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Monday, August 8th, 2005
12:33a - Abraxas
"The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God's name is Abraxas."
--Hermann Hesse, Demian (1919)

Just finished reading Demian. Started it when I got home (about 10 p.m.) and never put it down. It's a pretty short book, and it has revolutionized my world.

Okay, not really. But, while the answers are incomplete and unsatisfying, it's the first book I've ever encountered that asks the same questions I do: if, as Isaac Bashevis Singer so eloquently put it, "There is no Law and no Judge," how are we to decide what to do? In the absence of a universal standard, whence virtue? Whence redemption? If all authority is empty, what's left to rebel against? Without rebellion, how can there be growth?

Amazing that in 1919 someone could so perfectly capture the problems of the age just beginning. The old ways -- the old gods -- are dead; the attempts to revive them necessarily become twisted, ugly, as necrophilia must; and no one, after two thousand years of virulent and rapacious monotheism, remembers how to give birth to new ones.

The world lacks a unifying worldview, a frame within which debate can take place. Scientists and creationists shout past each other, incapable of comprehending one another, because they live in such different worlds. We have achieved a level of self-awareness which may make self-destruction inevitable -- we have realized that we do not, cannot see the world as it really is, and that the world does not love us or exist for us. We are bugs crawling on a speck of dust in a universe made mostly of, well, nothing. J.B. Haldane, asked what traits of God could be deduced from a study of the natural world, replied "An inordinate fondness for beetles." I counter, from a study of the sky, that God loves silence and empty spaces, and that all the rest of the universe is there simply to punctuate the void.

But that's a silly anthropomorphization. Purpose is a human invention, our great myth. The universe is not there for a reason, nor are we here for a reason. We just happened, the way a tree or a car crash or a galaxy just happens. Everything in the universe is a meaningless accident, pure coincidence which could easily have happened another way. To use Stephen Jay Gould's metaphor, rewind the tape and play it again, and this time all the niches of chordates get taken over by polychaetes. Vertebrates never appear at all, and the seas and land are ruled by arthropods and worms.

Nothing is sacred. Mind itself, my own Favorite Thing, is an accident. Rewind the tape of history and play it again, and mind never appears. Flight has evolved at least three separate times among vertebrates, not to mention the myriads of insects; but sentience only once. This implies that sentience is far less likely than flight -- we will, perhaps, find bats and birds on alien planets, but no playmates.

Some people believe that the world is so exactly shaped to our needs that it must have been intentionally made that way. This belief is utterly foolish and self-deluded. The vast, vast, VAST majority of the universe is death to us. Even most of our own planet is uninhabitable, alien -- the seas, the poles, the deserts. It is not even the case, as is sometimes said, that we were made for it -- "it" being that part of the world in which we can comfortably live. We, as I said, just happened. Things only happen in the places in which they can happen, and thus we happened in a place in which we can live. We could not have happened anywhere else -- but we need not have happened anywhere at all!

Just because a thing happens doesn't mean it had to happen. Roll a die and get a 4. Did it have to be a 4? Of course not -- it could have been a 1. But it couldn't have been a 7. Similarly, we could not have evolved in the depths of interstellar space, or indeed, anywhere but where and when we did. It was there and then, or nowhere and never -- but nowhere and never was a real possibility!

Similarly, each individual person need not have been born. Given all the possible configurations of genes and variations of uterine environment, uncountable billions of children could have been born instead -- and not one of them could have possibly been born to any other combination of parents. And all the infinite possibilities of subsequent environments could have led up to an infinite variety of potential adults for any one of those possible children. So you can forget your ridiculous notions about "soulmates" and "destiny", too.

So, we happen, with a random assortment of talents and opportunities, and then we have to decide what to do, though it matters to no one and nothing but ourselves. Me, I like to make arbitrary little black marks on sheets of compressed wood pulp, and use a ridiculously complicated set of electronic devices to do so. Often, I simply use said devices to simulate the sheets of compressed wood pulp, and make the little black marks in the simulation. It is a ridiculous, futile, and utterly meaningless pastime, but it keeps me amused.


current mood: indescribable

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