Sunday, September 23, 2007

It is human nature to choose

Nihilism is a philosophy about nothing. Every philosophy has things to say about God, universals, truth, mankind and the purpose of life. For instance, a philosophy of Atheism has a definite opinion about the non-existence of God. But Nihilism neither affirms nor denies any deity.

When a nihilist contemplates life, the universe, and everything he can deny in turn every unifying principle. After a few hours of doing this, a nihilist will likely grow hungry.

"Everybody's got to believe something. I believe I'll have a cookie."

You thought that was just a humorous slogan on a tee-shirt. But it is more than that: a philosophical manifesto flying under the radar. One thesis that Evangelical Christian scholars advance is that everyone has a world-view and often a world-view is adopted unconsciously. I saw the tee-shirt in the Wireless catalog with that quote, but didn't think it anything deeper than the joke. Indeed, treating everything like a joke is a nihilistic reflex.

A second unexpected, nihilistic reflex is consumerism. If nothing is true or meaningful, except for one's appetites which cannot be denied, then satisfying those appetites becomes much more significant. There are different sorts of appetites that a person encounters: sex, power, and fame come to mind.

The existence of appetites says something to the Christian Theist about the nature of creaturely existence: creatures are not self-existent: we lack something and for that we hunger.

Appetites may be cultivated. Many enjoyable foodstuffs require a cultivated palate. Children are generally revolved by the bitterness of coffee, or the painfulness of peppers. But many of them grow into adults who pay top dollar for Starbucks® coffee and splash Tabasco® hot sauce on their meals. Rail-thin fashion super-models who haunt American culture may be far less appealing in cultures who favor a more Rubenesque form.

Appetites also serve to define someone's identity. A person whose sexual appetites are restricted to members of the same sex declares a "sexual identity" of homosexual. And the same goes for whose who identify themselves as heterosexual or bisexual.

The nihilist believes in nothing but himself and his appetites. And when he feels pangs of hunger for human companionship, community is just another consumer good. It objectifies the "other" in a relationship when he or she is a mere consumer good. Making another person an object is a form of murder.

Since appetites may be cultivated, everyone is vulnerable to advertising. Advertising stirs up appetites in us that we don't know we have. Advertising creates the impression that particular goods are more desirable than others. By linking one good to another in the mind, advertising can lead to perverse appetites. "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." How exactly should a cigarette taste? Sweet and sort of like vanilla after the fashion of the candy cigarettes they sold when I was a child? They don't sell such candy any more.

When the ancient Greeks spoke of virtue, they recognized something and hoped to instill virtue in their children. Christian parents perceive the character of God in the Ten Commandments and hope to do the same. After-school specials depict disadvantaged kids overcoming adversity, conforming to teacher/coach expectations, then going from zeros to heroes, getting the girl and humiliating powerful antagonists.

But this doesn't change human nature. Instead, appetites are cultivated in the child for the desired behaviors and attitudes. And these appetites war with other appetites within the individual. It is human nature to choose between conflicting appetites. Those choices define whether we regard the resulting individual to be virtuous or not.

This demands of us a bit of consciousness and intentionality. We will be exposed to advertising in all its forms. That advertising may be overt in terms of pictures of fashion models with ad copy overlaid. Or less so in the rants on talk-radio. Or in a preacher's exhortations. We have to pick between them and ask whether the goods represented by each are consistent with what we think best and what we want to become.

So, that's why I really don't need to see your new big-screen plasma HDTV.

1 comment:

robvs said...

As a Christian, I should probably feel guilty for playing the devil against your resistance to purchasing a nice, new, pretty, shiny, large HDTV. Ya know, its not always a sin to buy something nice for yourself once in a while. And I don't think that you have to worry about falling into the spiral of crass consumerism (er, I mean building an unhealthy appetite for the "wrong" things). You're not the type.

Or maybe I have this wrong: you wrote, "Those choices define whether we regard the resulting individual to be virtuous or not." Maybe your resist to buying a new TV is because you are concerned that you may be perceived by some as less virtuous?

I hope that it is not about perceptions, because what really matters is what is in your heart. No one knows your heart except God, and I don't believe that a little indulgence will change your heart. So, come on in. The water's fine.