Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Reason, Attitude, and Ultimate Reality

Is there an ultimate explanation of everything? Or is the very notion of such an explanation confusing? I’ll show that can be no perfectly comprehensive mental representation, but that there’s at least a fitting nonrational way of relating to nature, a posthuman attitude towards the great cosmic mystery that dignifies us even as it begins with our humiliation. The world will be enlightened when selfishness and vanity are despised as signs of ignorance, and when the world is perceived as holy in Rudolph Otto’s sense, when those deemed wise ground their decisions in underlying angst, awe, and dread.

The Futility of Ultimate Explanations

The philosopher Immanuel Kant’s great insight was that explanations don’t fall from the sky or grow on trees; instead, they come from the human mind, of course, and it turns out our mind isn’t a blank slate. Even if we had no innate concepts or inborn ways of thinking, inevitable commonalities in human experience would shape our analyses and interpretations, by forming intuitions that ground our reflections, such as archetypal norms. Indeed, physicists are wary of these subjective starting points of inquiry and of natural language itself, since its terms carry the baggage of our formative experiences in the terms’ associative meanings. Still, when scientists reach for a theory of everything, they presuppose some laws or principles to show how the supposed first thing gave rise to the next thing. For example, this was the main criticism of Krauss’ cosmology, in A Universe from Nothing. Krauss’s “nothing” is nothing only in a technical sense, in that it’s a void with no material things in it. But the void always has energy in it which operates according to quantum mechanical laws. The void itself, then, goes unexplained, and so this attempt at an ultimate explanation isn’t so ultimate. It doesn’t explain absolute everything, because a naturalistic explanation is rational, by definition, and so must proceed in a stepwise fashion.

Likewise, Hawking and Mlodinow’s cosmological model in The Grand Design—which explains many features of our universe by appealing to a weak anthropic principle (if we’re here, the universe must contain such and such conditions to have evolved us)—presupposes the multiverse and the laws which give rise to it, such as the laws that rationally lay out the cosmic inflationary interpretation of the Big Bang theory. The first step of this explanation or of Krauss’s won’t follow logically from any step, by definition, and so these explanations will necessarily be incomplete. The first step needn’t be temporally first, but it will have to be at least logically prior to everything else or mereologically most fundamental, and so that step will be presupposed or, at best, self-evident. To say it’s self-evident, though, is to confess that the explanation rests on anthropocentrism, since the first theoretical step would thereby be evident only to creatures with selves like ours. 

It’s hard to see how any rational, naturalistic explanation could be absolutely complete. We understand things by generalizing about types and relations, and we think in terms of logical rules which have proved reliable or self-evident. That’s just how we do our best thinking, and there’s no guarantee that our ideal picture of the world would match up with the world itself or would capture its essence. On the contrary, living things seem fundamentally opposed to nature, assuming the natural universe isn’t alive at its core or in general. We evolved to decide how we should behave and to socialize with others, which requires that we understand ourselves. For those reasons, we’re most comfortable dealing with other living things, which is why science, logic, and math are often counterintuitive. Indeed, reason points us in the direction of naturalistic atheism, which means even our best, finished explanations will likely be embarrassingly human-centered—however far we try to stretch our imagination and to avoid appealing to our intuitions. This is because objectivity is naturally repugnant to us, and so we rebel against the nonliving world by striving to dominate it with mechanistic modeling and technology. We can’t entirely avoid being ourselves, after all. Even to divide events into cause and effect or to analyze matter into deeper and more superficial levels betrays a creaturely bias. The passage of time is an illusion in physics, according to which all events really happen at once, in which case causality too is illusory. Moreover, if there really is a multiverse containing infinite universes, the scientific analysis of our local matter pales into insignificance, and to speak of what’s “foundational” and what’s “merely epiphenomenal” in our universe is madness, if our universe is only like a raindrop in a sky full of other drops.

So even our most abstract and technical thoughts will depend on their societal and biological impetuses, and so science will be instrumental, which means our supreme rational enterprise will be guided by its mission founded in early modern Europe, to advance our species by discovering more and more efficient ways of controlling nature, including human nature. Again, that mission should provide with more of a self-portrait than with an objective representation of the universe itself. In fact, the notion of a perfectly objective explanation is oxymoronic, because only nonliving objects could produce such an explanation, by having no subjectivity and thus no biases or ulterior motives, and yet such objects—the stars, the void, the atoms—obviously couldn’t directly explain anything. No, objects can explain things only indirectly, by evolving creatures like us who do the explaining from our subjective viewpoints. Scientists leave aside their personal subjectivity, but not the collective subjectivity of our species and thus not the Enlightenment quest of pursuing instrumental rationality to the bitter end. We subjects think, using concepts and other generalizations, playing our cognitive games with our rules and guiding interests. But just because our thoughts and games derive from the nonliving universe, just because, for example, we’re star stuff doesn’t mean our best arguments and theories have anything especially to do with the universe at large. As effects, our works bear informational content pertaining to their source, but there’s a stark absurdity we often miss, which is that a thought of a tree, for example, is utterly unlike trees, just as a theory of the Big Bang is absolutely nothing like that mysterious event. Our thoughts are meaningful only to us, but in the bigger picture which we can glimpse in our moments of sobering, albeit partial objectivity, our thoughts are just more things that happen along with everything else.

What about a supernatural, theistic explanation? Could an appeal to God be ultimate? Of course not, since God would be a person, and assuming the theist isn’t trying to mislead with equivocations, a person isn’t something that could serve as a metaphysical first cause. To wit, every person we’ve clearly met has been a contingent organism born to parents, all of whom have evolved by natural processes. So if a supernatural being is a person in the literal sense, which is the only sense that doesn’t obfuscate, this being couldn’t be self-explanatory or ontologically necessary. Thus, the theistic explanation would likewise be incomplete. Our universe might have been created by superpowerful extraterrestrials, as in the computer simulation theory, but then these extraterrestrials would also require explanation. If most universes in the multiverse are simulations existing in computers that are themselves either real or simulated, the logic of this explanation entails that there’s at least one real, non-simulated universe, and the simulation theory itself won’t explain the emergence of that deepest reality.

So I tend to agree with Kant in thinking that the notion of an ultimate explanation is wrongheaded. Kant argued that metaphysical reason goes astray by positing ultimate ideas such as the soul, the world, and God, and that these ideas “regulate” our thinking without having any guarantees as to their truth since those ultimate things aren’t directly experienced. As David Hume showed, though, all our concepts are generalizations that aren’t strictly rational. Our knowledge is pragmatic, because fundamentally we’re animals struggling to survive and so we take intuitive leaps, because we’re always judging matters on the clock: our lifespans are finite, which is why we resort to feelings and intuitions and not just to abstract logic and philosophical systems. Kant presumed all our cognitive faculties could be mapped out by transcendental analysis, but in fact these faculties are jumbled together in the average human brain. Why should the logics of these mental compartments, between, for example, empirical theorizing and practical judgments, be autonomous when their neural substrates are intermeshed? And even if these faculties were independent at both the hardware and software levels, as it were, we would be free to mix together the norms of these faculties or to override one or another faculty on pragmatic grounds. After all, assuming our mental structures evolved, their interrelations emerged long ago by thousands of years of our ancestors’ prehistoric self-tinkering, so there’s no reason to think this mental tinkering ever ended or should end.

Wise and Ignoble Attitudes towards the Cosmos

If the attempt to rationally explain everything is futile, must we despair of ever being properly related to ultimate reality? If we will never have a complete theory, one with no parochial presuppositions, is there some other way of relating to the universe which admits of degrees of propriety?

Tolstoy is on the right track in his “Confession,” when he concludes that rational knowledge only compares “the finite to the finite and the infinite to the infinite,” whereas a meaningful life requires a relationship between what he calls the finite and the infinite, which reason doesn’t provide. Science and reason generally do relate the finite to the finite, which is why an argument proceeds from one step to the next, or why an analysis posits relations between the parts of a whole. But Tolstoy introduces a red herring when he speaks of “the infinite,” and indeed that notion tilts his argument towards theism. He’s right that reason doesn’t provide ultimate explanations, if only for the reasons I’ve given, and the search for a proper stance to ultimate reality may indeed call for a relationship rather than a theory. But the problem isn’t that we as finite creatures need to relate to something infinite to give our life meaning. The point isn’t that the cosmos may be infinite, but that it’s inhuman, that it’s something with which we can’t socialize without fooling ourselves. Indeed, the universe could be finite and we would still lack any complete explanation of it. In fact, an infinite universe is easier to explain than a finite one, since an infinite one may consist of an infinite series of events, in which case each event receives a complete explanation and there’s no such thing as the whole series (since it’s infinite). But a finite universe may have an absurd origin, an inexplicable starting point that defies human intuition and experience.

Nevertheless, the best way into this question of an ultimate relationship—as opposed to an ultimate explanation—is through the errors of theism. For Tolstoy, the solution is irrational religious faith, since that’s the only source of meaning in an otherwise absurd world. If this faith entails a personal relationship between a human animal and a living deity, though, this relationship is indeed irrational—but not in an existentially dignifying way. After all, there’s nothing irrational in two people entering into a personal relationship, since that kind of relationship could hold only between persons. In the case of theism, the relationship is irrational because there’s no God, and so there’s only the human animal pretending to relate to another person but really only relating to himself or to herself. The attempt to dignify human life with an existential meaning bounces back on the theist and ends in humiliation, because here we don’t yet have a relationship between the finite and “the infinite,” after all. Anthropomorphizing the unknown only trivializes it instead of putting us in touch with something that transcends our position. Thus, we must dismiss literalistic theism as a false start. The chief alternative interpretation of “irrational religious faith” would be mysticism, according to which God isn’t really a person and theism is only a metaphor. In that case, the religions that abound in anthropomorphisms could only be hopelessly misleading.

Still, we’re pointed in the right direction by the older interpretation of religious faith as “fear of God.” In his Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto captures the basis of this interpretation when he speaks of God as the “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” the fearful and fascinating mystery. This is why infinity and divine personhood are red herrings. When we realize that reason will never provide us with a complete explanation, we needn’t be left merely with any self-serving notion of ultimate reality, papering over the terror of the unknown that underlies our mental projections. No, what remains is that the cosmos is ultimately as Otto describes it; what remains is the possibility of a nonrational experience of what he calls the numinous, which is the amoral aspect of the holy, of that which is worshipped in religions. The ultimate cause of all beings is experienced with blank wonder, as wholly other; the creature who recognizes the incompleteness of his rational grasps at explanations suffers awe, terror, dread in the face of this source’s absolute unapproachability. Faith in God ought to mean primarily fear of God, as it does for Jews and Muslims but not so much for Christians, because the wrath of God was a metaphor for nature’s overwhelming power in the face of which we’re forced to come to terms with our nothingness, with our status as mere creatures. And yet despite the terror, dread, and awe, we’re drawn to this mystery, because we’re curious to a fault. Like moths to a flame we’re attracted to something radically alien and indifferent to us which snuffs us out.

This, then, is how we ought to handle the ultimate questions in philosophy and religion, not with arguments or explanations, but with a demonstration of the fitting existential attitude, given reason’s limitations. A wise person would presumably acknowledge the wrongheadedness of the attempt to comprehend absolutely everything in a rational framework, and would go on to say that we can nevertheless relate to being in general either well or poorly. Two poor existential relations we’ve just encountered. The first is instrumental rationality, which drives us to feed everything into the maw of utilitarian, calculating reason so that we may become happy dominators. If Weber and the social scientists of the Frankfurt School (minus Habermas) are onto something with their pessimistic criticisms of the Enlightenment and (by extension) of neoliberalism, this disgraceful and destructive attitude is the modern norm.

The second disgrace is the sort of fraud you find in evangelical Christianity whose members are forever spreading the good news that God loves us and wants to have a personal relationship with us through his son Jesus. The most that can be said for this kind of exoteric religion is that’s it’s based on a noble lie, since its clumsy anthropomorphism diverts the many who aren’t prepared to face the dark truth. The truth is, yes, a proper relationship with the cosmos might be comforting or at least serve as a sign of wisdom, but no, this relationship has nothing to do with socializing or with a decision to enter into a broader family with a personal Creator. More likely, this devious Christian trivialization of the truth is a ploy to prevent people from fulfilling their potential. The earliest Christians, in particular, were Jews whose scriptures wisely forbade them to attempt to represent God, since those representations would be blasphemous idols, but Christians found themselves eventually worshipping a man called Jesus as God. Pagan pantheism thus infected a version of Judaism and it’s no coincidence that the pagans in question had a failing empire to run. The ludicrous and shameful Christian tradition of seeking a personal relationship with God likely has that sordid sort of political purpose. But that purpose was soon enough forgotten, as was the fact that Jesus was likely a fictional character, and we’re left two thousand years later with airwaves clogged with farcical blather masquerading as profound revelation.

The proper cosmic relationship, on the contrary, is to humiliate ourselves by our sense that the universe is ultimately and finally a terrifying and fascinating mystery. This relationship is characterized not by empty one-way talk between naïve creatures and the illusion of a personal deity who is comprised only of our mental projections that testify to our creaturely vanity; instead, the point is to feel alienated, to appreciate that if God is anything, God is the universe in its mysterious, “holy” aspect as something we’ll never explain but which we can nevertheless understand. We can understand the universe as that which ought to humble and terrify us but also fascinate us, and we can understand this not so much through reason but by having an experience of life’s absurdity after we’ve let reason deconstruct itself, as in the above discussion of reason’s limits.

The proper relationship, then, is for the selfish and vain creature to recognize the folly of its ways when met with the fact that the universe is ultimately incomprehensible as well as unconquerable, and to suffer in angst but to rebound with creative sublimations of the existential terror and dread. We rebound because the universe is only amoral, not evil, and because the mystery is indeed fascinating; instead of falling into depression, we can express our humility and despair to honour not just the mighty cosmos but wise beings and everyone else’s potential to enlighten themselves. This existential relationship between self-effacing creature and absurdly-grand universe needn’t be idle compared to the technological feats of instrumental reason. Humility rooted in existential wisdom has consequences, just as selfishness and vanity do. The vices responsible for the positivism, scientism, and neoliberalism of our era result in overconfidence in reason, in consumerism and the collapse of ecosystems. What might follow from the contrary attitude?


  1. rebound with creative sublimations of the existential terror and dread. You keep on saying the answer lies in art and creativity. I am not particularly driven to do anything artistic like so many other people without creative or artistic ability. What should I do? Paint crappy pictures and pot crappy guitar? At the end of the day it's all so dissatifying anyway. There is no creative artistic noble tragic solution to existential emptiness and boredom. Not for me anyway. Only escapism through the "artwork" of others like film and literature. Quite depressing asit is only ever fleeting escapism. Im reminded now of someone who wrote that we need to see or read of murder, life threatening suspense and the like just to rouse us from our existential malaise.

    1. That's not quite my view, that we should escape into art. That's more like the Romantic idea that we should make a religion out of art, as a counterweight to Enlightenment reason. As you can see from the articles in the links below, my main point is more that the only values that end up being real for the pessimistic naturalist are aesthetic ones. Therefore, everything in nature becomes as good as art! So it's more like a posthuman vision of life.

      My next article, by the way, will be on exactly this subject. I'll be connecting a pantheistic version of the design argument for God's existence with the death of art in postmodernity, to support this universalized aesthetic perspective.