To the abyss and back

And woe to that fatal curiosity which might one day have the power to peer out and down through a crack in the chamber of consciousness and then suspect that man is sustained in the indifference of his ignorance by that which is pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous — as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger.

Nietzsche. On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense. 1896

Like all of us, I was thrust into this world without my consent. Dropped into existence, data streaming in, left to open my eyes and find my way through.

By the end of my first 18 years or so, I thought I had it pretty well figured out. Facts. Laws. Cause and effect. It was just a matter of working out the details.

Then I met Nietzsche, and the bottom fell out. My eyes were covered with deconstructive lenses and I couldn’t take them off. The meaning I thought was real was never real. It’s all a mirage. There is no perspectiveless perspective. There is no direct access to objective reality. There is no ultimate guarantor of value. There is no plan behind it all. There is no escaping real death.

This was my first encounter with the abyss. When you visit the abyss, you find that in a very real sense, you could give up. From there it wouldn’t be so much choosing death as ceasing to pretend. Ceasing, like Nietzsche did, to take the construction seriously. It was always fiction, all the way down. You were hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger. You could stop dreaming.

But after getting over the terror — which took me more than a decade — I learned in my bones that in another very real sense, you can choose to have it all back. You don’t even have to lie to yourself.

There’s no direct access to ultimate reality, but there is ultimate reality. There’s no ultimate guarantor for value, but there is value. There’s goodness. Lots of it. And badness. Lots of that too.

I made a choice. I want to care. I want to indulge in existence. I want to create. I want to make the most of it. I want to take meaning and value seriously — and exercise the option, at times, to take it not-so-seriously.

I want a good life. A life full of good times. Feeling good, and doing good. Feeling good because if there is any ‘ultimate’ after having met the abyss, it’s positive subjective experience. Good times. Doing good because feeling good depends partly on a fit between mind and world. I have to influence the world to sustain my existence and my happiness.

A life full of good times.

So how do you get a life full of good times? Best not leave it up to chance. Because the old cliches are true. The state of nature is nasty brutish and short. But knowledge is power. The truth will set you free. The unexamined life is not worth living.

In order to steer my life into good times, I must understand the world, as clearly and as deeply as I can, and I must live and act in a coordinated way given that understanding.

And the same is true for us as a species: we must rely on one another. We must coordinate. We have the option to behave as a team, and if we do, we can get large positive-sum returns. The amount of headroom on cooperation is enormous. We’re just getting started.

It’s fortunate that I, like a golden retriever, am happiest when I have a good task to work on. Helping humans to coordinate is a good task. That’s what I’m working on.