Materialism (Vers 2.0, Part 2)

“… Knowledge is a deadly friend / when no one sets the rules / the fate of all mankind, I fear / is in the hands of fools.

“Confusion will be my epitaph / as I crawl a cracked and broken path / if we make it, we can all sit back and laugh / but I fear, tomorrow, I’ll be crying.”

~ King Crimson, “Epitaph” (1968), lyrics by Greg Lake (1947 – 2016)

For Part 1, click here. Part 1 left us with a dilemma: Nietzsche’s realization that the removal of God from our intellectual-moral landscape also removed everything the idea of God and/or God’s Providence gave meaning to. The danger was an “advent of nihilism.”

Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) tried to answer this challenge (though he was not addressing Nietzsche specifically, of course). Although Russell is best known to professional philosophers for technical works of analytic philosophy such as Principia Mathematica (1910 – 13) written with Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947) which tried to reduce mathematics to logic, or the classic philosophy-of-language article “On Denoting” (1905), his most important essay for our purposes is “A Free Man’s Worship” (1903).

It would be possible to write an entire blog entry on this essay alone. It clearly represents a turning point for the English-speaking world, as it issues its own challenge parallel to Nietzsche’s: build a new moral and philosophical framework predicated on the rising materialist view of nature, based on humanist ideals, and make them work.

“A Free Man’s Worship” begins with a depiction, in the form of a whimsical and sardonic play, of the scientific view of the origins of the universe and of humanity as it existed at the start of the twentieth century. It was, for Russell, clear that man had created God instead of God creating man. Man had concocted the idea of sin, of a “hidden purpose” or divine master plan for his God, working behind the scenes as it were, to make sense of the pain and suffering in this world and ensure that in the end they would be compensated for, that all things would work out for the best. God’s wrath would be appeased by humans doing good and making the future better. The play has a nihilistic ending, however. God smashes another sun into ours “and all returned again to nebula.”

Russell opines:

Such in outline … is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforth must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction … all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand…. 

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day;…

This sounds like a recipe for abject pessimism. But Russell was not a pessimist. He was hopeful that humanity, collectively, could create the kind of ethos modernity called for, finding a moral compass in ideals such as economic justice and world peace, in addition to the value of scientific truth itself. These ideals were indeed our free creations. The onus was on us to realize them. We had no choice. Russell agreed with the implication left behind by those whose views we considered in Part 1: the blind, deaf, and dumb forces of nature would not care one way or the other. But we care, Russell was implying, and we can do something to improve ourselves.

Thus he articulated a contrast between Power and Morality. “Power,” he wrote,

may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain. But gradually, as Morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage.

Thus the “free man’s worship”:

When we have realized that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?

This choice, Russell continues, is “very momentous” and must “maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe …” These ideals being

our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain…. If Power is bad … let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments.

I hope it is clear how this essay reflects the kind of turning point for Anglo-American modernity that Nietzsche’s challenge represented for the Continent. Russell’s materialist ethos is an ethos of a Humanity standing and asserting his freely created ideals against a universe indifferent at best, hostile at worst (a theme that emerges in much existentialist thought, one might note). These are peace over war and force, working to alleviate suffering wherever possible whatever its cause, and affirming the goodness of life and of what we are doing to improve it despite its always ending in death. Our freedom is found in our capacity to take this stand in defiance of that outcome.

Russell tries to emphasize the benefits of doing so, not the nihilism that results from failing to do so. Even though it is hardly clear that Russell’s ethos is the same as Nietzsche’s, which, echoing the world’s hostility, hardly rules out the warrior!

But Russell made these choices in his own life. No one can accuse him of not practicing what he preached. His activities as a pacifist cost him academic positions on more than one occasion. He was arrested and jailed for opposing Great Britain’s entry into the Great War, as it was about to be called. He continued opposing war and urging programs to alleviate poverty for as long as he lived (and he lived to be 97!).

Sadly, the impotence of the Russellian ethos for a materialist world was revealed in the disasters to come. These would include the carnage of the two world wars, the brutal dictatorships and casual genocides, the threat of nuclear annihilation, not to mention the many “smaller” casual cruelties such as global sex trafficking (young girls kidnapped and forced into prostitution so that sociopathic pimps could get rich).

Finally, there was the specter of a rising scientific oligarchy, or technocratic elite, the sort of thing Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963) warned about in his Brave New World (1932) and again, more directly, in Brave New World Revisited (1958). Regrettably, despite his earlier overtures against Force, Russell favored an idea becoming popular among elite intellectuals: world government as the logical the next stage in human political and social evolution. World government would end war by eliminating the nation state, just as socialism would bring justice by ending capitalist exploitation of labor.

In Russell’s vision, the most important developments would be guided by technocratic “experts.” He defended the rise to authority of such “experts” in two books: The Scientific Outlook (1932) and The Impact of Science on Society (1952). By this time it was clear: modernity’s masses would not rise voluntarily to the occasion. They clung to images and superstitions past, religious and nationalist. They responded to incentives, though, and tended to warm to new technologies if these increased their convenience. They could therefore be led. New wants and desires could be manufactured. Those studying, e.g., how advertising works, showed that manipulating the masses was not all that hard. Capitalism, if controlled in this way, wasn’t such a bad thing after all! Come to think of it, war wasn’t always a bad thing, if it was necessary to maintain access to resources Western powers needed! Subterfuge was the elitist’s best bet, and millions were poured into research into how incentives of various sorts could be used to lead the masses in desired directions, via advertising as well as other media once they became accessible. And it was important that the masses believed they lived in a democracy.

Organized education thus ratcheted down the influence of subjects like philosophy and critical thinking which would inspire a few voices from among the masses to rise up against their erstwhile leaders, some exposing these kinds of controls. Harvard behaviorist B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) would speak openly of the advent of a technology of behavior in his works Science and Human Behavior (1953), and its later popularization Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). As with Russell, a scientific-technocratic elite would lead the way. The masses would respond under the “right” circumstances to operant conditioning, the process through which behaviors could be modified through reinforcement or punishment. One of the debates of the era was “nature” versus “nurture.” Was human nature fundamentally rooted in biology, which made it fixed with respect to elite-desired social goals and rendering all but the most superficial forms of social engineering impossible? Or was it rooted in immediate experiences which shaped fundamentally fluid personalities and so were amenable to social engineering. Naturally, the technocrats favored the latter. To believe in a biologically fixed human nature was soon labeled “unscientific” or worse.

Hence the social engineers went to work in various venues — from advertising so that the masses would spend and consume as capitalism required, to education policy to discourage the masses from questioning the structures being assembled and laid into place all around them. Most of the latter did. A few did not. Those who did not, tended to be children of the most prosperous and upwardly mobile people in history, the rising financially independent middle class that came of age during the post-World War II years. The irony is that many of the latter were in a position to further Russell’s original ideals of political-economic justice and world peace.

Yet an Establishment had fallen into place that did not want justice or peace: the Deep Establishment, I called it in an earlier post, developing the basic idea there. The Deep Establishment, as it grew, fomented (and bankrolled) numerous wars to control resources, especially fossil fuels. Doubtless to some, the Deep Establishment is a “conspiracy theory.” Some, of course, are good at staring facts in the face and denying that they exist, because all their lives they have been told untruths. They have been told, e.g., that they live in a democracy and not a plutocratic oligarchy, the kind of system that arises naturally when a technocratic elite rises to power, empowering (through lavish donations) a political class to hide behind.

Is this the freedom of a “free man’s worship”? I don’t think so. Were these specters of gathering unaccountable power just the growing pains of a civilization being slowly freed of its past superstitions? Or were these signs of something far more fundamentally wrong with modernity, and with the materialist ethos at its core? (To be continued in Part 3.)

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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1 Response to Materialism (Vers 2.0, Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Nietzsche, Materialism, and Eugenics: A Brief History of the Connection | Lost Generation Philosopher

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