Caught between climate denialism and doomism, is there a way out?

Caught between climate denialism and doomism, is there a way out?

Written by Sara Vermeulen, originally published on September 29, 2022, images created by 

Should I stop watering the garden in dry summers? Can I take the car to go to the supermarket when it rains? But also, much more pressing: should we consider relocating to avoid flood risk? Should we save up for buying a rainwater harvesting tank or invest in growing more drought resilience crops? Do my actions actually make a difference or are we just doomed to go extinct anyway and should we not bother anymore?

Climate change is making people increasingly doubt everyday actions and contributes to growing moral disruption. Although the character of this moral disruption is quite different in the Global North than in the Global South, the main focus here is to address and explain uncertainty and moral disruption in relation to climate adaptation more broadly.

Moral disruption

Moral disruption is a relatively new concept within Philosophy of Technology and is usually discussed in relation to developments in fields such as AI, biotechnology or high-tech materials. It has only recently been discussed in relation to climate change and has so far been underexposed. But clearly, we can speak of moral disruption as a result of energy technologies in the fossil fuel industry. After all it has become clear that we need alternatives to petrol, coal, and gas. More and more people suffer from flight shame. At the same time, energy transition has only just begun and the infrastructure of renewable energy sources is not yet fully developed. People expect security and reliability, even when they travel by electric car to the south of France for their summer holiday.

I believe the notion of moral disruption deserves more attention in the context of climate change, because this type of disruption can help us understand changing values and to find new action perspectives and clues for revised and renewed responsibility arrangements. To do so, I will first show how moral doubt can lead to denialism and doomism, two patterns of behavior that usually lead to inaction, which is the opposite of what is needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

Climate change denial

Climate change denial is the dismissal, or unjustified doubt that contradicts the scientific consensus on global warming. This includes the extent to which climate change is caused by humans, the effects of rising temperatures on nature and human society, or the potential for human adaptation to global warming. People who deny, ignore, or have unreasonable doubts about the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming often self-identify as ‘climate change skeptics’, which some experts have pointed out is an inaccurate description[1]. Denial of climate change can also be implicit when people or societal groups acknowledge the science but fail to accept it or turn their acceptance into action. Several social science studies have classified these beliefs as denialism, pseudoscience, or propaganda.

Climate change denial is the dismissal, or unjustified doubt that contradicts the scientific consensus on global warming.

Climate doomism

Fueled by the climate denial machine, denialism has been rather dominant and rigid over the last few decades[2]. However, as the impacts of the climate crisis have become harder to ignore, the doomists seem to be taking over the floor. In 2018, Jacquelyn Gill, a climate scientist at the University of Maine, noted fewer people telling her climate change isn’t happening and more those, that are now termed doomers, who believe that nothing can be done. Climate doomism is the false belief that we have passed the point where we can do anything about global warming and that humanity is doomed to become extinct. Although incorrect, the debate is gaining traction online.

Climate doomism is the false belief that we have passed the point where we can do anything about global warming and that humanity is doomed to become extinct.

In some ways, it has been argued, doomism is more harmful than denialism. Micheal Mann, one of the world’s most influential climate scientist working at Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview with The Guardian that: ‘as a threat and a tactic, doomsaying has surpassed denial. Inactivists understand that if people believe there is nothing they can do, they will become disengaged. By giving up, they unknowingly serve the interests of fossil fuel companies’. While Mann et al. (2017) suggested that too negative depictions of climate change can be discouraging for taking climate action, Christensen (2017) explained how climate doom and gloom narratives can be effective if messages also incorporate examples of individuals taking action.[3]

Now, back to moral disruption. The term was originally coined by Robert Baker in 2013 when he wrote that: ‘moral disruption is a process in which technological innovations undermine established moral norms without clearly leading to a new set of norms’ [4]. Nickel et al. point out that moral disruption is known for two phenomena of special relevance: moral uncertainty and moral inquiry [5]. They further describe that moral uncertainty is usually seen as unpleasant, harmful, and weakening of moral agency, and therefore it is said to contain the seeds of disruption. Uncertainty usually begins at the individual level, but it can also spread to a group, such as practitioners, when they are unsure on what values to apply or how to apply them.

Image by via Shutterstock

Furthermore, uncertainty undercuts common sense justifications for action, such as the everyday ways in which individuals and groups benefit from and contribute to existing social and material arrangements. When it comes to moral inquiry, the social community as a whole engages in contradictory and occasionally antagonistic discourse, displaying a collective uncertainty regarding moral values, principles, and judgments. It is exactly this antagonistic discourse and collective uncertainty regarding moral values that lies at the heart of moral disruption in climate change action.

Taebi et al. state that the climate crisis is disrupting life as we know it and potentially leading to complex cases of normative uncertainties [6]. They describe four types of normative uncertainty, namely evolutionary uncertainty, theoretical uncertainty, conceptual uncertainty and epistemic uncertainty. Thinking back about doomism, I want to suggest that there is a fifth type of uncertainty, namely is existential uncertainty. When it comes to climate change, I think existential uncertainty overshadows the four types of uncertainty mentioned earlier. Existential uncertainty can make us doubt whether it even makes a difference what we do if there is a good chance that it all doesn’t matter much anymore. Doomism, in that sense, is a manifestation of existential uncertainty.

Higher degrees of certainty is not what is going to get us out of inertia. The ability to act in the face of uncertainty, on the other hand, will.

To conclude, I would like to argue that higher degrees of certainty is not what is going to get us out of inertia. The ability to act in the face of uncertainty, on the other hand, will. Despite changing values, a lack of theoretical knowledge, shifting conceptions, and epistemic ambiguity, it is always possible to act in accordance with one’s best knowledge. To that end, we need to focus on strengthening technomoral virtues, such as courage, flexibility and relational understanding in the context of climate action [7]. But we can only do so if we become aware that climate change comes with moral disruption and we are willing to explore how we want to respond to that.


  1. Björnberg, K.E.; Karlsson, M.; Gilek, M.; Hansson, S.O. Climate and environmental science denial: A review of the scientific literature published in 1990–2015. J. Clean. Prod. 2017167, 229–241, doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.08.066.
  2. Dunlap, R.E. Climate Change Skepticism and Denial: An Introduction. Am. Behav. Sci. 201357, 691–698, doi:10.1177/0002764213477097.
  3. Ettinger, J.; Walton, P.; Painter, J.; DiBlasi, T. Climate of hope or doom and gloom? Testing the climate change hope vs. fear communications debate through online videos. Clim. Change 2021164, 1–19, doi:10.1007/s10584-021-02975-8.
  4. Nickel, P.J. Disruptive Innovation and Moral Uncertainty. Nanoethics 202014, 259–269, doi:10.1007/s11569-020-00375-3.
  5. Nickel, P.J.; Kudina, O.; van de Poel, I. Moral Uncertainty in Technomoral Change: Bridging the Explanatory Gap. Perspect. Sci. 202230, 260–283, doi:10.1162/posc_a_00414.
  6. Taebi, B.; Kwakkel, J.H.; Kermisch, C. Governing climate risks in the face of normative uncertainties. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Chang. 202011, 1–11, doi:10.1002/wcc.666.
  7. Vallor, S. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future worth Wanting; Oxford University Press, 2016; ISBN 9788490225370.
Sit like a lady

What If Women had the Power?

This fall at SG, we’re going to find out what the world would look like if women had the power. We’re going to erase the dominant patriarchal perspective for a moment and substitute it with an alternate reality. What would it look like if the tables were turned: would women set the standards, could men be vulnerable? Would we let go of the old ways and celebrate gender fluidity?

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If you build it, will they come?

Since our very beginning in 1946, Studium Generale has been a nomad. For almost a century, SG was a vagabond, with no home to call her own. We have roamed the city and the campus, never residing anywhere for more than a few years. Now, for the first time in our history, we can ask the question: has the time come for SG to settle down?

Studium Generale organizes events that challenge the status quo. We bring people together to learn, to engage, to think critically about our crazy world. We host lectures, discussions, screenings, and workshops. We have a mission from the university – from the government, in fact – to serve students and the wider university community to create proper, critical, intelligent citizens. We are supposed to help them find their place in society – but we have never had a place of our own to practice what we preach. We don’t have our own building on campus; no fancy theater hall; not even a dedicated closet in the basement that we can use for our events. Instead, we’ve had to rely on the availability of lecture halls (boring), study spaces (impersonal), and rented spaces downtown (with strings attached).

And it’s not just the events. Our office also has changed location every couple of years, from somewhere along the Kanaalweg (in the now defunct Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences), to the former Cultural Centre (1998), to TPM – under the wings of the philosophy section (2002), to our present nest in the Library (2012). Once, we sat in glorious office spaces in the central Library hall, visible and approachable, but we were soon relegated to an invisible office behind a stack of books and a locked door.

Sad, right? Does nobody want us? If we need to serve everyone everywhere, don’t we need to belong somewhere? Imagine SG as the pet kept on a leash in the backyard, staring at the door with big puppy dog eyes, never brought inside the house. Picture the annoying younger sister that wants to tag along with the older kids, but is never invited. When we so dearly want to be called into the house, to have our own space among the other departments!

Anyway, that’s the tragic origin story that introduces a brighter future. Because SG’s nomadic existence will soon be a thing of the past. We are claiming our space. We are taking root. We are creating a home for ourselves. And so we introduce to you: The Nook.

A nook is a small corner of a house – cozy and comfortable, where you snuggle up to read your book by the fireplace. Similarly, The Nook is our informal, personable event space, tucked away in a corner of the TUD Library. It’s where you go to discuss the insanity of everything that’s happening in the news; to plumb the depths of existence over a cup of tea with total strangers; to read wild sci-fi books; to write prose or poetry or sketch with other budding artists; to watch movies and shorts and rate them over pizza.

The Nook will be the heart of the campus, a microcosm where people from all over can connect socially, intellectually, and creatively. Make new friends, cultivate new insights, have an epiphany. And when you move on, you can leave memories behind in the form of words or objects, for future visitors to discover. At the Nook, we will do what SG is all about – get together to envision a better and more beautiful world.

We’ll kick off with a series of events in September. There will be critical surveys, weird art objects, an interactive canvas on which to spout ideas and start anonymous dialogues. And, most importantly, there’ll be you: the keen, socially-minded, intellectual rebel nerd who wants their university experience to really mean something.

This is only the beginning. What is now only a Nook, will one day be the entire building. We won’t settle for less. And you’re invited.



Klaas P van der Tempel – program maker Studium Generale

Reparations for slavery: one of the most divisive topics of our time?

The majority of people in the Netherlands are against reparations. But why? And do you know where you stand?

150 years after the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands and its colonial territories, the discussion about the legacy of the past is gaining traction. The Dutch government, the national bank, and several cities and municipalities have already offered official apologies for their role in slavery. To some, the logical next step after apologies is to talk about reparations: financial compensation for the suffering and damages done by slavery.  To others, however, the thought of reparations isn’t logical but irrelevant or even terrifying because of the economic implications. To say that it’s a divisive topic is an understatement. In this brief article, I will share some background info and some questions to help you navigate the complexity of this societal debate.

Take a quick look at what has been written on the topic recently: 

Opinion in the Netherlands is divided, but clearly most people seem to be against paying reparations. But why? Is it pragmatism? Fear? Prejudice? Or pride? Are we even informed enough to make an opinion? How many people know, for instance, that former slaveowners were compensated with 300 guilders per person freed from their plantations because of ‘economic damages’ caused by abolition, while formerly enslaved people only went from bad to worse?

I’m no expert, but I do find it important to be better informed before I make up my own mind. And to think about it with other people. There are and have been several opportunities to do so with SG: we’ll talk about it over dinner at the upcoming Keti Koti event; we’ve got a related survey up in the Library right now; and I hosted a small discussion on reparations back in May.  

In the discussion with students, we asked these core questions:

Why should reparations be paid?
Who should receive them?
Who should pay them?
What form should reparations take?
And finally, What would the impact be?

To be honest, we couldn’t reach a satisfactory conclusion after the discussion. The issue was just too complex. But if you’re looking to inform yourself, I can recommend exploring these questions. In fact, this year for Keti Koti, ask your mom or dad’s opinion. Grill your siblings. Start a conversation with your housemates. Reparations, yea or nay?

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, slavery and (colonial) economic inequality are an undeniable aspect of Dutch history. I leave you with this painting, part of the artwork decorating the royal carriage (de gouden koets). It’s called “Hulde der Koloniën (Tribute from the Colonies)”. To be fair, the royal family finally stopped using the carriage in January 2022 because of public outcry. But it stands as a shocking reminder of why we should be talking about this in the first place. Look at it. If not reparations, what then? 


“Hulde der Koloniën (Tribute from the Colonies)”, detail from a panel on the royal carriage (1898)

Klaas P van der Tempel – Program maker Studium Generale

Why Bother Talking to a Jellyfish?

This Thursday, Studium Generale invites everyone to come meet our jellyfish. A larger-than-life projection of climate data, this art installation has the floating beauty of a jellyfish, and captures a little of the wonder and mystery that we feel when faced with nature. But we’re not just going to gaze at it. We are asking everyone to listen to it, to let it speak to them, to imagine that we could relate to a jellyfish as if it was another person. Someone with the same value and depth of feeling as a human being.

And we’re not just doing it because it’s fun – which it will be! According to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it is the face of the other that invites us to relate to them, which appeals to our sense of responsibility. Without that interpersonal dimension, it is impossible to treat them the way they deserve to be treated. “The face presents itself, and demands justice.”

Now, a jellyfish doesn’t have a face. Our planet cannot speak to us and demand justice for our oceans. What to do?

This is the issue that the jellyfish is designed to solve. We are flooded with data about the climate crisis. We know that it’s going from bad to worse. We also know that it will have an untold impact on things that we care about: nature, animals, other people, future generations, and indeed our own lives. But how do we process something so huge, so beyond our own experience? And how do we act accordingly?

So, this Thursday, we will be asking you to use your imagination. You will be invited to speak to the jellyfish, to touch its smooth surface, to ask it questions. If our planet could speak, what would it say? And if we could listen, what would we do?

To find out for yourself, join us in the Library Central Hall, Thursday June 8th, 4 – 5pm.


Getting uncomfortable: a brainstorm on altruism, privilege and biases

‘Honestly, I just thought it was a cool project when I read the article. Not for a moment did I recognize the frame of white saviours,’ says Silke, a master’s student. Her comment opens our brainstorm. Silke is responding to this article by DELTA about three students who followed the Minor International Entrepreneurship & Development (IED) and went to Ecuador to work with a local public school on a game about climate change. The project was a success. However, the internet took issue with this initiative and accused the three students of neo-colonialism, based on how they were portrayed. ‘It’s really hard to constantly be aware of your own biases,’ Silke adds.

Silke is one of the students who joined our brainstorm, which was held in preparation for the upcoming programme ‘Doing good | Here to save the day?’ that SG will present at the Delft Fringe Festival. At the event on June 2, we will dive into the biases and blind spots that stem from our personal privilege and how they can hinder your efforts to do good through a thought-provoking theatre performance and an interactive dialogue.

Asked what they would need to become aware of their biases, several students respond: ‘How can we become more sensitive and critically address our biases?’ Master’s student Puck adds: ‘What are the right questions to ask?’ Developmental sociologist Yvonne van der Pol listens and writes down the input. The students’ questions and doubts will inspire the interactive dialogue led by Yvonne on June 2.

For theatre maker Omid Kheirabadi, it is all about drawing on his own experiences to expose and question those privileges. ‘I recently joined Extinction Rebellion, but protesting for me is not the same as it is for other activists from the Netherlands. I’m from Iran and I cannot afford to get arrested. So I lay low.’ Omid incorporated his experiences and questions into the theatre performance Alive & Unborn, which will be performed twice on the night. It will run both before and after the programme put on by SG.

If you do join us, prepare to ask yourself some tough questions. For example, what is your true reason for involvement in projects abroad? It might enhance career prospects, it could be a valuable personal experience, or it could make you feel good about yourself. In other words: are you doing good for you? ‘It is uncomfortable to ask these kinds of questions,’ IED-student Nelene admits. But perhaps that’s the only way to start this conversation.

SG x Fringe | Doing good: Here to save the day?
Join us June 2 at Royal Delft!
Omid’s performance is at 20:00 AND 22:00, so you can pick a time that suits you.
SG’s in-depth exploration on altruism and recognizing our own privilege and biases when ‘doing good’ is at 20:45.
A combination ticket for both costs €7,50.
Reserve your spot here.

Do you want to fully immerse yourself in the ethics of doing good? Visit Prometheus’ Problems | Doing good: Check your charity earlier today at the TU Delft Library.

Jellyfish Conversations In The Library: An Equal Exchange?

Researchers and staff from the TU Delft are dragging a virtual jellyfish out of an ocean of data. Pulled out of chaos and projected onto a plastic screen, the jellyfish transforms data into sound and image.

Suspended in the decidedly dry air of the TU Delft Library, the jellyfish will be made to “speak” to its audience. In turn, the humans will attempt understand what it is like to drift on deep currents, transformed by every subtle chemical shift. The intention is to create a dialogue where climate data becomes more meaningful to the humans.

When questioned, a representative of Studium Generale responded: “I see no ironic dimension to this set-up. Nature will be made to speak, and we will empathise.”

To meet the jellyfish, join us in the Library Central Hall, Thursday June 8th, 4 – 5pm.

Activism & Academia: Interview with TU Delft Sustainability Coordinator Andy van den Dobbelsteen

In the lead-up to our panel discussion on the 16th of May, we interviewed professor Andy van den Dobbelsteen about his experiences at the intersection of activism and academia.

Find out here how he navigates the challenges of being a scientist and an activist in the middle of a climate crisis. And don’t forget to join us this Tuesday to explore how you can tackle the same issues!

Can working for a large institution like a university go hand in hand with being an activist?

Of course. Stronger: knowing what we know as scientists, we have a moral obligation to take action if science indicates there is urgency and if we know solutions to solve the problem.

Can you be an activist in your role?

I am, so I can. I have been appointed as sustainability coordinator of TU Delft to realise our ambitions in the area of sustainability, for which we need to take action. Therefore, I simply need to be an activist – otherwise, nothing would change.

How do you deal with criticism of your perceived activistic policies?

At first, I try to explain why I do this and why what I do is not extremist or anything: I just take responsibility for actions logically resulting from scientific knowledge about the urgency of dealing with human-induced climate change. Some people cannot be convinced because they don’t trust science and trivialise the problems we are facing. After a while I just ignore them.

How do you navigate conflicting interests between groups that you encounter in your work?

The clearest and recent example of this is the discussion about fossil fuel companies. There are clear conflicting interests there: do we cut ties immediately, or keep working with them? I position myself in the middle: I understand you sometimes need these companies to work on sustainable energy solutions, but I would put an ultimatum to their plans to get in line with the Paris agreements. So, give them some time but cut ties with them if they don’t show any convincing policy towards a sustainable society.

Do you think you’re going to achieve your goals in your role, or are there limitations that will hold you back?

There are always many limitations, but I am an optimist and I work hard with my team to get things done in time. My main focus to get there is now to involve as many people on the campus as possible: everybody needs to be engaged some way or other to help TU Delft become the sustainable university it intends to be.

If you were a student today, what path would you take? Would you pursue the same career?

Undoubtedly. I graduated on human- and environmentally friendly utility buildings in 1993, and that has defined my sustainability career through which I now find some influence to really change things. So, I made a good choice back then, it came from my heart, my intuition turned out right.

Activism & Academia: A TU Delft Panel Discussion
May 16, 4:30 – 5:30pm , TU Delft Library

Why we should take care of trees

I’ll get straight to the point: as a city dweller, I don’t have much of a connection with trees. And especially not when there are a lot of them together, which is also called a ‘forest’. Of course, I find stately plane trees on either side of a boulevard in – let’s say – Budapest beautiful. But in a forest, I quickly feel cut off from civilization – too far away from the theater, cinema, or pub. My motto is that city air makes you free.

Nevertheless, Studium Generale recently planted a small tree; we can see it from our workplace in The Library. I think it’s important to reflect on our relationship with trees – a relationship that is, after all, thousands of years old. Without trees, there would be no human civilization; we use wood to build, to burn and so much more. Trees have traditionally been used for medicine, food, paper, and much more.

In addition, trees play an important religious role in countless cultures – as a patron saint or mediator between the physical and spiritual world. Trees form the so-called axis mundi – the trunk that connects worlds. We also see this connecting role in science; think of the concept of the ‘tree of life’, which captures the evolutionary descent of all life on Earth. Of course, it’s a way to categorize the development of life, but it’s also a way to depict the mystery of life itself.

Furthermore, trees are more intelligent than we think, as we’ve learned from books and documentaries such as The hidden life of trees. They communicate with each other, work together with numerous organisms through the root network, and even seem to have a personality (I’m curious about the personality of our little tree – it’s probably not the easiest). Trees thus offer food for thought on different forms of intelligence, especially in the network society we live in.

And yet, that’s not the main reason why I think we should reflect on trees. On the other hand, my slight fear of trees does play a role in why I find trees so valuable. I’m not alone in that fear; despite all the noble stories about trees, trees – and especially forests – are also scary in many stories. Unpredictable, dark, sometimes downright hostile. I think that’s important; trees are not just cute cuddly creatures or useful objects. There’s something about them that escapes our need to make everything around us meaningful or valuable.

In the nineteenth century, philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke wrote about the sublime – a mixture of pleasure and fear that we experience when confronted with our own insignificance – for example, in nature. Someone who sees a storm raging in the distance can be overwhelmed by such a sublime experience. By the way, the storm shouldn’t come too close, because then we’re more concerned with survival than with deeper experiences. But at a safe distance, we experience how little we matter, compared to nature. Scary, especially for the big egos we are, used to everything being under control. But also liberating, precisely because we realize that not everything is under control.

Perhaps, as a city dweller, I can’t look at a forest or trees in any other way than with romantic thoughts about sublime experiences. And I won’t say that I always have such a sublime experience when I look at trees – especially not with the small sapling we’ve planted. Although… there’s a real chance that that sapling will be a big tree long after I’ve left this life. And that’s a little sublime moment in itself – a small reflection on my insignificance and transience. It gives food for thought, about the care and responsibility I have for this world, which will still be here when I am long gone.

Leon Heuts – Head of Studium Generale

How fear can help us make choices

Why are we afraid? A simple question, but the answer is – as is often the case with philosophers – not so simple. It starts quite simple. We can be afraid because our safety is directly at stake. From ourselves, or our loved ones. You could call it an evolutionary response, driven by hormones and physiology – think of the fight, fly, freeze response we can have in immediately threatening situations. For example, a good horror movie plays on this physiological response; we sympathize with the main character who is threatened by a monster or psychotic killer. Suddenly a knife appears, or a strange machine, and we are startled – just like the main character.

But we can also be afraid of things where our safety is not directly at stake, and then the story becomes more difficult. For example, we can fear the future, which is always indeterminate. What’s coming my way, especially as the years climb? But we can also be overcome with fear when the future seems completely fixed. That the life we lead – no matter how comfortable – seems to repeat itself ad infinitum. Afraid that this is it – this job, this partner… Then what are we afraid of? We are not in immediate danger, we can even lead a pleasant and successful life. And yet we can be overcome by a paralyzing fear.

Philosophers would say that this fear is existential in nature. That is to say, this fear is about human existence as such. This fear has to do with how we ‘are’ as people. For example, that when people know about our existence, we feel how the hourglass of time is emptying more and more, and that we only have the opportunity to do it right once.

Really good horror films also know how to respond to that. If a horror movie consisted only of physiologically threatening situations, it would quickly become boring. It only gets really gripping when the main character is confronted with how the demons and psychotic killers that creep up on him are partly caused by how he himself fails in his life. We see it in one of the most famous primeval horror stories – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. A story that is of course scary because of the three ghosts that visit the main character Scrooge, but is especially drastic because the demons are the result of his own stinginess. He had a life to live, a choice in it, but he wasted it, preoccupied as Scrooge was with money. He thus created his own ghosts.

In horror films you see symbols that express this existential fear. Empty, undefined spaces, long corridors, cellars, for example, are powerful symbols. Of course those empty spaces are frightening in themselves, because a monster can just pop up and threaten life and limb. But those empty spaces also represent the emptiness and indefinition within ourselves. A je ne sais quo that can overtake us when the ravages of time gnaw at us, and we doubt whether we are living a successful or meaningful life.

We are here already very close to what is called the Unheimliche in philosophy; translated into English as the uncanny – we undoubtedly all know the latter from the concept of the uncanny valley. We come back to the Unheimliche early in the history of philosophy, for example with Nietzsche. But it really makes school in the twentieth century through an essay by Sigmund Freud and further elaboration by Martin Heidegger.

Freud describes the Unheimliche as the opposite of ‘heimlich’ – which of course can be beautifully translated into Dutch as ‘secret’, which refers to the domestic as well as the hidden or the insidious. But it’s not just the opposite. For example, you can say that the opposite of covert is something like the open. For example, we are clearly not at home here in this room, and we are not secretly together either. But that is not what Freud means by Umheimlich. He is concerned with what has been snatched from the secret. Something shows itself, because it really shouldn’t have been shown. The Unheimliche remains, as it were, glued to the Heimliche. And that’s what makes it so scary.

With Freud you can of course think of unconscious desires such as incest or parricide, which suddenly come to the surface. Desires that are socially taboo and that must therefore also be punished if they show themselves too emphatically. For example, in his essay Freud describes the story of the sandman by the eighteenth-century German writer ETA Hoffman. The sandman who throws sand in the eyes of little children at night so that they sleep. However, some children keep their eyes open – they see things in the dark that should not be seen. And as punishment, the sandman takes their eyes. According to Freud a symbolic castration, the punishment because a social taboo is broken. Basically a ban from the c ommunity, as we see in the story of Oedipus, who gouges out his own eyes after realizing he killed his father and slept with his mother, and who from now on wanders through Greece as a blind wanderer.

Mind you, this is not so much about just a law or code being broken. No, this is about showing what is actually very close to us – in this case about secret desires. The secret becomes secret at the same time. This also has everything to do with the second example that Freud mentions, namely the theme of the Doppelgänger or doppelgänger that appears in many ghost stories. Think of mirrors, in which the protagonist sees himself – sometimes distorted. Or to ghosts that seem familiar to us somewhere. To dead that don’t seem dead, like in the many zombie movies. We see ourselves again, but distorted and alienated. We recognize it, but then again we don’t. An experience we will all recognize is looking at ourselves in the mirror and watching how we become more like our parents with age. Who am I now? Of course, the uncanny valley is also an example of this – the area in which technology takes on human features, for example a robot with a human face, but is still just not human. Technology becomes our doppelgänger, but in a strange and therefore frightening way. Also consider how modern zombie movies are often a critique of modern consumer society. Often the difference between zombies and consumers who mindlessly stare at a screen for hours in those films is not that great. The modern consumer society creates a Doppelgänger of ourselves. A hollowed-out, soulless doppelgänger – but nonetheless still recognizable, and that’s why it’s so creepy.

Why is this so frightening now? We can imagine that superficially. The Doppelgänger threatens us, he threatens to displace us. In backrooms it is not for nothing that a robot pushes the main character into the abyss. But I think there is a deeper explanation, which again has everything to do with human existence or existence. Something is tormenting us, all of us. That does not always have to be manifest, it can also be a voice in the background. Nevertheless, it is there: the torment of knowing the passage of time, the ever-approaching future, and even the inevitable end, that never makes us feel quite at home in the life we lead. Am I making the right choices? Is this the job I want to have, the house I want to live in, the partner I want to be with?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who has written very penetrating analyzes of human existence, calls the Unheimliche the fundamental fear of “not being at home”, or the Nichtzuhause signal. Remember, here too, being away from home is not just the opposite of being at home. It’s not about someone ‘not being there for a while’. No, the point is that it is precisely in being at home that not being at home is inevitable. As I see myself in the mirror at the same time as my father. Like I’m happy that I have a nice job, and at the same time I think: is this it? Just when I get home, I notice that I’m not home.

The Uncanny here stands for the fundamental groundlessness of human existence. That is not to say that, according to Heidegger, we come into the world as a blank slate. On the contrary, we are thrown into a world in which much has already been determined for us. Being male or female, for example, is clothed with meanings and expectations. But at the same time, in an existence that knows the time, there is always the possibility to see the current existence as a coincidence, a contingency: it could be different. And moreover: even the properties that seem necessarily connected to us, such as man or woman, are not self-evident. As Heidegger puts it, “we have to be.” We are not just like a stone. To be human is a task. For example, do we know what it is to be male or female? Even in what seems so obvious, we are not at home. It may even be the case that what sticks to us the most, our origin, our gender, the color of our skin, surprises us the most – because what are we to do with it? That may be why many of today’s debates about gender, color, inclusion, etc. are so toxic. Something is shown here that should not be shown. That which seemed so obvious, is not so obvious at all. That we are not even at home in our own country, for example.

And, to make it even more oppressive, but that’s okay in an evening where it’s all about fear, human existence is permeated with the awareness that it will end someday. A Sein zum Tode as Heidegger says. We don’t die just like that, no, death is always present – which gnaws at us when we wonder if this is the job what we want is nothing less than death itself. After all, without our mortality, such questions would lose their meaning. After all, what is the meaning of a choice, in the light of eternity?

Death presents us – also here and now – with choices. You can even wonder, looking at Freud, if death isn’t our final doppelgänger, insofar as he holds up a mirror to us and we have to ask ourselves: is this the life we want to live?

For example, Heidegger radically extends the theme of Unheimlichkeit, which in Freud has to do with secret desires. We are not at home in our own house, human existence is fundamentally groundless. The question, of course, is what we should do with this. One way, of course, is to cover up that homelessness, as it were. We cover it up with daily routines, and say: we can’t do anything else. I have to work, because I have to be able to pay the mortgage anyway. Or we flee into consumption or other mindless activities. But it is precisely through such covering-up activities that fear and groundlessness can suddenly overtake us completely. And life does tend to confront us sooner or later with the question of what constitutes a meaningful life. A love breaks down, we are fired, a loved one dies… We experience that we are less at home than we thoughtlessly assumed.

For Heidegger, this fear also offers an opportunity. The fear reminds us of how we are absorbed by routines, Heidegger argues. In fear our decay shows itself, and thus offers us the possibility of a more authentic existence. An existence in which we consciously relate to our choices, in the light of temporality. We don’t just live, but take on our existence. We also give space to the nomadic, to the coincidence of things – and sometimes dare to roam further, to let go.

To be honest, I always have a bit of a hard time with Heidegger here. I never quite know how to take on existence, and it also sounds very individualistic to me: You have to be. I don’t know if people can be consigned to a crushing existential dread in that way.

Rather, I think that over time people have managed to give shape to that in itself completely indefinable fear through all kinds of rituals and customs. Religion and art are two wonderful examples, which – if with the right depth – allow the fear of the groundless existence, without it being crushing. They express finiteness and contingency, but as such they also help to keep it bearable, as mediators between the strange and the familiar. As is also this evening. It also makes it possible to bear the Uncanny together, so that we are not alone. I am therefore wary of the tendency to exclude religious signs from the public domain. I am not religious myself, but I understand how religious signs can help to keep the crushing groundlessness bearable. Just like a tombstone or a mourning band helps not to have to constantly deal with the crushing experience of losing someone. In conclusion, I would therefore like to argue that we should not leave each other alone in the experience of the Uncanny. It is precisely when it comes to the core of being human, the groundlessness of existence, that we need each other. And especially mediating faculties such as art and philosophy, and in a way religion. They are no frills to human existence. They are a dire necessity to give some ground to our own groundlessness.

Leon Heuts – Head of Studium Generale

This article was presented at the Philosophical Café about Fear in Theater de Veste on April 17th 2023.