Why are we presented by an apparent choice between belief in rigid, unshakable foundations for knowledge and morality or the abyssal vacuum of nihilism? Perhaps it is because our species is prone to exaggeration, and falls all too readily into false universality. Instead of seeing the undermining of the fundament of knowledge and ethics as setting us adrift in nothingness, perhaps we should stress the liberating aspect of this change of perspective by seeing our situation through new eyes. We are now afloat upon an infinite ocean, with enough of a breeze to set a sail, and the stars of the heavens to steer us by.
Phrases like "moral vacuum" and "the abyss" invite a more extreme interpretation of what has been termed the post-modern condition, yet even this phrase itself tends towards the excessive. Jean-François Lyotard's concept of "incredulity towards meta-narratives" or the "end of grand narratives" spins a wild tale: Charles Taylor wryly observes that Lyotard himself presents his position in precisely the form of a grand narrative. Our awareness of the mythological frameworks by which we orient ourselves within the world need not invalidate them, any more than understanding gravity has left us floating off into space.
We have inherited problems from the foremost prophet of our new epistemological situation, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose spin on nihilism has been picked up by many philosophers in his wake. When Gianni Vattimo talks of the eroding of our foundations by an awareness of nihilism, I understand what he alludes to, but I equally appreciate why those whose strength rests within traditional narratives fear the implications of the very term 'nihilism'. The acute awareness of Nietzsche's abyssal void does not make this the only truth –it reveals there are no truths without beings to assert them. But we are indeed beings, and as such we have our own truths.
The idea that we have exposed a vacuum of meaningless existence misleads; rather, we are simply learning how to understand meaning without an appeal to stone-hard pillars of support. Plato gave us this rash hope, and Christianity made it central to Western thought; when God was evicted from the sciences, the apostates failed to give Plato the boot, and (as Nietzsche saw clearly) kept faith in his view of one truth, resting on firm foundations. Descartes had a hand in this – his attempt to prove God and the soul ironically set the stage for modern science-fanatics to deny both while still asserting a belief in absolute perspectives that we cannot actually access except in narrow contexts. Both scientific and religious fundamentalists cling wistfully to older narratives in order to maintain faith in firm ground beneath our metaphorical feet. Those narratives remain an important part of our new circumstances, but no one story can make a claim to primacy in all contexts.
We are not adrift in an empty vacuum, because we have our own nature and circumstances; it does not support us like stone, but rather like water supports a boat. Rock it too hard, and we will sink. Trust it, and it will continue to keep us afloat, as it has for millennia. There can be knowledge – we can chart the stars – but we know now that this knowledge is tied to our position; the sailors of another world steer under the same stars but different constellations. There can be morality – we can agree our rules – because we are not upon this sea alone, and we know instinctively that we must live together. There can be divine mystery – faith in the breeze to sustain us – and who, after all, can say what does or does not lie in the depths of this ocean? We are afloat together, and we all have our stories of how we got here and where we are going. We are not strangers upon the infinite ocean. It is, and always has been, our home.
The opening image is Water from Vitor's second Elementals series, which I found at his site, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implict permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.