Déjà Vu is one of the few specific experiences in life that poses a genuine personal problem for me.
When I feel Déjà Vu, nostalgia, become confused about a memory is a dream or reality or feel an impossibly strong wave of love and euphoria, I am forced to try and describe the state it puts me in. This is a problem not because I am a writer, but because I am a human being. As a rational being, I wish to understand the world. This is often achieved through labelling things. In the same way that “love” is utterly ineffective as a synonym for the feeling itself, the label becomes a symbol. These labels do not allow one to recall the emotion, but they can, if considered for long enough, bring about a faint memory of them. Because of the sheer intensity that the above experiences give me, I have always sought to find some short-hand for them. As an atheist, however, the only words I’ve ever come close to trouble me: “spirituality” and “transcendence”.
This is not an essay about religion. I will re-state once more that I do not believe in God (or any higher power) but I will also state my perhaps controversial view that I do not believe science is any more useful than religion in this particular issue. In the same way that “you feel God” is a dissatisfying manner of describing Déjà Vu, so too is “it is the neurotransmitter X crossing synapse Y”. This is not to say that science is not a fundamental need and essential tool of humanity — but I am not seeking for an explanation of these experiences. I am attempting to understand what they feel like and what these experiences could mean. In this way, I am firmly entering the domain of philosophy. Not only this, but it strays into the realm of linguistics and aesthetics. There is a reason I consider myself a writer and philosopher, and not a scientist. I am simply most interested in those issues which can only be explored through these two subjects.
What, then, of this word: “spirituality”? It should be said at the very beginning that all organised religions are, in my view, not only wrong, but dangerously so. Any truth must be discovered for oneself — never through a book. At best, the ideas of others can lead one to understand their own. I would never take another’s word for gospel. As such, organised religions are the pinnacle of self-deception. With regards to “the spiritual” and “the transcendent”, then, any definition will be of my own definition (I hope that, in reading this, you find your own definition). Firstly, the onus is on me to explain why I have chosen these word to attempt to describe the feeling that accompanies the above experiences. Here, I would like to note that I am going to avoid the word “spirituality” and focus on the word “transcendence”. Because of “spirituality”‘s connotation of a spirit in some sense, I will avoid its usage and focus on “transcendence” as it already had a secular understanding. I will focus on two particular aspects of “transcendence” — not in an attempt to describe how it occurs (neurochemically), or even why — but simply what it feels like.
This is an essay I wrote for the “British Undergraduate Philosophy Society” but, due to the unfortunate timing of food poisoning, I was unable to polish and send off in time. However, I still feel that this should certainly be in the public domain. So, if you’ll excuse the fact that the references don’t denote page numbers, this is an original essay on a topic that I believe I am a pioneer in: philosophical depression. Specifically: the road to (through nihilism) and the way out (through existentialism). I hope this is an enjoyable read but, more than that — is useful.
Nihilism, Existentialism and Philosophical Depression
“. . . [A] philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example.”
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
If the above is true, then acceptance of nihilism necessitates detachment from society, a self-imposed isolation and even a philosophical depression – perhaps suicide. By ‘philosophical depression’, I mean that a clinically depressed subject reached that state through philosophising – specifically, through realisation that the nihilistic doctrine is either true or inherently plausible.
Nihilism can take many forms: the meaning can be stripped from any and all fields (ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, etc.). The brand of nihilism that tends to lead to philosophical depression is the most general form of existential nihilism: that there is no meaning of or to life. All human endeavours, if this doctrine is true, are fruitless. All achievements are really inseparable from failure. Good and evil are both empty concepts: they are both nothing. Morality is nothing. Love is nothing. Humanity is nothing. Life is nothing.
The move from answering the question “Is there a meaning of life?” with “No” to depression is not a difficult one. In fact, it seems the only sincere move. If philosophy has any significance whatsoever, then – regardless how shocking, dark or difficult it is to accept the results – if one believes that a thesis is true; this realisation must influence their life. To philosophise and ignore the results is not to philosophise. As Camus, paraphrasing Nietzsche, wrote, the philosopher who ignores their reasoning does not deserve our respect.
Thus, the vital question arises: what is the nihilist to do? What options are open to the nihilist who denies that life has any intrinsic value? In this essay I shall argue that the creation of subjective meaning – even arbitrary meaning – is not only compatible with nihilism, but is what the nihilist who continues to participate in society is tacitly committed to.
This is part one of an essay I have been planning to write for a few weeks. It is a strictly philosophical essay, though I will move in and out of the usual philosophical parlance in order to communicate with my audience in a more general way. It will concern a number of topics: omniscience, omnibenevolence, etc., and other issues with the ontological argument and so on. It is written from an atheistic point of view, but is purposefully not dogmatic. It is intended to clarify debate on the topic and to provoke thought — not to offend or convert.
Part I is an introduction and a short overview of the problems I have found with the philosophy of religion (unfortunately, I am only accustomed with the christian/Western tradition — I make this ‘bias’ clear here, as it is my ‘area of expertise’). I do hope you comment either here or via facebook and twitter — get involved, I’d love to know your thoughts.
The problem with essays on the philosophy of religion
God is often described as omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. ‘He’ is also described in various other ways – some claim that ‘He’ has necessary existence, is perfect in every way and cares about our lives – others quibble about the details and instead maintain that there is simply such a thing but that he is unknowable.
This essay will be a critique on what I see as the vacuous (at best) or arrogant claims from believers who not only think (“know”) that there is a God, but that ‘He’ is all sorts of things: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, for example. There are, of course, infinitely many varieties of these claims – it would be impossible to explore all of them. Thus, I will be concerning myself with some of the major ones that are presented to me in the Western tradition of belief. I hope that those whose conception of God is not directly addressed by this essay do not merely wipe their brow and continue blindly, having felt a bullet passed them by – I intend for these readers to apply the same sort of thinking on their own conception and question what they really “know” – and how much of it is guesswork (or, worse, random designation of certain attributes to this higher power of theirs).
This is another extract from my novel. It occurs in the third of four parts. I don’t think it’ll ruin the story; however, it does perfectly highlight the philosophical and highly original nature of the work, the intensity of emotions involved and the passion I have. I hope, most of all, that it is enjoyable.
If someone taking MDMA at a funeral and giving a eulogy offends you, look away now.
* * *
The day I saw that notebook was about four days after I found out that she died. A week after that day of discovery and ruin it was her funeral. I had never been to a funeral before. Madeline’s mother found out that I was a writer and asked me if I would write – not a eulogy – but a piece of writing to commemorate her for her friends. A chance to redeem myself? If only.
There I was, having written the little thing only a few hours before, dressed all in black – the coffin was there, everything was pristine. The usual scene: the small group of people all immaculately dressed on a verdant green (ironically alive grass, I always thought), the women with their odd veils and all of that, the men standing awkwardly around trying to console the women crying. The close friends most distraught of all – these the people truly affected by it. Madeline’s little brother clung to her mother’s leg, not knowing what was going on. I was there, waiting in the wings, as it were. Here I was, the most outspoken atheist in my town here, at a religious funeral, to give an informal eulogy. It was an outside funeral – that is, there was a little podium for the speakers offset, to the left, from the coffin. The priest sat offset to the right and there were some decorations, little wreathes. All very neat, all pristine, organised, prepared.
Then there was me. Looking at the paper in my hands, I skimmed over some of the words. I wondered if they’d do – I decided to be respectful. I had originally declined but the mother wanted ‘someone with poetic sensibilities’ and I knew that I could deliver on that front. I had tried to weave something respectful, not too aggressive on the religion side, but most of all, something to honour Madeline. She liked my poetry and encouraged me whenever we spoke. I was doing this for.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do it sober.
If by focusing on what matters to me, regardless of its unusual nature, impact or ability to generate controversy, that garners me authenticity, then that must be what matters most. This leads me to the most prevalent reason explaining why human beings are not authentic: they cannot bear to be themselves in a world which rewards homogeneity with security, the concept of ‘fitting in’. For many, it offers a way to slipstream through life in a pre-establish rote: those who believe they are standing out are usually non-conformist conformists – perhaps the worst of the lot. I commend their spirit, but their execution is clearly lacking. Dying one’s hair, piercing their body and wearing a certain type of clothing liberates no one. The only liberation can come from action and thought.
That is where I stand out.
I need not explain why I stand out: in the process of writing this, I am doing exactly that, by outlining my philosophy – it just so happens that my philosophy is based on promoting the art of philosophising to the position of God.
What follows is a short section from my novel. It is taken out of context, but it not only stands alone well, as a nice exposition of my personal philosophy, but reveals one of the many flavours of my novel. I hope you enjoy it. The theme of ‘authenticity’ is key both to my novel and to me, personally, and so I will be posting some more excerpts related to it. I hope you will find them interesting — even better, inspirational.
* * *
I will start with authenticity.
This is a subject most important to me. In finally plugging the hole which leaked confidence, I began to reassess my position both within the group and within the world itself. What I had lost in the relationship I quickly regained. When I looked in the mirror during that time, I saw a man who wasn’t living up to his own ideals – worst of all, I was a man who was overshadowed by his past. The moment I regained control of my life was the moment I was able to say ‘I’m no longer living in the past: the present is now the most important moment of my life’. Separated both from my friends and myself whilst in that relationship, I became less than half a person. I expended all of my energy trying to hold onto an illogical and ill-fitting relationship and in the process didn’t have enough left over for the necessary amount of work it takes not only to hold oneself together, but to improve oneself.
And self-improvement is the one thing that drives me more than anything else in life.
Good looking, yes. What else? Problematic. Attention-seeking. Narcissistic. Selfish. Apparently, she was also irre-fucking-sistible. I’m an idiot. Even recalling it, I want to slash my wrists and dive headfirst through a window, immolate myself and scream until I cough up blood. There really isn’t anything I can look back on with more spite, with more fury, with more regret than this. My blood is boiling just entertaining these thoughts: I will have to be very particular with what I say. I won’t recall how we got together, or why (I don’t think there is a why which is half the problem): rather, I’ll dive right into those moments which lacerated me and left my self-worth pouring out of mental wounds that have now scarred. It’s obvious that it ended, so there’s no point pretending that it’s suspenseful: I eventually found the courage (or intelligence) to end it; only a few months prior to the main narrative, in fact. It was the only relationship I had embarked on since my first one; I took a good year out to savour the sanctity of reflection and making sure I was mentally stable.
And then it took about three days to lose it all.
So close to success.
A lifetime of ambition, of strong words and stronger will. And it’s within touching distance. The acquisition of such dreams reveals that an age of maturity has been reached – intersected by the culmination of years of hard work, training, practise and of course, the obligatory good deal of fortune. But it is finally here: it’s time to revel in those few precious moments that loom large in the distance, in the future, but that we don’t quite know what to do with when we achieve them.
They really don’t last long. And it’s all too easy for them to become tinged with sadness. When a dream, a lifelong goal, is reached, we are granted a few seconds in which it becomes a novelty. After that, it becomes a memory, making the imperceptible transition from future to past.
A test of faith
Ever since it was revealed to me by my faith as a children that there was an option – or rather, that it was possible – not to believe in God I have found it the most profound question that there is, followed closely by ‘is there a meaning of life?’. I do not so much believe that I have the answer as much as I believe I have done all the right calculations and, from the evidence I have, have made the right decision.
But there is no ‘answer’: an answer implies that the question has been replied to and the case is closed. But that is never the case in these matters. The proudest part of being an atheist, for me, is the sustained effort it takes to be one. Being an atheist is a badge of honour not just because you have placed your faith in the simultaneous insignificance and beauty of humanity (both in terms of time in existence and in relation to the rest of the known universe) but because of the troubling, fascinating and difficult conversations you have with yourself and with other believers and non-believers.
The most important part of being an atheist – and this is the one thing that the pious disagree with most of all – is that one should always doubt their unbelief and question their unfaith. If something happens in life – a death, a tragedy; a love, a world-changing experience, a psychoactive experience – the deep questions that many people would rather not think about come into play. But for an atheist (atheist here standing in for agnostics, sceptics and the rare breed of non-dogmatic religious believers for the sake of concision), every single day brings with it a flurry of new experiences which must be categorised and must force the non-believer to question what it is they belief. It is remarkably easy to fall into a pattern – an ideological trench from which it is all too simple to stay in, rarely peeping over the top into the battleground. But it is almost certainly their duty to not only look into the battlefield, but to spend their life there, perhaps retreating to their trench at night, asleep. Or perhaps a dream will change their life like it has done mine.
The rainfall was too heavy.
Had he been in any other mood, it could have been the sort of weather that soaked a person through with frustration, along with the complete and utter saturation of the clothes which were at least twice as heavy now. But he was in that unique mood that all of us wish we could command at will, but by necessity cannot. We spend so much time in our lives re-living our memories: analysing them, forensically dissecting them, wondering what we could have done differently – what went right, wondering how on earth we did this, or that – and generally viewing that picture reel in our minds. The cinema of our lives to date. But this was one of those moments – one of the really important moments.
The memory-making moments.