Saturday, September 29, 2012

The World's Creation as God’s Self-Destruction

What does it mean to declare that God created the world? There are two religious answers, the esoteric and the exoteric. Insiders who best understand theistic ideas take the notion of divine creation to be almost entirely empty. The suspicion is that the world consists of everything we can understand, but that since our powers of understanding are limited, the world likely emerged from something we can’t understand, something unnatural. Religious people call that unnatural something and that emergence, respectively, God and the highest creative act. But because the secret roots of these religious ideas are mysterianism, cosmicism, and mysticism, the religious ideas have negative rather than positive content. We can know indirectly that whatever god is, god is alien and thus terrifying to vain and social creatures such as us, who instinctively personalize everything we encounter to feel at home in the wilderness of nature. (I’ll speak of God with a capital “G” only when speaking of the exoteric projection of our personal qualities onto the unknowable.)

For reasons given by Leo Strauss, Plato, and others, philosophical truth tends to be socially subversive and thus needs to be hidden from society at large. Plato spoke of the need for noble lies told by the elite to the masses, to maintain social order. Thus, the nontheistic basis of major religions, which is to say the fear of an inexplicable X as the source of everything that’s rationally explainable, takes on a theistic, exoteric form for popular consumption. While the mystic says silence is best when thinking of whether to speak of what god’s like, the theist indulges in anthropomorphic metaphors. As Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, theism is to this extent biologically determined. The theist overuses the mental faculty, or neural module, that facilitates cooperation between members of our species, by enabling us to predict our behaviour by way of positing and interpreting people’s mental states. In short, the theist speaks as though god were a member of our species, with capacities for reason, emotion, choice, and so forth. These anthropocentric metaphors are all obviously absurd when applied to the unnatural and taken literally, and when acknowledged as merely metaphorical they become irrelevant, as the mystic appreciates. 

With this distinction in mind, between the esoteric and the exoteric, let’s return to the meaning of the statement that God created the world. Esoterically, the answer is the negative, indirect one that something unnatural and thus beyond our comprehension is somehow both “prior” to everything in nature, including everything physicists and cosmologists theorize about, and also the “cause” of nature. Again, as soon as you try to speak positively of the relationship between god and the world, you resort to metaphors that make no sense under analysis. And exoterically, the most prevalent monotheistic answer, for example, is that a white male designer engineered the universe, by brooding over the face of the waters, speaking forms into existence, and so forth, for the main purpose of producing life with which he could interact. The implications of monotheistic creation myths, though, are that God wanted to create a place where his children, who are necessarily more limited beings, could exist, and that he did this not out of grace but out of loneliness. 

When Catholics or others interpret Creation as a free, unearned and thus miraculous outpouring of divine love they engage in doublespeak, playing the game of going back and forth between the esoteric and exoteric conceptions of God. The notion of unconditional, which is to say, inexplicable love is as self-contradictory as any other theistic metaphor: love is actually well understood, and even when it’s altruistic the motive is to achieve some higher good, one that requires sacrifice. If you look more closely at the monotheistic conceit, you find the image of God as a mighty individual who stands necessarily alone. Recall that only in polytheism does the creator God have equals; in this case, the anthropomorphism extends to a projection not just of personal attributes onto the unknowable, but of social ones as well. In monotheism, however, there’s a single, highest deity who stands at the top of the hierarchy of all beings; that deity is the all-knowing First Cause of everything. 

Now, when you’re forced to supply that solitary, almighty God with a gender, because you can’t understand mysterianism or cosmicism or else prefer not to haunt yourself with their implications and so you clothe God in human-made garments which call for literary consistency, you’re forced to conclude also that Creation was meant to alleviate God’s loneliness. As feminists have pointed out, the prejudice that the ultimate creative act is a masculine one, with no feminine principle at work, is preposterous. At least a goddess would have some sort of womb from which the universe could be imagined to emerge. Instead, the male creator God must tinker with instruments and build the universe from simpler materials. Human architects and engineers build structures for the social good, for personal profit, and so forth, whereas God would have no such motives. 

No, the most plausible interpretation, again according to literary standards, is that God’s life prior to Creation was perfectly unbearable for him. First, he’s male with no female equals to be his mates. Second, he’s benevolent with no one to share in his greatness; to paraphrase the saccharine cliché, he has a lot of love to give which goes to waste. There’s no one else to give him advice on what to do. He must find the answer in himself, since if he doesn’t know how best to make use of his talents, no one does. And so God decides to have children. Given monotheism, God can’t create an equal to himself, and so his children can’t live with him. Thus, God must create a place defined by lower dimensions, which is the cosmos of atoms, stars, and planets. God is necessarily removed from Creation and from his children, because he occupies a higher plane of being, but at least he’s no longer perfectly isolated. Now, at least, he can spy on men and women, like a voyeur with a transdimensional telescope, slipping messages to us here and there, like a shy admirer.
 
The Literal Death of God
Does this metaphor of divine creation satisfy you as a piece of fiction? Does the metaphor make for a good story? I hardly think so, at least not in jaded postmodern societies. For one thing, we’ve learned from history, as Lord Acton put it, that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The monotheistic God is a person cursed with absolute power which must have corrupted him. To assume otherwise is to misuse language and to backtrack from the misbegotten venture of attempting to humanize something that ought to humiliate us instead, because of its dreadful inhumanity, thus making us hesitate before inflicting anything else with human qualities. (What do I mean by that last statement? Well, when you study foreign cultures, which naturally seem ridiculous to you, being an outsider who doesn’t care about the rules that govern their practices, which rules thus must seem arbitrary to you, you’re very close to putting the shoe on the other foot, as it were, turning this logic around to appreciate that your own social conventions must seem just as silly to the foreigner.) The point, then, is that when you foolishly indulge in an anthropocentric metaphor, you have to run with it, like an improv actor who must react appropriately to any move made by her fellow actors; indeed, a theistic metaphor is as silly and as empty as improvised acting which both depend on the suspension of disbelief. 

At any rate, once you equate the primary reality with a single almighty person, you’re forced to apply your self-understanding to God. If humans tend to be corrupted by power, so too must be God; otherwise, he’s no person, the metaphor falls to pieces, and the theist is confronted with the dire prospect of settling into a life of angst at the hands of esoteric, cosmicist philosophy. So God certainly didn’t create out of love. Oh, perhaps the character God has benevolent impulses, but they’re bound to be corrupted by the vast power inequality that separates him from any being he could imagine potentially creating. 

In fact, our two best models for understanding the relationship between the theistic God and nature are the dictator and the infant. Like God, a political dictator who is unchallenged in his prime occupies the pinnacle of a power hierarchy, and like God the dictator need merely speak for his words to be turned into action as his underlings spring to obey their orders. This power inequality isolates and spoils the dictator, so that he either devolves into a monster or the antisocial qualities that bring him to power are given freer reign. Either way, the dictator is infantilized as his every whim is carried out, so that his palace functions as an artificial womb that insulates him from harsh reality, including the misery he usually wreaks on his subjects. This brings me to the second model. Like the God of monotheism, an infant necessarily feels isolated, since the infant can’t distinguish itself from anything else. And how does the infant react to that perceived solitariness? Typically, an infant passes most of its waking hours screeching into the void, crying for comfort. Unlike God, an infant has a mother who soothes it by feeding it or rocking it to sleep. God would have no such distractions.

With this fuller picture of God in mind, I ask yet again: Why would God, the character of the monotheistic fiction, create a universe populated in part by people? Love wouldn’t be God’s primary motivation; instead, we must imagine a pitiful soul wracked alternately by anguish, boredom, fear, and twisted perversions--anguish from the horror of his position of being necessarily alone and beyond anyone’s comprehension or sympathy; boredom from knowing everything and thus from an eternity with no surprises; fear that God has no escape from his existential predicament; and perversions as his character is warped into that of a decadent predator. If theists would only stop to think about the religious metaphors they pass around as empty memes, they’d appreciate that the hell described by prophets must actually be identical with heaven for God, which is to say that it must be hell to be the monotheistic God. 

A much superior reading of divine creation was given by the 19th C. German philosopher, Philipp Mainlander, who conceived of what’s likely the most depressing thought ever to enter anyone’s head, who wrote what’s been called the most radical system of philosophical pessimism based on that thought, the two-volume Philosophy of Redemption, and who then killed himself. (To morbid English speakers, The Philosophy of Redemption stands as a sort of real-life eldritch Necronomicon, since it hasn’t been translated from German.) Mainlander’s thought was that God killed himself and that God’s decaying corpse is the natural universe; that is, to carry off his suicide, God had to transform into something that could degrade and eventually be eliminated, namely into an array of quarks, protons, galaxies, and other physical forms. What we think of as a magnificent act of creation was instead God’s escape from the hell of being God, and natural evolution is the pattern of decay occurring in a body so alien we can’t see it for what it is; in this respect, we’re like the blind men who touch different parts of an elephant to identify the beast and reach wildly different conclusions. 

Mainlander’s anthropocentric and profoundly pessimistic speculation has numerous advantages over mainstream theism. First, as I said, his “creation” myth accords with our self-knowledge, and is thus based on a more coherent metaphor, albeit one which is still just a stained metaphor and so must be counted as a piece of fiction, subject at best to aesthetic standards of evaluation. Second, Mainlander’s theism easily accounts both for the natural evil in the world and for God’s absence. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this pessimistic myth rings true for religious insiders, for the mystics and Gnostics who feel alienated from the world and who, like God, seek to be liberated from the torture of being alive (and from being reborn in the cosmic prison). Anxiety is our most authentic source of inspiration, the most fitting reaction to our existential situation that induces noble action. Happiness is for the unenlightened sheep; suffering, for those who fall for the bait of Reason and discover that our ideals are social constructions, our societies oligarchic disaster zones, out fate as a species one of ignominious oblivion. The point, then, is that if we ought to feel like God would had to have felt, detached and isolated by our sentience and objectivity, and if a myth, like any work of fiction, should speak mainly to the phenomenological truth of what it’s like to be alive, Mainlander’s myth of God’s creative suicide is far more moving and relevant than the obsolete and hackneyed yarn about our heavenly Father who just wuvs us so much.

Living Within God's Undying Body

I want to return now to a question I addressed at the end of "From Theism to Cosmicism," of the relationship between the mystic’s supernatural god and what I call the undead god, the pantheistically-conceived cosmos which blindly develops more and more complex forms. The esoteric explanation of that relationship is just the cautious, negative one that titillates us with the promise of something which can never be fulfilled: we can know that there are likely things we can never know, such as how everything that’s rationally explainable could have come from something else, something unnatural which counts more nearly as nothing to us. 

But the best exoteric, metaphorical explanation may well take the form of something like Mainlander’s bleak myth. God created not out of love or generosity or artistic experimentation, but out of desperation to escape the torments which afflict the best of us too. I said that the fictional character of the monotheistic God would have reason to fear that he lacks any means of escaping his plight of being God, that is, of being like the infantilized and corrupted dictator, grown insane by his solitude and peerlessness. But perhaps the more precise interpretation is that such a character would lack any constructive way out. The most that God could create in addition to himself is a world of inferior beings. Granted, some of these beings, such as angels, might understand God better than others, but given monotheism and mysterianism, there would still be a gulf between everything in the world that’s rationally understandable and the likely source of that world. As long as angels are created beings that have bodies and mental faculties, the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena applies: angels could understand only what would fall into the net of their limited ways of thinking. So God would still stand aloof from his Creation; he would still suffer the fires of hell, both as expressions of his inner turmoil and as self-inflicted punishments for his inevitable sins as a corrupted monster. 

Perhaps God used his genius to devise a weapon of his destruction that would free him from the outrageous embarrassment of being God in the first place. We Westerners laughed from a safe distance at the spectacles of Muammar Gaddafi or Michael Jackson, and we still ridicule anyone else so obviously warped by the curse of being a hyperpower. But how much more clownish must God’s character be--not wise or loving like the half-baked theistic fantasies would have it, but downright grotesque in its absolute freedom of self-expression. Perhaps, then, the colossal monstrosity which is the multiverse affords us with superabundant empirical evidence of the pitiful last act of the worst megalomaniac who ever lived. Perhaps nature is such a fearsome place, so amoral and inhuman in its scope, because the universe is what the mind of a deranged tyrant would look like were that mind by some miracle to metamorphose into a lifeless shell. 

Ah, but not entirely lifeless! Even in God’s death throes, he must have the last laugh in the faces of his scapegoats: we drops of God’s lifeblood must suffer from similar existential angst; our cries are thus echoes of God’s infantile shrieks into the void. In the undead god, which creatively destroys itself by ever more complex forms of corruption until these fade from entropy, we isolated and accursed creatures must live as godlike, prancing in our bubble worlds of politically correct fantasies or ranting at the horror of reality. What we should be working on, though, isn’t how to play with the toy gods of exoteric theism, but where to go creatively from Mainlander’s more fitting theistic myth. The mystic’s challenge is to avoid God’s fate, to sublimate angst so that personal or collective suicide isn’t the only viable option. The transhumanist’s dream of downloading our minds into a computer for eternal life sounds suspiciously like a sugarcoated way of speaking of a bizarre act of self-destruction, much as God might have rationalized his metamorphosis. And the postmodern monoculture seems a stage of social decadence and decline, in the senses given by Oswald Spengler. In Mainlander’s myth we have the starting point of a fitting, unembarrassing religion, of a grand narrative that honours the suffering at the core of existential authenticity. But, to reverse the Christian narrative, which seems a garbled version of Mainlander’s insight, we need to meditate on how even the lives of such pitiful creatures as us can redeem the death of our God.

14 comments:

  1. Great article. I had written about the problems of theistic creation theories myself in the past, but I never considered this particular angle (my primary focus was the epicurean concept that the perfect divine, lacking desires, just "is" and does not act nor create).

    I would really like to translate this article in Greek for my blog, if you're OK with that. (actually, I've earmarked several of your articles for that purpose). If you don't want to discuss this in the comments, there's a contact form in my blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it would be great if you'd like to translate and reprint any of my articles/rants. I'd ask, though, that you give a link to the English version on my blog. Would that be OK?

      Thanks for checking out my blog. Have you read the New Testament in the original Greek and in English? If so, I'd be curious to know your thoughts on any significant differences between them.

      Delete
    2. Don't worry about the link. I always do that with translated articles anyway. I was wondering more about whether you want any special copyright notice included in the translation etc.

      As for the second question, I've thoroughly read the NT in Ancient Greek (the language is surprisingly simple for anyone who paid attention during high school Ancient Greek classes). Granted, I haven't read the entire NT cover to cover in English, but I have read controversial passages that are commonly discussed in atheistic circles and I've noticed no significant divergence between the two versions.

      A couple of interesting points off the top of my head:

      -"Logos" was rendered as "Word" in John 1. For the layman, both words are inscrutable and "word" has more potential for causing misunderstandings; and theologians are more likely to use "logos" anyway. I'm not sure if this rendering achieves anything.
      -The greek word "pneuma" was translated as "ghost" instead of the more logical "spirit", though this might just reflect the meaning of the word "ghost" in the 1600s; not sure on that.
      -"Sunteleia" was translated as "end" (as in 'end of the world') instead of the more correct "completion". Granted, this is more consistent with the apocalyptic vision of Revelations, but a mistranslation none-the-less and creates complications for the layperson as well.
      -The johannine comma; the current NT used by the Orthodox Church includes it.

      You will find more pronounced differences between the Septuagint used by the Orthodox and the KJV, since the latter includes material from the masoretic texts.

      If you have any specific linguistic questions, feel free to contact me (or ask away) I'd be glad to assist you. :)

      Delete
    3. Well, I don't have any copyright notices on my blog. I think the copyright is implied as long as an original blog exists, so if someone tries to steal some of your writing to make money off of it, say, you'd have to find out about it and then prove that you wrote and published it first. So no, I don't have a special copyright notice. Maybe you could just give my name as the author along with a link to my blog. Could you also let me know which other articles of mine you translate? I'd be curious to see them in Greek.

      I suppose the translation issues I'm thinking of are more about the cultural connotations of a word. How the original readers of the NT would have understood certain key words might be very different from how most people today would understand the text, and you'd have to be an historian to put yourself in the ancient mindset.

      How about the word "aionios", though, as it relates to the statements about hell's eternity? Does this word mean "everlasting"?

      Delete
  2. Well... the word "αἰώνιος" has always meant "eternal" in Greek (and it still does) so liberal Christians can't really translate their way out this one. The core noun "αἰών" is more flexible; it used to mean "indeterminate long period of time" or "age" (today it means "century") but the adjective is quite rigid in its meaning.

    As for the translation, I'll make sure to post a link here (unless your blog accepts pingbacks, in which case it'll be sent automatically). Personally, I consider the inclusion of the author's name and a link to the original as standard internet decorum.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey Benjamin, I posted the article's translation today. You can read it here. I hope it meets with your approval. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cool! I wish I spoke Greek so I could see what it reads like. That reminds me, I tried using Google's translator on my blog, but when I feed the translated text into another translator, the English is close to garbage. I wonder if you could confirm that the Google English to Greek translator isn't that good.

      Delete
    2. In my experience, Google Translate is useful only to someone who doesn't know the target language at all and wants to get the gist of a text.

      Usually the translation from English to Greek is a tad smoother, because English is syntactically rigid and you can't omit pronouns (of course the text is still awkward and a grammatical nightmare). Given that Greek is a heavily inflected language with flexible syntax and pronoun omission is the norm, the reverse is typically unreadable (the same goes for most romance languages, but to a lesser degree because the nouns aren't inflected). Google Translate is also useless in all languages, if the text contains many subordinate and parenthetic clauses. In most cases, idiomatic expressions are also mangled.

      Delete
  4. That IS the most depressing existential outlook I've ever heard. Schopenhauer be damned!

    There is a problem though. The only avenue we have to truth is ultimately aesthetic. The more truth blossoms in understanding, the more beautiful it seems. (The DNA double helix doesn't look the way does BY CHANCE. It's functional perfection is mirrored in the beauty of our mental aesthetic representation of it.) And so, the deity, knowing the truth, would have to know that it's also beautiful and therefore good. Fundamentally ugly worldviews like this therefore never capture the assent of philosophers.

    Frankly, if this is how it is, suicide is the only rational decision. (As Mainlander shows.) Everything else is delusion.

    Also, though we perceive entropy to be increasing externally, through evolution we sense internal, conscious entropy to be decreasing. If God's trying to kill himself he's doing a bad job. Looks more to me like he's trying to evolve himself, willing himself into being AGAINST the uncertainty of entropy, which constantly obscures his view of himself and gives the will space to act.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So you've got the whole platonic triad there. I don't think aesthetics is a route to truth, though. Yes, we can judge any limited thing in aesthetic terms, including DNA and our mental models, but the aesthetic qualities aren't indicators of truth status. Reason is the route to truth and my view is that reason is accursed, because reason objectifies and dehumanizes, and thus alienates and horrifies us. In response, we turn to aesthetics and to creative, artistically noble fictions or to cliched delusions, depending on our existential caliber.

      The truth known by the monotheistic God would have been awful, since that God would have been necessarily isolated and lonely. Even if aesthetic properties were signs of truth, this wouldn't mean truth must be correlated with beauty, since ugliness is just as aesthetic. The natural facts, discovered by objectifying reason, aren't beautiful but hideous. Again, in response, we beautify the world to feel at home in our humanized artificial environments, as I explain in "Technoscience, Existentialism, and the Fact-Value Dichotomy."

      Is Mainlander's myth true? No, it's a speculative fiction. We have no reason to think any kind of theism is true. The point of the myth, as I use it, is to deconstruct the conventional, exoteric kind of monotheism. This myth's purpose should be to challenge us, to inspire us to question our assumptions, to expand our mind, and to stimulate the imagination, like any artwork.

      You say it should drive us to suicide, but that might be so only if we could know that the myth is true. We certainly can't know that, so there's a category error to be wary of there. I agree this myth is damned depressing, but that means it gives us a Nietzschean opportunity to overcome that possibility with some equally powerful and more uplifting art (with myths, speculations, technological transformation of the wilderness into concrete artworks, etc). This is actually what I aim to do with the series of novels I'm working on, the first one of which should be published on Amazon sometime this month.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, by the way.

      Delete
  5. Read your article many times. Only one question, will there be a time in visible future where majority think like you or at least somewhere near to your ideas. Healthy minds like you perceive in a healthy way. The unhealthy ones should survive only through superstition, blind faith,and all other unreasonable ways and may reach high level of understanding at some point of time in their life. And in the process they will survive, without committing suicide or joining antisocial activities, on the creches of superstition, blind faith etc. Let it be so. What do you think?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Peter, but I'm not sure "healthy" is a fitting way to speak of an enlightened person. The notion of mental health is implicitly teleological, since the assumption is that something called maturity is a sort of destiny for those on the right path. That framework doesn't sit well with an appreciation for the philosophical, decentering upshot of naturalistic science. We should expect, rather, that enlightened folks will be marked by a touch of insanity, by the agony (inner turmoil) depicted by existentialists from Job and Dostoevsky to Nietzsche and Sartre.

      But to address your question, I've talked about this issue in terms of an organic formation of social classes, which I think Nietzsche called an order of rank. I like to put it in ethological terms (betas vs omegas); indeed, I have an upcoming article on whether these ethological terms should be applied to our species. But the idea is that unenlightened, deluded beta herds are needed for social stability, because we haven't outgrown our mammalian preference for the shorthand of dominance hierarchies. We need to tell how high we are on the pecking order, by the presence of telltale clues as to our social status. If you go with the flow of conventional wisdom, you're a dependable follower, a beta, a philosophically-clueless drudge. By contrast, enlightened individuals tend, therefore, to be losers in conventional terms. They're artists and outcasts. These class divisions form naturally because we're fundamentally animals and there are sociological regularities at work.

      Delete
  6. This is a great article. (yes it took me a while to get around to some of your better posts)

    Some of the insights remind me of Nietzsche's observations about boredom, specifically in Human, All-Too-Human:

    "Spirit & Boredom - The saying 'the Magyar is much too lazy to feel bored' is thought-provoking. Only the most acute and active animals are capable of boredom. - A theme for a great poet would be God's boredom on the seventh day of creation."

    Nietzsche pointed out that boredom was the "unpleasant 'calm' of the soul" that precedes creative acts, and that while creative spirits endure boredom, 'lesser natures' flee from it.

    The God of Mainlander's story must have suffered the most highest form of boredom prior to creation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting, Awet. I think the Gnostics, too, struggled with this theodicy. God is said to have "emanated" personalities which led eventually to evil or to a fall from an initial pristine tranquility. My point here (in the above article) is that monotheism undermines itself, since as soon as we take the anthropomorphic metaphor seriously, we've just got to apply human psychology to God, which leads to Mainlander's sort of theodicy.

      Of course a sovereign God would be corrupted by his supreme power (not to mention by his masculinity which would have no outlet in a female counterpart, unlike in polytheistic religions in which the gods rape mortals, etc)! And of course God would become utterly insane from loneliness, a suspicion which is hinted at in Jack Miles' reading of the Hebrew Bible, in God: A Biography. According to an honest reading of the Bible, God had no idea what he was doing when he created humans; he was making it up as he was going along, driven not by a hyper-intelligent plan, but by desperation to relieve himself of loneliness--or perhaps, to take up your idea, of boredom.

      Delete