Earlier today I was browsing at one of my favorite group blogs when I ran across a post that made the following claim: “Without transcendence of some kind, however, it is difficult to see how to avoid nihilism: there is no source of meaning if there is no transcendence.” The claim is that materialism lacks “a coherent notion of transcendence” and thus any adequate ground for meaning. The problem with this claim is that there are plenty of materialists around but not many that are card-carrying nihilists. People seem quite capable of attributing meaning to life and adopting values to live by with complete disregard for the lack of transcendence they ascribe to the Universe. How can they do this?
First, in defense of modern materialists. Modern biology pushes the evolutionary saga, the emergence and development of genetic material that forms the basis of life on Earth, back three billion years. That’s quite a heritage to contemplate. Furthermore, modern genetics shows how truly superficial are the physical differences between different human populations that have formed the basis for group conflict and intolerance for millennia. Modern genetics does as much or more to advance “the brotherhood of humankind” as other philosophical, religious, or cultural ideas. Finally, modern ecology has shown how deeply our existence is intertwined with and interdependent on animals, plants, and the land around us. If we aren’t one with Mother Earth, there is at least a close and dependent relationship.
What’s my point? Much of the meaning that religious systems or mystics have held forth under the banner of transcendence relate to our human heritage (spark of the transcendent divine), the unity of humankind, and some sort of stewardship or link to the living world around us. But these are the same values that many steeped in modern scientific views, as materialist and untranscendent as they are, profess, as outlined in the prior paragraph. I don’t think it works to say that if the perspective isn’t transcendent then the professed meaning or value somehow isn’t real or sincere. Transcendence simply doesn’t seem to be the hinge on which human perception of meaning turns.
Second, we should reject the “materialist = nihilist” equation because Mormonism comes across to many as embracing materialism. “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter …. We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.” D&C 131:7-8. Now there are creative ways to read this passage, but enthusiasm for transcendence is not one of them. One can squeeze the Mormon rock pretty hard and not get much transcendence out of it. Maybe materialism isn’t so bad.
Third, I frankly doubt whether there are any true nihilists out there. Go check out Nihilists.net — no, I don’t think they really get it. True nihilists don’t host film festivals. In LA. The best depiction of nihilists I know of is in The Big Lebowski, which tells us something, doesn’t it? If three guys with bowling balls can stand up to nihilism, I think we’re safe for the time being.