Science and the death of the universe
A short commentary on John Vervaeke’s Awakening from The Meaning Crisis (Episodes 19–21)
In the city of Hippo, while Rome was burning and barbarians were at the gate, St. Augustine completed the first autobiography ever written in the west. The book was—according to John Vervaeke in episode 19 of Awakening from The Meaning Crisis—a synthesis of neo-platonism and Christianity, bringing together Jesus and the Greeks and creating the blueprint for Christianity in the middle ages.
Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a Manichean, and he brought a certain Manichean influence to Christianity. Manicheansim came from Mesopotamia and had roots in gnosticism, and was an intensely dualistic religion, concerned with the struggle between a transcendental world of sweetness and light and our degraded material world of evil and sin.
Incidentally, one of the contributions of the later Augustine was the notion of eternal damnation for sinners, a convenient way for the later church to terrorise and control its flock. Like his hero, the apostle St. Paul Augustine had an obsession with his own dark urges and how to transcend them. Before his conversion to Christianity, Vervaeke tells us that Augustine was a sex addict and a bit of a thief, tormented by constant desire to ‘lick the sore of lust’.
Augustine represented a continuation of the axial age and ‘two world mythology’, which viewed this world as a ‘pale reflection in a mirror’ the real world was elsewhere. And yet despite Manichean dualism and intense moralism, the power and solidity of the medieval worldview which Augustine ushered in endured for a thousand years in Europe. This was, according to Vervaeke, because Augustine worked with the best of science of the day (Aristotle’s geocentric world view and normative order), the best therapy (the neo-platonic world view of self transcendence), and the most compelling collective purpose (the historical force of Christianity and its narratives of redemption and the promise land).
After Augustine, the other famous Christian philosopher, Sir Thomas Aquinas, aided the church in embracing science and changed the emphasis of two world mythology. Aquinas helped adapt Christianity to the scientific world view, which had begun to tear asunder reason and love and put the study of things and the study of spiritual matters in different boxes. Aquinas told us that earthly laws and ethics were important, even if they were of a lesser order than heavenly ones. Thus began the erosion of the supernatural worldview and the transition into a scientific, modern one.
Radical changes in commerce, technology, and above al lliteracy — began to break the medieval spell and the strange stasis of the middle ages. Of course, the great 12th Century invention was the printing press, which changed the way we read and thought. People learned to read silently to themselves, a relatively bizarre and unusual activity up to then. But, as Verveake points out, it wasn’t until the 18th Century that Europe regained a standard of living similar to that of the earlier Roman empire.
The Death of the Universe
Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei’s finally killed the geocentric universe for good; with man no longer at the centre, the cosmic mandala of medieval society collapsed. And not only did the earth stopped being the centre of the solar system, the church stopped being the centre of many people’s lives.
With the new scientific vision, Vervaeke points out, the evidence of algebra became more important than the evidence of the senses—and everything we had once assumed to be true could now be falsified and proved to be an illusion. Science began to progressively destroy both our common sense orientation and our narrative view as well, and therefore our sense of meaning and purpose. Every man had became ‘an island in a sea of chaos’.
Certainly, science and literacy made us singularly powerful, but at the same time it tore apart the old meaning universe—in a similar way that the internet is tearing apart our meaning universe today. A new kind of introversion, rationality, and fragmentation began to affect the west. As we have already mentioned, the strange activity of reading silently to oneself displaced the communal activity of recitation. Looking upwards towards God in a church congregation began to be replaced by God’s descent downwards, into the individual soul. A new spirit of self-negation and self-sacrifice resulted—the self needed to be negated to make space for God.
In the 14th century, the philosopher William of Ockham—famous for the Ockham’s razor—argued that God was not a reasonable God and that his will could not be known or bargained with. Perhaps this was the beginnings of our modern sense of existential absurdity, where the loving father of reason is replaced by an arbitrary and unknowable force. Life was conceived as a battle of wills against a natural state of inertia. The individual’s life was no longer about Aristotelian potential or ideal platonic forms but wills to power. Without the constant figures of a father God and mother church, we had only our own efforts and wills to guide us.
This, among other things, led to the development corporate capitalism and individualism, the separation of Church from state, and the burgeoning scientific worldview. People started to develop institutions separate from the church, such as corporations and banks; they began to study secular subjects in university. The world of meaning was replaced by the world of function, the mythopoetic world was eclipsed by the world of the machine.
In this famous quote, Pascal expressed the existential dread that people felt in the face of the scientific revolution and the loss of a cosmic order:“When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” (Pensees, Blaise Pascal).
And one could argue that today’s meaning crisis, similarly, reflects our own sense of dread in the face of a new quantum world. With each world paradigm shift, the universe gets bigger, stranger, and more absurd — and the community and the individual risk becoming further estranged.
I work therefore I am
The protestant work ethic, which Marin Luther had ushered in, imposed an impossible moral standard but did not guarantee salvation. Luther’s rejection of authority—of the motherly church and the fatherly dogma— left humanity orphaned and profoundly alone, with nothing but a book called the Bible to guide them. According to Luther, faith alone matters, the Bible was the only source of real knowledge and redemption: the priesthood and the church dogma had only arbitrary authority.
Despite the liberation of northern Europe from corrupt old Catholic authority, protestantism put humanity in a profound double bind: it said that none of our efforts or acts can appease an unknowable God and yet we had to have faith in that God alone. On one hand, we can do nothing for our salvation; on the other, we had to do everything—to bear the entire weight of the universe. This was both a heroic and a doomed message.
Luther mistakenly believed that human beings, without the old and corrupt institutions, and with a Bible translated into familiar tongues, would uniformly organise around a reformed Christianity and experience the Christian message directly, without a filter. However, just the opposite result ensued: Christianity fragmented into endless sects, each with a different interpretation of the of the Bible, and all coherence was lost.
Luther had further radicalised the idea of self-negation that Rhineland mystics like Meister Eckhart had promoted: the self and the soul needed to be annihilated in God. As Vervaeke brilliantly suggests, the unintended consequence of this was the narcissism that is endemic in our present world, and whose ultimate expression is Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. By claiming that the self was intrinsically sinful and damned, the self takes on an outsized importance. Self loathing and self obsession become one and the same, engaged in a relentless dialectic.
Enter René Descartes, who had another response to the meaning crisis: to equate God with algebra and mathematical symbols. Only what could be clearly delineated had any value. Descartes told us that our very thinking, (I think therefore I am) was the entire meaning of our existence. The body and the mind were like a ghost in a machine, profoundly split.
Descartes’ odd idea that we can understand God through rational will was the polar opposite of Luther’s, who said that we were profoundly absurd and irrational beings, incapable of understanding or influencing the will of God. One can see the nascent development of both romanticism and scientific reductionism in these two extremes. Today, on one extreme we have fire and brimstone fundamentalism, and on the other, a dry, reductive, and semi-autistic scientific materialism.
Finally, in the 17th Century, Thomas Hobbes put the nail in the coffin of two world mythology: he claimed that matter is real, and that inert matter had the properties of intelligence—and paved the way for our notion of ‘artificial intelligence’. The machine metaphor had finally replaced the soul metaphor in describing the human being. To Hobbes, humans were no different than computational machines. This was a departure from Aristotle and Augustine, who thought that human beings had a soul and were potentially capable of realising some special purpose.
According to Vervaeke, ‘Galileo kills the universe’, ‘Copernicus kills the reality of our sense experience’, and Hobbes had now ‘killed the soul’. The universe of modernity had revealed itself as a veritable slaughterhouse.
Others essay in this series:
The Man, The Lion, and The Monster
Higher States of Consciousness
Christ and Gnosis
Science and the Death of the Universe
Metanoia — A change of heart
Understanding the Meta-Crisis
Religion and Horror
The Religion of No Religion
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