Alone in the Universe

 

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more; it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

—Shakespeare’s Macbeth

However distasteful the dispirited world of deterministic forces acting on objective particles, however dispiriting a biology, an economy, and a psychology rooted in the struggle to survive, for several hundred years now it would seem that we have no viable alternative to believe in. Whatever religion teaches or intuition suggests, science has told us: Sorry, the world is just like that. Remember Richard Dawkins: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[33]

In other words, it has been the sober view of science that no matter what meaning or purpose we impute to the world, all that is really happening is fundamental particles interacting according to impersonal, objective, deterministic laws. There may be other “higher level” contingent explanations for things, but the most fundamental explanation—the real reason—for anything, even love, boils down to “particle A bumps into particle B.”

It was the genius of Darwin to explain how complex life could develop from a foundation of deterministic material laws, collapsing the last stronghold of religion. Thanks to random mutation and natural selection, with the addition of subsequent developments in genetics and biochemistry, no longer was any kind of animating force necessary to explain life. Chance alone was the only “reason” why human beings—or indeed any life—arose on this planet. As Jacques Monod puts it in Chance and Necessity, “The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.”[34] We are alone in the universe, in which the only meaning is that which we create.

Elsewhere in the book, Monod quite astutely identifies the source of morality, values, and ethics in animism, the belief that nothing is truly inanimate but that all things are infused with spirit and purpose. Yet science, the fruit of objectivity—a “new and unique source of truth”—utterly confounds animism. The vestiges of animism in modern thought he sees as a pusillanimous refusal to face up to the truth. We accept the power and gifts science has brought us, but our refusal to accept its full philosophical consequences leaves us living a lie. Speaking of scientific objectivity, Monod writes, “If we accept this message—accept all it contains—then man must at last wake out of his millenary dream; and in doing so wake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that, like a gypsy, he lives at the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as to his suffering or his crimes.”[35]

Monod’s remonstrance is but a restatement of his own unconscious assumptions, assumptions rooted in the Galilean banishment of subjectivity. We live at the boundary of an alien world, yes, but it is we who have defined that boundary into existence. Science at its very foundation defines the world as alien. Once we have bought into that definition and accepted it as an unquestionable axiom, extremes of separation, alienation, and despair follow as a matter of course. Fully immersed in the ideology of science, Bertrand Russell, for one, could see no way out:

Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temper of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.[36]

At least Russell was forthright about it. It has been far more common to obfuscate “these truths” and to mute that unyielding despair. Russell’s logic is impeccable; his conclusions follow inexorably from the mythology of science that immersed him and still immerses us. The distractions and addictions that mute the despair, the frenetic pace and empty acquisitiveness of modern society, point to an inner vacuity, the end result of the progressive extirpation of subjectivity. While we associate Russell’s sentiments with the pinnacle of classical science at the turn of the 20th century, these were merely the finale of a process that began long ago, when label and number first began to strip the world of particularity.

How ironic it is, that the endpoint of this vast campaign to make the world ours was to exclude ourselves from the world entirely. The human realm has expanded to encompass all reality, yet we are alone in the universe.

A key theme that will emerge later in this book is that this aloneness is an illusion, an artifact of our self-definition, a byproduct of our way of relating to the world. In your heart of hearts, you know this. Even if your intellectual opinion is the same as Monod’s or Dawkins’, your behavior betrays you. Beliefs are not just ideas in our heads, they are not just opinions but reveal themselves as actions. All of us, even the most cynically ruthless, act from time to time as if life were not, in Shakespeare’s words, a sound and a fury, signifying nothing.[37] We might profess to believe in the complete indifference of the universe. We might profess to believe that the events of our lives are mostly random, that there is no purpose to our existence, that we are indeed as helpless as a Newtonian mass to alter our fate, except to master a greater force than the forces buffeting us. And the structures of our society conspire to reinforce that belief. But none of us actually believes it. I know because we don’t act that way. Monod is right: we are still animists at heart.

What the Knower in our hearts knows is that the people and events of our lives are connected according to an ineffable logic, proceeding as if by divine orchestration toward a destiny that flows from who we are, and changes according to who we choose to be. Not just some events, but all events are significant; none are random. Yes, I am asserting the “magical thinking” shared by all primitive cultures. Science disagrees. Science says we merely project non-existent patterns and relationships onto a random reality.

Let me return to a statement I made earlier in this chapter: “By this logic, the other objects of the universe, including living ones, do not really matter. They lack something that the self possesses. Morality applies to them no more than it applies to a blender, a clock.”

But maybe morality does apply to blenders and clocks. Maybe they are no more insensate brutes than plants, animals, or people. Science understands the affection we have for inanimate objects to be a jejune projection of human qualities onto things. Have you ever felt sorry for an old car you finally sent to the junkyard? An old baseball mitt? A doll? Our childish minds tend to impute human feelings to them, even though they are, actually, just composed of lifeless, unconscious matter. It is this childishness that Monod rails against—echoed by a chorus of voices calling for higher scientific literacy, a more technocratic society. Let’s put the experts in charge. And as individuals, let’s grow up. Be reasonable. Be dispassionate. Be rational. Your car is just a hunk of metal. Your baseball mitt is just a piece of leather. Well, this book says otherwise. I say your affections are sourced in valid intuition rather than puerile fantasy.

I align myself with the intuitions of children and primitives who ascribe consciousness and spirit to all things of the universe, animate or not. The Native American term “all my relations” is not limited to living beings; it includes mountains, rocks, waterfalls, lakes, the wind, the soil. All have spirit, perhaps even life. The error would come not in applying morality to inanimate objects, but in applying the same morality to them as we do to living beings. Being good to your car does not mean covering it with a blanket on cold nights. Today we commit an error far worse than that. Cut off from our animistic love of the material world, our treatment of it is devoid of affetion, devoid of love, devoid of morality. Cut off from animism, we wreck the world with moral impunity.

I will not offer proof that animism is true. As you will discover if you try to apply it to your love life, the whole quest for certainty can invalidate even the possibility of what it is trying to establish. No, you can never be sure that your car, baseball mitt, doll, or for that matter pet, friend, or lover really has subjectivity. In the end, belief comes down to a choice. Unfortunately, our choice for several hundred years has been colored by an emptying ideology that has now become obsolete. No longer need divine orchestration depend on a divine Orchestrator, imposing His design upon the world. No longer need consciousness or spirit be infused from without, a ghost inhabiting a machine. Drawing on newly emerging paradigms in science, an alternative far more magnificent than that is now available.

With a sad sigh, we turn away from our heart’s knowing and live a life under control, applying a personalized version of the Technological Program to ourselves. The nature that we conquer includes human nature. We do so out of fear. We are scared out of living according to our knowledge of a purpose, significance, and sacredness to each act, event, person, place, and thing. In a million ways, culture conditions us to accept all the premises of separation. Deep down we know it isn’t true, but we are afraid that it is. We are afraid that there is just this, just a bunch of discrete, separate beings in a “blind, pitiless, and indifferent” universe of force and mass.

Impelled by both the fear and the inner knowing, people have tried for several centuries to find a way out of the seemingly unbreakable stranglehold of deterministic science. Often their efforts amount to the naïve bravado of, “Science can never explain everything.” But as one mystery after another succumbs to scientific explanation, the bravado sounds increasingly desperate, and the dread grows that maybe, science can explain everything. Maybe the Scientific Program can be fulfilled.

Take heart, skeptics, I do not intend in these pages to trot out unexplained mysteries and deduce from them that “see, there is room left for God after all.” Such an approach actually subtly reinforces the Cartesian world view . It posits two realms, one (which encompasses vast swaths of solved mysteries—almost everything in fact) that is material, blind, pitiless and indifferent, and the other that is spiritual but increasingly inconsequential as one new mystery after another succumbs to scientific explanation. No, the truth is far more splendid than an indifferent material universe run by a creator god, or a disappearing mote of spirit inside a robot made of flesh.

That is not to deny that there are still unexplained mysteries, just that we need not rely upon them as a source of sacredness and meaning. In fact, the New Humanists’ implication—echoing the ideology of the Scientific Program—that most of the mysteries have been solved is laughable. What has happened is that the scientific establishment has excluded vast areas of reality from consideration, simply because the phenomena do not fit into current paradigms. I am reminded of Richard Feynman’s reaction to Uri Geller’s demonstration of spoon-bending: “I’m smart enough to know I’m stupid.” By that he meant that there must be some sleight-of-hand trick involved, some stage magic that an uninitiated observer, even a brilliant physicist, could not detect. Because, it couldn’t have been real. To Feynman, that was a possibility not even worth investigating. And so it goes for the vast realm of “anomalies”: psi, precognition, homeopathy, qi gong, and others, which are excluded from the realm of the mysterious on dogmatic grounds. The logic is circular: there must be a mundane explanation (e.g. fraud, delusion, sloppy science, or overlooked physical mechanisms), because we already can account for everything.

Notice here again the trap of language. The word “mundane” simultaneously means “of the world” and “unremarkable”. Something mundane is not magical, mysterious, sacred, or amazing. By using the word, we imply that the world itself lacks those qualities. We imply that the world is not an ongoing, living miracle.

Starting with Fritjof Capra’s seminal The Tao of Physics and Ilya Prigogine’s Order out of Chaos, various thinkers have testified to a sea change in the fundamental underpinnings of science, a shift away from the Newtonian World-machine. Awareness is growing that 20th-century science has obliterated the Newtonian principles of determinism, reductionism, objectivity, dualism, and mechanism. We are just now beginning to experience the effects of this shift, which implies nothing less than a crumbling of certainty, the death-knell of the Scientific Program, and the end of the regime of separation. No longer need we appeal to bravado or intuition to deny it. Science itself has developed to the point where its own assumptions have become transparently untenable. The same has happened to the illusion of separation generally. All lies tend to grow, even to colonize all of life for their maintenance, but in so doing become all the more fragile and all the more transparent. We have invested deeply in ours, but the game is up. The energy required to maintain the lie of the discrete and separate self far outweighs the benefits. We are beginning to let go.

In Chapter Six I will describe how the second Scientific Revolution that is now under way implies a very different conception of self and world, one that will inevitably undo the regime of control, the ambitions of the Technological Program, the conversion of life into money, the Steinerian “war of all against all,” and all the other bitter fruits of the Age of Separation.

Whether held by the rational atheist or the religious fundamentalist, the belief that the material world is not in itself sacred has the same devastating consequences. Internally, they are the existential void, the cosmic alienation, the “unyielding despair” upon which we must attempt to build a philosophy of life. And externally, we mirror this internal wasteland with a corresponding campaign of destruction that treats the earth and everything on it as nothing more than inconsequential lumps of matter. What else could we expect, having defined it thus? The only limit to our despoliation of reality is a vestigial compunction, the remnant of our innate love of life. Well-meaning people seek to rationalize it along the lines of, “We should protect the environment because we depend on it.” However, since the Technological Program implies that this dependence is temporary and diminishing, such a rationale is rarely compelling, and indeed contributes to the underlying ideology that values nature only for its practical usefulness to man. What other conclusion could there be, in the absence of the sacred?

How much of humanity’s depredation, violence, and ruination arises from the cosmic alienation implicit in a mechanical universe? It is a universe in which, in Jacques Monod’s words, “man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor his duty.” He could have gone on, as Russell does in “A Free Man’s Worship”, to say that destiny and duty, and therefore goodness, morality, and purpose, are for us to create ourselves. Ultimately, then, they are artificial.

The artificiality or culturally constructed nature of meaning is a cornerstone of the Deconstructionism that so influenced 20th-century thinking about literature and art. Deconstructionism attempts to grapple with the nihilistic void I have described, and once served a useful purpose in its critique of the reductionistic quest for objective certainty. But eventually it foundered on its own premises (or lack thereof), degenerating into an irrelevant corpus of sterile, opaque, frivolous, and often silly texts. (Or maybe it’s just that I feel stupid whenever I try to read them!) Texts, and texts about texts, and texts about texts about texts… another artificial realm mirroring the one we find ourselves in generally.

This book is not just another version of Postmodernism that says reality only comes into being through our interpretation of it. All of those qualities that elude reductionism—purpose, meaning, order, beauty, sacredness—emerge organically as a function of relatedness, with or without human participation. The Deconstructionists and Postmodernists are the most recent incarnations of a long line of cultural sensitives—Heidegger and Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus, Foucault and Derrida—who sought to come to terms with our separation from the matrix of organic divinity and keep nihilism at bay, but none of them truly rejected the premises of that separation. Nihilism, Existentialism, Deconstructionism are all different expressions of Russell’s unyielding despair. The glittering promise of the New Worlds of the Enlightenment hid that despair for a while. In the 20th century, as the failure of that promise grew increasingly undeniable, the despair too reared its ugly head. In the present day, our final escape has been apathy, cynicism, and resignation. Camp and kitsch. Whatever. I don’t care, and I don’t care that I don’t care. Or, devotion to the acknowledgedly unimportant and absurd. Sports teams. Reality TV. Game shows. Soap operas. Trivia. Separated completely from the real world, we content ourselves with its most inane counterfeit.

Except, of course, we are not content. The pleasures our escapes offer can barely assuage the pain of the interior wound even in the best of times. All the more feeble they are revealed to be, when the crises of real life find a way in. It is then that the pathetic illusoriness of the manufactured realm becomes apparent. Exposure to passion, heartbreak, loss, pain, illness, and death bring us back to a realm that, despite the ideology that so completely possesses us, is undeniably, experientially real.

When this happens collectively, as it will with the impending convergence of crises, we will look back upon our former preoccupations—the Superbowls and celebrities—with jaws agape. What world were we living in? How could we have cared so much about so little?

In a world in which nothing matters, the most atrocious events are no longer horrifying; the most piteous victims no longer stir our compassion; the most frightening possibilities, like nuclear war and ecological destruction, no longer frighten us. Sometimes we explain it away as “compassion fatigue”, but really it is a disconnection from reality. None of it seems real. We sit back, benumbed, watching the world slide slowly toward a precipice as if it were an on-screen enactment. Similarly, we watch the years of our own lives march on, indifferent to the preciousness of each passing moment. Only once in a while an alarm goes off; we panic for a moment with a thought like, “This is real! This is my life! What am I here for?” And then our environment tempts us back into stupor.

This sense of unreality facilitates the unrecognized flipside to nihilism: a corresponding license to unlimited dominion over the universe. There is no purpose to fulfill, no natural role or function, nothing aside from superstition and temporary, practical limitations to prevent us from becoming, indeed, the “lords and possessors” of nature. The will to dominate nature mirrors our self-imposed exile from nature.

The more we dominate, own, and control, the more separate we experience ourselves. The more separate we experience ourselves, the greater the urge to dominate, to own, to control.

We are attempting to take, by force, that which is already ours. Like the affluence of the hunter-gatherer, what we desire most has always been available, without much effort. The compulsion to add more and more to the self arises from our denial of all that we are. How do I know this, that we are more? I know it in the same way you do. Certain moments have shown me. They came unbidden and without effort or contrivance.

Although a semi-conscious shift is under way, we as a species have still not quite experienced the furthest extreme of separation that will mark the Capraian “turning point” toward an Age of Reunion. We are almost there, though. Once so wholly embedded within nature that we could not even conceive of it as something separate from ourselves, we now possess an ideology that allows no other conclusion but our complete alienation. In our age, the consequences of our pretense to dominion over life and world have born full flower: a world in which our ambition to become the “lords” of nature manifests as a totalizing program of control, and in which our ambition to become nature’s “possessors” manifests as a totalizing regime of money and property.

These two trends go back thousands of years. Finally now, the reduction of reality into representation described in Chapter Two is approaching its ultimate expression in the conversion of life, time, and the world into money; while the Technological Program of control is culminating in the effort to bring all aspects of human existence into its domain. The next two chapters will explore these, the consummating expressions of the Age of Separation.

 

[33] Quoted by Michael Shermer in Scientific American, February 2002, p. 35.

 

[34] Monod, Jacques, Chance and Necessity, Vintage Press, 1972. pp. 145-6

 

[35] Id., p. 172-3

 

[36] From “A Free Man’s Worship”, published in 1903.

 

[37] I am indebted to Wendell Berry for the use of this quote in this context: see “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” from his book Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. Pantheon Books, 1992.