Tuesday, May 14, 2013

1: The problem, in brief

What is the world?
Do you ever have one of those moments–I like to call them “Neo moments”–when you ask yourself that? Perhaps every thinking person does, at least once in a while. Of course, the extent to which this question looms, or how frequently it perches on your shoulder, digs in its claws, and pecks in your ear varies with the individual. We humans don’t like a disturbing vacuum, so traditionally there are two ways of keeping this question safely at bay, when it arises. The first is the way of distraction: if I go to enough parties, climb enough mountains, drop enough acid (no wait, I take that one back), read enough books, pursue my career ambitions, have enough children…whatever, you get the idea…then the tide will rush in to erase the footprint of the question and I can fool myself into believing that it never really mattered, and especially that it doesn’t matter now. The second way is the way of reassurance: we understand what is going on at some level, or at least someone or something does, and we can leave it safely in their hands. Religion, naturally, offers this kind of comfort. There is someone in charge of the whole affair, and even if we don’t know the details, nevertheless it is all somehow under control. The world is not just a runaway train hurtling down a mountainside railroad, or a mad dog chasing its tail in the street.
What our species calls science also does this. A very long time ago in a void far, far away, a set of cosmic forces in a tiny bubble of dimensional space shrugged to inexplicable brightness and somehow set all of this in motion, and even if we can’t understand those forces on a personal level and never will, still we can believe that in principle they are comprehensible, that we dwell in a story which at least makes a measure of sense.
My purpose here is not to take a hard side on this. I have (and have had) many friends who are religious. I have (and have had) many friends who are atheists. I spent my childhood in a religious household. I was myself fully immersed in the scientific world for some years. Yet I like to self-identify as an open-minded agnostic, meaning (among other things) that I have some sympathy with the beliefs (and especially with the reasons for the beliefs) in each of the above categories.
And yet–
Some time ago, a thing began to bother me.
Although not easy to pin down, it has to do with an implicit assumption discernible at large that the question I opened with (what is the world?) has somehow been answered, that we shouldn’t trouble our chattering monkey heads about it anymore, and all that really remains for us to do is a once-over of the reality shelves every year with a pink feather duster, along with a sticky note to take out the existential trash on collection day.
I chose to write this short collection of musings, this spatter of literary phosphenes, in order to explore what to me is an instinctive sense of the profound unlikelihood of that premise. However, I will not be disclosing, or even discussing, anything as grandiose as proofs or final answers. My project is really only to offer the possibility that the world is something deeper and stranger than we think it is, and that in this suspicion there is (gasp!) something resembling a cause for hope amidst the trendy beiges and murky browns of postmodern waffle that we are all supposed to bow down to. The only thing I’d say is that you might not want to read it if you are already entirely comfortable with a certain view of the world (a particularly strong religious faith, for example, or indeed an especially strong allegiance to any of the narratives described above, including the idea that ‘science’ or ‘technology’ is inevitably illuminating and enhancing reality for us into the foreseeable future). If, on the other hand, the fire of the question remains alight for you, or you are sitting there thinking yeah man, what the heck IS the world? then I invite you along on this brief journey. Strap on your rocket pack, citizen (and spit out that gum–you’ll choke on it in zero G).
One thing that seems to have happened to close down this discussion is the extreme polarization of the question in our culture. An alternative way of phrasing “what is the world?” is to ask, “does the world (life) have a meaning?” (especially a meaning other than an arbitrary, subjective one) or “is the world (life) actually ‘about’ anything?” If in response to this phrasing you find yourself instinctively positioning your viewpoint according to where you stand on the existence of the God of theism, then this is an illustration of how the debate has narrowed its perimeter by stealth. It’s as if we are being invited to believe there are really only two options to be held in response to this question­–you are either a religious believer or you are an atheist. Of course, we all know that it’s not really that simple, that there are all kinds of views out there, but some species of hypnosis seems to sweep over us such that we forget this, if the question is pressured upon us. Even the way I felt obliged to identify myself above (an open minded agnostic) falls into this sorting pattern. Likewise, atheism is a-theism, a definitional construct which, despite the complaints of its more vocal members, orients itself even at the linguistic level as the non-believing in that which monotheistic religion takes to be true.
Imagine a line drawn on a sheet of paper. At one end of this line we write “theism,” at the other end “atheism,” and at a supposedly neutral point half way between the two, “agnosticism.” But if instead we are generous enough to allow possibility space to expand into a two dimensional set of axes (or even a three dimensional set), and not be constrained to a line, then suddenly most of the possible points in this coordinate system do not even yet have labels attached. A lot of this coordinate space represents territory genuinely unexplored (in any systematic way) and renders the polarization absurd.
One damaging feature of this polarizing influence is that it has a tendency to force people’s backs against the wall with respect to our opening question, because society expects us to frame a response to it somewhere along this one-dimensional space. So for example, a heterosexual person (such as myself) who has sympathies with marriage equality rights regardless of sexual orientation, feels a certain pressure to move the slider towards the “atheism” end of our imaginary line, simply because conservative religion holds the opposing ground. But here is my point: there is no need to find yourself anywhere on that line, because possibility space is in no realistic sense such an impoverished dimension as represented in the linear vision.

MARK SWEENEY,  May 14th 2013

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