Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Speculation

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’ve spent most of the last year discussing the place of religion in the troubled future ahead of us. This holiday season, in which millions of Americans have just engaged in an all-out orgy of conspicuous consumption and mindless waste to celebrate the birth of a poor carpenter’s son in a stable in Bethlehem, also has me thinking about religious matters, and it occurs to me that there’s an issue along these lines that my blog posts haven’t yet explored. It may not have much to do with the future of the modern industrial world, but it may just explain a thing or two about the present and the recent past here in the United States.
I’m sorry to say that the issue I have in mind has a distinct partisan dimension, which marks a break from my usual policy in this blog. One of the more common criticisms I field from irate readers, in fact, is the insistence that I treat politicians of both major US parties as though they’re interchangeable. It’s a valid criticism, since I do indeed do this, and the only justification I can offer is that, by and large, that’s the way they behave. For exhibit A, it’s hard to beat the current inmate of the White House, who won the presidency just over five years ago in a flurry of sound bites about “hope” and “change,” and then turned around and gave us a truly inspired imitation of the third and fourth terms of George W. Bush, complete with all the drone strikes and violations of civil liberties that his chorus of sycophants in the media used to insist he was sure to abolish once he got into office.

Still, the criticism has some merit, since there’s one significant difference between the two major US parties. Most Democratic politicians, like the example just cited, will say and do whatever it takes to get elected, and then conveniently forget all about their alleged ideals in order to proceed with, and profit from, the ordinary business of politics once they land in office. A fair number of Republican politicians do exactly the same thing, to be sure, but there’s also a large number of Republicans who have convictions regarding important social issues, and cling firmly to those convictions even when they’re not popular.  That’s a distinction worth noting, but a certain amount of confusion enters the picture when the Republicans in question—as nearly all of them do—insist that their convictions follow from their Christian faith.

Now of course the Christian faith does have quite a bit to say about social issues. Theologies differ from church to church, but friends of mine in several different denominations assure me that the words of Jesus quoted in the four gospels of the New Testament are considered definitive guides to faith and morals, so I sat down a few days ago with a copy of the King James version and spent an afternoon reading the gospels—not, by the way, for the first time.  Here are the passages I found in which Jesus tells his followers that they have a duty to take care of children, the poor, and other vulnerable people:

Matthew 18:6, 18:10, 19:21, 23:14, and 25:31-46; Mark 9:36-37, 10:21, and 12:40; and Luke 10:30-37, 11:41, 12:33, 14:12-14, 18:22, and 20:47.

Here are the passages in which Jesus tells his followers to pay their taxes without complaining:

Matthew 5:42, 17:24-27, and 22:19-21; Mark 12:14-17; and Luke 6:30 and 20:21-25. 

Here are the passages in which Jesus tells his followers that they aren’t supposed to obsess about other people’s sins, but should leave that to God, and attend to their own moral failings instead:

Matthew 7:1-5 and 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 6:37, 6:41-42, 7:44-48, 15:2, 18:10-14, and 19:7; and John 8:2-11.

And here are the passages in which Jesus tells his followers to blame the poor and vulnerable for their plight, direct benefits toward the already well-to-do at the expense of everyone else, refuse to pay their fair share of taxes, and obsessively denounce and punish the sins of people they don’t like while finding every opportunity to excuse their own sins and those of their friends:

Yet these latter are the things that a great many Republicans, and in particular a great many of those Republicans who claim to be motivated by their Christian faith, have been pursuing in practice, if not always advocating in theory. If they’re deriving their commitments from a religion, it’s pretty clearly not the one taught by Jesus. Many people have made this same point in recent years, but it doesn’t seem to have occurred to any of them that another religion that’s active in today’s America does teach all the things the GOP supports. That religion, of course, is Satanism, and more specifically the version of it taught in Anton Szandor LaVey’s The Satanic Bible.

Those who were around during LaVey’s glory days in the 1970s, when he appeared regularly on talk shows and had a coterie of Hollywood stars in his Church of Satan, will doubtless remember The Satanic Bible. For those who weren’t, it’s a book-length screed denouncing Christian morality and upholding an ethic of raw selfishness and might-makes-right. It’s still very much in copyright, so I’m not going to quote it here, but any reader who turns its pages will find the present social policy of the GOP precisely reflected in LaVey’s dismissal of two thousand years of Christian teaching about our duty to care for one another, his shrill denunciations of the vulnerable and needy as “parasites” and “vampires,” and his insistence that the successful owe nothing to anybody else.

An interesting coincidence, or perhaps an ironic one? Maybe so, but I find myself wondering if there’s more to it than that. It happens fairly often that the repeated failure of a belief system causes many former believers to swing all the way to the opposite extreme, and embrace the antithesis of their former faith. The neoconservatives who briefly and disastrously shaped the direction of US foreign policy in the first years of this century are a case in point:  many of the leaders of that movement were doctrinaire Marxists during their college years, and responded to the abject failure of Marxism by doing their level best to become the wicked capitalists they had once so fervently denounced.

The evangelical revival of the late 1970s and 1980s, in turn, was pervaded by hopes at least as extreme and unrealistic as anything the Marxists envisioned in their heyday. Wildly popular books such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth convinced millions of newly “Born Again” Christians that the Second Coming was due any minute, and the repeated failure of Jesus to show up on cue must have put immense psychological strains on a great many people who cut their ties to the secular world in the imminent expectation of Armageddon. All through those same years, in turn, copies of  The Satanic Bible could be found in cheap mass market editions on the shelves of chain bookstores all over America. It’s not hard to imagine how, after each loudly proclaimed date for the Rapture waltzed serenely by without incident, a trickle of not-quite-former fundamentalists could well have responded to their feelings of humiliation and despair by walking away from the Bible section in those same bookstores and seeing if the opposing side had something better on offer.

Those who found solace of one sort or another in LaVey’s evocation of diabolical values would have had several good reasons not to make their change of heart public, to be sure. On the one hand (or horn, or cloven hoof), a public confession of devil worship would have been difficult to explain to one’s employer in those somewhat more innocent times, and the reactions of one’s presumably Christian friends and family would also have been an issue for many. On the other, one of the classic titles given Satan by Christian theologians is “the father of lies,” and it’s easy to see how the thought of remaining ostensibly Christian while practicing devil worship in private, and perhaps leading others down the Left Hand Path, might have seemed like the most delectable option available to these new Satanic converts.

Nor would active membership in most of today’s Christian churches have been any impediment to the enthusiastic worship of Satan. According to Matthew 7:21, it’s not enough to say “Lord, Lord,” to qualify as a Christian; it’s also necessary to do the will of God—a requirement that, as noted above, involves among other things some highly specific commitments to help the poor and vulnerable. Thus covert devil worshippers could shout “Jesus is Lord” at the top of their lungs every Sunday, and so long as they carefully refrained from following the teachings of the gospels, they would have had no difficulty maintaining their status as Satanists in good standing. This, it seems, they accordingly did.

As the number of devil worshippers in evangelical churches and the Christian end of the Republican Party increased, though, their most pressing need would have been some surreptitious way to signal their involvement to those who shared their convictions, without believers in the Christian gospel being any the wiser. Coming up with a Satanic shibboleth that would be instantly recognizable to other devil worshippers, but completely opaque to devout Christians, might seem like a tall order, but it’s one that seems to have been met with aplomb.

Yes, this is where we discuss Ayn Rand.

All things considered, Rand’s cult status in those circles that call themselves conservative these days is hard to explain, because Rand was not a conservative. By that I don’t simply mean that she rejected the term and savagely denounced conservative ideas and politicians, though this is true; nor that the conservative movement in her time rejected her ideas with at least as much energy as she did theirs, and generally with better logic than hers, though this was also the case.  Far more important here is that she was a radical ideologue of exactly the sort against which the founders of conservatism directed their most barbed and thoughtful critiques.

As discussed in Russell Kirk’s brilliant study The Conservative Mind, classical conservatism has at its core an enduring and wholly justified suspicion of claims that some abstract ideology or other can bring about heaven on earth.  “The pretended rights of these theorists,” wrote Edmund Burke, “are all extremes; and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” He was talking about the Jacobins, but he could just as well have been talking about Rand.

Still, there’s another point that is worth making here, which is that Ayn Rand was a violent opponent of Christianity and Christian morality, a committed atheist who considered selfishness a central moral virtue, and who also idolized one of the most disgusting child murderers of the twentieth century.  Her present role as intellectual pin-up girl for people who call themselves Christian conservatives is thus a little odd, since claiming to be a Christian and a believer in Rand’s teachings at the same time is right up there with claiming to be a vegetarian carnivore or a celibate harlot. It’s not just that one of these things is not like the other; Rand’s teachings are flatly, openly, and deliberately opposed to every part of the gospel of Jesus.

Rand’s anticommunism made her turgid novels popular on the less thoughtful end of the American right in the 1950s and 1960s, though, and that accident of history prepared her for what might just be her core role in contemporary culture: a covert way for devil worshippers to identify themselves to one another in the supposedly Christian (and just as supposedly conservative) GOP of today. Closet Satanists attending fundamentalist church services or Republican party get-togethers can’t exactly sport upside-down pentagrams on their shirts or greet other attendees with a hearty “Hail Satan,” but a casual reference to one of Rand’s novels or pseudophilosophical screeds is the next best thing: once someone else responds enthusiastically to the mention of Rand’s name, a few other seemingly casual comments and perhaps a covert devil sign or two would be enough to settle the matter.

All this may suggest some sobering reflections as we approach the beginning of another US election year, in which most races will pit a candidate from a party that puts its faith in Lucifer against a candidate from a party that for all practical purposes believes in nothing at all. Still, when supposedly Christian politicians start waxing rhapsodic about the alleged intellectual or literary virtues of Ayn Rand, I trust my readers will remember that what they’re saying actually works out to “I worship the Prince of Darkness, and you should too!” Any of my readers who happen to be devil worshippers themselves can proceed to welcome them as friends and brothers, while those of other faiths can cast their votes as their own ethical views suggest.

On the off chance that any Republican Satanists are reading these lines, though, I’d like to offer a helpful suggestion.  The long charade of pretending to be Christian conservatives has no doubt been great fun, and it’s certainly succeeded in getting Satanic ideas widely accepted all through those parts of American society that might have been expected to resist them most forcefully.  Only one of the seven deadly sins has gotten by without extravagant praise from so-called Christian conservatives in recent years—it’s hard to glorify an economic system that depends on avarice, gluttony, envy and sloth, and a foreign policy defined by pride and wrath, in any other way—and no doubt they’ll find a way to fit lust in there somewhere one of these days, and finish collecting the whole set.

At this point, though, it’s hard to see any reason why the Satanists in the GOP need to keep the pretense going any longer. In an era when most discussions of the Christmas season in the mass media fixate on whether retailers are making a big enough profit to keep the economy stumbling blindly onward for one more year, I think a strong case can be made that America is ready to shake off the last of its qualms and openly embrace a Satanic political agenda. Among its other benefits, putting public devil worship at the heart of the GOP, where it so evidently belongs, can’t help but improve the flagging ratings of Republican national conventions; the otherwise tedious proceedings of the 2016 GOP convention, for example, would be enlivened no end by a Black Mass celebrated by the GOP nominee, perhaps with Ann Coulter’s nude form draped over the altar and a chorus of delegates chanting “Evil, be thou my good!” from the bleachers.

In the meantime, I would like to wish to those of my readers who actually believe in the gospel of Jesus, who study his teachings prayerfully and try their level best to live their lives in accordance with them, a very merry Christmas; to my other readers, blessings on whatever holiday you celebrate in this season of hope’s rebirth in a cold and bitter time; and to all, a happy new year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An Old Kind of Science

The attempt to conquer nature—in less metaphorical terms, to render the nonhuman world completely transparent to the human intellect and just as completely subject to the human will—was industrial civilization’s defining project. It’s hard to think of any aspect of culture in the modern industrial West that hasn’t been subordinated to the conquest of nature, and the imminent failure of that project thus marks a watershed in our cultural life as well as our history.
I’ve talked here already at some length about the ways that modern religious life was made subservient to the great war against nature, and we’ve explored some of the changes that will likely take place as a religious sensibility that seeks salvation from nature gives way to a different sensibility that sees nature as something to celebrate, not to escape. A similar analysis could be applied to any other aspect of modern culture you care to name, but there are other things I plan to discuss on this blog, so those topics will have to wait for someone else to tackle them. Still, there’s one more detail that deserves wrapping up before we leave the discussion of the end of progress, and that’s the future of science.

Since 1605, when Sir Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning sketched out the first  rough draft of modern scientific practice, the collection of activities we now call science has been deeply entangled with the fantasy of conquering nature. That phrase “the collection of activities we now call science” is as unavoidable here as it is awkward, because science as we now know it didn’t exist at that time, and the word “science” had a different meaning in Bacon’s era than it does today. Back then, it meant any organized body of knowledge; people in the 17th century could thus describe theology as “the queen of the sciences,” as their ancestors had done for most of a thousand years, without any sense of absurdity. The word “scientist” didn’t come along until the mid-19th century, long after “science” had something like its modern meaning; much before then, it would have sounded as silly as “learningist” or “knowledgist,” which is roughly what it would have meant, too.

To Francis Bacon, though, the knowledge and learning that counted was the kind that would enable human beings to control nature. His successors in the early scientific revolution, the men who founded the Royal Society and its equivalents in other European countries, shared the same vision.  The Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in Verba (“nothing in words”), signified its rejection of literary and other humanistic studies in favor of the quest for knowledge of, and power over, the nonhuman world.The crucial breakthrough—the leap to quantification—was a done deal before the Royal Society was founded in 1661; when Galileo thought of defining speed as a measurable quantity rather than a quality, he kickstarted an extraordinary revolution in human thought.

Quantitative measurement, experimental testing, and public circulation of the results of research: those were the core innovations that made modern science possible. The dream of conquering nature, though, was what made modern science the focus of so large a fraction of the Western world’s energies and ambitions over the last three hundred years. The role of the myth wasn’t minor, or accidental; I would argue, in fact, that nothing like modern science would have emerged at all if the craving for mastery over the nonhuman world hadn’t caught fire in the collective imagination of the Western world.

I mentioned last week that Carl Sagan devoted a passage in the book version of Cosmos to wondering why the Greeks and Romans didn’t have a scientific revolution of their own. The reason was actually quite simple.  The Greeks and Romans, even when their own age of reason had reached its zenith of intellectual arrogance, never imagined that the rest of the universe could be made subordinate to human beings.  Believers in the traditional religions of the time saw the universe as the property of gods who delighted in punishing human arrogance; believers in the rationalist philosophies that partly supplanted those traditional religions rewrote the same concept in naturalistic terms, and saw the cosmos as the enduring reality to whose laws and processes mortals had to adapt themselves or suffer.  What we now think of as science was, in Greek and Roman times, a branch of philosophy, and it was practiced primarily to evoke feelings of wonder and awe at a cosmos in which human beings had their own proper and far from exalted place.

It took the emergence of a new religious sensibility, one that saw the material universe as a trap from which humanity had to extricate itself, to make the conquest of nature thinkable as a human goal. To the Christians of the Middle Ages, the world, the flesh, and the devil were the three obnoxious realities from which religion promised to save humanity. To believers in progress in the post-Christian west, the idea that the world was in some sense the enemy of the Christian believer, to be conquered by faith in Christ, easily morphed into the idea that the same world was the enemy of humanity, to be conquered in a very different sense by faith in progress empowered by science and technology.

The overwhelming power that science and technology gave to the civil religion of progress, though, was made possible by the fantastic energy surplus provided by cheap and highly concentrated fossil fuels. That’s the unmentioned reality behind all that pompous drivel about humanity’s dominion over nature: we figured out how to break into planetary reserves of fossil sunlight laid down over half a billion years of geological time, burnt through most of it in three centuries of thoughtless extravagance, and credited the resulting boom to our own supposed greatness. Lacking that treasure of concentrated energy, which humanity did nothing to create, the dream of conquering nature might never have gotten traction at all; as the modern western world’s age of reason dawned, there were other ideologies and nascent civil religions in the running to replace Christianity, and it was only the immense economic and military payoffs made possible by a fossil-fueled industrial revolution that allowed the civil religion of progress to elbow aside the competition and rise to its present dominance.

As fossil fuel reserves deplete at an ever more rapid pace, and have to be replaced by more costly and less abundant substitutes, the most basic precondition for faith in progress is going away. These days, ongoing development in a handful of fields has to be balanced against stagnation in most others and, more crucially still, against an accelerating curve of economic decline that is making the products of science and technology increasingly inaccessible to those outside the narrowing circle of the well-to-do.  It’s indicative that while the media babbles about the latest strides in space tourism for the very rich, rural counties across the United States are letting their roads revert to gravel because the price of asphalt has soared so high that the funds to pay for paving simply aren’t there any more.

In that contrast, the shape of our future comes into sight. As the torrents of cheap energy that powered industrial society’s heyday slow to a trickle, the arrangements that once put the products of science and technology in ordinary households are coming apart. That’s not a fast process, or a straightforward one; different technologies are being affected at different rates, so that (for example) plenty of Americans who can’t afford health care or heating fuel in the winter still have cell phones and internet access; still, as the struggle to maintain fossil fuel production consumes a growing fraction of the industrial world’s resources and capital, more and more of what used to count as a normal lifestyle in the industrial world is becoming less and less accessible to more and more people. In the process, the collective consensus that once directed prestige and funds to scientific research is slowly trickling away.

That will almost certainly mean the end of institutional science as it presently exists. It need not mean the end of science, and a weighty volume published to much fanfare and even more incomprehension a little more than a decade ago may just point to a way ahead.

I’m not sure how many of my readers were paying attention when archetypal computer geek Stephen Wolfram published his 1,264-page opus A New Kind of Science back in 2002. In the 1980s, Wolfram published a series of papers about the behavior of cellular automata—computer programs that produce visual patterns based on a set of very simple rules. Then the papers stopped appearing, but  rumors spread through odd corners of the computer science world that he was working on some vast project along the same lines. The rumors proved to be true; the vast project, the book just named, appeared on bookstore shelves all over the country; reviews covered the entire spectrum from rapturous praise to condemnation, though most of them also gave the distinct impression that their authors really didn’t quite understand what Wolfram was talking about.  Shortly thereafter, the entire affair was elbowed out of the headlines by something else, and Wolfram’s book sank back out of public view—though I understand that it’s still much read in those rarefied academic circles in which cellular automata are objects of high importance.

Wolfram’s book, though, was not aimed at rarefied academic circles. It was trying to communicate a discovery that, so Wolfram believed, has the potential to revolutionize a great many fields of science, philosophy, and culture. Whether he was right is a complex issue—I tend to think he’s on to something of huge importance, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit—but it’s actually less important than the method that he used to get there. With a clarity unfortunately rare in the sciences these days, he spelled out the key to his method early on in his book:
In our everyday experience with computers, the programs that we encounter are normally set up to perform very definite tasks. But the key idea I had nearly twenty years ago—and that eventually led to the whole new kind of science in this book—was to ask what happens if one instead just looks at simple arbitrarily chosen programs, created without any specific task in mind. How do such programs typically behave? (Wolfram 2002, p. 23)
Notice the distinction here. Ordinarily, computer programs are designed to obey some human desire, whether that desire involves editing a document, sending an email, viewing pictures of people with their clothes off, snooping on people who are viewing pictures of people with their clothes off, or what have you. That’s the heritage of science as a quest for power over nature: like all other machines, computers are there to do what human beings tell them to do, and so computer science tends to focus on finding ways to make computers do more things that human beings want them to do.

That same logic pervades many fields of contemporary science. The central role of experiment in scientific practice tends to foster that, by directing attention away from what whole systems do when they’re left alone, and toward what they do when experimenters tinker with them. Too often, the result is that scientists end up studying the effects of their own manipulations to the exclusion of anything else. Consider Skinnerian behaviorism, an immensely detailed theory that can successfully predict the behavior of rats in the wholly arbitrary setting of a Skinner box and essentially nothing else!

The alternative is to observe whole systems on their own terms—to study what they do, not in response to a controlled experimental stimulus, but in response to the normal interplay between their internal dynamics and the environment around them.  That’s what Wolfram did. He ran cellular automata, not to try to make them do this thing or that, but to understand the internal logic that determines what they do when left to themselves. What he discovered, to summarize well over a thousand pages of text in a brief phrase, is that cellular automata with extremely simple operating rules are capable of generating patterns as complex, richly textured, and blended of apparent order and apparent randomness, as the world of nature itself. Wolfram explains the relevance of that discovery:
Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs. (Wolfram 2002, p. 1)

One crucial point here, to my mind, is the recognition that mathematical equations in science are simply models used to approximate natural processes. There’s been an enormous amount of confusion around that point, going all the way back to the ancient Pythagoreans, whose discoveries of the mathematical structures within musical tones, the movement of the planets, and the like led them to postulate that numbers comprised the arche, the enduring reality of which the changing world of our experience is but a transitory reflection.

This confusion between the model and the thing modeled, between the symbol and the symbolized, is pandemic in modern thinking. Consider all the handwaving around the way that light seems to behave like a particle when subjected to one set of experiments, and like a wave when put through a different set. Plenty of people who should know better treat this as a paradox, when it’s nothing of the kind.  Light isn’t a wave or a particle, any more than the elephant investigated by the blind men in the famous story is a wall, a pillar, a rope, or what have you; “particle” and “wave” are models derived from human sensory experience that we apply to fit our minds around some aspects of the way that light behaves, and that’s all they are. They’re useful, in other words, rather than true.

Thus mathematical equations provide one set of models that can be used to fit our minds around some of the ways the universe behaves. Wolfram’s discovery is that  another set of models can be derived from very simple rule-based processes of the kind that make cellular automata work. This additional set of models makes sense of features of the universe that mathematical models don’t handle well—for example, the generation of complexity from very simple initial rules and conditions. The effectiveness of Wolfram’s models doesn’t show that the universe is composed of cellular automata, any more than the effectiveness of mathematical models shows that the Pythagoreans were right and the cosmos is actually made out of numbers. Rather, cellular automata and mathematical equations relate to nature the way that particles and waves relate to light: two sets of mental models that allow the brains of some far from omniscient social primates to make sense of the behavior of different aspects of a phenomenon complex enough to transcend all models.

It requires an unfashionable degree of intellectual modesty to accept that the map is not the territory, that the scientific model is merely a representation of some aspects of the reality it tries to describe.  It takes even more of the same unpopular quality to back off a bit from trying to understand nature by trying to force it to jump through hoops, in the manner of too much contemporary experimentation, and turn more attention instead to the systematic observation of what whole systems do on their own terms, in their own normal environments, along the lines of Wolfram’s work. Still, I’d like to suggest that both those steps are crucial to any attempt to keep science going as a living tradition in a future when the attempt to conquer nature will have ended in nature’s unconditional victory.

A huge proportion of the failures of our age, after all, unfold precisely from the inability of most modern thinkers to pay attention to what actually happens when that conflicts with cherished fantasies of human entitlement and importance. It’s because so much modern economic thought fixates on what people would like to believe about money and the exchange of wealth, rather than paying attention to what happens in the real world that includes these things, that predictions by economists generally amount to bad jokes at society’s expense; it’s because next to nobody thinks through the implications of the laws of thermodynamics, the power laws that apply to fossil fuel deposits, and the energy cost of extracting energy from any source, that so much meretricious twaddle about “limitless new energy resources” gets splashed around so freely by people who ought to know better. For that matter, the ever-popular claim that we’re all going to die by some arbitrary date in the near future, and therefore don’t have to change the way we’re living now, gets what justification it has from a consistent refusal on the part of believers to check their prophecies of imminent doom against relevant scientific findings, on the one hand, or the last three thousand years of failed apocalyptic predictions on the other.

The sort of science that Wolfram has proposed offers one way out of that overfamiliar trap. Ironically, his “new kind of science” is in one sense a very old kind of science. Long before Sir Francis Bacon set pen to paper and began to sketch out a vision of scientific progress centered on the attempt to subject the entire universe to the human will and intellect, many of the activities we now call science were already being practiced in a range of formal and informal ways, and both of the characteristics I’ve highlighted above—a recognition that scientific models are simply human mental approximations of nature, and a focus on systematic observation of what actually happens—were far more often than not central to the way these activities were done in earlier ages. 

The old Pythagoreans themselves got their mathematical knowledge by the same kind of careful attention to the way numbers behave that Wolfram applied two and a half millennia later to simple computer programs, just as Charles Darwin worked his way to the theory of evolution by patiently studying the way living things vary from generation to generation, and the founders of ecology laid the foundations of a science of whole systems by systematically observing how living things behave in their own natural settings. That’s very often how revolutions in scientific fundamentals get started, and whether Wolfram’s particular approach is as revolutionary as he believes—I’m inclined to think that it is, though I’m not a specialist in the field—I’ve come to think that a general revision of science, a “Great Instauration” as Sir Francis Bacon called it, will be one of the great tasks of the age that follows ours.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Great Man is Dead

The satiric faux-journalism of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report was meant as a bit of edged humor at the expense of the overinflated self-image of humanity that’s been fostered by the cult of progress, and I’m glad to say that most of my readers took it as such. I fielded a few quibbles, but most of the commenters took the joke in good part.
I was amused to note that a noticeable fraction of the hilarity focused on the use of “frack” as a swear word. No, it wasn’t a Battlestar Galactica reference; those who are familiar with fracking—that is, hydrofracturing technology, the latest popular excuse for ignoring the narrowing walls of industrial society’s increasingly harsh destiny—will understand the usage at once. Since fracking is a penetrative act carried out with no thought for anything but immediate gratification, it certainly counts as a profanity, and I’d like to encourage my readers to use it in everyday conversation whenever strong language is called for.  For that matter, a good case can be made that those who think it’s appropriate to treat Mother Earth that way deserve to be called “motherfrackers.”

All jokes aside, though, last week’s post also drew on what was once a traditional way of talking about deep changes in the inner life of peoples and civilizations. That’s why, for example, the Greek scholar Plutarch wove a very similar story into his dialogue on the twilight of the ancient Greek oracles.

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, a character in the dialogue claims, passengers aboard a ship sailing from Greece to Italy heard a mysterious voice calling out from the island of Paxi, telling the ship’s steersman to pass on word to the coastlands further on that Great Pan was dead. The steersman, an Egyptian named Thamus, relayed the message as directed, and a great cry of lamentation went up from the uninhabited shore. Word of this got to the emperor, who was himself a serious student of mythology; he referred the matter to a committee of experts, who determined that the Pan who had just died was the third of that name, the son of Penelope by Hermes (or, in a scandalous variant, by all of her suitors during Odysseus’ absence—thus the name given the horned and horny god).

There’s a fine irony, and probably a deliberate one, in Plutarch’s choice of an Egyptian as the message bearer in his story. The Egyptians of Plutarch’s time were no strangers to dead gods; Osiris, one of the greatest of the Egyptian deities, was believed to have died twice, and only rose from the dead the first time, a detail that apparently did nothing to interfere with his performance of his divine duties. That’s commonplace for divinities: pilgrims to Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Japan, for example, can visit the grave of Sarutahiko no Okami, whom believers in Shinto consider to be the chief of all the earthly kami (divine powers, more or less) and still very much a living presence. Two millennia ago, in much the same spirit, pilgrims on Crete paid their respects at the grave of Zeus and then offered prayers and sacrifices to him as an immortal god.

All this came to mind a few weeks back when the news carried a belated silly season story about the campus atheist organizations at a couple of American universities. The groups in question celebrated Halloween by setting up “god graveyards” full of paper tombstones naming allegedly defunct deities, along with signage hinting broadly that the Christian god was next. The smug and self-satisfied ignorance that’s practically the trademark of evangelical atheism these days was very much on display here:  the deities consigned to these cemeteries, for example, included quite a few who are still being worshipped, some of them by tens of millions of people. (Of course those tens of millions don’t include many white middle class American college students, and doubtless that’s why the sophomore atheists involved in the stunt didn’t get around to noticing them.)

It also seems to have escaped the attention of the graveyard-builders that Christians believe that their god died once already, and wasn’t noticeably slowed down by the experience. As noted above, gods do that sort of thing all the time. This is true, curiously enough, whether you think of gods as bodiless superhuman beings, archetypes of the collective unconscious,  narrative figures portraying the highest ideals of a culture, or what have you: death simply isn’t a great inconvenience to deities. It’s only human beings who find mortality awkward to deal with.

And abstract representations of humanity, like the one whose rise, fall, and wretched end was the subject of last week’s post? That’s another matter still.

Every human society has its own collective image of what human beings are like, which serves more or less the same role in that society as the ego or self-image does in the psychology of the individual. That image is always a polymorphous thing, subject to constant redefinition in the competing interests of subgroups within the society, and it’s also subject to changes driven by historical cycles as well as to something not far removed from genetic drift. Still, variants of the collective human image in any human society always have a close family resemblance with one another, and very often a set of common features that aren’t subject to change, no matter how much debate piles up around other aspects of the image.

The imaginary figure of Man, conqueror of Nature, parodied in last week’s post is exactly such an image. For the last few centuries, that has been the dominant image of humanity in Western industrial societies. As mentioned in an earlier post in this sequence, Man isn’t you, or me, or anyone else who ever lived or ever will live.  He’s a fictional character who plays the central role in the grand mythological narrative at the core of the civil religion of progress, the mythic hero whose destiny it is to conquer Nature and march gloriously onward and upward to the stars.

To refer to the abstraction Man as the protagonist of a hero myth is not merely a figure of speech, by the way. In a brilliant book, Narratives of Human Evolution, paleoanthropologist Misia Landau showed that the stories that have been spun around “the ascent of Man”—think about that phrase for a bit—are in fact classic hero tales embracing all the conventions of that very distinctive genre, complete with all the standard motifs that are traced out in studies of the subject by Joseph Campbell and other scholars of mythology.  She examines the classic nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts of human evolution in detail, and shows how in every case, the facts unearthed by scientific research were hammered into shape to fit a far from scientific narrative.

It probably needs repeating that the narrative in question is not evolution. The evolution of species is one of the facts unearthed by scientific research; in the case of the hominids, in particular, the rambling family tree that led from East African forest apes to the author and readers of this blog has been worked out in ample detail, backed up by an assortment of fossils and artifacts impressive enough that the term “missing link” dropped out of use a long time ago.  No, what’s happened is that the normal process by which a successful species adapted to challenging conditions and spread beyond its original ecosystem has been rewritten as the central myth of a civil religion and used to redefine the entire two million years or so of hominid existence in the image of the last three centuries of western history.

If you want to see the resulting mythology in full flower, all you need to do is pick up a book by an evangelical atheist who tries to deal with human history—Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is a good if well-aged example. It’s not just that every human society and historical epoch that comes up for discussion is judged according to its contribution to Man’s conquest of Nature, though this is generally the case; it’s the way that the conquest of Nature, or more precisely our conquest of Nature, the specific way of conquering Nature that modern industrial society thinks it’s engaged in, is treated as the only normal and natural goal of human aspiration, to such an extent that any deviation from that agenda has to be explained. Thus Sagan, in the book just cited, devotes an extended passage to trying to figure out why the ancient Roman world never got around to having an industrial revolution. The suggestion that they might have had better uses for their time and resources, needless to say, doesn’t enter into the discussion at all.

There’s a rich irony in the fact that very often, even those who hate Man, conqueror of Nature, and everything he stands for are as convinced as any Carl Sagan fan could be that this cultural construct, this abstract and arbitrary fictional character who represents nothing more solid than one civilization’s currently popular notion of human nature and destiny, is the simple and literal truth about our species. Those of my readers who’ve spent time in the peak oil blogosphere will have read plenty of posts and comments describing humanity as “the ecocidal ape,” helplessly programmed by its genetic heritage to blunder along its current path toward imminent extinction. This is the same myth of progress we’ve discussed here so often, changed only by having the black and white hats switched around. Man the enemy of Nature remains as central, strong-jawed, and omnipotent as in the more popular versions of the tale; it’s just that in this version he’s the villain and victim of the piece rather than its hero.

Now of course those who raise ethical questions about Man the conqueror of Nature as an image of human nature and destiny have a point—is it wise, or for that matter sane, to envision collective humanity as a megalomaniac in jackboots whose sole purpose in existing is to bully the entire universe into complying with his whims?—but there’s a deeper point at issue. The vast majority of humans, across the vast majority of the time our species have been around, have lived in relative balance and harmony with the ecosystems around them.  The vast majority of the exceptions have taken place either when humans reached a part of the planet they hadn’t settled before, when humans were in the early stages of adopting some new means of subsistence and hadn’t worked the bugs out yet, or when environmental changes driven by planetary forces have destabilized existing human ecologies and left the survivors scrambling to find some new means of subsistence. Other species in similar situations undergo the same kinds of crisis, and then find their way back to balance—and so do we.

It so happens that all of us were born and raised, and are descended from a dozen generations of people who were born and raised, during a period of drastic instability caused by the second factor just listed: some members of our species stumbled onto a new means of subsistence, which we haven’t yet figured out how to use in a sustainable manner, and at this point almost certainly never will. This sort of thing has happened many times before to our species, and to countless other species as well. One of the core features of our predicament, though, is that this unusual set of conditions is all any of us has ever known, and since human beings are noticeably less sapient than the moniker of our species would suggest, many of us have taken the temporary state of instability that’s dominated the last few centuries, and projected it onto the far from blank screen of human history and the universe as a whole.

One core dimension of the crisis of our age, in other words, is that our sense of the meaning and destiny of our species is well past its pull date. The image of Man the conqueror of Nature was adaptive, in the strict Darwinian sense, during the brief age of extravagance that arrived when we first figured out how to break into the planet’s cookie jar of fossil sunlight. Those who embraced that image prospered and reproduced their kind, both in the straightforward biological sense and in the subtler, cultural sense by which success attracts imitators. Now that the rate at which fossil fuels can be extracted from the planet is running up against hard geological limits, and the net energy yield from such exercises is stuck in a remorseless decline, the image of Man the conqueror of Nature has stopped being adaptive, but a significant lag time has opened up between that change in circumstances and the recognition that it’s time to find a less dysfunctional way to understand who we are and what we’re doing on this planet.

That’s a common challenge in individual psychotherapy, or so I’m told, and it’s certainly a challenge in the training of the personality that’s a crucial part of the spirituality I practice.  People reliably cling like grim death to the most disastrously dysfunctional self-images, and defend them fiercely against the suggestion that they could see themselves in a different way. Our need for a sense of stable identity is so powerful that many of us would rather be wretchedly miserable than risk the leap into the unknown that surrendering a self-image always involves. One of the great challenges of the teacher in an initiatory school—and I suspect that psychotherapists see things the same way—is to find ways to encourage students to get to the point at which they’re willing to risk treating their self-concepts as concepts, abstractions created by the mind, rather than simply the way things are.

The difficulty we face in the modern industrial world is that very few people have gotten to the point at which they’re willing to risk this same shift on a collective scale. There’s a voice calling out to all of us from the island of Paxi, announcing that Great Man is dead, but few are listening and fewer still show any willingness to carry the message to those who are waiting to hear it.  Thus we’ve circled back around to the place where this series of posts began, Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, for it was that death—less metaphorically, the collapse of Christianity as the foundation of Western cultures—that made the manufacture of Man the conqueror of Nature as a collective human identity both possible and (in a certain sense) necessary.

The problem with Nietzsche’s proposed solution, in turn, was that it simply postponed for a little while the problem it was meant to address. The Overman, the free human being who flings himself into the abyss of a meaningless universe to give it meaning through a sacrificial act of endless self-overcoming, was never much more than a pale reflection of the Christian god, who descended into the universe of matter and human incarnation on much the same mission. It was a brave attempt but not a particularly smart one, and the results, both for Nietzsche and for the European society he proposed to put on new foundations, were far from good.

Dying, as it turns out, isn’t the only thing that gods do easily and human beings find considerably more awkward. Nietzsche may have been right when he wrote that “one must have chaos within one to give birth to a dancing star;” he certainly had the chaos, and arguably gave birth to the star, in the form of some of the most brilliant of all German prose and some of the most challenging philosophical writings in any language. Still, it’s probably fair to extend the metaphor a bit further, and suggest that the radiation emitted by his newborn star proceeded to fry his brain and reduce one of the keenest minds of Europe to the status of catatonic vegetable. As any astrophysicist could have told him, human beings are simply not equipped to give birth to stars.

In less metaphorical language, the ramshackle structures of the human mind tend to break down in predictable ways when pushed beyond the tasks for which evolution has equipped them. The plunge into nihilism I’ve discussed in several recent posts is one of these predictable malfunctions. In Nietzsche’s case, that ended up taking the form of a mental illness that, though it’s been blamed on syphilis, had all the symptoms and progressive course of acute schizophrenia, paranoiac at the time of his psychotic break in Turin and phasing gradually into catatonia before his death in 1900. In the case of European society as a whole, a strong case could be made that much the same thing happened in the half century or so after Nietzsche’s time:  the collapse of Europe into a maelstrom of war, delusion, and mass murder over the decades that followed the continent-wide psychotic break of 1914 was only brought to an end by the exceptionally harsh therapy of Russian and American tanks and bombs. 

In effect, Western cultures in the nineteenth century replaced their traditional monotheism with a newly minted monanthropism—a belief system that flattened out the rich diversity of humanity into a single abstract figure, Man, and loaded that figure with most of the titles and attributes of the divinity he was expected to replace. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century writings that referenced our species almost always made use of that capitalized abstraction, and proclaimed him the lord of creation, the goal of evolution, the inheritor of the cosmos, and so on through the whole litany of self-important hogwash that surrounded the human project in those days. At that time, as I’ve suggested, it was adaptive in a purely pragmatic sense; it helped to encourage the rapid growth of industrial systems during the brief historical epoch when abundant fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources made such systems possible. The downside of the experiment was that it left very few barriers in place to the barbarism of reflection, and those barriers fell down promptly once kicked by jackboots.

Still, the era when that expedient seemed to work is over, terminated with extreme prejudice by the relentless realities of dwindling resource stocks and an increasingly unstable biosphere. Whatever form the Second Religiosity of our age happens to take, whatever ways we and our descendants cobble together to counter the barbarism of reflection and keep the unsteady structures of human thought from the same plunge into chaos that left Nietzsche babbling incoherently with his arms around the neck of a beaten horse, among the basic requirements of the time before us are giving the conception of Man the conqueror of Nature a decent burial, and finding a way to imagine ourselves that has some relation to the realities of the human condition in a world on the far side of a failed industrial project.


On a different though related theme, I’m delighted to report that the industrial-music artist Laughlyn has just released an online “album” on the theme of my post An Elegy for the Age of Space. Give it a listen here.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Man, Conqueror of Nature, Dead at 408

Man, the conqueror of Nature, died Monday night of a petroleum overdose, the medical examiner’s office confirmed this morning. The abstract representation of the human race was 408 years old. The official announcement has done nothing to quell the rumors of suicide and substance abuse that have swirled around the death scene since the first announcement yesterday morning, adding new legal wrinkles to the struggle already under way over Man’s inheritance.
Man’s closest associates disagree about what happened. His longtime friend and confidant Technology thinks it was suicide. “Sure, Man liked to have a good time,” he said at a press conference Tuesday evening, “and he was a pretty heavy user, but it wasn’t like he was out of control or anything. No, I’m sure he did it on purpose. Just a couple of weeks ago we were hanging out at his place, looking up at the moon and talking about the trips we made out there, and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, Tech, that was a good time—a really good time. I wonder if I’ll ever do anything like that again.’ He got into moods like that more and more often in the last few years. I tried to cheer him up, talking about going to Mars or what have you, and he’d go along with it but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it.”

Other witnesses told a different story. “It was terrifying,” said a housekeeper who requested that her name not be given. “He was using more and more of the stuff every day, shooting it up morning, noon and night, and when his connections couldn’t get him as much as he wanted, he’d go nuts. You’d hear him screaming at the top of his lungs and pounding his fists on the walls. Everybody on the staff would hide whenever that happened, and it happened more and more often—the amount he was using was just unbelievable. Some of his friends tried to talk him into getting help, or even just cutting back a little on his petroleum habit, but he wouldn’t listen.”

The medical examiner’s office and the police are investigating Man’s death right now. Until their report comes out, the tragic end of humanity’s late self-image remains shrouded in mystery and speculation.

A Tumultuous Family Saga

 “He was always a rebel,” said Clio, the muse of history, in an exclusive interview in her office on Parnassus this morning. “That was partly his early environment, of course.  He was born in the household of Sir Francis Bacon, remember, and brought up by some of the best minds of seventeenth-century Europe; an abstract image of humanity raised by people like that wasn’t likely to sit back and leave things as they were, you know. Still, I think there were strong family influences too. His father was quite the original figure himself, back in the day.”

Though almost forgotten nowadays, Man’s father Everyman, the abstract representation of medieval humanity, was as mediagenic in his own time as his son became later on.  The star of a wildly popular morality play and the subject of countless biographies, Everyman was born in extreme poverty in a hovel in post-Roman Europe, worked his way up to become a wealthy and influential figure in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, then stepped aside from his financial and political affairs to devote his last years to religious concerns. Savage quarrels between father and son kept the broadsheet and pamphlet press fed with juicy stories all through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and eventually led to their final breach over Darwin’s theory of evolution in 1859.

By that time Man was already having problems with substance abuse. “He was just using coal at first,” Technology reminisced. “Well, let’s be fair, we both were.  That was the hot new drug in those days.  It was cheap, you could get it without too much hassle, and everybody on the cutting edge was using it. I remember one trip we took together—it was on one of the early railroads, at thirty miles an hour. We thought that was really fast.  Were we innocent back then, or what?”

Clio agreed with that assessment. “I don’t think Man had any idea what he was getting into, when he started abusing coal,” she said. “It was an easy habit to fall into, very popular in avant-garde circles just then, and nobody yet knew much about the long term consequences of fossil fuel abuse. Then, of course, he started his campaign to conquer Nature, and he found out very quickly that he couldn’t keep up the pace he’d set for himself without artificial help. That was when the real tragedy began.”

The Conquest of Nature

It’s an open question when Man first decided to conquer Nature. “The biographers all have their own opinions on that,” Clio explained, gesturing at a shelf loaded with books on Man’s dramatic and controversial career.  “Some trace it back to the influence of his foster-father Francis Bacon, or the other mentors and teachers he had in his early days. Others say that the inspiration came from the crowd he ran with when he was coming of age in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He used to tell interviewers that it was a family thing, that everyone in his family all the way back to the Stone Age had been trying to conquer Nature and he was just the one who finally succeeded, but that won’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Examine the career of Everyman, for example, and you’ll find that he wasn’t interested in conquering Nature; he wanted to conquer himself.”

“The business about conquering Nature?” Technology said. “He got into that back when we were running around being young and crazy. I think he got the idea originally from his foster-father or one of the other old guys who taught him when he was a kid, but as far as I know it wasn’t a big deal to him until later. Now I could be wrong, you know. I didn’t know him that well in those days; I was mostly just doing my thing then, digging mines, building water mills, stuff like that. We didn’t get really close until we both got involved in this complicated coal deal; we were both using, but I was dealing, too, and I could get it cheaper than anybody else—I was using steam, and none of the other dealers knew how to do that. So we got to be friends and we had some really wild times together, and now and then when we were good and ripped, he’d get to talking about how Nature ought to belong to him and one of these days he was going to hire some soldiers and just take it.

“Me, I couldn’t have cared less, except that Man kept on bringing me these great technical problems, really sweet little puzzles, and I’ve always been a sucker for those. He figured out how I was getting the coal for him so cheap, you see, and guessed that I could take those same tricks and use them for his war against Nature. For me, it was just a game, for Nature, against Nature, I couldn’t care less.  Just give me a problem and let me get to work on it, and I’m happy.

“But it wasn’t just a game for him. I think it was 1774 when he really put me to work on it.  He’d hired some mercenaries by then, and was raising money and getting all kind of stuff ready for the war.  He wanted steam engines so, like the man said, it was steam engine time—I got working on factories, railroads, steamships, all the rest. He already had some of his people crossing the border into Nature to seize bits of territory before then, but the eighteenth century, that’s when the invasion started for real. I used to stand next to him at the big rallies he liked to hold in those days, with all the soldiers standing in long lines, and he’d go into these wild rants about the glorious future we were going to see once Nature was conquered. The soldiers loved it; they’d cheer and grab their scientific instruments and lab coats and go conquer another province of Nature.”

The Triumphant Years

It was in 1859, Technology recalled, that Man first started using petroleum. “He’d just had the big spat with his dad over this Darwin dude: the worst fight they ever had, and in fact Man never spoke to the old man again. Man was still steaming about the fight for days afterwards, and then we heard that this guy named Edwin Drake over in Pennsylvania could get you something that was an even bigger rush than coal. Of course Man had to have some, and I said to myself, hey, I’ll give it a try—and that was all she wrote, baby. Oh, we kept using coal, and a fair bit of it, but there’s nothing like petroleum.

“What’s more, Man figured out that that’s what he needed to finish his conquest of Nature. His mercs had a good chunk of Nature by then, but not all of it, not even half, and Man was having trouble holding some of the territory he’d taken—there were guerrillas behind his lines, that sort of thing. He’d pace around at headquarters, snapping at his staff, trying to figure out how to get the edge he needed to beat Nature once and for all. ‘I’ve gotta have it all, Tech,’ he’d say sometimes, when we were flopped on the couch in his private quarters with a couple of needles and a barrel of petroleum, getting really buzzed. ‘I’ve conquered distance, the land, the surface of the sea—it’s not enough. I want it all.’ And you know, he got pretty close.”

Petroleum was the key, Clio explained. “It wasn’t just that Man used petroleum, all his soldiers and his support staff were using it too, and over the short term it’s an incredibly powerful drug; it gives users a rush of energy that has to be seen to be believed. Whole provinces of Nature that resisted every attack in the first part of the war were overrun once Man started shipping petroleum to his forces. By the 1950s, as a result, the conquest of Nature was all but complete. Nature still had a few divisions holed up in isolated corners where they couldn’t be gotten at by Man’s forces, and partisan units were all over the conquered zone, but those were minor irritations at that point. It was easy enough for Man and his followers to convince themselves that in a little while the last holdouts would be defeated and Nature would be conquered once and for all.

“That’s when reality intervened, though, because all those years of abusing coal, petroleum, and other substances started to catch up with Man. He was in bad shape, and didn’t know it—and then he started having problems feeding his addiction.”

On and Off the Wagon

“I forget exactly how it happened,” Technology recounted. “It was some kind of disagreement with his suppliers—he was getting a lot of his stuff from some Arab guys at that point, and he got into a fight with them over something, and they said, ‘Screw you, man, if you’re going to be like that we’re just not going to do business with you any more.’ So he tried to get the stuff from somebody else, and it turned out the guy from Pennsylvania was out of the business, and the connections he had in Texas and California couldn’t get enough. The Arab guys had a pretty fair corner on the market. So Man went into withdrawal, big time. We got him to the hospital, and the doctor took one look at him and said, ‘You gotta get into rehab, now.’ So me and some of his other friends talked him into it.”

“The records of his stays in rehab are heartbreaking,” Clio said, pulling down a tell-all biography from her shelf. “He’d start getting the drug out of his system, convince himself that he was fine, check himself out, and start using again almost immediately. Then, after a little while, he’d have problems getting a fix, end up in withdrawal, and find his way back into rehab. Meanwhile the war against Nature was going badly as the other side learned how to fight back effectively. There were rumors of ceasefire negotiations, even a peace treaty between him and Nature.”

“I went to see him in rehab one day,” said Technology. “He looked awful. He looked old—like his old man Everyman. He was depressed, too, talking all the time about this malaise thing. The thing is, I think if he’d stuck with it then he could have gotten off the stuff and straightened his life out. I really think he could have done it, and I tried to help. I brought him some solar panels, earth-sheltered housing, neat stuff like that, to try to get him interested in something besides the war on Nature and his petroleum habit. That seemed to cheer him up, and I think all his friends had high hopes for a while.

“Then the next thing I heard, he was out of rehab. He just couldn’t hack it any longer. I went to his place, and there he was, laughing and slapping everybody’s back and full of big ideas and bigger plans, just like before. That’s what it looked like at first, but the magic was gone. He tried to do a comeback career, but he just couldn’t get it back together, and things went downhill from there.”

The Final Years

The last years of Man’s career as representation of the human race were troubled. “The war against Nature wasn’t going well by then,” Clio explained. “Man’s forces were holding onto the most important provinces and cities, but insurgencies were springing up all over—drug-resistant microbes here, herbicide-tolerant weeds there. Morale was faltering, and a growing fraction of Man’s forces in the struggle against Nature no longer believed in what they were doing. They were in it for the money, nothing more, and the money was running out. Between the costs of the war, the costs of Man’s lavish lifestyle, and the rising burden of his substance abuse problem, Man was in deep financial trouble; there’s reason to believe that he may have been engaged in outright fraud to pay his bills during the last few years of his life.”

Meanwhile, Man was becoming increasingly isolated. “He’d turned his back on most of his friends,” said the anonymous housekeeper quoted earlier. “Art, Literature, Philosophy—he stopped talking to any of them, because they kept telling him to get off the stuff and straighten out his life. I remember the last time Science came to visit—she wanted to talk to Man about the state of the atmosphere, and Man literally threw her out of the house and slammed the door in her face.  I was working downstairs in the laundry, where you usually can’t hear much, but I could hear Man screaming, ‘I own the atmosphere! I own the planet! I own the solar system! I own the goddam stars! They’re mine, mine, mine—how dare you tell me what to do with my property?’ He went on like that for a while, then collapsed right there in the entry. A couple of us went up, carried him into his bedroom, and got him cleaned up and put to bed. We had to do that pretty often, the last year or so.”

His longtime friend Technology was apparently the last person to see Man alive. “I went over to his place Monday afternoon,” Technology recalled. “I went there pretty often, and we’d do some stuff and hang out, and I’d start rapping about all kinds of crazy stuff, omniscient supercomputers, immortal robot bodies, stuff like that. I told him, ‘Look, Man, if you want to get into stuff like omniscience and immortality, go talk to Religion.  That’s her bag, not mine.’ But he didn’t want to do that; he had some kind of falling out with her a while back, you know, and he wanted to hear it from me, so I talked it up. It got him to mellow out and unwind, and that’s what mattered to me.

“Monday, though, we get to talking, and it turns out that the petroleum he had was from this really dirty underground source in North Dakota. I said to him, ‘Man, what the frack were you thinking?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘I’ve gotta have the stuff, Tech. I’ve gotta have the stuff.’ Then he started blubbering, and I reached out to, like, pat his shoulder—and he just blew up at me. He started yelling about how it was my fault he was hooked on petroleum, my fault the war against Nature wasn’t going well, my fault this and that and blah blah blah. Then he got up and stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him. I should have gone after him, I know I should have, but instead I just shook my head and left. Maybe if I’d gone and tried to talk him down, he wouldn’t have done it.”

“Everything was quiet,” the housekeeper said. “Too quiet. Usually we’d hear Man walking around, or he’d put some music on or something, but Monday night, the place might as well have been empty. Around ten o’ clock, we were really starting to wonder if something was wrong, and two of us from the housekeeping staff decided that we really had to go check on Man and make sure he was all right. We found him in the bathroom, lying on the floor. It was horrible—the room stank of crude oil, and there was the needle and all his other gear scattered around him on the floor. We tried to find a pulse, but he was already cold and stiff; I went and called for an ambulance anyway, and—well, you know the rest.”

The Troubled Aftermath

Man’s death leaves a great many questions unanswered. “By the time Everyman died,” Clio explained, “everyone knew who his heir would be.  Man had already taken over his father’s role as humanity’s idealized self-image. That hasn’t happened this time, as you know. Man didn’t leave a will, and his estate is a mess—it may be years before the lawyers and the accountants finish going through his affairs and figure out whether there’s going to be anything at all for potential heirs to claim. Meanwhile there are at least half a dozen contenders for the role of abstract representation of the human race, and none of them is a clear favorite. It may be a long time before all the consequences are sorted out.”

Meanwhile, one of the most important voices in the debate has already registered an opinion. Following her invariable habit, Gaia refused to grant any personal interviews, but a written statement to the media was delivered by a spokesrabbit on Tuesday evening. “Please accept My sympathy for the tragic demise of Man, the would-be conqueror of Nature,” it read. “I hope it will not be out of place, though, to suggest that whomever My human children select as their new self-image might consider being a little less self-centered—not to mention a little less self-destructive.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

At the Closing of an Age

Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report suggested that the normal aftermath of an age of reason is a return to religion—in Spengler’s terms, a Second Religiosity—as the only effective  bulwark against the nihilistic spiral set in motion by the barbarism of reflection. Yes, I’m aware that that’s a controversial claim, not least because so many devout believers in the contemporary cult of progress insist so loudly on seeing all religions but theirs as so many outworn relics of the superstitious past.  This is’s a common sentiment among rationalists in every civilization, especially in the twilight years of ages of reason, and it tends to remain popular right up until the Second Religiosity goes mainstream and leaves the rationalists sitting in the dust wondering what happened.
I’d like to suggest that we’re on the brink of a similar transformation in the modern industrial world. The question that comes first to many minds when that suggestion gets made, though, is what religion or religions are most likely to provide the frame around which a contemporary Second Religiosity will take shape. It’s a reasonable question, but for several reasons it’s remarkably hard to answer.

The first and broadest reason for the difficulty is that the overall shape of a civilization’s history may be determined by laws of historical change, but the details are not. It was as certain as anything can be that some nation or other was going to replace Britain as global superpower when the British Empire ran itself into the ground in the early twentieth century.  That it turned out to be the United States, though, was the result of chains of happenstance and choices of individual people going back to the eighteenth century if not furthr.  If Britain had conciliated the American colonists before 1776, for example, as it later did in Australia and elsewhere, what is now the United States would have remained an agrarian colony dependent on British industry, there would have been no American industrial and military colossus to come to Britain’s rescue in 1917 and 1942, and we would all quite likely be speaking German today as we prepared to celebrate the birthday of Emperor Wilhelm VI.

In the same way, that some religion will become the focus of the Second Religiosity in any particular culture is a given; which religion it will be, though, is a matter of happenstance and the choices of individuals. It’s possible that an astute Roman with a sufficiently keen historical sense could have looked over the failing rationalisms of his world in the second century CE and guessed that one or another religion from what we call the Middle East would be most likely to replace the traditional cults of the Roman gods, but which one? Guessing that would, I think, have been beyond anyone’s powers; had the Emperor Julian lived long enough to complete his religious counterrevolution, for that matter, a resurgent Paganism might have become the vehicle for the Roman Second Religiosity, and Constantine might have had no more influence on later religious history than his predecessor Heliogabalus.

The sheer contingency of historical change forms one obstacle in the way of prediction, then. Another factor comes from a distinctive rhythm that shapes the history of popular religion in American culture. From colonial times on, American pop spiritualities have had a normal life cycle of between thirty and forty years. After a formative period of varying length, they grab the limelight, go through predictable changes over the standard three- to four-decade span, and then either crash and burn in some colorful manner or fade quietly away.  What makes this particularly interesting is that there’s quite a bit of synchronization involved; in any given decade, that is, the pop spiritualities then in the public eye will all be going through a similar stage in their life cycles.

The late 1970s, for example, saw the simultaneous emergence of four popular movements of this kind:  Protestant fundamentalism, Neopaganism, the New Age, and the evangelical atheist materialism of the so-called Sceptic movement. In 1970, none of those movements had any public presence worth noticing:  fundamentalism was widely dismissed as a has-been phenomenon that hadn’t shown any vitality since the 1920s, the term “Neopagan” was mostly used by literary critics talking about an assortment of dead British poets, the fusion of surviving fragments of 1920s New Thought and Theosophy with the UFO scene that would give rise  to the New Age was still out on the furthest edge of fringe culture, and the most popular and visible figures in the scientific communtiy were more interested in studying parapsychology and Asian mysticism than in denouncing them.

The pop spiritualities that were on their way out in 1970, in turn, had emerged together in the wake of the Great Depression, and replaced another set that came of age around 1900. That quasi-generational rhythm has to be kept in mind when making predictions about American pop religious movements, because very often, whatever’s biggest, strongest, and most enthusiastically claiming respectability at any given time will soon be heading back out to the fringes or plunging into oblivion. It may return after another three or four decades—Protestant fundamentalism had its first run from just before 1900 to the immediate aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash, for example, and then returned for a second pass in the late 1970s—and a movement that survives a few such cycles may well be able to establish itself over the long term as a successful denomination. Even if it does accomplish this, though, it’s likely to find itself gaining and losing membership and influence over the same cycle thereafter.

The stage of the cycle we’re in right now, as suggested above, is the one in which established pop spiritualities head for the fringes or the compost heap, and new movements vie for the opportunity to take their places. Which movements are likely to replace fundamentalism, Neopaganism, the New Age and today’s “angry atheists” as they sunset out? Once again, that depends on happenstance and individual choices, and so is far from easy to predict in advance.  There are certain regularities:  for example, liberal and conservative Christian denominations take turns in the limelight, so it’s fairly likely that the next major wave of American Christianity will be aligned with liberal causes—though it’s anyone’s guess which denominations will take the lead here, and which will remain mired in the fashionable agnosticism and the entirely social and secular understanding of religion that’s made so many liberal churches so irrelevant to the religious needs of their potential congregations.

In much the same way, American scientific institutions alternate between openness to spirituality and violent rejection of it.  The era of the American Society for Psychical Research was followed by that of the war against the Spiritualists, that gave way to a postwar era in which physicists read Jung and the Tao Te Ching and physicians interested themselves in alternative medicine, and that was followed in turn by the era of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and today’s strident  evangelical atheism; a turn back toward openness is thus probably likely in the decades ahead. Still, those are probabilities, not certainties, and many other aspects of American religious pop culture are a good deal less subject to repeating patterns of this kind.

All this puts up serious barriers to guessing the shape of the Second Religiosity as that takes shape in deindustrializing America, and I’m not even going to try to sort out the broader religious future of the rest of today’s industrial world—that would take a level of familiarity with local religious traditions, cultural cycles, and collective thinking that I simply don’t have. Here in the United States, it’s hard enough to see past the large but faltering pop spiritual movements of the current cycle, guess at what might replace them, and try to anticipate which of them might succeed in meeting the two requirements I mentioned at the end of last week’s post, which the core tradition or traditions of our approaching Second Religiosity must have: the capacity to make the transition from the religious sensibility of the past to the religious sensibility that’s replacing it, and a willingness to abandon the institutional support of the existing order of society and stand apart from the economic benefits as well as the values of a dying civilization.

Both of those are real challenges. The religious sensibility fading out around us has for its cornerstone the insistence that humanity stands apart from nature and deserves some better world than the one in which we find ourselves. The pervasive biophobia of that sensibility, its obsession with imagery of risingup from the earth's surface, and most of its other features unfold from a basic conviction that, to borrow a phrase from one currently popular denomination of progress worshippers, humanity is only temporarily “stuck on this rock”—the “rock” in question, of course, being the living Earth in all her beauty and grandeur—and will be heading for something bigger, better, and a good deal less biological just as soon as God or technology or some other allegedly beneficent power gets around to rescuing us.

This is exactly what the rising religious sensibility of our age rejects. More and more often these days, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I encounter people for whom “this rock” is not a prison, a place of exile, a cradle, or even a home, but the whole of which human beings are an inextricable part. These people aren’t looking for salvation, at least in the sense that word has been given in the religious sensibility of the last two millennia or so, and which was adopted from that sensibility by the theist and civil religions of the Western world during that time; they are not pounding on the doors of the human condition, trying to get out, or consoling themselves with the belief that sooner or later someone or something is going to rescue them from the supposedly horrible burden of having bodies that pass through the extraordinary journey of ripening toward death that we call life.

They are seeking, many of these people.  They are not satisfied with who they are or how they relate to the cosmos, and so they have needs that a religion can meet, but what they are seeking is wholeness within a greater whole, a sense of connection and community that embraces not only other people but the entire universe around them, and the creative power or powers that move through that universe and sustain its being and theirs. Many of them are comfortable with their own mortality and at ease with what Christian theologians call humanity’s “creaturely status,” the finite and dependent nature of our existence; what troubles them is not the inevitability of death or the reality of limits, but a lack of felt connection with the cosmos and with the whole systems that sustain their lives.

I suspect, to return to a metaphor I used in an earlier post here, that this rising sensibility is one of the factors that made the recent movie Gravity so wildly popular. The entire plot of the film centers on Sandra Bullock’s struggle to escape from the lifeless and lethal vacuum of space and find a way back to the one place in the solar system where human beings actually belong. To judge by the emails and letters I receive and the conversations I have, that’s a struggle with which many people in today’s industrial world can readily identify. The void scattered with sharp-edged debris they sense around them is more metaphorical than the one Bullock’s character has to face, but it’s no less real for that.

Can the traditions of the current religious mainstream or its established rivals speak to such people? Yes, though it’s going to take some significant rethinking of habitual language and practice to shake off the legacies of the old religious sensibility and find ways to address the needs and possibilities of the new one. It’s entirely possible that one or another denomination of Christianity might do that.  It’s at least as possible that one or another denomination of Buddhism, the most solidly established of the current crop of imported faiths, could do it instead.  Still, the jury’s still out.

The second requirement for a successful response to the challenge of the Second Religiosity bears down with particular force against these and other established religious institutions. Most American denominations of Christianity and Buddhism alike, for example, have a great deal of expensive infrastructure to support—churches and related institutions in the case of Christianity; monasteries, temples, and retreat centers in the case of Buddhism—and most of the successful denominations of both faiths, in order to pay for these things, have by and large taken up the same strategy of pandering to the privileged classes of American society. That’s a highly successful approach in the short term, but the emergence of a Second Religiosity is not a short term phenomenon; those religious movements that tie themselves too tightly to middle or upper middle class audiences are likely to find, as the floodwaters of change rise, that they’ve lashed themselves to a stone and will sink along with it.

In an age of decline, religious institutions that have heavy financial commitments usually end up in deep trouble, and those that depend on support from the upper reaches of the social pyramid usually land in deeper trouble still. It’s those traditions that can handle poverty without blinking that are best able to maintain themselves in hard times, just as it’s usually those same traditions that an increasingly impoverished society finds most congenial and easiest to support. Christianity in the late Roman world was primarily a religion of the urban poor, with a modest sprinkling of downwardly mobile middle-class intellectuals in their midst; Christianity in the Dark Ages was typified by monastic establishments whose members were even poorer than the impoverished peasants around them. Buddhism was founded by a prince but very quickly learned that absolute non-attachment to material wealth was not only a spiritual virtue but a very effective practical strategy.

In both cases, though, that was a long time ago, and most American forms of both religions—and most others, for that matter—are heavily dependent on access to middle- and upper middle-class parishioners and their funds. If that continues, it’s likely to leave the field wide open to the religions of the poor, to new religious movements that grasp the necessity of shoestring budgets and very modest lifestyles, or to further imports from abroad that retain Third World attitudes toward wealth.

I’m often asked in this context about the possibility that Druidry, the faith tradition I practice, might end up filling a core role in the Second Religiosity of industrial civilization. It’s true that we embraced the new religious sensibility long before it was popular elsewhere, and equally true that shoestring budgets and unpaid clergy are pretty much universal in Druid practice. Still, the only way I can see Druidry becoming a major factor in the deindustrial age is if every other faith falls flat on its nose; we have a strike against us that most other religious movements don’t have.

No, I don’t mean the accelerating decline of today’s pop Neopaganism. Old-fashioned Druid orders such as AODA, the order I head, routinely get confused with the Neopagan scene these days, but we were around long before Neopaganism began to take shape in the late 1970s—AODA was chartered in 1912, and traces its roots back to the eighteenth century—and we expect to be around long after it has cycled back out of fashion. If anything, the volunteer staff who handles AODA’s correspondence will be grateful for fewer emails saying, “Hi, I want to know if you have a grove in my area I can circle with on the Sabbats—Blessed be!” and thus less need for return emails explaining that we aren’t Wiccans and don’t celebrate the Sabbats, and that our groves and study groups are there to provide support for our initiates, not to put on ceremonies for casual attendees.

That is to say, AODA is an initiatory order, not a church in the doors-wide-open sense of the word, and that’s the strike against us mentioned above. I suspect most of my readers will have little if any notion of the quiet subculture of initiatory orders in the modern industrial world. There are a great many of them, mostly quite small, offering instruction in meditation, ritual, and a range of other transformative practices to those  interested in such things.  Initiatory orders in the Western world have usually been independent of public religious institutions—this was also true in classical times, when the Dionysian and Orphic mysteries, the Pythagorean Brotherhood, and later on the Neoplatonists and Gnostic sects filled much the same role we do today—while those in Asian countries are usually affiliated with the religious mainstream. In traditional Japan, for example, people interested in the sort of thing initiatory orders do could readily find their way to esoteric schools  of Buddhism, such as the Shingon sect; this side of the Ganges, by contrast, attitudes of the religious mainstream toward such traditions have tended to veer from toleration through disapproval to violent persecution and back again.

Eccentric as it is, the world of initiatory orders has been my spiritual home since I got dissatisfied with the casual irreligion of my birth family and went looking for something that made more sense. A book I published last year tried to sum up some of what that world and its teachings have to say concerning the age of limits now upon us, and it had a modest success.  Still, one thing all of us in the initiatory orders learn early on is that our work is something that appeals only to the few. Self-unfoldment through disciplines of realization, to borrow a crisp definition from what was once a widely read book on the subject, involves a great deal of hard and unromantic work on the self. For those of us who are called to it, there’s nothing more rewarding—but not that many people are called to it.

Individuals and small communities can make their own kind of difference in helping to shape the future, and those of my readers who have suspected that this blog has something to do with that kind of difference are not mistaken. Still, as we stand here at the closing of an age, we are poised between a death and a difficult birth; I plan on saying something about the prospects for the birth later on, but first, there’s a death to witness. I’ll be talking about that more next week.