Granny     My own life philosophy is one I call Blithe Nihilism. I believe there is no point to life, but I try not to let the belief bother me. Blithe Nihilism has its roots in the grand English anti-intellectual tradition — in the conviction that life is to be got on with and not thought about too much.

Once in a while — after some string of personal disasters, or in a random melancholy mood, or when reading some bloke's 1,905-page suicide note — once in a while the defenses crack and you find yourself looking down into the pit. When that happens, you need to have some habitual remedy close at hand.

As with hiccups or the common cold, each of us has his own preferred remedy, which might not work for another person. My own treatment is to summon up the voice of my grandmother, Esther Knowles. When someone in her presence was moaning about his misfortunes, Granny would say: "There's many a poor soul in the churchyard would be glad to change places with you."

That settles it for me; though as I said, it might not work for another person. Granny lived to nearly 86 and bore 13 children. I call that a test of aliquidism (Latin aliquid = "something", as opposed to Latin nihil = "nothing"), and a pretty successful one.

Measuring consciousness     Having gotten into a metaphysical mood, I may as well comment on this news item about measuring consciousness. Dr. Giulio Tononi and some colleagues at the University of Wisconsin want to take your consciousness pressure.

To do so, they are adapting information theory, a branch of science originally applied to computers and telecommunications. If Dr. Tononi is right, he and his colleagues may be able to build a "consciousness meter" that doctors can use to measure consciousness as easily as they measure blood pressure and body temperature.

Well, the unit of measurement has already been named. In his 2007 book I Am A Strange Loop, Doug Hofstadter quotes the American music critic James Huneker, writing about Chopin's piano Étude Op. 25, No. 11: "Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it."

Taking his inspiration from that, Hofstadter suggests the huneker as a unit of ensoulment. You could calibrate your hunekometer so that an ordinary wide-awake human being has 100 hunekers of soul, while a mosquito has, according to Hofstadter, only about one ten-billionth of a huneker to work with. There are some technicalities to be worked through, "soul" and "consciousness" not referring to exactly the same things in common usage (most people would say that when unconscious, you still have a soul). It's a start, though.

Knowing your faith     The Pew Center took a survey on how much people know about religion, with the headline-generating conclusion that atheists and agnostics know more than believers. The full 32-question survey is here. "On average, Americans got 16 of the 32 questions correct. Atheists and agnostics got an average of 20.9 correct answers. Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3). Protestants got 16 correct answers on average, while Catholics got 14.7 questions right."

The survey's open to some obvious objections. As a critical piece in American Thinker pointed out, it's a test of knowledge about comparative religion, which is not at all the same thing as testing how much people know about their own religion. "If you truly believe yours is the true faith — and you're not an academic or an apologist — spending time learning about other faiths is not a high priority." Just so.

Not that knowing your own religion can't be helpful when assessing others. Like Andrew Stuttaford, and any other Englishman at or beyond middle age, I had a solid Anglican education, with daily acts of worship (often twice daily if, like Andrew, you attended a boarding school) and weekly Scripture instruction. Even if in later life you discard the supernatural stuff, you never forget the hymns, the liturgy, and at least the most-repeated of the Bible readings.

How does that help when assessing other religions? Well, for example, when I hear someone tell me that Islam is a militant religion, while Christianity is a peaceful one, my mind's ear summons up the infant me, circa 1955, singing along with the rest of the school to Walter Mathams' splendid old blood-curdler:

God is with us, God is with us,
So our brave forefathers sang,
Far across the field of battle
Loud their holy war cry rang;
Though at times they feared and faltered,
Never once they ceased to sing:
God is with us, God is with us,
Christ our Lord shall reign as King!

Nowadays believers tend to favor the more womanish, self-helpy kind of hymn, like the appallingly overworked and sappy "Amazing Grace." Let me tell you, Christianity was a fighting faith well within living memory — my memory. And that's just to speak of English Anglicanism, never mind the fiercer sects.

Bishop Bling Bling     Just one more on the religion beat: the accusations against Bishop Eddie Long, who runs a megachurch down in Atlanta, Georgia.

I have no idea what credit we should give to the accusations. The story of Eddie Long did get me thinking, though, what a genius the Rev. Jeremiah Wright is.

Pastor Long preaches the "prosperity gospel" — that is, he preaches that true, sincere acceptance of the Lord's word will ensure you physical health and material prosperity. One commentator, noting that Pastor Long's church was launching its own line of jewelry, dubbed him "Bishop Bling Bling."

As doctrine, the prosperity gospel is not scripturally preposterous — think of the last chapter of Job. It seems to have particular appeal to African Americans, and its most effective preachers have all been black, like the late great Reverend Ike: "Yo don't want no pah in the skah! Yo want yo pah now, wit' whipped cream an' a cherrah on top!"

The other eccentric strain of Christianity appealing mostly to African Americans is the Black Liberation Theology of James Hal Cone, of which our current president was a devotee until it became politically embarrassing for him.

You wouldn't think that these two doctrines could coexist. One is exuberantly capitalistic, or at any rate acquisitive; the other is explicitly socialist. Observes our own Stanley Kurtz: "A scarcely concealed, Marxist-inspired indictment of American capitalism pervades contemporary 'black-liberation theology.'"

Yet the Rev. Jeremiah Wright somehow pulled off a fusion. He preached Black Liberation Theology from the pulpit, railing against "middle-classness," and actually discouraging his parishioners from moving out of the ghetto. After thirty years of that, he retired to a million-dollar house next to a golf course in a tony neighborhood, with "an elevator, whirlpool, butler's pantry, circular driveway and four-car garage." Reverend Ike would have been proud of him.

Now that's fusionism! I wish I'd paid more attention in Scripture class; I might have had a butler's pantry of my own by now.

Uruguay Rising     Way too much religion and metaphysics in this diary so far. Let's get down to earth here — the southern hemisphere of Earth, to be exact.

A year or so ago I blogged my suspicion that Uruguay is one of those small, obscure countries that is doing very nicely for itself in obscurity. (And there's a follow-up post here.)

Perhaps I should have kept my opinion to myself. The BBC has got wise to Uruguay:

After a decades-long pause, expatriates from rich countries are again arriving in Uruguay.

In 2009, for the first time in 44 years, the country saw a positive migration influx, while the number of applicants who got residence permits has tripled in only four years.

By the time I finally get there the place will be totally spoiled. Story of my life. [Sigh] Always arrive at the banquet just as they're serving coffee.

Geert Wilders on trial     In a different continent, Geert Wilders goes on trial October 4 in the Netherlands. Wilders is the fiercely anti-Islamic head of the libertarianism-in-one-country Party for Freedom, and producer of the short movie Fitna. It's the movie that has got him into trouble. The Netherlands has hate-speech laws; Fitna is extremely rude about Islam; so Wilders is being prosecuted for inciting hatred.

This is four months after the general election in that country, in which Wilders' party emerged as the third largest, with 24 seats in the 150-seat parliament. To control that parliament you obviously need 76 seats at a bare minimum. The two big center-right parties have 52 between them. With Wilders' 24, and some scrapings from minor conservative parties, they'll have a working coalition.

That seems to be what's coming into being, though some multiculti members of the center-right parties are still balking. There's a vote due in the first week of October to seal the deal — the week, that is, that Geert Wilders goes on trial.

If the coalition happens, it will have a Wildersish coloration. Burqas will be banned and immigration sharply curtailed. All over north Europe, the worm is turning — even in Sweden. People want their countries back. Why wouldn't they? Uncontrolled mass immigration transforms a country. Most people don't want their country transformed. Why would they?

Math Corner     The solution to last month's puzzle is here.

This month's puzzle concerns Derbhenge.

I rise early and walk my dog right after breakfast. Derb Manor is at the eastern end of my street, which is straight in this stretch.

Walking back towards the house my compass heading is a tad south of east — to be precise, it is 90° 37′ 27.3″ from true north.

Given that my house is at latitude 40° 51′ 36.1″ N,**  on what fall date shall I experience Derbhenge, i.e. the sun rising at the end of my street, or as close as possible thereto (and right into my eyes, dammit)?

(To forestall the more punctilious kind of reader, I'll add that my house is at a height of 240 feet above sea level. By all means factor that into your calculation. I didn't because I can't believe it makes one day's difference to the date. If you can prove me wrong, I'll send you a free copy of We Are Doomed.)

** A cartophile knows this stuff.