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The Best of All Possible Next Worlds
by John Green
I am an atheist – there are no two ways about it and for the time being this is not open to question. I simply mention it to declare my particular bias before proceeding with this exposition. Not that it is my intention here to proselytize on behalf of atheism or to berate religions; most of the arguments on either side have grown rather stale and the fact that the existence of evil in the world is largely down to those who profess to believe in a deity of one sort or another is occasion for despair or rage rather than philosophical speculation. My actual intention is to set out what we might call a ‘bestpossible- theism’, in other words, I wish to define what, if anything, a god, an afterlife, or an ‘other world’ could be.
I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on religious matters, nor however, do I regard atheism as a peculiar or radical position. My approach to this problem instead relies heavily upon Phenomenology and Existentialism, particularly Merleau-Ponty and Sartre without referring to their work to any annoying extent, although my position is anticipated in part, by Kant and Schopenhauer. Had I studied the history of religion, it would have been perhaps a useful preliminary to try to locate religion’s sociohistorical source, to identify the function that religion performed in primitive societies. My guess is that they served to legitimize laws and customs that had arisen and proved necessary for the cohesion and survival of the tribe/clan/state, but also operated as a means of explaining natural phenomena and of situating man/woman within the natural order. However, as I have said, this is only a guess and my guesses tend to be wildly out.
What I would ask the reader to notice, and I am pleased to say that this requires much less erudition, is that practically all religions posit the existence of other conscious beings, be they spirits or gods, living on some other plane of existence. Within religion, the world cannot be conceived of as operating mechanically, but must at some point involve the intervention of supernatural forces. Admittedly, within ancient Greek religion the gods themselves were subject to the necessity of Fate, hence my suggestion that religion functions, through its myths, as a means of legitimation and location. However, the Greek gods were still conscious beings. The reason I bring this animism to the attention of the reader is to suggest that Xenophanes was correct in saying that
“If oxen and horses and lions had hands or could draw with these hands, horses would draw pictures of gods like horses and oxen like oxen, lions like lions, and the gods would resemble the bodies each species possesses.”
In other words, the gods do not exist independently of our conception of them, but are indeed our own creation, made in our own image. The relationship has simply been inverted to bestow objectivity upon social mores.
There is a further significance to this animism that re-emphasizes the original relationship between man and deity mentioned above and which casts some light on my original project. The significance lies in the structure of the consciousness attributed to ‘the spirits’ and the fact that such a consciousness, an essentially human consciousness, can only be possessed by living human beings. I shall not here be concerned with the question of animal consciousness, since it too satisfies my essential criteria. Supreme, omnipresent, indivisible deities simply cannot be ‘conscious’ in the way that humans are, even if they are omnipotent. Neither can ghosts, spirits or other supernatural entities, unless they possess material bodies and exist in time and space, rendering their existence verifiable. To my knowledge, no verification has yet been confirmed.
Of course, the ancient Greeks were smart enough to appreciate this and chose to plonk their gods down on the top of Mount Olympus, far enough away to be mystical (I believe the decision was metaphorical in any case) while at the same time concrete, avoiding several metaphysical paradoxes. They had enough of those to be going on with as it was. The Greek gods were capable of some interesting transformations which I suspect were beyond the powers of your ordinary ancient Greek, but they were nevertheless presumed to be material and possessed of human emotions, urges and fears.
Let me make my position clearer before the gods take offence. As I type, I am sitting before my word processor, hands on the keyboard, typing slowly and awkwardly, but with perseverance. My word processor sits on top of my desk. I’m wearing a black T-shirt with a band’s logo on (the Mekons, in case the reader was wondering what philosophers in Manchester listen to), a pair of jeans, socks and underwear. To my right is a large one-paned rectangular window and beyond that, the garden. On the wall in front of me are various postcards and photographs; Simone de Beauvoir, the Acropolis, Copenhagen.
Before this inventory begins to read like a downmarket British version of American Psycho, I’ll make my point – I am located. My consciousness, my being, is to be found in a particular place. Not only in these clothes, but also in this room, in this country, in this culture, employing this language. And this location, what Sartre calls my ‘facticity’, is important to the functioning of my consciousness, since it means that much of the world, at any one moment, remains undisclosed to me. For instance, while sat here, I am unable to see the underside of my desk, nor the rear of my word processor. I cannot see the television, since it is in the next room and I cannot see the Statue of Liberty because it is several thousand miles away. Thus, to be located means to have some things at hand, some things not. Some things are near, others distant. The result of this is that I have a particular perspective, a particular view of the world, at each moment; a hodological perception of reality. Manchester is close by, Moscow is not. Should I wish to be in Moscow, I would need at least three and a half hours, a plane ticket and a good book, preferably non-religious. Fortunately, this wish remains dormant.
An omnipresent deity, a deity without location, being everywhere, has no such need of a plane. Such a god is already in Moscow, while also being in Manchester. It would therefore make little sense for him/her or more likely it to send him/her/itself a postcard, in either direction. It does mean, however, that a problem arises in attempting to conceive of what an omnipresent perception might be like. After all, for an entity of this type, every point in the universe is equidistant, if it makes sense to speak of distance. Every perspective of the universe is disclosed to this entity in the same instant. Every aspect of my desk, the inside and outside of my word processor, from every possible angle. If we have difficulty imagining what it would be like to have such a perception, perhaps this is because our perception of several angles of a particular object are sequential, or perhaps because all I am really describing is the existence of matter in space and not its actual perception.
This supposed perception is in fact equivalent to no perception at all. Since all points are equidistant, there can be no relation between them, or rather, they are all conflated to one point. This is because all points of view are immediately given and because this omnipresent perception is not permitted to have a centre, that is, a particular point from which it views the world, nor is it permitted an extreme. All points are, as it were, the same place. Were our deity to exist in space, as the Greeks permitted theirs to, he might prove to be less mystical, but he could at least be identified and absolved of any sins committed in his name. Spatially absent deities are less responsible.
A similar problem arises for the ‘consciousness’ that refuses to exist within time. It is because I, as a human being, exist in time, that I can be born, can die, can take that trip to Moscow should I so wish, practice philosophy (poorly), listen to records, carry on conversations and play football (marginally better than my philosophy). Gods, unfortunately, are incapable of doing any of these. If we are to believe the Old Testament, and that God did speak to Moses through a burning bush, then this God could certainly not be omnipresent either in time or space. The feature of my consciousness that allows me to conceive projects, plan holidays and fantasize, namely intentionality, is only possible because I am located within time as well as space. I live within a particular era that colours my options, renders me more likely to take that trip to Moscow than were I living in, say one million years B.C. Intentionality allows me to plan what I shall have for tea, but also what I shall be doing at the age of thirty-five. Furthermore, my specific location in time (5.05 p.m.) allows me to prioritize my projects. Sadly, this intentionality, fundamental to consciousness as we experience it, is denied to any entity that exists outside of time. To this entity, June 28th 1991 and March 16th 1843 are contemporaneous. Every moment occurs at the same infinitely small instant much as each point is found at one point. The notion of causality has no meaning outside of time and, as a result, miracles are, I’m afraid, a no-no. For a god to be aware of the existence of time and for a god to intervene in the affairs of man would require of him that he be located within time, though what it might mean for a being to exist in time but not in space requires powers of abstraction or perhaps a knowledge of physics that I do not possess.
That this holds good for all entities should help us to understand what the ‘afterlife’ might consist of. If an afterlife does exist, then its existence must resemble that of the deity described above. In other words, its nature must be something akin to what we generally fear death to be – a return to nothingness. If we continue to exist in time and space when we die, that’s all well and good, though I should have thought that this too would have been verified by now. If, however, we no longer possess spatio-temporality, then our consciousness will approximate that of the deity. A conflation of all time and space to one point, the equivalent of no perception whatsoever.
If I have read him correctly (and it isn’t easy to do) this position is not a million miles away from that of Schopenhauer and draws, like him, upon Oriental philosophy. Our return to the supposed ‘godhead’, beyond the ‘Veil of Maya’, is brought about, according to Schopenhauer, by our ceasing to will, by our loss of consciousness. Thus our ‘experience’ of the afterlife will be the same as our ‘experience’ before birth. Wittgenstein is correct in saying that my death is not an event in my life – upon death, time and all events cease, for me at least. My death will be an event for others of course, though hopefully not a sporting event. Even two own goals in consecutive weeks surely doesn’t merit such a punishment (sorry lads).
© John Green 1991
John Green is a groovy dude who listens to the Mekons. He is also a parttime tutor in A-level philosophy at South Trafford College of Education.