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The Nihilists Said Keep Calm And Carry On

Politics / Religion May 30, 2014 - 04:27 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


The First Ones Did
Plenty of hair-splitting but not much real difference separates “the heroic philosophies” from what ended up, in Europe as Nihilism and Existentialism. The first say that nothing exists while the others say that only existence exists. Both reject society. Both reject all previous socially-imprinted ideas or “social facts”. Both are in play in the crisis we have today.

Some historians claim that nihilism started in Russia, no earlier than the 1850s. Others say it started about 300 BC with the Greek philosopher Pyrrho who said there are only three principles of existence – everything is equally indifferent (adiaphora), unquantifiable (astathmêta) and indeterminate (anepikrita). Yet others say that Pyrrho had only re-phrased the basic argument of Gorgias, about 400 BC, who is more often called a Sceptic or Sophist, who claimed that if anything exists it could not be known because if it was known, the knowledge of it would be incommunicable. One person's description would only be as good as another's. Any claimed expert on that subject would be opposed by other claimed experts, with a different view. This may include empirical or scientific-type, quantifiable subjects or it may not because the theories explaining an empirical finding will usually vary and certainly with time. Unknowing is safer.

Nihilists could be called ultra-sceptics, saying that it is much, much better to say nothing than to say something which is false. Heavily covered by Plato in his writings, many Greek philosophers from Gorgias to Anaxagoras and Protagoras argued that human knowledge is above all unreliable. The famous saying of Protagoras that “Man is the measure of all things” is usually interpreted wrongly, because he meant that if you have 2 men you have two measures, and 3 men you have three measures, and so on. These Greek philosophers even anticipated sociobiology and psychobiology by at least 2250 years by saying that your psychological condition, what you eat, how you feel and who your friends are can and will affect how you describe and judge things. Everything depends on your circumstances and your condition.

If you think that is far-fetched take the case of Albert Einstein and Georges Lemaitre. Einstein was a pantheist believing in many gods, but Lemaitre was a Christian theologian and preacher as well as a physicist, operating in his native Brussels. By the late 1920s Lemaitre had formulated and quantified his theory of the Universal Atom englobing the entire future Universe, which explodes in fractions of a nanosecond, causing Universal Expansion which continues and will continue. Einstein instantly rejected the theory. On his way to a Solvay Conference in Belgium in the late 1920s he found himself in the same taxi as Lemaitre. He ordered the taxi driver to stop and either he or Lemaitre would step down. Einstein pooh-pooed Lemaitre's Big Bag theory for over a decade calling it a “statistical quirk” and “bad mathematics”, but Georges Lemaitre's theory is a cornerstone of Big Bang theory today.

The Statistical Quirk of Unknowing
Russia's nihilists of the 1850s are sometimes compared with the Beat Generation of the US in the 1950s and 1960s, also sometimes called the 1968 Generation. The Russian version, like the American version featured a rising class of relatively wealthy individuals in a period of increasing economic growth, often from fortunate sections of society but rebelling against it. Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev portrays them in his book of 1862 titled “Fathers And Sons”.  They were young intellectual critics of feudal society in general and the Tsarist regime in particular, and were part of a burgeoning radical movement which revolted against existing social norms. They were a youth movement led by a new intellectual class which was growing rapidly due to rising incomes, growing education and a growing number of independent newspapers and presses. They engaged in a "culture war" with an older generation that claimed to be anchored in traditional norms, traditional religion, and traditional morality. Against the "Fathers", the "Sons" no longer believed in the ideals of their elders, were disillusioned at the ambient hypocrisy, and were pessimistic about any attempt to change things. They retreated to unknowing.

Russian Nihilism did not accomplish much. It produced even less general cultural changes than the 1960s youth movements in America and Europe, which 40 years on have themselves left less and less real change – and more and more vapid myths. In both cases, especially in 19th century Russia, the “young radicals” were strong on their critique and very weak on their alternatives for society.
The Nihilists had little or nothing to offer in exchange for what they hoped to tear down. Some certainly tried, but their efforts were often divisive for the movement they claimed to support. Very ironically, one lasting trace in both cases is what is called “materialism” in philosophy, but not the materialism of what in European philosophy is called “logical positivism”. We can call it illogical or irrational materialism. Twinned with Nihilism this is a lethal cocktail.
Russian Nihilism essentially left no political mark whatsoever but its “perverse materialism” certainly and surely paved the way for the ascendancy of communism. Russian society not only did not accept Nihilism but entirely rejected it, like triumphal Reaganism of the 1980s entirely swept away the Hippies, but the impact of Russian Nihilism was like a time bomb. The 20-odd years of Russia's radical youth movement demolished past prejudices, assumptions and traditions – it had destabilized Russian culture but the effects would take another 25 years or more, before the social explosion occurred.

The Universal Atom of Society
Ultra-scepticism or Nihilism is like adding tons of water to the cement mixer pouring the social concrete. It dissolves and becomes useless. It is provenly an open door for all extremes – anarchy, fascism, nazism, totalitarianism. All terrorist movements of all times, either directly or indirectly, have included propaganda using or depending on Nihilism.

Nihilism itself englobes all philosophical traditions. Either Christian or Marxist, Asian or European, modern or ancient. Both Hitler and Stalin – whose own 1941-1945 war probably killed more than 25 million persons – regularly utilised and employed Nihilistic “speaking tricks” of apparent logic. The State should be ultra powerful. The Supreme Leader can replace the State. The people will decide all. The people are unfit to decide anything.

The only logical sequel is the explosion of society. Post-1980 Neoliberalism (to the extent it is a defined economic doctrine and not simply rhetoric) can be called the nearest thing to Nihilist Economics. It poses the fatal question: Do you want a society, or do you want a growing economy?

When you have neither you have the real answer! For the Nihilists this is a full answer, but society most certainly does not stop dead in its tracks.

The earliest (Ancient Greek) sceptics, sophists and proto-nihilists were themselves heavily opposed, for example and notably by Socrates – who they finally had killed by a kangaroo trial. Socrates sharply distinguished the domain of pure philosophy from social governance. In philosophy, doubt and uncertainty are basic. Claiming you know there are several gods (like Einstein), or only one (like Lemaitre), is something you will never prove by honest debate.

But claiming that society must forever be ruled by Tyrants, Oligarchs, Theocrats and The Hyper Rich is a recipe for civil war. Which you will get.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2014 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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