Philosophy for the Apocalypse

30 September 2020

On September 9, 2020 in Northern California, you couldn’t see the sun rise. Instead the dark velvet of a night sky melted into an ugly orange mess, an ominous reminder of the wildfires that have consumed over 2 million acres already. No photo I’ve seen quite captures how surreal it looked. By 2pm, the sky was dark as dusk. The streetlights stayed on all day.

 

Last year, when smoke choked us out of our outdoor activities, we fled into friends’ homes, restaurants, stores, offices, and schools to keep our sanity. This year, we can’t do that. Here in California you risk respiratory contagion indoors and acute respiratory distress outdoors. 

 

At 3 a.m., I miserably scanned the news as I lay awake. Instead of falling back asleep, I treated myself to seven possible Election Day nightmares. (Not recommended as bedtime reading.)

 

Several philosophers have recently remarked to me that it’s hard to do philosophy in the face of the apocalypse. Philosophy is sometimes seen as a special treat for the fattest of times, and an utterly impractical hobby in the leanest. But it’s easy to think that the enormity of the disasters facing us right now make doing philosophy—making philosophical claims, defending them with arguments, assessing others’ objections—simply absurd.

 

Not only is it false, it’s self-defeating. It couldn’t possibly be true. That’s because this is, itself, a claim of the very kind it criticizes. Whether our present crises make philosophy absurd is itself a philosophical matter, and it deserves careful rational consideration. How could the bleakness of the present and the anxiety of our future imply that philosophical pursuits are absurd? 

 

In one of my favorite philosophical essays, “The Absurd,” Thomas Nagel addressed a similar line of thought—this time, not about crises, but about a certain cosmic perspective on our lives. We have a tendency to move from thoughts about the vastness of space and time to thoughts about the meaninglessness of our existence. But the connection between these two kinds of thoughts breaks down under the slightest scrutiny. As he put it: 

 

We are tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe; our lives are mere instants even on a geological time scale, let alone a cosmic one; we will all be dead any minute. But of course none of these evident facts can be what makes life absurd, if it is absurd. For suppose we lived forever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity? And if our lives are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either because we were larger or because the universe was smaller)?

A similar point goes for musings on the senseless cruelty of our current climate. These days I often find myself leaping from there to the absurdity of valuing things—some particular things over other particular things—despite ash raining from the sky, millions dying from this virus, and the rampant corruption in the current administration. This is a philosophical step too, and one that falters just as quickly on reflection. We start from a place of valuing, of finding these apocalyptic disasters not only bad, but cosmically bad, and this leads us to question whether anything has value. But why should the badness of things imply that nothing is really bad or good at all? Would that awfulness be less likely to cast doubt on all value if it were mitigated just a little? The reasoning doesn’t make sense; to accept the premise is already to value, or more particularly to disvalue certain things, and that is inconsistent with rejecting the reality of the value of all things.  

 

The cruel insensitivity of the universe, enormous as that insensitivity may be, gives us no less reason to cherish pound cake, or hiking, or the transformative effects of a good education. But there is additional reason to reject its attempt to cast doubt on the value of philosophy. To follow this line of argument, whether it is any good or not, is already to engage in philosophical thought; it is to do the very thing that is thereby concluded to be absurd. 

 

This brings me to another point which my fellow academic philosophers like to forget. Philosophy is for everyone, and everyone does it. It is practically inescapable in any curious human life—which is to say, every human life. You engage in philosophy when you think about whether your life is absurd, or when you question what makes your pursuits valuable, when you consider how you could ever possibly know whether there’s a God, or when you marvel at the capacity of written marks and spoken sounds to carry significance and reference for us.

 

Everyone does philosophy, I think, and so philosophy—of the academic kind—is for everyone, too. Our untutored philosophical musings can always be refined. We can jettison assumptions, make finer distinctions, and learn to recognize our temptations towards fallacy. In a literal sense, what academic philosophers do is just what everyone else does, some of the time—and especially, it seems, in the face of apocalyptic challenges that seem to threaten our entire systems of value. Our philosophical leaps in dire times should demonstrate how basic philosophical thought is to our lives.

 

“Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand,” Nagel wrote. This sort of survey is not a special treat, a sugary dessert we savor when we have extra leisure in times of plenty. It is a staple of our intellectual diet, which we chase with ever more urgency when things look grim.

 

Image by Christopher Michel on Wikimedia