Emergent Divinity: An Antidote to Nihilism
Updated: Feb 8, 2020
In the nineteenth century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche foretold of a dystopic world towards which he feared society was headed – a trend which he would spend the majority of his years in metaphysical combat with.
The fear was this: As science advances and humanity understands more deeply the mechanics of the physical universe in which they exist, the more they will replace meaning-providing institutions like religion with the educated conviction that there is no inherent meaning in life or in the cosmos — i.e. Nihilism, which is not to be confused with Atheism.
While Atheists can be spiritual and identify objective meaning in their lives the Nihilist, by definition, cannot.
This struck a nerve for Nietzsche as he believed meaning was essential to the human experience and that, without it, our species would devolve into madness.
The reasons for these trends are nuanced – an eruption of mindless desk jobs and social media surely among them – but it’s no stretch of the imagination to see a rise in Nihilism as a deeply rooted influence.
This is not to say being a Nihilist guarantees tragic outcomes. Still, it is important to remember that belief is something that – once clung to – integrates into the fabric of one’s consciousness. As Gandhi put it, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”
So what happens when the whole of your existence is fueled by a belief that nothing you do matters and that the beauty in this world – every endearing human interaction, every majesty of nature — is nothing more than the scramble of atoms in a meaningless brain? The. Thought. Is. Corruptive.
So how do we move forward? How do we find meaning in our world when the march of science continually leads us to believe it doesn’t exist?
Nietzsche’s prescription to Nihilism – dubbed the philosophy of the Overman – was for each person to peer inward and forge their own meaning to replace fading non-secular ones. The ideology is beautiful, but it is flawed. Specifically in the assumption that what’s best for the enlightened individual is best for humanity. This opens the door for the self-centered to justify their credence with philosophical scripture and a vague recipe for objective morality.
So what then? Well, we have now in our toolbox something Nietzsche did not.
Shortly after Nietzsche’s death, a phenomenon of our universe was uncovered; a theory that goes deeper than any before, to the sub-atomic building blocks which materialize everything we know.
I’m talking, of course, about Quantum Mechanics.
In the early twentieth century, theoretical scientists proved there to be a level deeper than the atom – the quantum level. But the greater discovery was what lay hidden within it. Through painstaking grit and exhaustive equations our brave scientists trudged past the atomic membrane to find on the other side…particles.
But not just any particles.
Unlike steady atomic counterparts, the quantum particle exists in a state of superposition – that is, it exists in all possible states simultaneously. Essentially, this would mean every object you encounter should appear like a bopped Mario Kart Question Box which – for all of eternity – will never pick an item. It just keeps shuffling as you curse wildly at the screen.
Obviously, reality isn’t like this. It is solid, it is stable. This is because the reality we perceive, i.e. the entire physical universe, is the product of ineffably complicated connections between quantum particles that occur before reaching our senses. This makes reality an emergent property: something brought to existence by the interactions of an underlying and vastly more complex something else.
The reason why quantum mechanics is so difficult to understand – and why we may never fully understand it — is because it is the foundation of our reality yet exists beyond it. A truth behind opaque and unbreakable walls.
This is why a quantum particle in shape-shifting superposition will remain so until put under a microscope, where it collapses to a single position. The very act of observation pulls the quantum particle into reality, making it impossible for the observer to detach from the observed.
Okay, Kory, this quantum mechanics stuff is blowing my freaking mind rn but how does it relate to finding meaning?
Glad you asked.
Consider the implications; every physical object that ever existed – from the Big Bang, to the dinosaurs, to the circuitry carrying this article to your screen – they are all made of particles that exist as everything at once. Yet there they were and here it is.
If all this is possible; if everything in our universe emerges perpetually from the quantum nothing, is it possible for another layer to emerge atop physical reality?
What if it already did?
Until now, everything I’ve written coincides with our current understanding of quantum mechanics. What follows, however, is speculation. But – hey – I’m a fiction writer. I prosper in speculation.
Before going on, I should also note that what is written below does not preclude spiritual or religious convictions. In fact, there seems to me enough mystery at the quantum level to potentiate belief in whatever the heck you want! What I present here, rather, is a perspective reframing.
Alright, moving forward.
So given what we’ve learned of quantum mechanics and emergent realities it now enters the realm of possibility for secondary emergent properties to materialize within our physical universe. So here’s what I propose:
What if that property is consciousness?
If this were true then consciousness, with all its evolutionary quirks, would be not only the product of complex neurons and electrical signals but its very own universe with unique and self-contained values. A property that stands alone yet is tied inexorably to the complicated physicality from which it derived. This would allow consciousness to possess autonomy and meaning in and of itself, assembled from the nothing.
An emergent divinity.
This perspective breathes life into our deepest felt intuitions – Love, kindness, beauty, morality, happiness, meaning – these are no longer empty concepts but fully formed properties of consciousness as real as gravity and ever-expanding like the physical universe. They are ends in themselves; individualized but subject to influence from the physical world and from interactions with other sentient creatures. They are a reason to live, and to help foster their growth and expansion wherever consciousness exists.
We are not a perfect species. Far from it. We have caused unspeakable harm, and we are not done causing more.
I hear it said in growing frequency that humanity is nothing but an over-sized virus. The notion disgusts me. It is a hopeless sentiment, equivalent to tossing one’s hands in the air instead of trying to fix the problems that could very well lead to extinction.
There is hope for humanity, and it can be felt. It can be felt in the glowing adoration of a parent. It can be felt in the roar of a waterfall down cliffs of vivid green. It can be felt in the gratitude of a person whose day, through an act of kindness, you have made.
Humanity can redeem itself. It can overcome its obstacles – many self-imposed – and become more than what it’s been.
All it takes is a belief: what we do here matters.