[At a philosophy lecture]

‘The human condition may end in discord’

Searching for values in a universe without meaning


Having tried the Bush Administration, credit-card kiting, Wall Street, war, vitriolic campaigning, God, art, aliens, naked pool parties, construction projects, bankruptcy, lap dances, alcohol, prescription pills, sleeping excessively or not at all and TV—lots and lots of TV—and still come up empty, we’re sitting in UNLV’s Barrick Museum auditorium on a Thursday night to hear from a philosopher. A guy who makes a living shuffling around “reason” and coming up with theories of “meaning.” In short, a genius.

There’s this air of hope/desperation, that feeling that seems to permeate everything lately. Some onlookers came for extra credit or a journalism assignment; but most seem to have slipped in looking for the answers.

We’re young and old, about 50 in total: two kids making out in the back row, an old man in a fedora in the front row, at least three expressionless persons in all black, one middle-aged man wearing cowboy boots and shredded jeans, two skateboards, three open laptops, one man in orange Crocs reading The Good Earth in hardback, plus assorted other inquiring minds.

At 7:30 Stanford University philosophy professor Kenneth Taylor strides in promptly to deliver his theory of whatever, titled “Reason, Relativism and the Human Normative Predicament.”

He’s a big guy in tight, camel-colored clothing, reading big words, with a big voice denoting big ideas. His presence inspires confidence. And his words are mellifluous and meaningless but engaging, like, it turns out, life.

Translated from the octo-syllabic, his speech starts out something like this: There is no absolute objective meaning. But humans are value-creators, and value-mongers, so we decide what is valuable to us, for no good reason, and then enter into contracts with others, who will hold us to our own values. Even though nothing really matters. Nietzsche, Nietzsche, Nietzsche.

“We may call out to the cold, uncaring universe to validate our values,” Taylor tells us, “but the universe is mute.”

That’s the predicament. That, and the fact that we’re 30 minutes in and have no answers.

“Okay, now things are really going to get philosophically dense,” he says, and it sounds to me like he’s said, “Okay, now the housing market is getting bad,” or, “Okay, the economy is tanking.” Really?

A few people bail. A few others lean in, preparing their ears to catch the hard part, going on the theory that if you understand how you got into this mess, maybe you can figure out how to get out.

“The brute facticity of our value-mongering remains,” Taylor goes on. “It’s a deep mistake to suppose our valuings must have objective value. ... There is no external normative authority. This may seem dizzying and discomforting, but it need not be. ... We must accept and not recoil from the consequences of our predicament.”

In his element now, he leaves his notes on the podium and starts striding back and forth like a mad stockbroker on the trading floor.

“I’m a reason for myself,” he says. “You’re a reason for yourself. ... The driver of human history is the hunger for normative community. The dialectic of ratification I offer up is a norm and you choose to ratify it. ...

“The conclusion? The human condition may end in discord.”

Thump. Our normative hopes plop onto the dizzying and discomforting floor. Discord? Nihilism? We’re 45 minutes into this—wait, we’re many, many years into this—and the wise man we’ve journeyed from afar to see for free on a Thursday night can only offer “discord”?

A few more people pack up their messenger bags/life dreams and bail out. Taylor isn’t bothered. He’s a little out of breath now and resumes his place at the podium. “So what is the answer?” he asks, setting us up again.

Yes? Yes?

“What could be more exhilarating than to know it’s entirely in our hands? Can we redeem humanity?” he asks. We hang on the crescendo. Can we?

“There are no guarantees, but let us try it nonetheless and see where the trying may lead.”

At this, we pause. And then, because we’ve accepted each other’s value contract to be in this collective predicament, we applaud. Here we are, right where we were. And we leave, going nowhere in particular.

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