2017-05-29 17:43:12 UTC
Sometimes in movies a character will wax poetic about the virtue of having Faith in God. They have their deity, whose existence and attributes make no sense. They have their cult, a social power structure revolving around belief in (and obedience to) this make-believe character. And if some other person in the story is intelligent and curious enough to question the existence of this deity, then that person is treated as a lesser being who foolishly worships rationality instead of blindly believing what their fellow cultists claim to believe.
The characters have creepy little smiles, and they know that their fellow cultists will back them up in any argument. It’s entirely a mechanism for social control. There’s no reason to believe that this deity exists, but if you want to join the group then you need to ignore your better judgment and have “faith” that this non-existent deity exists, and that He is the creator and the ultimate moral authority. Basically, you pretend that this alpha deity character is real, to gain acceptance from your peers.
But there’s a different kind of faith.
I recently read Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard. He was a Christian philosopher writing in the 1800’s, and I’ve heard him described as the real originator of existentialism. Fear and Trembling is basically 200 pages of Kierkegaard obsessing over the faith of Abraham. We all know Abraham’s story, especially the part where he was going to murder his own son because God asked him to.
Imagine it. God tells you that if you obey him then your offspring will thrive and spread across the world. So Abraham obeys this God who created the world. But then God asks you to murder your only son. An obvious contradiction and paradox, since this son represents everything that you want to gain as a reward for obeying God. Abraham doesn’t flinch. He steadfastly proceeds to take his son to the sacrificial mountain.
There are so many questions. So many feelings attached to this situation. I always saw Abraham as a coward whose fear of the ultimate mob-boss outweighted his love for his son. But let’s follow Kierkegaard’s flashlight. He focuses on the absurdity of the situation. Abraham has to destroy his progeny in order to ensure its prosperity. Abraham intends to get what he wants “through virtue of the absurd.” In my minds’ eye I no longer see a man on a mountain with his son. I see a mind in the empty void of space, dark lightning crashing and psychotic nothingness swirling all around. Existence makes no sense, and that nonsense is making demands. Abraham could hesitate, ask unanswerable questions, or he could act. As a human situation it’s terrible, immoral, and insane. But as an image it can be instructive.
Let’s leave Christianity aside for a moment.
Joesph Campbell studied comparative mythology and wrote the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Primarily it’s about the so-called Hero’s Journey, a narrative structure which is so common across cultures that it seems to be built into the human brain. According to the book, many other narrative structures can be found in common across different mythologies and cultures. Certain ideas are built into the human brain.
The hero has to leave the safety of his home and travel out into the unknown, to get the good stuff (money, women, food, whatever). After responding to many challenges he comes to learn that all these obstacles and enemies are reflections of himself, and ultimately are just temporary forms. We begin to get the vague idea of something beyond the forms. Some ultimate source of all forms, which can’t itself be constrained into a form. This source can’t be properly represented, and it’s not properly a “thing” as we know it. But we’re only human and so we keep trying to represent it anyway. Sometimes we call it God.
It’s not a thing. It’s not a person. No road-sign can point at it. It doesn’t have a mind or a personality or a body. Anything you try to say about it falls apart immediately. Sand through your fingers. It has no problem with gay people. It doesn’t want you to murder your son. It doesn’t differentiate between infidels and believers. It has not created an afterlife to punish or reward you. You can’t negotiate with it. Anything you believe about it will inevitably be false. And yet, new forms keep coming at you from the invisible void. You meet a new friend. You meet a hostile rival. Cancer grows in your guts. Flowers grow in your garden. You know they will all disappear, and new forms will emerge. We can recognize some patterns and learn some tricks, but our understanding is just a lonely island of knowledge surrounded by nothingness.
Of course the “form” of a person doesn’t feel like it comes from the “void,” or directly from a deity. Science has explained the physical processes that transformed dirt into your mom or your boyfriend. Of course, nobody has explained consciousness. Neuroscience can explain why the brain acts in a certain way and evolutionary psychology can offer insight into why sensation is useful or why certain conscious processes have evolved. It’s all deterministic. But if you follow determinism far enough it falls apart somewhere below the subatomic level. The smallest deterministic behaviors (from which big Newtonian objects are formed) are actually decided by smaller, non-deterministic behaviors. Scientists use the math of randomness to predict how the world will work. Determinism is massive statistics of an enormous number of dice-rolls. That randomness operates on the deepest level of our rationalistic model of the universe. Our concrete world of physical objects is surrounded by a horrifying moat of static. We are built from that static. We live inside a David Lynch film. And nobody knows why consciousness, experience, sensation, were ever options for evolution to choose from.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that we don’t understand the nature of existence.
This is an atheistic perspective. Potentially nihilistic. So what does that have to do with faith? I’m certainly not that character in the Christian TV-movie who smiles creepily and tells you to have faith in a deity, some mere form which my fellow cultists worship. Also, it’s totally possible for a person to simply pay attention to their world, to learn how it works, and to build a good life within those forms, without requiring any kind of faith.
But let’s say your life is not very easy. Let’s say your life is very hard. Let’s say that all signs point to doom. Or maybe you have some wild ambition which is unlikely to succeed. Maybe all you need is a good plan and lots of patience, but how much failure can your patience withstand? You realize that you might fail, that in fact you are overwhelmingly likely to fail. But you have the fortitude to make a bold attempt anyway. Rationalism says you’re probably being foolish, yet to not act would be stagnation. In the hero’s journey you must answer the call to action, which may lead to doom, or you will surely stagnate and deteriorate. “Pessimism of the intellect must be matched by optimism of the will.” I read that in a newspaper. But, if you believe what is rational, then how can you motivate your entire being to make the best possible effort to succeed?
Are you going to half-ass your efforts? Or do you want to bring the best possible forms into this absurd existence? Fictional Finalism says to visualize the goal and follow through with the shot. But the world is not set up for you to win, and entropy is always eating you. Eventually, it will win. And when all signs point to failure, when your values are as temporary as your weak fleshy body, when years or decades of suffering have corroded your emotions and relationships, when there is no rational reason to believe that you could ever improve your life or achieve a goal, then what is the correct response? What’s the healthy perspective? Do you slump over in despair? Suicide? You can’t look at the forms (people, careers, whatever) and see amongst them a pathway to “success.” In the end, even if you succeed in your efforts, your success won’t look like you imagined. You never truly achieve your goals, and then you die, and you won’t be going to Heaven. Everything is stolen from you.
So you look between the forms. Beyond the forms. Where there is nothing. The quantum static. Absurd horror. The source of all forms. The source of love. The non-thing that slips away as soon as you point at it. The radical beyond, the complete unknown. You form a relationship with it, this thing that doesn’t exist. You can put anything in that box.
This is the crucial point, the singularity where you know you’re unlikely to succeed, but you need to act like you will succeed, but you’re not foolish enough to really fool yourself, so you wrap it all up in absurdity. You look beyond the forms and are invigorated by the insanity and doom at the basic level of existence. There’s nowhere else to turn. Rationalism offers no comfort. Comfort itself is no comfort. Yet belligerent belief in some form would be weakness and brainwashing. So you stop trying to rationalize it and you disregard the weak beliefs of others, and you head up to the mountain to be alone with the static void. And you create something. And you share it. And you suffer and die.
To suggest that you should have faith that some deity will reward you, that is a crude image and it’s not what I’m trying to share. That’s the psychological trick that cult-leaders use to manipulate you. That deity belongs to someone else. It’s a made-up form, a character who happens to want things that benefit the cult. But when you look between all those forms and see nothing… what then? That’s where wisdom disappears. That’s where love and passion could even disappear, leading to despair and depression. But it’s also where everything comes from. It’s the only place in which you operate. And your relationship with it will define your character and your life.
It’s incredibly sad. I’m talking about something that doesn’t exist. And yet it can be shaped into images, tastes, our 3D world, our loved ones, our internal thoughts. But we have nowhere to turn.
Kierkegaard was talking about the Christian God, but when reading his books it’s clear that his God is no mere character. It’s deep cosmic horror, but within the Christian perspective. I like Joseph Campbell because I can understand it without having to believe anything. Our instinctive search for meaning is a creative act. I don’t think I have faith, but I certainly differentiate between Kierkegaard’s faith and the manipulations of cultists. Kierkegaard painted a picture of a relationship with the beyond.
Absurdism is more about horror than humor. We seek meaning, and the universe whispers gibberish. But if you want anything meaningful you can only attain it “through virtue of the absurd.” Faith could be the bow that ties these things together. I’m not necessarily saying that I have some kind of faith, and I’m not suggesting it for anyone else. I’m just saying that I’m there's something deeper to it than I previously imagined.