Most debate about God is a tempest in a teapot. For example, currently there are riots in the Muslim world because some Christians insulted the prophet Muhammad in a crude video. Likely, the violent protestors don’t represent the majority of Muslims and the majority is cowed into silence by the threat of retaliation from the militant minority which goes unchecked by weak or complicit governments in that region. The ensuing debate in the mainstream media has been about the conflict between freedom of speech and religious fundamentalism, but that discussion blithely ignores the fact that an outright farce plays out whenever someone acts on the assumption that a perfect person has anything to do with the world’s origin.
Indeed, there’s a secret history in major religions that’s driven by another conflict, between religious outsiders and insiders. The outsiders take religious metaphors or literalistic creeds seriously and so engage in all manner of nakedly childish behavior. The spectacle of even a single Muslim rioting because someone denigrates something the Muslim holds sacred is most ridiculous when viewed from the esoteric religious perspective. A religious insider, you see, would realize that what the rioter thinks is sacred, namely the prophet, is effectively an idol. Ironically, the ban on depicting Muhammad is meant to prevent ignorant people from worshipping the image. The ban’s natural side effect, though, is to turn the prophet himself into a sort of forbidden fruit, giving the untouchable Muhammad a mystique that might as well be a mark of holiness. In any case, rampaging through the streets because of a slight against your favourite long-dead person is as ludicrous as an insane person’s tantrum thrown over some injury done to his favourite chair in his mental institution.
Why, though, is there an exoteric religious discourse in the first place, that is, a discourse which is necessarily the most popular and the least respectable compared to a different, more self-consistent way of talking about god? Why is the truth about monotheistic religions kept so secret by the religious insiders? Answers to these will emerge from what follows.
Why God Can’t Exist
The old debate of whether God exists is everlasting because it rests on a confusion that sends its participants on wild goose chases. By definition, you see, god doesn’t exist, so to say that god exists is to make a category mistake. The word “exist” is synonymous with such words as “be,” “real,” “factual,” and “actual.” You can learn how to use these words by inter-defining them in terms of each other, as the dictionary does, but you won’t understand any of their meanings without analogies and examples drawn from your daily experience, and that in turn requires that you effectively naturalize anything you think of as existing. For example, to exist is, in part, to take up space, to pass through time, and to have causal power, and this is to imply that everything that exists is part of the natural universe. But the idea of god is of the source of everything natural, which means that god can’t be bound by space or time or have causal power; neither can god have a mind if a mind requires a brain, nor need god follow the laws of logic if logic too applies merely to everything that could exist, where anything we could know of as potentially existing must be limited by our ways of understanding.
Adapting some terminology from the philosopher Immanuel Kant, things that exist can be called phenomenal, which means that they necessarily don’t transcend the categories and mental faculties we use to understand things. By contrast--and by definition--god is noumenal, which means that the rather paradoxical notion of the monotheistic god is of something that can’t be comprehended by us. God couldn’t be anything in nature, since he’s supposed to be the precondition of nature. Phenomena appear to us only because they register with our cognitive faculties, whereas something that falls outside our net of understanding, as it were, wouldn’t be experienced by us in the first place. So if being, existence, reality, actuality, and factuality are understood explicitly or implicitly as aspects of natural things, which is to say things that are understood by a strong connection to our everyday sense experience and modes of conception, god lacks any of those aspects. Thus, if we use those concepts to distinguish something from nothing, god has more in common with nothing than he does with something: both god and nothing don’t exist, and again this is merely a definitional, conceptual matter. Once you define “god” in a certain way, you should follow through without self-contradictions.
This is why when the theist says that God “caused” the universe to exist, the natural response is to ask what caused God. We ask that question because we assume that whatever exists must exist in the natural sense, since there is no other meaningful sense of that word, and all natural, relatively familiar things have effects and causes. Likewise, when the theist says that God thinks, speaks, or acts, we naturally understand those words by analogy with our common experience, and so we add absurd attributes to God; for example, we assume God must have a body of some sort, even though he’s supposed to be the source of all bodies, or that God must have a gender and either a deep or a high voice, even though to say that is to naturalize the supernatural and thus to speak in self-contradictions.
You might be wondering about the metaphysical status of abstract objects: if everything that exists is natural, and numbers and other mathematical structures are natural, do those abstract structures exist? It sounds funny to suppose that they do, but even if numbers and so forth do exist and are abstract rather concrete in the sense that they’re repeatable, an abstract object is still like a spatiotemporally-bound thing in nature in that either is limited by its specificity. The number 2 has its arithmetical properties, which differ from those of other numbers, and those distinguishing properties set limits on that number. Likewise, physical laws and dimensions set limits on everything in nature. But, once again, god is supposed to be the unconditioned setter of all limits and conditions. As soon as you try to specify what god is like, say by distinguishing his character from that of an evil person, you take away with one hand what you give with the other; that is, you misunderstand the point of talking about the monotheistic god, because although you successfully apply your commonsense, comparing god to moral people in this case, you thereby contradict the basic definition of “god,” since you set a limit on that which is supposed to be unlimited--all-powerful, all-present, infinite, and so forth.
As the Jewish theologian Maimonides maintained, we have at best a negative understanding of God: we can say only what god is not, not what god is. Or take the ninth C. theologian John Scot Erigena’s statement, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." This is to say, with Kant, that we have a mere placeholder idea of god, an idea of that X which reason leads us to believe is the ultimate source of everything we experience without being any such experienced thing. Eastern mystics have long made this point, that to understand just the meaning of “god,” you have to entertain the possibility, at least, that our cognitive powers are limited, that there’s more in heaven and earth than fits inside even our best, most complete theory of everything. Mystics often contend that god can be directly experienced, but they appreciate that as soon as anyone tries to explain that experience or use logic to prove that god exists or has such and such qualities, she inevitably resorts to commonsense metaphors and so begins talking nonsense, holding god out to be both the cause of all causes, the mind that creates all brains (even though every mind needs a brain), and so on.
God is ineffable, because language has an evolutionary purpose of enabling us to cope with nature, whereas god is, simply by definition, not natural. Note, though, that although this is a semantic point about the meaning of “exist,” this doesn’t mean the point is about an arbitrary choice of linguistic labels, as the pejorative use of the phrase “just semantics” would have it. Rather, the point is that our imagination, our categories, our perceptual pathways, our modes of interacting with the world may all be too limited to reconcile us with certain deep truths, such as the truth of what lies behind the natural order.
Why God is the Most Awful Horror
In line with the mystic’s insistence on humility with respect to our cognitive powers, a philosophical mysterian would compare god to consciousness, taking each to be necessarily beyond our comprehension. Although we can answer some indirect questions about either, we’re met with a stumbling block when we try to fit consciousness or god into the naturalistic worldview, since consciousness is quintessentially not objective and thus not quantifiable or measurable, while god--with a lowercase “g” since “god” isn’t a proper name of a person, from the esoteric perspective--is supposed to be nature’s precondition. Once you see how this mysterian idea applies to the question of theism, the idea being that what there “is” needn’t be and likely isn’t limited by our capacity to understand things, you should also be led to appreciate that the thought of god is the most horrible thought we can have.
After all, once we see that literalistic, exoteric, metaphorical theism leads only to confusion, the proper thought of god is no longer even theistic in the usual, highly objectionable way, since god isn’t usefully conceived of as a person who acts within nature. Nothing specific can be said about god, because the fundamental idea behind the word “god” is that everything we can understand, the natural universe, comes mysteriously from something else. Thus, the myths, fables, and fairy tales of religions become so many distractions from contemplating the possibility, implied by the monotheistic religions, that not only must we lack satisfying answers to our ultimate questions, but those questions are bound to be wrongheaded, because they’re produced by minds that are unprepared to fathom the ultimate source. This further indicates that our best theories and treasured values are limited, if not made ridiculous by their insularity. This is the horror that threatens our happiness, and religionists dutifully pretend that god is on our level, after all--just a better person than any of us or the best thing in the universe. But no such thing could then be meaningfully called the ultimate precondition.
What, then, is the supernatural? Does the supernatural manifest in the miraculous event or in the scary phenomenon, in a ghost or goblin that stands at the border between our world and something beyond? A mere partial mystery that’s half-way caught in our net of understanding, something we glimpse but can’t explain? No, anything that appears before us, registering at all with our senses or our conceptual capacities, is natural. At best, some natural phenomena are subjectively magical in Arthur C. Clark’s sense, in that we might happen not to understand the mechanisms that make what we observe work. By contrast, the negative concept of god is the concept of a permanent objective mystery, of the possibility that if nature has an ultimate explanation, this explanation will forever be beyond our reach, because nature comes from something else--call it supernatural, preternatural, noumenal, or god.
The complement of this idea of the hugeness of god is the idea of our vanishing smallness. If god is so far beyond us, we must be miniscule to god and this applies not literally to our contrasting sizes, since god would have no measurable body, but to our quality of life. The closest analogy is the relation between a human and a bacterium or some other microscopic organism that has little if any conception of where it stands. Of course, biologically speaking, organisms need to know only enough to perform their evolutionary functions; an ant, for example, doesn’t need to understand the chemical composition of the earth in which it lives, to know that the stuff can be molded just so to form what we call a colony. An ant has no conception of much outside that colony, including our planet, the galaxy, the multiverse, and so forth. Still, the ant lives on, performing its limited tasks, which is all the ant can do. In short, the ant doesn’t know what it’s missing, and so this insect is spared any embarrassment by the shallowness of its life cycle.
Our curse is that we can see beyond our limitations; we can conceive of the possibility that our concepts are limited, that there’s more to know than we can possibly understand and that nature likely originates from something entirely alien. Thus removed from the state of Edenic ignorance, we can’t live in peace but must constantly suffer from anxiety or flee to the false Edens of our fantasy worlds, of our hallucinatory delusions that confuse us with false hope and cheap comfort. For example, we assume God is our loving parent who prepares heaven for us when we die, or that God writes life manuals for our benefit. Our delusions can be religious, political, or otherwise cultural, but the point is that most people seem to prefer them to the radical, mystical alternative, which is that the ultimate truth is a cosmic horror. Those who even ponder this latter possibility tend to suffer the anxiety of displacement, of being detached from everything that makes for a fulfilling life, because once you suspect that we’re all incapable of understanding everything, you wonder about the status of the civilizations our species has built in its saga. Like a witness whose character is impeached when she’s caught in just a single lie, and whose whole testimony thus becomes suspect, our cognitive limits, which distinguish us as specific, natural beings, may infect all our accomplishments and joys with existential absurdity and tragedy. Instead of occupying herself with practical tasks, living as a healthy, functional member of a community like a busy ant helping to build its colony, the mystic, cosmicist, or omega person can’t fully engage with a mainstream culture for fear that this culture is, in the end, perfectly ridiculous.
Cosmic Horror and Science
Reason seems the messenger that brings this anxiety and detachment, and by “reason” I mean objectivity, the ability to stand outside your ego or your culture, to dehumanize yourself with a frame of mind that might just be dispassionate enough to mirror the world’s alien neutrality towards us, thus enabling us to see things as they more nearly are. But is this cosmic mysticism, which identifies god as that which mocks our every pretension, which, when juxtaposed with us, haunts us with fear of the necessarily narrow and thus absurd ambit of our lives--is this point of view really the more rational one? The psychiatrist speaks of anxiety, which seems to plague especially modern and postmodern societies, as a type of disorder. Here, presumably, the psychiatrist seems merely to follow the social preference for happiness over philosophy, for peace of mind at the price of delusion. But perhaps the notion of cosmic horror is the greater delusion, and the wisest course is to adopt cultural conventions as your touchstones. Is there any reason to believe that “god” in the mystical, cosmicist sense applies to anything? Perhaps there’s nothing beyond the natural and nature takes care of itself.
At first glance, the success of science indicates that there’s no such god, that the mysterian, cosmicist, and mystic posit a god-of-the-gaps, foolishly betting against the power of science to develop a complete and self-contained theory of everything. According to this article, for example, the cosmologist Sean Carroll points out that as scientists have explained more and more of nature, there’s less reason to call upon God to explain anything. This, however, assumes only the confused, exoteric notion of God. Given the rational, scientific model of explanations, a valid explanation that adds to our understanding must explain something natural by reference to something else in nature; indeed, the methods of rational explanation (logical inference, gathering of data, and so on) effectively naturalize the explanans, that X which explains the explanandum Y. Since by definition god isn’t natural, you can’t rationally explain anything by referring to god; that is, you can’t increase your understanding of nature by saying that god causes this or that, since the notion of god is of something that’s supposed to transcend our rational comprehension. To the extent that scientists have overturned traditional theistic theories of diseases, witches, and the origin of life, the latter theories must have been associated only with the exoteric anthropomorphisms that obscure the implications of self-consistent theism, to enable religious people to feel a modicum of existential security.
The only way the advance of science could count against esoteric cosmicism is if there’s reason to think that scientists will one day answer all valid questions, leaving no excuse for even a negative or indirect appeal to anything supernatural. As the above article suggests, a theory of quantum gravity might be both complete and self-contained, presupposing nothing. But is this how science or indeed any form of rational explanation works? Certainly, the Lawrence Krauss affair suggests otherwise. Krauss, the theoretical physicist, touted his book, A Universe from Nothing, as offering an explanation of how something can come from nothing without God. David Alpert pointed out in his NY Times review that Krauss’ theory does no such thing, since his theory presupposes certain fundamental physical laws as well as the reality of some elementary stuff, such as relativistic quantum fields. The fact that that stuff is nothing in the sense that such fields don’t occupy space doesn’t address the underlying, philosophical question of how something specific, individuated, and thus natural and rationally understood could derive, or be understood as deriving, from something else.
Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how reason basically works. When you think logically, you infer some statements from others, and inference is a sort of affirmation warranted by certain rules, such as the laws of some logical system or the values of scientific inquiry. Take away the rules and you lose the reason to affirm a statement. Thus, rational explanation would seem to presuppose those rules. Suppose, though, the rules presupposed by a scientific theory of everything were somehow self-evident laws of nature. This would mean only that such laws are fundamental to the human way of thinking, and this would lead to a dilemma: either there’s only one theory of everything, which theory miraculously happens to be within the reach of primates evolved on our planet, or else there are multiple such theories, which means each would be somehow incomplete, reflecting in part the interests of a particular culture or species.
Now, one reason to think that a complete theory of everything is within our reach is that natural forces and materials are mindless, which implies that the natural elements can put up no intelligent resistance to the scientific enterprise. If nature is neutral towards us and we’re sufficiently industrious, the universe can’t literally hide its secrets from us. In this respect, then, our arrival at a finished theory of everything might be expected rather than miraculous. However, there’s also a scientific reason to believe the opposite, which has to do with our decentralization in the scientific picture. From Ptolemy to Copernicus, Galileo and Einstein, our planet is understood as being less and less central until finally the notion of absolute centrality loses its meaning in relativity theory. Of course, the notion of our centrality in the cosmos has historically had a qualitative rather than just a quantitative sense, the idea being that humans are the most important things in the universe, that our existence fulfills the purpose of all Creation. Dispensing with that anthropocentrism naturally humiliates us, in that we become painfully aware of our fallibility and of the limitations that distinguish us even as objects occupying particular times and places.
This shift in perspective should bewilder rather than merely humble naturalists, since the result is an all-consuming pragmatic attitude that justifies only our means, not our goals and thus produces a sense of vertigo typically experienced as postmodern cynicism and apathy. Pragmatism replaces modern idealism about our greatness even in the absence of any god to vouch for our pedigree. The upshot of science’s decentering of us is that we can no longer trust in our magnificence in even the secular humanistic manner--at least, not without feeling that we’re perpetrating a fraud. Of course scientists should pragmatically assume that they can explain everything, since we can’t know for sure in advance what we might be unable to understand. But this pragmatism, this methodological naturalism is far from a full-throated defense of the promise that a complete and self-contained theory of everything wouldn’t be a miraculous, which is to say a stupendously improbable achievement for us. If it’s only useful for the business of technoscience to assume that humans can, in principle, understand everything, there’s no metaphysical or epistemological guarantee that this business will pay off in the end; after all, most businesses fail. (Indeed, there’s now talk within physics that string theory, which has dominated physics for several decades, is a dead end. See Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics.)
In light of the loss of anthropocentrism, which is to say Reason’s killing of our naïve self-confidence along with the anthropomorphized God, there’s at least as much reason to be pessimistic as there is to be optimistic about the ultimate fruits of science. Again, if we’re merely an accidental byproduct of natural processes, why on earth expect that our cognitive faculties, which themselves evolved to carry out local and quite humdrum tasks, can encompass absolutely everything? Instead, we might expect that just as advanced civilizations mock the conceits of isolated cultures, such as those of geologically-confined peoples, our best modern efforts might in the end be wildly deficient and indeed laughable.
Granted, nature would lack any diabolical genius to prevent us from understanding as much as we can--although super-intelligent alien species might serve that role, as science fiction authors speculate. But nature’s mindlessness makes its elements alien to our way of thinking, since we evolved to function in a social context, which is why we naturally anthropomorphize whatever we try to understand. Thus, what looks like a reason to be confident in our intellectual capacity may instead be a reason to believe the opposite, that precisely because there’s no personal God to account for why the universe is as it is, social creatures like us are particularly ill-equipped to come to terms with the world in which we find ourselves. Granted also, some people are less social than others, and we all have the capacity for objectivity, which strips away our personal and cultural biases. But even the most objective human, who can speak the languages of exotic mathematics, must translate the findings of those alien perspectives into subjective, traditionally-human terms to assimilate physics to the broader worldview that includes intuitions and phenomenological knowledge of how things appear from a lay perspective. If we’re contemplating scientific progress that involves a replacement of all our subjective viewpoints with the depersonalized, objective one, we’re effectively conceding that the perfect theory of everything is in range only of transhumans.
Abstract cosmological theories, drawing on rarified math, are already disconnected from folk wisdom, and that gap provides us with a rough analogy of the break between the natural and the supernatural, foreshadowing the unattainability of some knowledge by us. Cutting-edge physics lies at the furthest reaches of human cognitive powers, but again, even bizarre mathematical structures are natural in so far as they can be positively specified and categorized by the human mind. Anything that couldn’t be would be supernatural and would be nothing to us--not necessarily nothing at all, mind you, but no thing to creatures like us. Whether or not there’s somehow a god, the negative concept of a transcendent source of everything around us is the mysterian, cosmicist, mystical concept of such a monstrous, strangely active nothing.
You might think the notion of such a nothing is neither here nor there, since that notion is more deistic than theistic, meaning that such an alien god would have no practical, knowable effect on nature. This leaves out, however, an indirect, psychological effect, which is that creatures cursed with excessive reasoning powers can reason their way to the end of their reason, leading to self-doubt and to postmodern malaise. Moreover, to compensate for these deleterious effects of the mere thought of the-god-that’s-nothing-to-us, mainstream religions design a panoply of friendly anthropomorphic masks that can be placed across that god’s alien face, and the childishness of these religions has plenty of social consequences.
This answers the questions I ask in the introduction. Why is there an exoteric religious tradition and why is the esoteric one kept hidden? The reason is that the religious thesis, that the supernatural is somehow prior to the natural, is--far from being more politically correct than, say, atheism--subversive, endangering both society and an individual’s peace of mind. Only the most courageous or foolhardy theist is willing to confront the stark implications of the concept of a deity, while the majority prefers the comfort of toy conceptions of the supernatural.
What’s needed, then, is a cosmicist religion that makes the best of the potential for anyone to wake up and arrive at the Baneful Thought that everything familiar to us may be nothing to something wholly other. The more you objectively ponder our limitations, the more you find yourself alienated from the politically correct conventions that govern popular cultures, since in that case you come to regard most of our preoccupations (happiness, sex, stealth oligarchy, anthropomorphic theism, cryptoreligious Scientism) as absurd and tragic. Thus, the lost, omega individual could use an uplifting way of digesting and sublimating the Baneful Thought. Buddhism and other mystical traditions may well suffice, but I don’t know of any major religion that captures the cosmicist insight that cosmic horror seems a prerequisite for existential authenticity, which is to say, for an ethically and aesthetically justified mindset.
Finally: a note about pantheism. How does the mysterian, cosmicist god relate to what I’ve called the undead god, which is nature’s mindless power of astonishing creativity? “The undead god” is just a poetic name for how nature appears from a position of relative clear-headedness. This undead god is fully explainable by science, although autonomous levels of explanation may be needed to address emergent levels of complexity. By contrast, the supernatural god I’ve considered above isn’t at all rationally explainable. There may well “be” nothing supernatural, but general objectivity, science, and religion tend to drive us to this point of ultimate humility and postmodern angst, where we regard the universe as fundamentally absurd, which is to say unintelligible to us and so as silly as a child’s babbling. The undead god, which is the monstrous body of the cosmos, represents the extent of what’s intelligible to us. If there’s no complete, self-contained explanation of nature, however, and reason and curiosity compel us always to ask deeper questions, we may worry that the sum total of what we can know is like an iceberg’s tip that peaks above the bulk concealed by the sea of our incomprehension. At any rate, the esoteric, mystical traditions of theistic religions are mysterian in this respect, since they posit an utterly transcendent entity as the source of everything that’s more familiar.