Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Russian Nihilism: Faith, Science, and the Bitter Atheist

Let us suppose that you believe in God, very deeply (if you do, this will obviously require less imagination then if you don't).

Let us suppose that you also believe in the Divine Right of Kings - that is - you believe (again, very deeply) that God has placed a single person to rule over your Land: an Emperor, holy and sacred. Your faith in this Emperor is no different than your faith in God; they are one and the same.

Whether you believe in God or not, this second item will likely require more imagination, as there aren't a whole lot of people left in the world who still believe in the Divine Right of Kings, and for good reason. It hasn't really worked out too well in the modern age.

Anyhow, there you are, happily feeling this way, when things take a turn for the worse: you and your family begin to suffer. There has always been suffering, so that's nothing new (not to make light of human suffering) but this time, when you attempt to figure out why this suffering has come to be, you and those around you cannot help but notice the Emperor and his policies seem to be causing all the trouble. Try as you may to lay blame elsewhere, the facts point back to that you have always held most sacred.

In other words, for the first time you find fault in your own unquestioned core beliefs.

In an instant, everything you ever believed in is a falsehood. For to call the Emperor into question is to call God into question - and ultimately to call belief itself into question. Suddenly one's entire world is unstable rather than sound. What is true? What is real? It is like a game of jenga (I know, bad analogy): pull one piece out and the whole thing topples.

Why? Because profound contradictions against an unquestioned world view create pressures so extreme that when core beliefs finally rupture, the result is not to crack but to shatter. Core belief is resilient; it holds on as long as it can, even in the face of absurdity, so when it finally goes, it goes in style. It bursts like a dam.

Van Gogh described himself as a "bitter atheist". I always loved this idea: a "bitter atheist" - someone who has been terribly disappointed, betrayed. Someone who once had a profound faith, and then lost it. A very, very different someone than the fellow who turned to atheism out of logic or reason or upbringing, without the accompanying companion of shattered faith (booooring!). Yes, a "bitter atheist" and an "atheist" are not the same thing at all. The former has more to paint about.

We live in a change state culture, that is, a culture where rapid and profound change is the norm, where each generation presents a disconcerting "gap" (not true of all cultures and societies), where each advent in technology presents new social challenges, and thus where, when things break, indeed they tend to shatter...

Leaving a lot of bitterness to go around, I suppose.

But I digress. Back to nihilism. Back to the poor soul who has just realized everything is a falsehood. Let's help this fellow out at once! Apparently he has a few questions...

Q: So, if I have recently learned that everything I believe in is not true, then how do I go about discovering what is true?

A: Well, you begin by clearing off the table:

  • If everything I know is a lie, then nothing exists.

Q: Nothing? That's no fun. There must be something, right? Some truth? How do I find it?

A: Very, very carefully! Trusting nothing as given (throwing out every assumption you have ever known) you must observe the world around you and make note of everything you can see, touch, hear, smell, feel, etc., no matter how trivial. Later you will look at what you have observed and see if any patterns emerge. Then you will put these patterns to the test and discover if they reveal any truths. Thus:

  • Nothing exists, except that which I can observe with my senses.

Q: A little less vague, please?

A: You will eventually refine this approach into a concrete method: you will create a hypothesis of what might potentially be true, then you will do your very best to prove it isn't, using your full powers of observation and reason. Thus:

  • Nothing exists, except that which you can prove empirically to be.

Now that sounds familiar, doesn't it? Yes, that sounds like a scientist. And the method sounds like the scientific method. Because it is. From this idea - nothing exists except that which you can observe with the senses - modern science is born (or at least refined).


Thank you, Russian nihilism. Now let us look at one of the greatest books ever written, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, to illustrate this extraordinary paradigm shift in point of view.

In the white corner, we have Nikolai Petrovich. He is the father; he loves and admires nature, he believes deeply in the Tsar and God. Nature is divine and poetic to him.

In the red corner, we have Bazarov. He is a nihilist: nothing exists to him except that which he can observe with his senses. Therefore, he recognizes no authority. He does not believe in God or Tsar; he generally has disdain and contempt for any institution supporting what he cannot logically prove to exist.

In the middle we have Arkady, Nikolai Petrovich's son. Arkady looks up to Bazarov, but also admires his father, setting up a wonderful moral dilemma and tug of war. To illustrate, while Nikolai Petrovich cites verse (essentially divine, c'mon its Pushkin), Bazarov has little regard for his sentimental, romanticized view of nature...

"Yes, this is spring in all its glory," said Nikolai Petrovich. "Though I agree with Pushkin - do you remember those lines in Eugene Onegin?

To me how sad thy coming is,
O spring, O spring, sweet time of love!

"Arkady!" shoted Bazarov from the tarantass. "Send over a match will you, I've nothing to light my pipe with."

Meanwhile, Pavel Petrovich, Nikolai Petrovich's aristocratic brother, is far less tolerant of Bazarov than Nikolai Petrovich himself:

"What is Bazarov?" Arkady smiled. "Would you like me to tell you, uncle, what he is exactly?"
"Please do, nephew."
"He is a nihilist!"
"A what?" asked Nikolai Petrovich, while his brother lifted his knife in the air with a small piece of butter on the tip and remained motionless.
"He is a nihilist," repeated Arkady.
"A nihilist," said Nikolai Petrovich. "That comes from the latin nihil-nothing, I imagine; the term must signify a man who... who recognizes nothing?"
"Say-who respects nothing," put in Pavel Petrovich, and set to work with the butter again.
"Who looks at everything critically," observed Arkady.
"Isn't that exactly the same thing?" asked Pavel Petrovich.
"No, its not the same thing. A nihilist is a person who does not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered."
"Well, and is that a good thing?" interrupted Pavel Petrovich.
"It depends on the individual, my dear uncle. It's good in some cases and very bad in others."
"Indeed. Well, I can see this is not our cup of tea. We of the older generation think that without principles (Pavel Petrovich pronounced the word as if it were French, whereas Arkady put the stress on the first syllable) - without principles taken as you say on trust one cannot move an inch or draw a single breath. Vous avez change tout cela, may God grant you health and a general's rank, but we shall be content to look on and admire Messieurs les... what was it?"
"Nihilists," said Arkady, speaking very distinctly.
Later on:
"What have you got there, leeches?" asked Pavel Petrovich.
"No, frogs."
"Do you eat them or breed them?"
"They're for experiments," Bazarov replied indifferently, and went into the house.
"So he's going to cut them up," observed Pavel Petrovich. "He has no faith in principles, only in frogs."
Pavel Petrovich has little regard for Bazarov:
"What a calamity it is to have spent five years in the country like this, far from mighty intellects! One becomes a complete fool. You struggle not to forget what you have learned - and then one fine day it turns out to be all rubbish, and they tell you that sensible men no longer have anything to do with such nonsense, and that you, if you please, are an antiquated old fogey. What is to be done? Obviously the younger generation are more intelligent than we are."
And Bazarov has little regard for Pavel Petrovich:
"Do you think I'm going to pander to these provincial aristocrats! Why, its all personal vanity with them, the habit of being top dog and showing off... But enough of him! I've found a rare specimen of water-beetle, Dytiscus marginatus - do you know it? I'll show you."
Note that Fathers and Sons was first published in 1861, while Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in 1859, roughly the same time and intellectual milieu. Thus the natural extension of "nothing exists except what can be observed by the senses" is essentially equal to "look at this very interesting idea I have just observed with the senses!"

Perhaps this explains the often visceral juxtaposition between faith and science. A shame, really, because when you compare Nikolai Petrovich's divine love for nature with Bazarov's emprical/revolutionary love for nature, the bottom line is they both love nature! Whether one recites Pushkin or the other mumbles in Latin makes very little difference, one could argue.

A false dichotomy. But a dichotomy nevertheless, and one worth examining in more detail.

Considering that we are living in the "period after the fallen Emperor in which the principles of nihilism have supplanted principles of the divine, to varying and unsettling degrees", it seems to me we should spend some time looking at the Russian revolution, at Chernyshevsky's "What is to be Done?" and some other items, from a new, modern angle (not a Marxist one), in order to see if we can make some sense out of what is happening today. I'll do that in my next few posts.

Of course, there may be no relevance to this at all... And most people find looking back at history so incredibly dull, anyhow. For them I leave this description of Nikolai Petrovich's servant:
Everything about him, from the single turquoise ear-ring to the dyed pomaded hair and his mincing gait, proclaimed him to be a man of the advanced modern generation.
1850s, baby. Now that's punk rock.

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