Reflections on “Missing Axioms” by Samuel Barnes
The Role of Martyrs in Light of Essential Incompleteness
In line with the thought of Kurt Gödel, if all ideologies ultimately cannot ground themselves axiomatically, meaning that “autonomous rationality” is impossible (a worldview that is rational “all the way down”), how is it we justify our ideology? It is clearly with something “arational” or “(un)rational” (note I didn’t say “irrational”), but is that “something” experiences, emotions, imagination — what? I don’t deny these “(un)rational” means of ascent serve a role, but Samuel Barnes, the mind behind Missing Axioms, has brought to my attention the unique role of martyrs, soldiers, and saints. Barnes has taught me that blood is epistemologically significant, and, for that, I am in his debt.
Barnes makes a fascinating point in his first entry that ‘You can be an explicit nihilist, but you can never be an implicit nihilist.’¹ What Barnes means by this is that it is only possible to say, “I’m a nihilist,” but it is not possible to act like a nihilist. Surely this isn’t true, for can’t I lay around on a couch and do nothing all day? Yes, but here’s the trick: there is nothing we can do that must be interpreted as a conviction that nihilism is true. If I am seen in bed all day, my actions could be interpreted as “he’s resting up for the day ahead” or “he’s just tired.” If I yelled something about wanting the world to end, people could just think I’m upset.
If a Christian silently attends church, however, the action says, “this person is a Christian,” and even if this is actually an Atheist attending church to make her mother happy, the action still “shows” a Christian belief even though no words are exchanged. Yes, there is still room for misinterpretation, but note how much more limited the range of “possible interpretations” is for “going to church” versus “not wanting to get out of bed.” Considering this, the nihilist is at a disadvantage to the Christian, even if nihilism is “the ultimate truth.” There just isn’t a way to readily show nihilism, only talk about it, and talk is cheap.²
Shouldn’t the willingness to die “show” nihilism? It would seem so, but this is where the reflections of Barnes approach their next subject: the martyr. To die for one’s beliefs shows the world that these beliefs matter to the martyr, and how can nihilism matter? By definition, it is a stance that questions the possibility of beliefs mattering, for generally nothing matters, and how can we die for nothing? Do note, this doesn’t mean nihilists can’t have values, for if nothing matters, then nothing matters, but it is hard to imagine how nihilists would die for their beliefs (as opposed to dying to protect a loved one, etc.). Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how nihilists could be seen as dying for their beliefs.
If death is the end of life for the nihilist, then life would be extremely precious precisely because there awaits nothing beyond it, and so to die for nihilism could in a way undermine it, for it would suggest life wasn’t as precious as it should be if there was nothing but life. Hence, nihilists will be hard-pressed to be martyrs, and, as we will discuss, if martyrs play a key role in helping us “(un)rationally justify” our worldviews, this would mean nihilism cannot be “(un)rationally justified” in the same way other worldviews could be. Again, nihilism is at a disadvantage, which might suggest that we have no choice but to “go beyond it.” If it is the case though that only nihilism is a worldview which the State, totalitarian forces, and general power cannot readily corrupt, then it is possible that our best belief system for resisting power is not one that will ever take root in the minds of the masses (as I think would be required to resist totalitarianism) — but this is a line of thought for another time.
‘Missing axioms is a uniquely human condition arising from an existential scenario where the chasm between explicit and implicit value is realized’ — the way Barnes opens his second reflection powerfully captures our predicament.³ ‘The previous self can no longer be ethically justified or measurably quantified causing the subject to fall without gravity.’⁴ Considering my work in “Belonging Again,” I’m admittedly biased, but these points of Barnes make me think of the work of Philip Rieff and Peter Berger — Barnes is on the same wavelength, but approaching this problem from a new and interesting angle.
Without societal “givens,” the meaning of our actions in society are not “self-evident” to the people around us, and this can cause us existential anxiety. What I mean by this is that in a Christian nation, it is assumed that everyone is Christian, and the actions of citizens are understood and interpreted through that lens “thoughtlessly”: “givens” remove the need for reflection, for I can safely assume the people around me share my beliefs (and be right the majority of the time). Today, however, if as a Christian I attend church, I cannot safely assume that my neighbor will think I’m doing something “upright” with my time: he might think I’m crazy. Thus, I can feel more existential anxiety around my neighbor: I cannot assume we are on the same wavelength.
To cut to the chase, Pluralism forces average people to increasingly and personally recognize that their worldview cannot ultimately be justified (objectively, with certainty), and this is a hard reality with which to live. Additionally, I cannot assume that the “Christian actions” I show will necessarily be interpreted “as Christian,” for my neighbor may not be aware of Christian doctrine (in Pluralism, my neighbor could be a Hindu). Thus, I find myself having to tell my neighbor that I am Christian, because it is no longer so readily possible for me to show my neighbor my Christianity, and in this way, I as a Christian can feel like a nihilist. This is a key point: under Pluralism, we can all feel ourselves to be “like” nihilists. We can only tell what we want to show, and talk is cheap.
That said, though everyone is increasing “like” the nihilist, everyone except the nihilist still has an advantage: the martyr (of whom doesn’t have to be religious, do note). A clearly meaningful nihilistic martyr is not possible.⁵ Genuine nihilism, Barnes claims, ‘is an impossibility for the embodied human subject.’⁶ For the modern, the image that comes to mind is someone who has crossed a ravine to a pillar standing alone in a chasm, and then when he or she looks back, the traveler realizes there’s no bridge there and that the pillar is floating in midair. None of this makes sense, and the subject cannot figure out how he or she got here, but here the subject is, as if born there, and perhaps the subject was so born — the journey to this spot was perhaps all a dream.
‘The state of missing axioms is the human imbued derivation of nihilism; an honest outlook from the embodied context.’⁷ We cannot embody nihilism (and be nothing), so it is only possible for us to face nihilism as “missing axioms” versus “missing everything,” per se (for we are present, embodied, so everything cannot be missing). If nihilism is ultimately true, we cannot face “utter nothingness,” which means we will always have reason to “keep searching” for a way to bring back those axioms, but that is a quest that can never prove fruitful. All the same, the martyr gives us ultimate “reason to think” a quest for axioms can bear fruit, and since we cannot access fundamental reality, we cannot know “for sure” that nihilism is in fact “ultimately true,” even if it is, and therefore there will always be “reason to think” the martyr could be right. And so we will be stuck, and if nihilism is indeed our best tool for resisting being controlled by politicians, dictators, etc., then we will give up our best tool for a hope that can never be fulfilled and yet never deconstructed.
‘Missing axioms is a reorientation, the start of a process of undressing the notions of value, ethics and character in a way nihilism alone was inept to do.’⁸ Nihilism is so inept because it cannot “show” nihilism, only talk about it. ‘Missing axioms is this same nihilism, in the explicit sense. However, it is also augmented with the challenge of what ought to be done implicitly when something must be chosen implicitly, consciously or unconsciously.’⁹ We cannot be nihilists, but we can be people who believe that “we cannot live like nihilists,” that there is a kind of “event horizon” — the border of a black hole — that we cannot cross. If we are committed to nihilism, the best we can do is humbly accept the boundary of what we can “show” of our commitment.
Even if we believe in nihilism, we can’t really live like a nihilist. Alright, but then how should we live? It often seems like nobody knows (and perhaps the nihilist best accepts this truth), and this suggests why we like to turn to others and imagine that “they know,” at which point we tie our ships to their ports and put our faith in their convictions. Most of us need others to believe so that we can believe — we need that “plausibility structure,” as Peter Berger puts it. This is arguably “bad faith,” as Sartre would say, but regardless, it’s just a sociological reality that we tend to lose faith in our beliefs if no one around us shares them. Faith dies by the congregation.
Of everyone we can “put our faith in,” our favorites to trust in are martyrs. Why? Because they’re dead: our views are safe there, unreachable. But don’t our views die with martyrs? Not all: it’s as if martyrs are letters we shoot into the afterlife, a process in which the letter is destroyed, but the message inside reaches a safe destination. Even if there is no such thing as life after death for people, there is life after death for views, and that’s our favorite place to keep them.
Finitude is the limits of humanity, but by “putting our views in” someone who dies, it’s “as if” our worldviews are catapulted beyond the limits of finitude, and it is suggested by the blood of the martyrs that our views actually do reach some “Ultimate Ground.” The martyr of our ideology makes us feel like our ideology does in fact overcome Gödel’s “incompleteness problem,” or at least if any view does, ours is a good candidate. After all, people were willing to die for it, and what kind of world would it be if people died for lies? It is this existentially uncomfortable possibility that also contributes to us assuming there is “reason to think” our ideology isn’t just “another ideology” but “the ideology.”
As our martyrs make us feel our views escape finitude (through the dead), so our soldiers and patriots make us feel the same way. Starting in section seven, Barnes elaborates impressively on the history of the Japanese military, highlighting connections between the military and conceptions of the divine. As the Christian martyr helps the Christian believe, so the soldier who is willing to die for his or her country helps us believe that our nation is not just “another nation” but “the nation.” Our country is made to feel like it connects somehow with “a divine order,” that it extends beyond finitude.
Death can be ‘used to transcend such circuits characteristic of our biological substrate, thereby giving existential meaning to authenticity beyond materialist inertness and rationalized causal explanation.’¹⁰ Heidegger argued that death was what made it possible for life to be “a whole”: if we are “toward” death, life can feel like a complete story. The martyr and soldier make our worldviews and “stories” feel completed: they “feel like” they complete the gap Gödel pointed out was inescapable for all systems. And since certainty is mostly impossible, we can’t say for sure martyrs don’t: there is always reason to keep believing. That is the power of blood. ‘Martyr’s don’t run,’ and thanks to them, we never have to leave our worldview behind.¹¹ But what if our ideology is Nazism? Unfortunately, this bloody truth still holds: it’s too much reality to think people could die for nothing, that nihilism could happen.
If it is true that violence and blood help us feel like we overcome Gödel’s “incompleteness problem,” then a world of peace will be a world of existential and mental anxiety. If “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose is correct that this anxious state is one in which totalitarianism becomes appealing, then peace easily leads to despotism. If violence grounds us, peace leaves us adrift. And those adrift long for solid ground.
Religion and patriotism are not unique in their reliance on blood for (a sense of) epistemic justification: Barnes elaborates on the death of Socrates as evidence that philosophy uses the same tools. No, ‘Socrates does not inspire the banner of any specific totalizing system of thought,’ but his death still suggests the possibility “that some things can be worth dying for” (even if God doesn’t exist).¹² And if that is even plausible, then nihilism can be questioned, religion around or not, for people do not have to believe in God to die for what they believe. For who knows, perhaps virtues somehow live beyond us in a Platonic realm, even if that is a Realm which we ourselves never reach.
If “nothing matters” but there are things worth dying for, then there is reason to believe “there are things that matter,” and — to stress a point from earlier — even if the nihilist seeks death in the name of nihilism, it is not possible for the nihilist to commit an act that must be interpreted as being done “in the name of nihilism.” Hence, we are forever fenced out of the possibility of an experience of “nihilistic martyrdom,” and in this way, all other belief systems have an advantage, especially if it is the case that the only ideologies that last for centuries are ones for which blood can clearly be spilled.
‘Authentic martyrdom,’ Barnes writes, ‘in contrast to the fanatic sacrifice which arises from ideological possession, is the emergence of conviction in a lifelong project.’¹³ In a world of infinite information, and especially ours in which the internet is at our fingertips, we are desperate for sorting mechanisms and ways of determining what ideas we should entertain and which we should forget about. This is a role of experts, but experts cannot help us “throw” our beliefs beyond finitude. The martyr though, who is a kind of “expert on the epistemic problem of justification and finitude,” can give us a sense of this possibility. If anything, the traditional expert often tells us that we attempt to overreach in searching for a transcendent grounding, but we do not like this answer, and so we turn to experts who will die.
The fact parents are “willing to die for their children,” that people “will die for their beliefs” — all of these are powerful tools for making us believe some convictions can escape finitude and ultimate nonexistence, and so why not ours? Even cities legitimate themselves and their laws with blood (and the resulting sense of certainty that blood would not be spilled for no reason), not only because soldiers and patriots are willing to die for the cities, but also because it is “hard to imagine” that a city would use it’s laws, in the name of justice, to perpetuate injustice and — if there is a death penalty, life in prison, draft, etc. — to ruin lives for no reason.
René Girard famously argued that societies tend to be founded on “sacred violence,” which means that an “enemy” is created against who the people of a group are unified. Without this “scapegoat,” people would end up destroying each other, driven by “mimetic desire,” which is the idea that we decide what we desire based on what other people want, which means desire must cause conflict, because rarely can we all have the same thing. However, if you want to kill x, and I mimic your desire, then we will both want to kill x, and so be on the same team. Violence hence creates unity.
Girard was a genius, and all I want to do here is suggest another way violence can hold groups together. As blood unifies people against an enemy, they are also unified by an investment in the blood. What I mean by this is that once I kill someone, the thought that I may have acted unjustly is “too much to bear,” so I repress the thought and engage in “confirmation bias” to collect all the reasons that the killing I supported wasn’t murder but just killing. Everyone else in my group will likely do the same, gluing us together all the more, for we are now all accomplices in the murder. Even if we aren’t friends, we’re connected: we all become like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. Scapegoats bind us not only in us being against them but also in our inability to accept what kind of people we must be to kill scapegoats.
As discussed in “The Age of Hysteria” by O.G. Rose, under Pluralism, we find ourselves questioning everything. In America, for example, we can question the founding of the country and the legitimacy of certain wars America engaged in, but if we question this, we may also have to question the nobility of our grandparents in fighting World War II. This can impact our self-image and history, all of which is painful, and if we cease to believe in the founding principles of America, it’s not simply that America “stops” being “a land of liberty,” but it’s suddenly “as if” it never was “a land of liberty”: our change of view in the present reaches back and makes it as if the past was never there in the first place (a “flip moment,” as discussed elsewhere by O.G. Rose). This radical change, this feeling that “the ground moves beneath us,” is incredibly hard to feel and accept, and the act of avoiding this feeling also binds us to our “accomplices.”
T.S. Eliot was right: we cannot handle much reality; we cannot accept that martyrs could die for something false, that our ancestors could sacrifice their livelihoods and lives for a void, and that we could kill in the name of justice and commit murder.¹⁴ “Surely we wouldn’t kill someone for the wrong reason,” we say. “Surely the martyrs who died believing what we believe would not die in vain.” The converse becomes unthinkable, and in that way, it becomes “given” that the converse could not be true (and “givens” are what collectives are formed by and require). Once blood is involved, we are committed: the mind is no longer allowed to wonder. A sense of certainty ought to be ours.
Nihilism is the only worldview that cannot be (given an appearance of) justification with blood: every other worldview has a significant advantage over it. If nihilism is the best belief system for resisting totalitarianism, for there is no ideology those in power can exploit and corrupt for their purposes, our best tool for resisting totalitarianism is useless.¹⁵ This is a critical point, one we are in Barnes’ debt for making us realize.¹⁶
Samuel Barnes covers many more topics in his Missing Axioms series, and I have not done his work the justice it deserves. Here, I only want to close by stressing the predicament that whether theistic or atheistic, nationalistic or tribal, etc., blood is how we (feel like) we overcome Gödel’s “incompleteness problem.” If this is the case, then a world with less violence will be a world with less certainty and more existential anxiety, a state which can make totalitarianism appealing (as discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose), perhaps precisely in order to bring violence back. Thus, whether there’s blood or not, we will feel existentially unstable and susceptible to exploitation. “No exit.”
Martyrs fill the epistemological gaps beget by our embodiment, gaps we’d prefer not to face unfilled. If blood is what makes us feel certain (arguably for all the wrong reasons), then our hunger for certainty is a hunger for death. As discussed in “On Certainty” by O.G. Rose, perhaps an acceptance that certainty is impossible will help us not give into our deadly hunger — perhaps accepting the possibility of only “confidence” will ease our predicament — but if this is not something the majority will ever be able to accept, then history seems destined to repeat, an unbreakable blood-line.
To close, I fear we are stuck with a hard reality that Pluralism makes ever-more apparent: we want blood.¹⁷ It was said earlier that violence grounds us while peace leaves us adrift, so in this age of general peace, we will desire that sense of being anchored, of certainty, that only blood can provide. Could we learn to live with feeling adrift? Hopefully, but if the majority cannot, history will repeat. Pluralism today is an age when everything feels liquid, like it is water, but we learn from Barnes that water is not what defines us; rather, we are shaped by our relationship to blood.¹⁸ Today, following Dr. Pinker in his The Better Angels of Our Nature, we seem to lack blood, and if blood creates certainty and a (perhaps false) sense of authenticity, then it is not by chance that an age of peace is an age of existential anxiety. We seem designed for blood.¹⁹
Blood helps us live with Pluralism, for it feels like blood makes some worldviews “more likely to be true” than others (mainly ours). Cynicism and skepticism have made it hard to believe in anything, but even the most adamant cynics must pause before the martyr and perhaps even feel jealousy, wishing they could feel that strongly about something. Blood is tempting, like people who think of cutting themselves “just to feel something for once,” and maybe ultimately everyone believes what they do because of blood. Maybe we all need blood to run through us.
We live in a world of “missing axioms,” but blood is how we make it feel like the axioms are present: it is perhaps not by chance that most if not every civilization has had the practice of human sacrifice.²⁰ If we cannot learn to rationally handle this state in which we feel adrift, then it seems inevitable to me that rationality will lead to violence. The truth (of “missing axioms”) might be veiled in blood, blood which we cannot see through, blood we don’t want to see through, for what is on the other side will demand too much of us. (Un)fortunately, blood is thicker than water.
¹See “Missing Axioms I — Explicit and Implicit Value,” as can be found here:
²Perhaps there is some way to “show” nihilism that I can’t think of, but even if so, I doubt the majority of people would rightly interpret that action as “showing” nihilism, whatever that action might be. This being the case, nihilism is still at a disadvantage, especially in a democracy.
³See “Missing Axioms II — Beyond Nihilism,” as can be found here:
⁴See “Missing Axioms II — Beyond Nihilism,” as can be found here:
⁵To stress the point, if nihilism is the best way to resist political and State power, then our best tool to resist power is more difficult to use than other ideologies.
⁶See “Missing Axioms II — Beyond Nihilism,” as can be found here:
⁷See “Missing Axioms II — Beyond Nihilism,” as can be found here:
⁸See “Missing Axioms II — Beyond Nihilism,” as can be found here:
⁹See “Missing Axioms II — Beyond Nihilism,” as can be found here:
¹⁰See “Missing Axioms III — The Martyr,” as can be found here:
¹¹See “Missing Axioms III — The Martyr,” as can be found here:
¹²See “Missing Axioms IV — The Passion of Socrates,” as can be found here:
¹³See “Missing Axioms IV — The Passion of Socrates,” as can be found here:
¹⁴Similarly, it can be “too much to think” that missionaries, nuns, pastors, etc. devote their lives, energy, and time to a delusion, as it can be painful to think we have tithed money in the name of a God who isn’t there to love us. Additionally, if we find the saints beautiful (people who “demand our attention” via the splendor and goodness of their lives, perhaps), it is hard to think such beauty can emerge from error. Aesthetics and genuineness, then, help us feel like “the problem of incompleteness” embedded in thinking itself can be overcome (well enough, at least).
¹⁵On the other hand, considering “Belonging Again,” if nihilism is a state in which “givens” aren’t present enough, then nihilism will make totalitarianism appealing to the majority to restore a sense of “solidness” to life.
¹⁶Martyrs fill the gaps beget by our embodiment. If this is the case, then a religion of “resurrecting the body” is one that “resurrects the gaps.”
¹⁷Perhaps this could be associated with a “Freudian instinct” that society exists to conceal. However, as “givens” collapse, society loses the capacity to conceal.
¹⁸Considering this, perhaps the genius of Christianity is making God bleed? In this way, there is always blood, for God is outside of space and time. Additionally, it is not possible for there to be a greater martyr that God himself: if martyrs bind us, nothing can bind us stronger than a martyred God. Also, if a God were to design us aware of the essential problems of thinking and our inability to escape finitude, God would likely design a religion in which he died.
¹⁹Christianity seems to preach this doctrine.
²⁰If it is true, as argued in The True Isn’t the Rational by O.G. Rose, that “the map is indestructible” and ha there is no way to “force” people out of an apocalyptic ideology, then considering “the structural possibilities of ideology,” we must worry about ideology resulting in blood and needing blood. If it is the case that all ideologies can become “apocalyptic” and/or “violent” once they recognize that they are “missing axioms,” and if it is the case that all ideologies must eventually recognize this as Pluralism intensifies, then violence seems inevitable.