Monday, February 24, 2014

Fame and the Comedy of False Gods

Before the objective mode of inquiry became a systematic method in the modern age, during the Scientific Revolution, thanks especially to Isaac Newton, science was one with philosophy and so even the less fanciful cosmologies, such as those of ancient Greece, India, or China, were speculative and visionary. For example, the Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus put forward an argument for atomism based on philosophical reasoning which was more logical than the folk religions that posited personal deities, but which still expressed what Kant would have called our subjective, albeit universal cognitive forms. In any case, philosophical reasoning isn’t the polar opposite of the sort of exoteric irrationality that you find in folk or mass religions. This is because philosophy is partly a matter of interpretive art. As Spengler says in the introduction to The Decline of the West, “the great questions are made great by the very fact that unequivocal answers to them are so passionately demanded, so that it is as life-symbols only that they possess significance” (XV, vol.1). However, after the Scientific Revolution and the modern technological transformation of much of the planet, the choice between the systematic assimilation of cold, hard facts and the subjective imposition of our biases onto those facts has been made all the more stark. Thus, those who are informed about the modern world, who understand that the reasons for such sweeping technological advances are the near-automation and mass production of objective knowledge, inevitably judge the theistic alternative as archaic and childish by comparison. Scientific understanding of nature is a booming business, whereas theistic religion seems more like a giant con.

The Sin of Anthropocentrism

What, then, is the root folly of theism? I believe it’s anthropocentrism. We’re most familiar with ourselves and so when we try to understand something foreign we do so by stretching our experience and using our self-image as the foundation for analogies, almost as if we were looking in a mirror. We do this both individually and collectively, and when our species as a whole contemplates the apparently inhuman universe, we’re faced with the fact that expanding our minds to encompass a thoroughly impersonal world is as disconcerting as the thought of our personal death. In either case, we come up against the limit of ourselves, whereas we’re social beings and thus we’re most comfortable in social worlds that revolve around us. In Breaking the Spell, the philosopher Daniel Dennett explains how our innate skill in explaining each other’s behaviour in psychological and social terms is overextended in theism or in animism, when we personify all natural processes. But the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes saw the same absurdity long ago, pointing out that if cattle or horses or lions had gods, they would worship gods that look like them. This is the essence of anthropocentrism. What begins as an evolutionary advantage and as a sustainable way of life for social mammals is abused when the mammals learn to control themselves with language and reason, so that they experiment freely with their traits and are then mesmerized by their fictions.

Theists turn this around and say that the similarity between us and our gods is due to the fact that the gods create us in their image and implant in us the ability to worship them for our benefit. However, Occam’s razor compels us to discount this hypothesis. In the atheistic scenario, we begin with our social instincts and we reason that those instincts can be abused, leading to anthropomorphic metaphors that beguile us as they’re literalized over time. In the theistic scenario, by contrast, an all-powerful, transcendent and thus nonhuman deity presumably could create a great variety of creatures, but decides to create people that are somehow especially similar to him, making them God’s children. Putting aside the incoherence of assuming that God is both transcendent and yet especially similar to part of his creation, the theistic scenario is much less probable, because we begin with God’s ability to create anything at all and are left with the coincidence that we resemble God in our sentience and rationality. If God could have created anything, why didn’t he create only things that are utterly unlike him? If we say that God created us because he’s generous or because he wanted to be loved, we’re just reaffirming the coincidence since we assume that God had such human qualities in the first place. The fact is that a transcendent and all-powerful being would have absolutely nothing in common with any part of “his” creation, in which case theism is tantamount to atheistic mysticism. Such a deity might create an infinite variety of things, none of which would have a special connection to God. But when the theist contends that God is partial to us, she assumes that which is very unlikely, which is that we happen to be the part of the entire universe which is (somehow, impossibly) godlike. The simpler scenario is that vain and terrified primates looked out at the alien and hostile cosmos and personified its ultimate cause to feel less alienated.   

The absurdity of theistic anthropocentrism comes fully into view in physics when we reach the extent of our objective understanding of the universe’s alienness. At the deepest level there’s chaotic quantum weirdness, not intelligent design. Spacetime and clumps of matter and energy congeal out of the bizarre entanglements of subatomic entities that behave as either particles or waves, depending on how they’re observed, so that those miniscule entities are objectively incomplete—or else they congeal into all possible configurations in the megaverse of all universes. In any case, to speak of an intelligent designer of such alien processes is to make weasel words out of “intelligent” and “design.” As far as we can objectively tell, creation begins not with any personal act, but with an impersonal chaos.

The sin of anthropocentric theism, then, is to fill that vacuum of our understanding with self-references. This is akin to party-crashing, to injecting yourself into a situation where you’re unwanted and where you have no business. Instead of reconciling ourselves to our cosmic insignificance and thus to the cosmicist implications of philosophical naturalism, we superimpose psychological and social images onto the freakish reality of undead physical systems and processes—and even “system” and “process” are teleological anthropomorphisms that belie the strangeness at the heart of nature. We have the opportunity to emerge from the crucible of angst when we fundamentally selfish creatures learn we’re peripheral and dispensable in the greater whole. We can endure the objective presentation of reality with some degree of honour and tragic heroism. But most of us squander that opportunity and fall back on lazy mental projections. Instead of looking hard at the monstrousness of the undead god, we interpose our anthropocentric metaphors and so shield ourselves with a mirror to sustain our solipsistic daydreams. For these reasons, theistic anthropocentrism is understandable but disheartening.

Fame and Idolatry

Atheists and agnostics might like to think that they’re free of those delusions, they’ve digested the harsh truths of nature, and they’ve no need of the theistic sugar coating, thanks to their cast-iron stomachs. That may be so, but it turns out that many so-called secularists subsequently vomit up substitutionary delusions. One of these is the presumption that celebrities ought to be worshipped. The idea of idolatry goes back to ancient Judaism and perhaps to Zoroastrianism and Akhenaten’s monotheism. For example, when the Jews escaped from their captivity in Egypt, according to the myth, they wandered in the desert and lost their faith in the transcendent God that delivered them, succumbing to local cults and worshipping the idol of the golden calf. An idol is a false god that satisfies an adulterated version of the theistic impulse. When we worship an idol we hold as sacred something that’s manifestly not so and so we debase ourselves.

Now, atheists and agnostics should know better than to worship people in place of God, but knowing is only half the battle. Pascal’s wager notwithstanding, people don’t turn to religion as a matter of objective risk assessment. We have an irrational, animalistic desire to submit to masters or to rule the masses, depending on whether we’re meek betas or sociopathic alphas in the dominance hierarchy. We fear the unpleasant philosophical truth, as I said, and so we anthropomorphize the world. Pacifying the truth of nature as a whole requires theistic abstractions, since we must posit an invisible, supernatural person. But of course, theists have always had human rulers as models of what the absolute ruler of the universe might be like. Now, we modernists are liberals in holding as inviolable everyone’s right to rational self-determination, and so we don’t think of ourselves as ruled by anyone but us. We don’t have kings or emperors, but elected representatives of the common will. As I’ve explain elsewhere, free societies naturally degenerate into open or stealth oligarchies in which a minority rules, after all, but short of a full-blown revolution, that minority will rule in secret and so they, too, won’t serve as fitting idols for those secularists who have a hankering for substitute gods.

Thus, celebrities preen and prance to fill that niche, these being the famous individuals celebrated in popular culture for their wealth and their often bogus deeds of heroism, as in the primary case of Hollywood actors. Artists, actors, musicians, novelists, pundits, and even some CEOs are effectively worshipped in modern societies. This means that modernists, who are supposed to be egalitarian in their respect for everyone’s equal dignity as autonomous beings, will nevertheless wait for hours to glimpse a celebrity, screaming with gleeful anticipation and perhaps fainting when the fateful moment approaches, as though the idol worshipper were Moses receiving the beatific vision of the transcendent source of everything. In theory, theists are less likely to worship celebrities, although most Western monotheists are actually behavioural atheists, merely paying lip service to some major religion for the social benefits. The majority of celebrity-worshippers, then, are nontheists who know better.

Notice the comparable role of anthropocentrism. Just as the cosmos emerges from chaos, so too does fame begin with the randomness of luck. However talented a highly successful person may be and however hard she works, she’s necessarily lucky in many ways, because luck determines most of our circumstances for good or ill. The horror of the impersonal reality of nature alienates us and so we distract ourselves with theistic fairy tales. Likewise, the randomness in life is itself an indicator of nature’s undeadness, and so to avoid deflating our pride we become distracted with tales of the rich and the famous. In either case, we comfort ourselves by pretending that we’re somehow objectively important, that the world at large owes its existence to us.

Indeed, this is the point of actually creating artificial worlds, comprised of ideas, symbols, regulated activities, infrastructures, machines, and so forth. Whereas nature doesn’t actually bow to us or to our image in the form of a personal deity, our microcosms do serve us, because we assign them that function, and they serve especially the richest and most powerful among us, including the celebrities who are just the most conspicuous models of the gods in modern, putatively secular societies. When we worship celebrities, in turn, we substitute the higher social class for the supernatural realm: just as Heaven supposedly transcends our material domain, so too the gated abodes of celebrities transcend the suburbs and slums of the masses, like the orbiting palace in the movie Elysium. And instead of reconciling ourselves to our roles in nature’s inhumane systems, which are evident whenever chance determines what happens to us, we hold up certain beautiful people as substitute gods, pretending that their success is due solely to their personal triumphs rather than to the monstrous interventions of the undead god (the zombielike creative power of natural forces and mechanisms). Again, we anthropomorphize the world, shielding ourselves with a vision of our champions, of our beloved luminaries whom we worship as gods to delay our reckoning with the one, true god which shuffles and decays all around us.

The follies of theism are comical in that theism infantilizes us and so we have the spectacle of adults who behave as clownish children. The comedic principle here is that the juxtaposition of pride and sobriety, on the one hand, and silliness and instability, on the other, is humorous. This is because a situation that illustrates that principle shows us the absurdity of our pretensions and the function of humour is to sublimate the horror that’s caused by that absurdity. To be sure, theists don’t mean to be foolish, but their sincerity is a necessary condition of the comedy in which they nevertheless star. The comedy, as it were, is nature’s intervention in our artificial microcosms, as in the cases of the randomness that partially determines success or failure in our every venture, and of anthropocentrism itself.

Theism is based on fear and vanity and those are natural clichés, not creative inspirations that heroically distinguish us from the more monstrous creator. When she posits a personal and supernatural creator, the theist shows that she prefers to look at herself in the reflection of her mind, instead of acknowledging the cosmicist upshot of philosophical naturalism, which is that natural reality is fundamentally undead, that the ultimate cause is no person but the monstrous abomination which physicists are busy quantifying. The theist personifies and thus whitewashes alien nature, but the brush she uses to paint her pretty pictures is manufactured by none other than the undead god. Fearing the implications of nature’s mindlessness is a valid starting point, but vainly worshipping images of ourselves is an expression of the egoism that drives all manner of primitive tribal conflicts. What’s comedic, then, is that nature ironically has the last laugh even in the theist’s attempt to transcend the world by conceiving of the supernatural. Our traditional religions’ gods and goddesses are so many indicators that theists are being manipulated like puppets, that their blundering theologies are forgeries authored not by artistic persons, let alone by actual gods, but by humdrum sociobiological processes of mental projection and delusion.

Celebrity worship is also ridiculous. Pride in our accomplishments is one thing, but pretending we have more control than we do and distracting ourselves with a ludicrous spectacle of quasi-scapegoating is something else. Celebrities are quasi-scapegoats, filled in our imagination not with our sins but with our greatness. Celebrities are allegedly our best and brightest, our most beautiful and godlike representatives, and instead of hounding them to ritualistically rid ourselves of sin, we worship them to praise the best in all of us. But what’s actually best in us can never be thusly embodied or showcased. All celebrities are frauds, because chance is the sea in which we’re adrift. If you’re lucky enough to become rich and famous, so that your hard work happens to pay off and your success is extravagantly rewarded, the noble response to your fame begins with humility and ends in disgusthumility, so as not to underestimate the behemoth under your feet that sends you hither and thither to cope with natural circumstances, and disgust for the monstrousness of that power, after you’ve looked it square in its alien eye.

Theism belittles the undead god by personifying the divine power, whereas that power is entirely natural and thus fundamentally impersonal but nevertheless monstrously creative. By contrast, a non-clownish hero who acts not as a puppet of natural forces but as an autonomous artist will catch a whiff of the decay seeping even from within our artificial sanctuaries from the wilderness. This hero will have no illusions about anyone’s earning the right to be treated as a celebrity. No human brain could possibly perform enough computations or be responsible for global changes to justify the relative wealth that celebrities or billionaires enjoy. We don’t all deserve the same rewards or punishments, but no one has ever done enough to earn the right to be treated as a god. The ultimate act of grace isn’t the Christian God’s offer of salvation despite our meriting merely death; no, it’s the masochistic masses’ bestowing of godhood status on a minority of undeserving mortals who are themselves equally playthings of nature. Again, all celebrities are frauds; not one of them is solely or even largely responsible for her privileged position. This is because we’re fundamentally animals and so our autonomy is limited. When we’re not straining to determine our future, we’re objects rather than subjects and our behaviour is objectively explainable in terms of broader causal relations.

The non-clown, which is to say the enlightened naturalist whose ever-vigilant taste in art prevents her from stooping to clichéd behaviour, will be appalled by the imposture of celebrities. She’ll look at the masses lining up for a famous actor’s signature and see only an accumulation of beta folk, their acts of idolatry being signals that publicly establish the alpha’s supremacy. She’ll read about the celebrity’s lavish lifestyle and see so much theft that goes unpunished, because the riches are taken by the undead god over which there’s no higher power. Celebrities and the sociopathic alphas in general are avatars of the true god which is the unfolding natural plenum. Rather than defying nature in our limited and ultimately futile ways, they’re caught in the tide and they mean to ride the wave as long as possible. Again, the nobler course is to at least evince the requisite nausea in the Stoic manner, to acknowledge that they’re being used as toys by the idiot god, that they’re being falsely worshipped by the infantilized masses, and that they lack the artistic inspiration for a more ascetic renunciation. The least we can do is to treat celebrities as ordinary people, to refrain from demeaning ourselves by worshipping those pseudogods, and to keep our mind on the horror of the true god in the hope that the necessity of that horror will be the mother of our invention.

Woe, then, to the secularists who know better, who become giddy at the thought that they might one day be in close proximity to a famous person, who shriek with ecstasy at a rock concert, or who defer to the authority of pundits without thinking the talking points through for themselves. These acts of idolatry are utterly unbecoming. We can expect theists to falter in that way, because their naked anthropocentrism makes them susceptible to all manner of fallacies and deceits. But modern nontheists have less of an excuse. They should be sneering at the grotesque circus of celebrity-worship right along with the farce of theistic religion. As for the nontheistic celebrities themselves, instead of waving pleasantly at the adoring masses, they should think of ways to elevate them by mocking their submissive instinct and by renouncing their unearned godhood. Granted, as alpha mammals, celebrities will learn the ways of sociopathy and come to despise the lowly masses, as they’re naturally spoiled by their undue power. Again, falling into that role of the arrogant predator is a disheartening cliché. We can degrade ourselves by playing nature’s dehumanizing roles for us in her comedy of ironies or we can be inspired by the greater aesthetic potential to play out our days as tragic heroes who see the undead god for what it is and who choose to transcend it where we can.

1 comment:

  1. This world is SICK! We live in an age were criminals,drug addicts,prostitutes,homosexuals,
    are put on a pedestal and worshiped.