I’ve referred to Lovecraftian horror a number of times in this blog and this calls for some explanation. To see the relevance of Lovecraft to the philosophical issues I’ve been ranting about, you need to be aware that there are roughly two kinds of secularists, the Nietzscheans and the non-Nietzscheans. The Nietzscheans, including American horror author H. P. Lovecraft, British writer John Gray, and existentialist philosophers, warn that what Nietzsche called the death of God, which is to say the ascent of modern science and of secular powers, was a revolution that demands a reassessment of our values. Nietzscheans stress the illegitimacy of those traditions and institutions that presuppose theism. By Contrast, the non-Nietzscheans, including most New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Jerry Coyne, believe that the rise of secularism doesn’t have such radical consequences. For example, these secularists often assume that the liberal value of a person’s sacredness is sustainable on an atheistic basis, even though that value derives from theistic myths. The non-Nietzschean secularist usually responds to the Nietzschean by saying that theists acquire their values in turn from the use of their own reason as they cherry-pick from scriptures, and from our prehistoric ancestors’ evolved social instinct.
Unlike the more optimistic secularists, Lovecraft worried about the philosophical implications of modern scientific findings. He dramatized his worries in weird short stories featuring super-powerful gods or aliens, whose motives are as unfathomable to us as are ours to ants. These extraterrestrials symbolized for Lovecraft the cosmic forces of nature which are just as alien to us, given that they’re not creations of a familiar, humane parent figure like God. The point is that modern science discovered not just the universe’s inhuman scope, but its impersonality and thus its inhumanity. Lovecraft used the existential abyss between his scientific characters and the inhuman universe to produce in his reader a sense of the truly strange. By “existential abyss” I mean our alienation from the rest of nature, given science’s disenchantment of it and our own need to enchant what we perceive by projecting anthropocentric categories wherever we go. Science is the eating of the apple and the source of our expulsion from Eden, and once we’re on the other side of the barrier, lost now in postmodern self-consciousness and skepticism, we’re no longer at home anywhere. To paraphrase what Milton says about Satan in Paradise Lost, hell travels always with us, since it’s a state of mind (see Book IV, line 20).
Lovecraft called his philosophical outlook “cosmicism,” using the inhuman aspects of the natural order to drive home the insignificance of our own ideals and pet projects. Our ambitions are pathetic vanities next to those of intelligent creatures who may well have prospered for billions of years and even now direct the course of galactic development. Even were there no such elder, squid-faced gods, the natural forces themselves have proved to be inhuman and thus alien to us, operating as they do on vast time scales, from subatomic particles to galaxies and perhaps even across multiple universes.
The upshot, for Lovecraft, is that the world discovered by modern scientists is awesome, above all, in its capacity to horrify us. We’re happiest when we delude ourselves that we’re at the center of a manageably-large universe and that underlying everything is a supreme person who not only comforts us but is actually related to us as our ultimate parent. The universe becomes a home for our extended family, and so ultimately we have nothing to fear. Nothing is strange in that universe, since God has sovereign control over everything--he knows even how many hairs there are on each of our heads--and we’re made to be similar to God. When we intellectually mature and can no longer view the universe with such innocence, everything becomes alien and strange, even ourselves as we learn of the effects of the now-impersonal natural forces on everything above and beneath the sun. We’re afraid of what’s different from ourselves, of the strange and the alien. We assumed that natural forces are controlled by people, because we control many processes in our little corner of the cosmos. But if people are just accidental byproducts rather than the architects of Creation, we’re adrift on a sea with no safe harbour.
Pragmatism as a Secular Whitewash
There are many consequences of this cosmicism, but one that should be more appreciated is that the New Atheist’s rosy secular outlook, according to which we should simply get on with our lives, creating our own meanings, following society’s laws, raising our families and working hard at our jobs, looks for all the world like a whitewash. Partly, this whitewash is due to the prevalence of scientists in the New Atheist movement, who don’t have much sympathy for philosophy, and partly it’s a tactic in the culture war against the religious fundamentalist in the US, for example, who accuses biologists of presupposing godlessness, to disastrous social effect. Instead of teaching merely the scientific facts of evolution, says the fundamentalist, biologists inevitably instill atheism in their students, since atheism follows from the rigorous use of reason at the expense of faith and atheism leads, in effect, to Lovecraft’s cosmicism or to Nietzsche’s revaluation of all values. In response, the New Atheist insists that neither the modern scientific worldview, nor philosophical naturalism, nor atheism has any such dire implication.
As the Atheist Bus message says in Britain and Canada, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This pragmatic message is most telling. Just as Pascal says in his infamous Wager that even if you don’t yet believe there’s a god, you should go through the motions until you fall into the habit of being a religious person, so too the non-Nietzschean secularist says that even if you don’t see meaning or value in anything after God’s death at our hands, you should go through the motions until, no doubt, the secular myths from political, corporate, and Hollywood propaganda enthrall you. The hyper-rational secularist encourages the use of reason to wipe out theistic beliefs, but stops short of recommending skepticism about liberal secular values. No, that extended skepticism must be just postmodern gibberish. Best to trust the liberal technocrats, the cheerful scientists, and the shining images on the silver and little screens. After all, look at how rich and powerful those secularists are. No one could be so successful without possessing great wisdom, and so when they say that even though life is accidental in an immensely cold, grim, and impersonal universe, secularists should just get on with their lives, they might as well be selling coffee, nicotine, or some other capitalistic stimulant.
To be sure, non-Nietzschean secularists have their philosophical defenses of liberal values and of morality, democracy, and capitalism, that is, of the secular way of life. In fact, analytic philosophers, political scientists, and economists are for the most part devoted to producing just those defenses. And their arguments may be more or less compelling. But they fail to persuade the less intellectual person in the street who’s more liable to follow his or her feelings. So too must those pretty speeches and technical articles flying out the doors of secular institutions, of governments, colleges, and think tanks, fail to persuade the secular academics and professionals when now and again they don’t get their way and their animal instincts get the better of them. When their logic and science avail them not and they’re forced to go with their gut, they’ll tend to worry like the Nietzscheans. Unlike Pascal’s calculative wager, the point of cosmicism is that the secular worldview has an overall negative emotional impact. This worldview deflates our self-centered preconceptions, while the rigorous application of scientific objectivity trains us to be hyper-skeptical, to distrust all authority figures and traditions, and thus deprives us of any substitute myths. We have idols aplenty, but none of them is sustainable in the chaotic postmodern climate.
In other words, while the philosophical and soft scientific defenses of liberal secular values may be rationally compelling--and I’m conceding that for the moment only for the sake of argument--those defenses lack the power of Nietzschean cosmicism because the natural cosmos is above all a scary place. Richard Dawkins sometimes wishes that religious authorities didn't dictate the content of European art in previous centuries, since secular poets, for example, armed with scientific data, would have been inspired by nature’s grandeur to produce their own artworks of epic beauty. But this is naïve philistinism. Whatever beauty there is in nature is utterly tragic; in fact, the beauty dies with the inevitable demise of the beholder. Unless the secularist is a closet Platonist and thus a cryptotheist, the secularist should know that value judgments are subjective and that our talk of a flower’s beauty is a byproduct of our parochial mating ritual in which we size up a member of the other sex, searching for telltale signs of health, like facial symmetry and certain body proportions.
Fear, too, is an evolutionary mechanism, which causes us to fight or to flee when faced with an unknown. But at least there’s no misapplication when we fear the inhuman cosmos, as there is when we deem fractals and other natural forms beautiful. The Lovecraftian, existential emotion of angst is true to the revolutionary spirit of modern science, lacking the anthropocentrism of the cheap metaphor in which the harmony of cosmic processes--assuming there is such a thing--is compared to the harmony of the human form. The rosy secularist who calls nature "majestic" and "elegant" merely vents his or her prejudice when faced with what’s perfectly nonhuman. In this respect, modern secularism is neo-pagan, a high brow version of prehistoric animism, according to which nature is sacred because nature is flush with humanity or with spirits that are similar to ours, and humans are sacred because, well, we children are narcissistic. The angst-ridden secularist, however, grapples with the scientific lesson that anthropocentrism is childish folly and so--instead of cheerfully seeing our reflection in the cosmic pool--she resorts to the only suitable emotions she has left: fear, horror, awe, a recognition of the Other as such and thus of the limit of our standards and the necessary short-sightedness of our goals.
Whatever intellectual merits pragmatic secular optimism may have--and again, I grant them here only for the sake of this particular rant--this optimism can’t compete with the fact that fear is the most suitable emotional response to nature. That was Lovecraft’s point, which is why his protagonists were mainly men of learning who are driven insane when they’re forced to feel the strangeness of a world without a humane God. For non-Nietzschean secularism to work, we’d need a means of neutering or short-circuiting our natural terror in response to our tragic existential situation (see Happiness). Perhaps this is the ultimate purpose of political and Hollywood fear-mongering, to distract us with fictional or propped-up monsters (communism, al Qaeda, middle eastern dictators), to avoid Western social collapse from the death of God.