Nomic crisis? What nomic crisis?

I had my Prevent training this morning – if anyone isn’t aware of that, it’s having the information anyone in education needs to identify students who may be at risk of radicalisation. Slide by slide I felt increasingly reassured by what I was seeing. The first impression I had was that if you had the slightest doubt that someone might be falling prey to some dangerous ideology, then you had to report them. So looking at a few websites or watching a couple of videos was enough to warrant an alert, which would get them investigated. That seemed like dangerous territory to be getting into. By the end I could see it was more about knowing whom to contact if you had a real and genuine concern that something evidently was amiss with someone you knew.

And then we got to the final slide in which a theory of how people were radicalised was presented and the anxiety levels went way up. If this is how the people who are psychologically profiling people who are vulnerable to radicalisation view the world, then we all have a problem.

According to this theory, presented here The first stage of becoming vulnerable to radicalisation is a nomic crisis.

If you haven’t heard of that, and I hadn’t, here’s the line of thought:

  1. “human beings (have an innate need) to feel their lives have a self-transcendent dimension and suprapersonal purpose”
  2. “This dimension or purpose is variously described in terms of religion, culture, totalizing value system, narrative arc, transcendence, sacred canopy” ie a nomos
  3. “Growing up in the absence of a fully-fledged, ‘solid’ nomos – as so many modern individuals do – can make them susceptible to the powerful negative emotions.”
  4. So if someone has a vulnerable nomos, then they will experience “a visceral fear of anything that threatens the coherence, vitality, or self-evidence of the nomos.”

I think that’s what the theory is. Re-reading it now I realise the argument could be that because of the innate need of humans to have a purpose and meaning, that anything that threatens any nomos could lead to violence, because we need them so much. The guy who wrote this is at Brookes, so maybe there could be an opportunity for him to explain.

In fact Terror Management Theory says that it’s any nomos that can lead to a nomic crisis. In fact TMT has bollocks in it too, for example “Self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful.”

If it is, then we are all fucked, because you will never be a valuable and essential agent in a universe that is fundamentally meaningful. Because it isn’t.

However, the most obvious reading is that it’s the absence of a solid nomos, rather than someone having a nomos at all that makes one vulnerable to a nomic crisis. Here’s the problem with the theory as I originally interpreted it (which I’ll assume is the correct one, otherwise this will be a wasted opportunity for a rant).


Our lives are meaningless. The Universe is an unfeeling chaotic set of physical processes that have no regard for us, or our existence. And we all need to learn to deal with that fact.

Sure we have a biological imperative to feel that we matter. It’s a pro-evolutionary characteristic. A tribe of homo erectus who had a shared belief system and unwavering adherence to it was more likely to survive, so more likely to reproduce, than one that didn’t, so we’ve emerged to feel that. That doesn’t make it a good thing. In fact, it’s far more likely to be a bad thing. Look at all the other pro-survival evolutionary characteristics – eating, reproducing, harbouring resources.  Our base drives now end up being harmful because they’re about ensuring we survive at the cost of others who don’t share our genes. We have our intelligence to surmount them. In fact if you want a list of our pro-evolutionary characteristics you really need look no further than the 7 deadly sins. Add to that the need for to believe in something as the 8th one.

If a nomic crisis leaves us vulnerable, then the answer isn’t to have a solid nomos, it’s to learn to live without one. It’s to learn to live with the truth, not to come up with a consoling lie. We should be teaching our students that it’s OK to have no meaning, that there really is no point to our existence. And that’s OK. Deal with it.

I got taught that. I got taught that by George RR Martin.  I’d figured out  around the age of 10 (pretty much from first principles) that religion is a bunch of made up stuff. Four years later I was still looking around for something else instead when I came across The Way of Cross and Dragon. This is the paragraph that I took to heart and we need to make everyone aware of.

“The Liars believe in no afterlife, no God. We see the universe as it is, Father Damien, and these naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring.”

If we’re looking to graduateness, if we want the next generation to be fully functioning and productive members of society, then there is nothing we can do for them that is better than ensuring they do not need a coherent and fulfilling worldview. It’s surplus to requirement.

You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

You don’t need to be.