Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mossy God

Einstein and Newton found God in Nature and saw science as a bridge between the human and the divine mind. (To Einstein, in a metaphorical way.) To both, to adore Nature, to study it scientifically, was a devotional act. I find it difficult to criticize this position, whatever your beliefs are. (Although I’m sure some commentators from both sides will…) Religions appear, change in time, and eventually disappear. It’s all a matter of time scale. But as long as we exist as a species, our intimate relationship—and codependency—with Nature will remain. To me at least, it’s quite clear what I should be worshipping.

I hear this sort of sentiment all the time, and I still really don't know what it even means. Most invocations of "nature" as some sort of higher ideal or guiding principle are either examples of romanticism or tautological nonsense. As always, Nietzsche said it best:

You want to live “according to nature”? Oh you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are! Imagine a being like nature, wasteful beyond measure, indifferent beyond measure, without purpose and consideration, without mercy and fairness, fertile and desolate and uncertain at the same time; imagine indifference itself as a power—how could you live according to this indifference? Living—is that not precisely wanting to be other than this nature? Is not living estimating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, wanting to be different? And supposing your imperative “live according to nature” meant at bottom as much as “live according to life”—how could you not do that? Why make a principle of what you yourselves are and must be?— In truth, the matter is altogether different: while you pretend rapturously to read the canon of your law in nature, you want something opposite, you strange actors and self-deceivers! Your pride wants to impose and incorporate your morality, your ideal onto nature, even onto nature, you demand that it be nature “according to the Stoa,” and you would like all existence to exist only after your own image—as an immense eternal glorification and universalization of Stoicism!

Seriously. You all do realize that it's not all sunsets and mountain vistas and tranquil oceans, right? Nature itself is one of the strongest arguments against any anthropomorphic notion of a god, with most lifeforms existing to be eaten as individuals before going extinct as a species. Like the man said, the sheer wastefulness, the indifference, the immense cruelty that would be psychopathic if there were any agency behind it -- what exactly is there to worship in that? What sort of universal principle (or mind) do you think you're gaining insight into by studying it? And how does this supposedly transcend the divide between science and religion when countless scientists and laymen are content to study nature without a need to mysticize or glorify it?

You can find inspirational examples of beauty, harmony and order in all sorts of things -- music, for example. But if you're talking about any sort of religion or worship deserving of the term, very few non-intellectuals are going to be interested in pantheism, Deism, Gnosis, or any other vague, abstract principle. They want a God that loves them back (or at least claims to). They want the Sistine-Chapel-finger-pointin'-motherfucker. This just seems like a weak attempt to redefine an attitude of devoted scientific inquiry as "religious", nothing more than semantics.


  1. Nature is cruel. Nature is beautiful. I think the inclination to worship it expressed in the first quote was hyperbole meant to get the reader to compare Nature to God and perhaps find the former more interesting. I certainly don't think there is any point in worshiping it, but your statement about the need to mysticize it or glorify it seems a little petty and perhaps begs the question: maybe it is glorious and mystical. Maybe you have blinders on out of an understandable urge not to make the same mistakes you see others making - the absurd urge to find ethical lessons and ignore the unpleasant parts. From my point of view, you and Nich are arguing against a straw man: I already know that anthropomorphized, Nature is cruel and amoral, but it is the reality that produces everything we value as well as all that we abhor.

  2. There is something so...natural, as you define it, about reading this post while the flood waters swirl around my feet.

    I'm also laughing at my own, all humanity's hubris, I suppose, at calling a torrential downpour, and the susequent damage a "natural disaster"

    Looking at all the animals, and the plants, and so forth, a few washed away, most simply going about their business, makes me laugh as I watch the mold rise up the walls of every building on the ranch. It's only a disaster to us.

    I think it kina puts things in perspective, but I have a whole lot of neighbors who would disaggree.

    Ah youtube: in case you missed the international coverage

  3. I don't think it's hyperbole, I think he's seriously trying to offer up worshiping "Nature" as some sort of third way alternative to the antipodes of atheism and traditional religious belief. But all he's doing is trying to erase the differences by simply defining them out of existence -- apparently, paying attention and being interested in the mechanics of the way the world works is a "devotional" attitude. Like I said, semantics.

    Straw man? Surely you know people who have a silly Wiccan/pagan/Druid sort of literal nature worship going on. And even if someone only means nature as a synonym for life itself -- well, again, what does that even mean? It's true to the point of utter banality. God is Nature and Nature is life and life is everything that exists? Then what does it mean to give it a specific name?

    I understand feeling a sense of awe at incredible natural sights, and I understand what a thrill it is to investigate the mysteries of existence. What I don't understand is the need to pretend it all means something, that there's some deeper secret to be found, as if the natural world is just a symbol of another "more real" reality, which is what I mean by "mysticizing" it. I mean, obviously, we depend on the natural world for our very existence. Yet most of what we value as human beings is actually a product of our communication and interaction with other humans; i.e. culture. Like the N. quotation said, there is no purpose or mercy or justice or caring to be found there, just the three F's, as I like to think of it: fighting, feasting and fucking.

  4. Once again, I agree with this clarification completely. The "straw man" was refering to the fact that not everyone who chooses to think there is a profound mystery that science may not access is as foolish as the "live according to Nature" folks that N. derides. While I agree with the gist of much of what N. says, he seems to have a very sour attitude that probably reflects his often miserable life (as you have pointed out before). I try to be a glass-half-full kind of guy, so no matter how much dirt you dig up on Nature, I'm going to (try to) think the good outweighs the bad. It's as if, instead of "Let there be light!", God had said, "Let there be something that, though chock full of horrific suffering, might, on balance, be better than nothing."

  5. I think what he's mainly going after there is the false consciousness of those who project their own values and meaning onto an amoral "Nature", and then pretend to take their cues on how to live an ethical life in human society from it. It was a recurring theme with him, the ways in which people are too ignorant or cowardly to take responsibility for their own lives, to always seek to give their own authority and power away.

    As for me, I'm just going after what I see as another manifestation of the old Platonic spirit/matter divide. When I think of "mysticism", I think of a mindset that always seeks to interpret physical reality as a symbolic representation of something else, i.e. a deeper, truer "spiritual" reality as opposed to the imperfect world of matter. Obviously, I don't think there is any other reality, except for the one we create ourselves.

  6. But physicists have discovered that particles are in an indeterminate state until they have an "observer". If they fail to define what that is scientifically, which I believe is the case, then they have substituted one mystery for another. I share your desire to abolish superstition and wishful thinking, but the common understanding of matter is an illusion. Your references to the "world of matter" and "physical reality" reflect the idea that there is solid ground there; that there is something that is settled fact and completely understood - I'm afraid that is also wishful thinking.

  7. Well, I'm kind of speaking in shorthand for the sake of brevity -- you're right, of course, even this solid table in front of me is actually a bunch of particles in motion giving the illusion of solidity, etc. In this case, though, I'm mainly using the term as it's often heard, as part of the "spirit/matter" dualism. "Matter" may be an imperfect way to think about the universe as we know it, but the "spirit" side of the coin is completely nonsensical. Whatever this stuff we call matter really is, at least we know it exists. Reading self-proclaimed mystics talking about spirit, though, gives me bad flashbacks to Hegel, a shitload of words that don't say anything, all sound and fury signifying nothing.

    Anyway, I'm still going with the assumption that whatever new scientific discoveries we make are going to keep pointing away from our cherished illusions of personal souls and loving gods. I don't think there's going to be any "meaning", as we understand the term, to be found there.

  8. Brian M5:44 PM

    What do you think of the "Symphony of Science" you tubes? As hokey as they are...I still think they are kinda neato.

  9. Haven't seen 'em -- I'll check it out.

  10. I just watched the one called "We Are All Connected" and I was impressed. People don't seem to realize how enthusiastic many scientists are and how much fun they have doing their jobs. Scribb's is right that that enthusiasm should not be confused with worship, but one can recognize how awesome the natural world is without going to that silly place of magic symbols.