Wednesday, May 15, 2013

It may seem like an abstract question–what is the world?­–a philosophical curiosity perhaps, but detached from anything that really matters very much in our day to day lives. But I would like to encourage the thought that this is a kind of illusion. There is a peculiar malaise of our time. We are meaning-seeking creatures. Even when we deny the world such a meaning, and strive to create a meaning for our lives out of our own efforts, the drive to inhabit a tale worth living is not a trivial matter. If we cannot find such a tale to inhabit, it isn't even clear that humans can survive. The mythologist Joseph Campbell used to say that ours is the first society without a nourishing myth.
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the experiment humans refer to as society is not something guaranteed to succeed. Indeed, the jury is out as to whether it even can succeed. At a deeper level, the “experiment” on the part of nature that goes by the name of humans carries no guarantee of success. We are living in a time when the threat to the biosphere posed by the sum of human activity risks being nothing less than an extinction event for our own species. Every so often the fragility of our entire societal project rises to confront us face to face, as with the college massacres, rising in number across the years, for which no plausibly complete explanation seems available. Moreover, the developed world has never had it more affluent and comfortable, and yet we seem harried by a bewildering range of diseases, a poisonous cocktail of toxic effluents, the greatest number of psychological problems, spiraling levels of stress, ever-widening inequality, and a deep-set malaise of hopelessness and pointlessness.
This litany of maladaptive behaviors and symptoms is itself as good a signal as anything that something is out of sync between human beings and nature. It may not ultimately be possible for humans to thrive without a plausible answer, perhaps even a nourishing answer, to the opening question (what is the world?) Nor does it really seem likely that postmodern band-aids of do-it-yourself meaning will be sufficient to heal or repair a crisis of meaning that may have its roots in the universal theater. Naturally, we must be governed by what is true, but is the idea that there is no functional relationship between what is good and what is true a crowning achievement of the modern intellect, or is that itself part of the malaise?

MARK SWEENEY, 15th May 2103

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