Here’s a great bit of dialogue from HBO’s new drama, True Detective, that aired this past weekend.   The principals, two Louisiana CID detectives, drive through a rundown Louisiana neighbourhood.

Reacting to the setting, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) mutters, “There’s all kinds of ghettos in the world.”    (View video. Warning: there is some strong language)

His partner, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) replies, “It’s all one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space”  When pressed, he explains his philosophical perspective:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.  We became too self-aware.  Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself.  We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. . . .  We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self.  A secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody.  When in fact, everybody is nobody. . . . I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming–stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

Philosophical Pessimism

Cohle describes this worldview as philosophical pessimism.   It starts with naturalism, the belief that all is material and material is all there is.  According to naturalism, there is no God, nor anything one could call spirit.  There are also no transcendent ideals like The Good, The True and The Beautiful.  If you carry it a little further, there is no natural basis for identity, purpose or meaning.

Denial of God, need not be as bleak as this–one can still believe in friends and family.  One can still enjoy art and believe in the power of reason.  And fight for freedom and equality, and against poverty and oppression.  But I think Cohle would say that people who maintain this sort of optimism are avoiding the logical consequences of their naturalism.

Cohle does not smuggle Christian conceptions of human dignity and equality into his view of humanity, nor does he wrap his view of life in the warm blanket of meaning and purpose.  He accepts that without the transcendent, life is a tragic accident, it has no purpose or meaning and identity is an illusion.

I look forward to how this philosophy runs up against Hart’s very nominal Christianity as they investigate the actions of a serial killer.