In a few rants here I’ve hinted at the Nietzschean view that one of the major problems with secular society, after the death of God, is the lack of an obvious replacement that we can feel in our bones to be sacred. (See Nietzsche.) When scientists discovered the universe’s true inhuman scale and the full animalistic nature of our bodies and of our evolutionary history, the result was a disenchantment of the world that threatens to burst the delusions that sustain our sanity. Postmodern cynics contend that no such nontheistic religion is needed, that we can live with infinite layers of irony, turning our culture into a giant Stephen Colbert skit in which every public statement is at best a white lie and we applaud each other’s savvy pragmatism, our disdain for philosophical questioning, and our nihilistic poses.
These cynics may fool themselves but they don’t fool me. Hold a gun to the head of a postmodern poseur’s family member and see whether that erstwhile cynic retains her quasi-Buddhist detachment and truly holds nothing on Earth sacred. Naturally, as the animal she is, the postmodernist would sacrifice herself for her loved ones. Her religion is thus biochemically determined. She’s used as a puppet not by a transcendent Creator of all, but by mindlessly replicating genes which cause each of us to care a lot about those who most share our genetic material. The question to ask the postmodernist is whether some feelings can be judged superior to others according to ideals that aren’t lost with the premodern, theistic worldviews. Nietzsche believed that although traditional morality is rendered dubious by the death of theism, aesthetic standards are still compelling. The problem with the emotional defense of our immediate family members, then, or of our instinctive replacement of traditional deities with naturally selected idols, is that aesthetically speaking, such a primitive religious impulse has surely by now, after millions of generations, become a god-awful cliché.
Can we postmodern nontheists do better? Given that religions are inevitable in human societies, because we’re emotionally driven to identify something as sacred, as a radiant good that uplifts us despite our profane lives filled with disappointment, angst, or delusion, can we create a more beautiful religion that’s viable even after modern secular humanism has given way to postmodern hyper-skepticism? Had I such a religion fully worked out, perhaps I’d be on television hawking T-shirts adorned with the creed’s associated slogans. Needless to say, I know of no such religion. However, I’d like to speak of some themes that do inspire me and that sketch, at least, the sort of religion I’d like to see. Some of these themes are found in the closing speech of Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 science fictional novel Last and First Men. This novel is found in its entirety online, hosted in Australia, so I’d like to quote the whole speech after I summarize the context, and then I propose to analyze the speech. However, if you haven’t read the novel and don’t want its ending spoiled, you should skip the next section and perhaps even put aside this philosophical rant of mine for another day. Fair warning then...
The narrator speaks of the “Degeneration of the higher neural centers,” due to the sun’s disintegration, which “has also brought about in us a far more serious and deep-seated trouble, namely a general spiritual degradation which would formerly have seemed impossible, so confident were we of our integrity...We look back now at our former selves, with wonder, but also with incomprehension and misgiving. We try to recall the glory that seemed to be revealed to each of us in the racial mind, but we remember almost nothing of it. We cannot rise even to that more homely beatitude which was once within the reach of the unaided individual, that serenity which, it seemed, should be the spirit's answer to every tragic event. It is gone from us. It is not only impossible but inconceivable. We now see our private distresses and the public calamity as merely hideous. That after so long a struggle into maturity man should be roasted alive like a trapped mouse, for the entertainment of a lunatic! How can any beauty lie in that?”
A group called the Brotherhood of the Condemned, to which the narrator belongs, now and again meets “in little groups or great companies to hearten ourselves with one another's presence. Sometimes on these occasions we can but sit in silence, groping for consolation and for strength. Sometimes the spoken word flickers hither and thither amongst us, shedding a brief light but little warmth to the soul that lies freezing in a torrid world.
“But there is among us one, moving from place to place and company to company, whose voice all long to hear. He is young, the last born of the Last Men; for he was the latest to be conceived before we learned man's doom, and put an end to all conceiving. Being the latest, he is also the noblest. Not him alone, but all his generation, we salute, and look to for strength; but he, the youngest, is different from the rest. In him the spirit, which is but the flesh awakened into spirituality, has power to withstand the tempest of solar energy longer than the rest of us. It is as though the sun itself were eclipsed by this spirit's brightness. It is as though in him at last, and for a day only, man's promise were fulfilled. For though, like others, he suffers in the flesh, he is above his suffering. And though more than the rest of us he feels the suffering of others, he is above his pity. In his comforting there is a strange sweet raillery which can persuade the sufferer to smile at his own pain. When this youngest brother of ours contemplates with us our dying world and the frustration of all man's striving, he is not, like us, dismayed, but quiet. In the presence of such quietness despair wakens into peace. By his reasonable speech, almost by the mere sound of his voice, our eyes are opened, and our hearts mysteriously filled with exultation. Yet often his words are grave.”
And then the narrator ends the novel with the words of this last born of the Last Men:
“Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.
“Man was winged hopefully. He had in him to go further than this short flight, now ending. He proposed even that he should become the Flower of All Things, and that he should learn to be the All-Knowing, the All-Admiring. Instead, he is to be destroyed. He is only a fledgling caught in a bush-fire. He is very small, very simple, very little capable of insight. His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a fledgling's knowledge. His admiration is a nestling's admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature. He delights only in food and the food-announcing call. The music of the spheres passes over him, through him, and is not heard.
“Yet it has used him. And now it uses his destruction. Great, and terrible, and very beautiful is the Whole; and for man the best is that the Whole should use him.
“But does it really use him? Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty? Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness.
“But one thing is certain. Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.”
Life’s Absurdities and Tragedies
The themes I want to discuss are the recognition of our grim existential situation, mystical pantheism, the aesthetic vision of life, and gallows humour. To begin, then, the speech-giver, who I’ll identify with Stapledon for simplicity’s sake, clearly appreciates the apparent absurdity of human life, including the gulf between our vain pretensions to greatness and our actual standing in the cosmos as “fledglings” (young birds), and the objective worthlessness and futility of all our endeavours. (See Happiness.) A noble religion must begin with this existential premise. The further a religion strays from it and compromises with some variety of happy-talk, the less the religion uplifts and the more it provides a framework merely for baby-sitting the clueless multitudes. In Stapledon’s novel, the absurdity takes the form of the tragic demise of our species. Even today, though, due to our many advances in scientific knowledge, the gulf between the facts and our fledgling preferences seems so wide as to be almost a case of intentional overkill. Now we know not just that the universe is so large that we can never cross it, expanding our home and thus feeling less alienated, but that our universe may be merely one of an infinite number of universes in a multiverse.
In Volume One of Myth of the Machine, Lewis Mumford addresses this question of alienation due to the dwarfing of us and our ideals, given nature’s unimaginable scale. He points out that on some level there would be no universe without the perceiver’s consciousness, so that the direction of normative diminishment should point in the other direction. In line with the view of philosopher Immanuel Kant, the way the universe appears to us depends on the cognitive equipment we bring to bear, on our forms of perception. According to quantum theory, this importance of the perceiver is true even at the most fundamental level of nature. Indeed, says Mumford, the mathematical notions of size and scale, the very application of numbers, are human-centered, so any alienation we might feel when we employ our own forms of measurement or even our notion of measurement itself is wrongheaded. It’s the universe that’s insignificant compared to conscious beings who bring that universe to fruition by perceiving and understanding it.
Yet, contrary to this Kantian response to Stapledon, our alienation needn’t be due just to the immense difference in size; the size-gap only brings to mind the more fundamental abyss between our familiarity with our home and the Otherness of all that lies beyond our home’s borders. When galaxy is piled on top of galaxy and then universe on top of universe, we’re struck not just by how literally puny we are, but by how much inhumanity there is compared to the human. Even were mathematical concepts of measurement anthropocentric, in which case nature’s immensity would honour rather than alienate us, since there would be no size as such without our creation of that form of measurement, the fact is that were there no human beings or concept of size, nature would still be doing much that’s perfectly nonhuman. A cosmic party would still be in progress to which we were never invited. In Kantian terms, the world of phenomena, or appearances that depend on our modes of understanding, would vanish, but the noumena or things in themselves as they are regardless of whether they’re perceived or explained by anyone, would still be as they inconceivably are, and their Otherness is the ultimate source of our alienation.
Thus, even accepting the Kantian view, Stapledon’s point that a human’s “admiration is a nestling's admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature” would still apply. As Nietzsche put it in “On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense,” “When someone hides something behind a bush and looks for it again in the same place and finds it there as well, there is not much to praise in such seeking and finding. Yet this is how matters stand regarding seeking and finding ‘truth’ within the realm of reason.” This is, he says, “a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth.” We’re alienated by the fact that we can never understand the inhuman heart of nature without dehumanizing ourselves.
Next, Stapledon alludes to the philosopher Spinoza’s pantheism when he says repeatedly that we’re “eternal beauties in the eternal form of things.” Spinoza shares the mystic’s intuition that despite the apparent independence of things or “substances,” everything is interconnected, or to use Spinoza’s metaphor, everything is supported by a single underlying substance called God or matter, the two being mere ways of looking at the same thing. In Hinduism, the names for this apparent duality of mind and matter are Atman and Brahman. The pantheist’s point is that God can’t extend beyond matter if, as the mystic’s vision of unity suggests, everything is one, in which case the whole material universe and everything in it is divine. Divinity here is tantamount to impersonal creativity, which is to say that nature may be considered divine in so far as it creates through an evolutionary process. Einstein, Hawking, and other great scientists share Spinoza’s reverence for nature, so this pantheism isn’t foreign to scientific naturalism.
But the point I want to emphasize is that mystical pantheism mitigates alienation, by affirming that all things in nature are metaphysically united and thus precluding at that level a gap between self and world. In Spinoza’s terms, there’s a divine viewpoint from which the causal and logical connections between everything in nature are registered and the order in the universe’s development is made apparent. Every cause and effect and every level of nature from the subatomic to the intergalactic, every speck of dust or hair on our head has its place in that natural order, in that monstrous body of God which is the pantheistic universe, which unifies everything according to natural laws, whether these laws be probabilistic or necessary. This pattern in which everything that exists has its place as part of some natural process which connects it ultimately to everything else, is what Stapledon calls the eternal form of things. From God’s perspective, which is just that of completed natural science, time stops in the sense that the godlike scientist can predict anything in the future by looking at some other part of the pattern; nature is comparable to a spider’s web in which everything exists as an interconnected node, and when the web is understood in its entirety, when all the interconnections are recognized, temporal connections become just more nodes in the web.
All parts of this pattern, then, have a kind of immortality, because although events come and go from one moment to the next, time too has its limited position in the whole natural course. The universe unfolds according to natural laws which determine the causal processes and the emergence of complex properties, and even though many things lie in the past, from our limited perspective in the present moment, those past stages of nature’s unfolding aren’t lost within the godlike vision of the omniscient scientist. On the contrary, their role is guaranteed in the ultimate scientific theory, their position in the pattern subject to reaffirmation. So even were all life to die out and the stars to fade as the universe ends its creative cycle, the oneness of everything that happened in the universe would remain, even if only as a potential for someone to understand.
Note that this pantheism is meant to be metaphysical, not epistemic. In practice, of course, actual scientists will never be able to measure everything in the universe, since many events will lie outside their light cone or in impenetrable black holes or singularities. Still, in so far as those events are natural and thus understandable in terms of natural laws, they’re part of the whole natural fabric. When we imagine an omniscient scientist recording every node of the natural web of events in the scientist’s divine book in which nature is perfectly modeled, we’re engaging merely in a thought experiment. The experiment’s purpose is to comfort us with the idea that even were such a perfect scientist never to exist, everything in nature would nonetheless be metaphysically and thus atemporally united by the bonds of causality and logic.
Why, though, does Stapledon speak of natural “beauty” and of the “music of the spheres”? Well, this is the third theme I want to pull from Stapledon’s speech. All values we might bring to bear on our judgment of the unified web of nature are more or less parochial, since they all have humble origins in the natural selection of organisms that have the limited purpose of surviving and propagating the species by sexually reproducing. Moral standards are relevant to social beings with relatively high degrees of freedom, and thus the notion of nature’s goodness is painfully anthropocentric, Plato’s teleology notwithstanding. Aesthetic standards too evolved as means of estimating the health and genetic fitness of potential sex partners.
Still, the aesthetic vision of cosmic development is less anthropocentric than a moral one, for example, because mystical pantheism is consistent with talk of nature’s beauty. After all, the oneness of nature turns the universe into a single diffuse entity, and the causal and logical links that hold everything together are potentials for scientific understanding. Again, even if no scientist will ever actually understand all of these links or possess data on every instantiation of natural categories, the metaphysical/religious model of mystical pantheism lays out the underlying unity of nature by means of a thought experiment in which the unity provides the potential for a godlike view. This metaphysical potential isn’t obviated by the natural impossibility of this omniscience. And so Spinoza’s mystical pantheism entails both a single cosmic entity and the supposition of a godlike scientist who gazes on the whole, inspecting all of its parts and grasping their interrelations. Clearly, this is comparable to the aesthetic situation in which a person admires an art object. All that must be added to the mystical pantheist’s thought experiment is the assumption that the scientist has an aesthetic sense.
The early modern notion of the music of the spheres had a theistic or at least deistic, teleological connotation. After all, strictly speaking, the analogy between cosmic development and the stages of a musical piece implies a composer. In this way, Stapledon’s aesthetic theme would contradict his mystical pantheist one, since the composer would have to stand apart from the orchestra and the music, that is, from the cosmos. The two themes can be reconciled, however, by following up on the above construal of pantheism, according to which the oneness of nature could be fully mapped by a hypothetically omniscient scientist. Just as the design of naturally selected organisms isn’t intended but can be appreciated by biologists, after the fact, so too aesthetic properties may emerge from the natural order which could be imperfectly appreciated by intelligent beings that occupy limited positions within that order. That is, the natural order might be beautiful or perhaps hideous to behold in its mystical unity.
Lastly, Stapledon refers to the great man’s “strange sweet raillery which can persuade the sufferer to smile at his own pain.” This I take to be a kind of gallows humour, which in this case is light, good-natured ridicule that builds camaraderie. What could make raillery a kind of gallows comedy is a tragic context, which in Stapledon’s novel is the imminent doom of humankind. More broadly, the tragedy is the one given by the first theme, which is the apparent existential absurdity of human life.
The gallows humour I have in mind can be instructively compared with the comedy of Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. The subtext of their comedy programs seems to be the liberal audience member’s desperate cry for official recognition of the sociopolitical absurdities that attend the apparent decline of Western powers, in the face of the mainstream media’s obliviousness. This was especially so when George W. Bush took his country to war against Iraq, cheered on by the mainstream American media, while most of the rest of the world took to the streets to oppose the war. American liberals especially were desperate for some confirmation that they weren’t crazy, that Bush’s regime was as farcical as it appeared. Jon Stewart provided that confirmation night after night as he fulfilled the fantasy of someone--anyone--with a megaphone loud enough to be heard by millions, condemning political absurdities as such and duly ridiculing the perfectly ridiculous.
But although American political comedians joke about what’s actually a woeful and perilous state of affairs, their humour isn’t exactly of the gallows variety. This is apparent from the audience reaction to their jokes. Stapledon describes the response to gallows humour, which is that the listener smiles at his pain, perhaps also nodding in grave silence, appreciating the joke’s wittiness but also the horror and sorrow that motivate the need for that comedy. Stewart’s audience members, however, betray their own sense of their political situation’s absurdity, by idolizing Stewart and liberalism. They vent their rage at their political opponents by bursting into wild applause whenever Stewart blasts those outsiders, even to the point of creating awkwardness when one of the opponents sits right in from of them during the interview with Stewart. The LA audience of Bill Maher’s show, Real Time, is even more tribal, robotic, and utterly without humility. Gallows humour is the last resort of a broken person who has no illusions, who’s brought low by confronting the thought of his or her imminent or inevitable death, or of the tragedies and absurdities that fill the postmodern world. The occasions for such humour are solemn ones, calling for humility and the courage to dispense with idols of the tribe and with the security blanket of premodern religion. The context of American liberal humour is one of tribal ritual and self-aggrandizement, and thus doesn’t quite exemplify the nobler comedy of the gallows that presupposes no delusions.
Sketching the Religion
You might have noticed that the first theme seems to conflict with the next two. How can human life be absurd or tragic if everything in the universe is metaphysically one and if this oneness may be aesthetically appreciated? There are two reasons why there’s not necessarily a conflict here. First, the absurdity of life has metaphysical and phenomenological aspects. Metaphysically, life is absurd in the sense that there’s no objective purpose of life, that is, no purpose that transcends our interpretations. Briefly put, theism is false. Phenomenologically, there’s the feeling of alienation, of tragedy, of the heartlessness of natural forces, of our pitiful stature, and of the ultimate futility of our endeavours. Pantheism is consistent with nontheism, since the natural order’s divinity, which is its creative power, is impersonal. Also, existential angst might be appropriate for actual creatures that only barely approximate the omniscient scientist in the thought experiment. Although that scientist might have no cause for angst, that hardly benefits us. However, even that ultimate scientist might feel despair and horror, since there are positive and negative aesthetic properties. Were the natural order beautiful, wonder and reverence could be expected to replace angst, but were the entirety of the divine body of nature horrible to look upon, or were the music of the spheres irritating like a song with a missing note, the scientist might well be disappointed by the anticlimax, to say the least.
Still, these themes are materials for a postmodern religion, because the apparent, felt absurdity of life is mitigated by the mystical scientist’s vision of nature’s unity, by the possibility of an uplifting normative interpretation of that unity, and by the call for humour to replace despair, given our cosmic situation. What would make this a postmodern religion is that there’s no appeal here to anything supernatural, no retreat to delusion or fantasy. On the contrary, those weaknesses of premodern religions are ruled out by the stipulation that life is objectively meaninglessness. At best, we can imagine that a hypothetical scientist who comprehends the whole natural order has an aesthetic reaction to the pattern of interconnected events. This is only a thought experiment; there’s no positing of such a scientist, and indeed we should assume that even were nature a monistic system, metaphysically speaking, the comprehension of the whole would be practically impossible. Finally, postmodernists love ironic comedy, and a religion based on the other three considerations should reserve an honoured place for this comedic remedy for angst.
After all, regardless of whether natural laws and logical principles of reasoning divulge a unified pattern throughout nature, which immortalizes each node of the web, we’re stuck without any confirmation of that unity. Even were there music in the orbits of stellar bodies or in a speck of dust’s swirling in a breeze, as Stapledon says, this music wouldn’t be fit for us in our littleness. Nevertheless, we’re confronted with two well-established facts: the apparent lack of a deep purpose of our being here, alive and on Earth, and scientific advancement in understanding material processes. Add to these the mystic’s universal claim of having felt nature’s oneness in a state of altered consciousness. Next, assume that nature’s unity takes not simply the dry form of having quantifiable interrelations between its parts, but that those interrelations would provoke a visceral aesthetic reaction if only the pattern could be fully comprehended. In this case, outrage is piled upon outrage, since at almost every turn, aside from the present possibility of mystical experience, we’re merely tantalized by remedies for the brute horror of our existential predicament. The abstract unity of nature provides only cold comfort with the thought that we belong to the universe instead of being alienated from it, given that our position could hypothetically be appreciated by the ultimate scientist. There would still be no personal immortality and no known reason why angst is inappropriate. The possibility of an uplifting, ennobling aesthetic value of the universe and thus of our position in it begins to excite us, but then we’re left hanging, as in Stapledon’s speech, with the fact that we can’t ourselves hear the music of the spheres. We can’t know that there is any justifiable aesthetic interpretation of the whole natural order or, as I’d add, whether that order might seem more ugly than beautiful.
This, then, is where gallows humour has its pride of place, as a means of our oscillating between angst and hope, alienation and comfort, despair and awe. Humour generally is a way of indirectly calling attention to an irony, to a disparity between a fact and our interpretation of it. In our case, there are even opposite ironies to consider. First, the death of God conflicts with our tendency to anthropomorphize, to vainly project images of ourselves onto the Other. Second, though, our suffering from our apparent existential situation conflicts with the possibility, at least, of a beautiful unity of all things, and thus of a bond between each of us and the world that afflicts us. Thus, the natural facts may be less comforting than our premodern theistic yearnings, but more uplifting than our postmodern hyper-skepticism.
A religious way of life requires a myth as its centerpiece, a narrative that makes sense of the totality of human experience. Again, I’m not aware of any myth actually taking hold in postmodern society that dramatizes the four themes of Stapledon’s speech. Even were these themes widely inspiring and well-established, the problem would remain that myths are works of artistic genius, whereas postmodern art is more often than not utterly fraudulent. Trapped between the Scylla of politically correct liberal spinelessness (manifesting in pragmatism and moral relativism) and the Charybdis of an insider’s self-righteousness, the postmodern artist needs to deny that there’s any ultimate value of anything, but also to pretend to have the cognitive upper hand. The results are highly conceptual art that tends to mean less than nothing, and an art world that throws millions of dollars at artists whose works are obviously worthless. (See Postmodernism.) There seem, then, two possibilities. Postmodern artists may go down with the ship of Western civilization, without even a tune from the legendary obstinate violinists to assuage them. Alternatively, these artists may shake off their disappointment from the souring of modern culture, draw fresh inspiration from the wealth of scientific knowledge and from their historically well-informed skepticism, and tell us all a good story.