Can humans live without an overarching narrative to guide their lives? Can society survive without the binding glue of God and morality as one? The philosophers of the Enlightenment thought so. With reason, they believed, we had moved beyond the shackles of faith. And with that began the modern story of progress and growth.
In the last few centuries, the scientific search for knowledge has expanded and exploded. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution have completely changed how we live, what we produce, and the way we consume. We have antibiotics. Poverty is being reduced by the day. Violence makes a lot less sense. Our power over nature, too, is evident: God is no longer considered the intelligent designer because that role now belongs to the humans in charge of creating technologies and deploying them at scale. Facebook and Google and Apple and Amazon are our new Gods. The impact of artificial selection is speeding past natural selection. We have more, we have better, and we are closer to some version of the truth.
And yet, something seems to be missing from this rosy picture. All of these different parts that we measure progress by are individually creating the space for a more prosperous future, and yet, as a whole, we seem to be falling apart in a big way. And this is something that Friedrich Nietzsche sensed in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, and it’s something that his madman character warned about in The Gay Science:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?…”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out.
“I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.”
What Nietzsche understood even back then was that reason alone isn’t enough to provide humans with meaning, and in the absence of the morality enforced downward onto Earth by some transcendent God, the way that we would interact with ourselves and our creations would lead to some sort of a larger crisis down the road. Now, Nietzsche believed that we could do better than the idea of traditional morality, but he was nonetheless adamant that, without it, we would collectively dig ourselves into a state of nihilism, or meaninglessness, and that unless some other solution was found, this nihilism would destroy the foundations of society.
In every single human culture that has been studied, some sort of religious and supernatural beliefs are evident. You can say what you want about whether or not God exists as a metaphysical entity, but what you can’t deny is that believing in God has survival value. If it didn’t, evolutionary forces wouldn’t have selected for such beliefs to exist in such a broad range of physical and cultural environments in the first place. Faith is useful. Without it, our collective orientation towards the future gets muddied. Without it, our actions aren’t coherent. Without it, things start to fall apart.
The biggest problem with all of this is that the human mind can’t be fooled. Even if it consciously thinks of life as meaningless, it is still unconsciously driven by something else that it hasn’t fully thought through on a deeper level because if it truly believed that everything was meaningless, then it would have no incentive to move. And in the modern world, that something is what it sees everyone else strive towards: material consumption. Rather than being a life-force that guides and motivates an individual’s interactions with consumption as a means to an end, the lack of meaning actually forces the same means into becoming ends themselves.
A transcendental narrative is an invisible substrate that holds individuals, groups, and societies together. When growth itself consumes this narrative, however, when we materialize meaning without a deeper foundation, each individual ends up striving towards whatever it is that drives the conditioned desires of the self, mimetic desires which are borrowed from other people busy playing the same game, desires that are manipulated by the forces of capitalism, desires that end up competing for consumption rather than a deeper yearning for expression and overcoming.
If we think of society as a complex system that is healthy when it is both differentiated and integrated, then a society without a transcendental God ends up quite differentiated because everyone is operating according to their own self and its motivation system but not at all integrated because these different motivation systems are in competition with each other as they chase the same material desires for meaning. Scientists often define a complex system as being greater than the sum of its individual parts. In this sense, two plus two is greater than four. And the reason for this is due to the interactions between those individual parts. Well, without something like infallible moral principles endowed by God, those interactions become weak, and as such, the complex system eventually begins to fall apart, as predicted by Nietzsche.
When the human body has nothing larger than itself to worship, it ends up worshiping the shallow desires of the self that it has been conditioned to think of as containing the meaning that God once provided. This poses two problems: the first is that because the self is looking to the material world to quench its desires, competing with others, it gives itself an impossible task in an unwinnable game; the second is that the self is motivated to grow to such an extent that the larger system itself becomes undone at its expense. The latter is the exact mechanism by which growing cancer cells destroy their host.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing personal desires and personal growth for their own sake, of course, and in fact, much of the meaning-making that the self engages in comes out of these avenues, but meaning has to first be found in something beyond the self alone before it can be experienced and lived through the self. Otherwise, it fails to sustain itself in a healthy way both on an individual and on a collective scale. The self itself isn’t what gives life meaning, but it’s the relationship that this self has to other selves in the social realm and whatever lies beyond that.
We need capitalism and consumerism, but they won’t fill the void left by the death of God. We need progress and growth, but they alone can’t be our source of morality. Pretty much all major issues currently facing the world — from some of the negative effects of technology to the issues surrounding climate change — have their root in the fact that we no longer have a predominant larger story that we can use to integrate society into a whole that is greater than its individual parts; that we are stuck playing shallow, surface-level games because we have nothing better to gaze at.
We live in a world that is increasingly messy. It has been fragmented into millions of little subcultures with the advent of the internet, and many of these are now at war with each other, trying to find their place, trying to enforce their views. But the real battle here isn’t between the ideas of the subcultures, but in how they view and reconcile their differences with each other. The thing that is breaking the complex system of society isn’t differentiation but integration. What is missing isn’t variety but how we connect the different viewpoints into greater shared values.
In a world with no greater vision of either our origins or our future to guide us, the only choice we are left with is materialized meaning. If we don’t consciously dictate the terms of our collective existence on Earth, our unconscious biases will do the job for us. And that leaves us with a simple but difficult task: finding our next great narrative.