I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

There is No Wheel: An essay on my particular brand of nihilism

I'm releasing an anthology of my short fiction very soon to Kindle and Nook, and will be posting several articles about it over the next few weeks over at dragonprophet.blogspot.com, my writing blog. But, I'm placing this essay here on my "politics and religion" blog, since this essay isn't so much about the book as it is about my central understanding of life.

One of the great debates of the last 300 years or so has been the tension between religious world views and rationalist world views. Both rationalists and theists look at the world and find patterns and designs within it.

People inclined to believe in religion look at these patterns and draw the conclusion that life can't be random. There is some driving force keeping everything in tune, even down to the level of individual life. As we humans wind our ways through the treacherous seas of life, some of us take comfort knowing that an unseen navigator has his hand on the wheel, and where ever we go, it's where we're meant to be. Religiously minded people may not agree on who the navigator is, or the final destination, but they do agree that an intelligent force with a master plan is behind everything we experience.

Rationalists deny that there is any navigator. Yet, this doesn't necessarily mean that all life is random. When Adam Smith wrote of an "invisible hand" that guided economies, he didn't mean that there was an actual being attached to that hand; instead, there are just laws that govern human behavior. Darwinists can explain much of the world through the guiding principal of natural selection. Objectivists (Ayn Rand's philosophy) argue that each man is responsible for taking control of his own wheel; where you go in life is where you choose to steer your life. More liberal minds tend to view our destinies as being guided by larger forces: We become rich or poor, success or failure based on elements such as the health, medicine, and education that was provided to us as children. Rationalists tend to be much more divided than religionists as to who or what has their hand on the wheel guiding our lives, but they do agree it isn't purely random. Yet what is the guiding force? Is it nature or nurture? Survival of the fittest, or survival of the fairest, the kindest, the toughest, the smartest, the wisest? What hidden laws govern the human past that we can then use as a guide to the human future?

It will surprise no one who has read the title of this blog post to know how I answer the question "Whose hand is on the wheel?" I don't believe there is a wheel.

The theistic interpretation of life's supposed patterns strikes me as almost too absurd to argue. I've heard brainless theists argue that we can deduce God's will by the fact that he sends hurricanes to smite godless places like New Orleans. After the Haitian earthquake, I read completely serious arguments made that the fault lay in Haitians having sold their soul to the devil to gain independence, leading to their present cursed state. The flip side is that some people who experience tremendous good fortune will attribute their success to God. All of life's rewards and punishments are meted out according to a higher plan, and the less the higher plan makes sense to us (as when seemingly wicked people thrive and seemingly good people suffer) the more we view this as evidence that God's plan is so far above human understanding that it must be truly freakin' awesome!

But the rationalists don't do much better. They tend to latch onto a set of "rules" and argue that, under perfect condition, life follows these rules. If you've ever tried to argue with a libertarian absolutist, you quickly realize how faith-based and impervious to reality their arguments are. I'm not picking on libertarians alone, however, since their philosophical opposites, communists, have also constructed a wall of arguments that can never be bashed down by experience or evidence.

Both rationalist and theists present models of the world that say, "If you behave this way 100% of the time, you will get this outcome 100% of the time." They want life to make sense.

I am pleased to report that it doesn't. Humans can and will slip free from the shackle of every grand predictive theory you care to place on them. I can show you children who were loved, well fed, safe, and well educated, including in morality, who grow up to become narcissistic monsters capable of abandoning their children, betraying their friends, and running their lives into the ditch. I can show you children who were bounced from foster home to foster home, subjected to abuse, who managed to grow into successful, compassionate adults. I know immigrants who arrived in America without a dime in their pockets, unable to speak English, who twenty years later own their own restaurants and are respected members of the community. And I know people who were born to millionaires, given almost limitless opportunities to chase their dreams, who wind up as nothing but bums. But, the reverse of all these are also true: I know rich kids from happy families who became rich adults in happy families. I know poor folks from broken homes who become poor folks with broken homes.

Nor can I take comfort in thinking that, while all the grand predictive theories of how to live may be hokum, at least I am the master of my own destiny. While many people's problems are self-inflicted, some times you just encounter forces that utterly disrupt whatever plans you may have once had for your life. You exercise, eat well, never smoke, and wind up diagnosed with cancer when you're 30. You build a successful business and it all comes crumbling down when a crazy person with a lawyer decides to take you for all you're worth. Or the flip side: you're just one of the millions of people who write a book or a song each year, essentially following the same long shot formula as the rest of the creative herd, and suddenly Oprah loves your book or Apple uses your music in a commercial and in the span of a year you go from starving artist to an embarrassment of riches.

I truly think that dumb luck is far and away the most consistent driving force deciding who comes out of this life judged as a winner or a loser.

I suspect that most people regard my world view as bleak. They want to feel as if they have some measure of control over their lives. Here's the compromise I've arrived at that keeps me comfortable and happy despite my underlying nihilism, and certainty that life has no higher meaning, as there is no higher judge to provide that meaning. I accept that there are no guarantees or sure fire formulas. Then I live my life the same way I'd live it if there were. I accept that I can't control whether a book I write will be sold or not. I write it anyway. I accept that the people I love may not be alive a month from now. I love them anyway. I know that some stray blood vessel in my brain may burst at any second and wipe away every conversation I've ever had with a friend, every joke I've ever laughed at... and I laugh at all the ones I remember now, here, at this moment.

There is no wheel. There is nothing holding us to the road we heroically follow into the terra incognita of the future. Stop clenching your hands at the ten and two positions. Lean back. Relax. And enjoy the ride.


Jared said...

"If you've ever tried to argue with a libertarian absolutist, you quickly realize how faith-based and impervious to reality their arguments are."

An observation I have been having routinely lately as my family adopts the libertarian bent.

The sentiment though tends to be seen in most the extremes, including that of theism, at both ends.

Nice post. Though I think your writing shows you to be a bit less of a mild-mannered, nihilistic hedonist than you appear to want to consider yourself. You must recognize some self control over the expected values of your future life, even if it is just to satisfy some chemically derived consciousness.

BTW, loved the Bitterwood trilogy and was just now checking back to see if anything new has emerged.

James Maxey said...

Arg! Jared, I wrote you a nice, well thought out response, and @*&$! Blogger ate it! The short summary is, I've got a new dragon-fantasy series coming out next year called The Dragon Apocalypse. The first two books are Greatshadow and Hush, and they'll be coming out about six months apart. I'll announce the exact release dates when I have them.

As for my level of nihilistic hedonism, it's odd how much it overlaps with rather mundane middle class values. For me, it's pleasurable to not have hangovers and to be in a long term stable relationship with a woman I trust and who trusts me. But to me, sobriety and monogamy are pleasure strategies pursued by a rationalist seeking to serve his own best self interests rather than shackles imposed by an authoritarian culture or imagined diety. They say a broken clock is right twice a day; even old religious notions built on falsehoods occassionally latch onto some enduring truths.