Saturday, July 16, 2016

Eldritch Revelations: The Irony of God and Cosmos

You may have heard of the radical exploits of Jurgen Schulze. But I was his psychiatrist before he escaped from Borsa Castle, the Transylvanian mental institution, and before he formed his infamous, bizarre cult. “God is dead,” he told me in one of my weekly evaluations of his mental condition. “Long live the gods,” he added, grinning at that gnomic remark. Only after his unprecedented and mysterious escape did I read his actual German writings, although by then mere scraps survived his attempt to burn the text; apparently, he’d done so just prior to his escape. I found the singed remnants in a corner of his residence, and judging by the pile of ashes, only a very small portion of the whole remained legible, one of which is the title, Lebending und Wach in der Totte Gott. Nevertheless, piecing these together with his peculiar remarks in the interviews, I’ve reconstructed Schulze’s philosophy. The public often prefers to demonize the mentally ill, on the basis of its prejudices, but perhaps there’s an appetite abroad to warrant this exposition of Schulze’s rather hair-raising worldview.

According to Schulze, the history of cosmology shows that from the most naïve, parochial myths of ancient times, to the experimental, objective theories of modern physics, explanations of nature approach the truth as they become maximally ironic. This means that nature surprises any species that searches for the ultimate truth, by anti-correlating intuitions with facts. Intelligent creatures evolve to exploit a niche, a way of surviving in an environment. Creatures that endure long enough to reach equilibrium with their territory, because their genes have created winning uniformities in their traits—and have built thus an adapted body-type or a species, as such—rely on those innate abilities that allow them to succeed. In that respect, creatures are inherently conservative in evaluating their intuitions, reflexes, and other habits or traditions. Creatures that are interested solely in surviving under those terms we call animals, while those that survive in virtue of their rational powers of understanding become aware of more and more possibilities until their sights are set on a universe that’s worlds apart from the locale in which they’re evolutionarily suited to succeed. Had the universe been as large only as the mythical Garden of Eden, or were there no life forms that could see further than their neighbourhood or that could think other than in their nakedly species-centric fashion, the pursuit of knowledge wouldn’t be ironic, because there would have been no knowledge in the first place. But because it’s evidently possible to be excluded from the Garden, as it were, for creatures to ponder matters that are at best tangentially related to their biological life cycle, so that there have arisen persons or independent agents, ultimate knowledge is also theoretically possible—and that knowledge is necessarily not just counterintuitive but fulsomely so. On these grounds which he expressed in several of our sessions, Schulze declares in one of the intact fragments of his philosophical writings, “This is why the more exquisite the humiliating implications of a theory of the nature of reality, the greater the theory’s chance of being true” (3a).

Cosmology began with religious myths which assume that there are divine, perfect persons who create nature for our benefit. For Schulze, this is the maximally naïve way of misunderstanding the universe, by means of which we project our prejudices onto the wider world. The opposite, atheistic scenario, however, isn’t necessarily the most ironic and thus the most epistemically justified. Today, physics stops at the point of positing objective causes and effects and other quantifiable phenomena, and so excludes magic and the supernatural from its universe of discourse. Instead of being created by God, nature creates itself from chaos according to laws, principles, and free parameters which the physicist nevertheless inevitably smuggles into the picture of the chaotic starting point. This is because whereas chaos or the nonbeing out of which nature emerged has no need to conform to human reason, physicists are methodologically bound to rational ideals which must guide their explanations. But were the universe fundamentally material and objective, as scientists understand it to be, cosmic irony would not be maximized, because our expectations have adjusted after the Scientific Revolution. Schulze therefore writes, “The ultimate theory of the world must confound both the gullible, narrow-minded zealot and the cynical, self-abnegating scientist; otherwise, cognitive progress might end in harmony between intuitions and facts, which is contrary to the principle of irony that’s entailed by the history of cosmology” (3b). The universe may or may not be harmonious from its impersonal frame of reference, although this is technically an incoherent figure of speech; certainly, though, the nature of the metaphysical facts conflicts with any intelligent species that arises to attempt to explain them, since such a species will pride itself on its dignity which the natural facts are bound to drastically undercut. The perfected theory may prove adequate to the facts, in some epistemological respect, but those facts will confound the species as a whole, including its intuitions, preferred self-image, and life-sustaining cultures.