Friday, November 28, 2008


For all of us humans, all things being equal, there is self and there is world. The self is aware of a world out there; and the world is that of which the self is aware in here. At least that is the intuitive certainty upon which human consciousness is for the most part based. The distinction between the two may be no more than a convenient fiction - one more - essential to the process of discrimination and growth of understanding which is the essence of self-consciousness. It is quite unnecessary to go to the Cartesian length of separating body and soul into two substances, so distinct that no possibility of their interacting is comprehensible. Spirit and matter, far from being entirely separate substances, are just two terms - terms that designate the primordial human experience of duality. ‘Abstract and concrete’ is a phrase which does a related job; ‘deductive and inductive’ is in the same area, as is ‘mathematics and reality’. These pairs of terms designate poles in our being which set up a tension without which we would not be what we are. We can therefore use pairs of terms designating apparent opposites of this kind without believing ourselves to be talking about distinct substances or using ontologically separate categories. The pairs of terms, along with all dualistic opposites, designate extremes in a continuum in the same manner as less problematical phrases such as ‘up and down’, ‘left and right’, ‘old and young’, ‘male and female’, ‘hot and cold’ and so on. These are scaling terms and as such do not designate hypostatisations of ontologically separate ‘things’, but extremes along a single stream of reality.
There is an empirical or phenomenal self and there is empirical or phenomenal world. Both of these are describable in the linguistic record of shared human experience. Description of identifiable aspects of the empirical self cover matters such as body shape and position, personal history, memories of past and present experiences, perceptions etc. Description of the phenomenal world covers the description of all aspects of experience which are deemed to be of not-self: world ‘out there’, world out there in the past, world out there now, facts and theories learned about the world out there; and even speculations about the future. There is inevitably an overlap between empirical self and empirical world thus characterised because there is in the final analysis no difference between them apart from a relatively unimportant spatial distinction. We are part of the world. But there is more.
There is a non-empirical or transcendent or noumenal self; and there is a non-empirical, transcendent or noumenal world. How anyone can be so arrogant as to deny this is incomprehensible. It is self-evident despite its being an unfashionable idea. Like it or not, our experience, both of ourselves and of the world, shades off gradually into areas about which we can say increasingly less with assurance. It sinks into areas about which we can say nothing and about whose extent we must remain in ignorance, if propositional language is the vehicle of knowledge. Despite the contentiousness of this notion of a transcendent realm of experience, nothing more inflammatory is intended than this: that the empirically identifiable self is always supported by a self that we cannot describe, a self which we can and do experience all the time but which we cannot get at in language, tied as this latter is to the sharable experience of the empirical self and the empirical world. We mean also with this word ‘transcendent’ that the empirically describable world is merely a provisional construct, perhaps an eternally provisional model of a reality which supports us but which will always be beyond us; and we mean that the world as we perceive it must be supported by the world as it really is, i.e., as we have not yet experienced or are as yet incapable of experiencing it.
There is ultimately no distinction between empirical or phenomenal self and transcendent self. And there is ultimately no distinction between empirical and transcendent worlds. The barrier between the two in both cases is that of the limits of language, the extent of our experience as describable in language. Experience is much vaster than language; and we must avoid the trap of limiting the extent of our experience by language. Language sets the boundary to our world and to our self insofar as we wish to communicate knowledge of these two to our self or to others in propositions. To this extent, language (by which term is to be understood any medium, any formalism which the conscious self uses as a means of self-expression) is the limit of my world and of my self insofar as I deem propositional communication of knowledge about self and world important. Thus far we follow Wittgenstein. But we have to go one step further and assert this: to pronounce that entitites outside of the phenomenal self and phenomenal world do not and cannot exist, merely on the basis of arguments drawn from experience and interpretation of the phenomenal self and the phenomenal world, is simply nonsensical. It is tantamount to saying something like, ‘the continent of Africa cannot exist, because I have never been outside of Europe’.
Insofar as empirical self and empirical world shade off into transcendent self and transcendent world respectively, both self and world must be thought of as infinite - logically thought thus, since they can have no bounds set to them, which the intellect does not instantly wish to transgress. Language of all kinds, from vernacular speech to exotic mathematics is only infinite in the sense of being capable of generating an infinity of well-formed sentences; but its province is of its very nature the finite because it is designed to describe items of our shared and sharable experience. Shared and sharable experience, though constantly expanding, is the lowest common denominator of experience. Language constitutes a third realm of possible experience which is neither self (empirical or transcendent) nor world (empirical or transcendent), but rather a mediating reality between both the self and its world and between phenomenal and transcendent aspects of each. Mercifully, there is no such thing as transcendent language though poetry would like to claim that there is; there is, therefore, in the linguistic sphere, no equivalent of the non-empirical or transcendent self, though the latter may be constantly striving to gain expression in language. This is the point at which language begins to crack. This is the beginning of the province of Wittgenstein’s ‘Mystical’. It must be said that since language is used by the self, it is used both by the transcendent and empirical parts of the self. The experience of the transcendent self bursts open the meanings that congeal in everyday language and detaches the words of everyday language from their referents in the everyday world to reattach them to ever more abstract counterparts. The transcendent self could be seen as that which gives rise to culture, since all culture is derived from world-discovery and self-discovery; and these two are in reality one.
The individual may not be aware of any dimension to his selfhood other than that of his empirical self. He may vehemently deny the existence of the transcendent self; and if he does this, he will in all probability deny the transcendent world as well – probably vehemently. That denial is of no consequence at all; it is so much sound and fury. It has to do with a particular type of mind clarifying its experience to itself. He who does the denying continues to be determined by the transcendent, nonetheless, even in the act of denying it. His denial simply identifies his current personal priorities in experience. The firmer these priorities, the greater the fear that they may not be overriding and all-important and the more ferociously they are defended. To lose one’s values is panic-inducing. Even the empirical self which, most frequently, regards itself as the only self, sets no boundaries to its own extent: it is boundless as to its duration in time, as to its perception of space, as to its development (death notwithstanding); and any boundaries are regarded by it as artificial impositions. That is why death is regarded by the empirical self (particularly the empirical self which regards itself as the only sort of self) as an outrage or as a solution: as an outrage because in the normal course of selfhood, there can be no termination of what is an infinitely extendable process, and as a solution because a life regarded by the self as intolerable is still under the control of the latter and legitimately terminable in its own interest. The terminally sick man who does not want to die and the healthy suicide who does, express protests in the interests of the transcendent or – why not? – eternal self, - i.e. the eternal self imperfectly understood and confused with the empirical self.
The transcendent self views itself as out of time, out of space and indestructible. As that which defines space and time, which registers and comprehends change, it is spaceless and timeless. It is the unchanging theatre in which the events of the empirical self are enacted. A feature of the failure or refusal to try and understand the transcendent self is a tendency by the empirical self to confuse itself with its transcendent counterpart.
The transcendent self is indefinable; it is infinite. It is infinitude itself, it is consciousness of the infinite and unbounded. It may ultimately be the objective psyche, perhaps infinite consciousness, albeit darkened by the empirical self - but that is mere speculation. What is not speculative is that the consciousness of the infinite, intrinsic to the transcendent self, tends to attach itself to all the forms of thought peculiar to the empirical self, time, space, number etc, making them both finite and infinite. Inevitably, also, it uses language that is in its essence tied to the purely empirical; and this language creaks under the strain. Yet this should not be forgotten: the empirical self is only able to think as it does, to learn as it does, to expand as it does, to conceive and imagine as it does thanks to the transcendent self; and the mark of the transcendent self is on all the linguistic formalisms adopted by the empirical self. Formalism is in essence precisely this: the effort of the transcendent self to gain expression within the empirical self. The nature of human language permits the generation of an infinity of sentences: it is not a finite formal system with a finite sum of possible propositions. If Gödel is right, this infinity goes for mathematics as well: mathematical systems are always dependent upon a higher system for some of their axioms; and that higher system cannot be defined: it is lost in the dynamics of the transcendent self.
Mathematics is the science of the definition of the infinite and its essential striving is towards making the infinite comprehensible in finite terms. This is of course paradoxical; but that should not worry us: paradox is of our very nature; it is what we are; it is the essence of the human. The two elements of the paradox are the warp and woof of our mental life.
Science has an infinite desire for knowledge. The goal of science is the total understanding of the world. The world is infinite. Knowledge of the world is necessarily finite knowledge of finite things; and for that reason it is necessarily imperfect and provisional. The avowed goal of science is therefore necessarily unattainable. This can be seen from the simple reflection that the set of all possible human experience cannot be identical with the set of all possible experience as such, since there are creatures in the universe that are capable of experience which we cannot understand. Do you claim to understand the experience of a stingray or a bat? The roots of our empathy with the creatures of our experience are mysterious, but real. But we say nothing of possible alien, angelic or divine intelligence.
Language is driven by a similar infinite striving to entrap the infinite in a finite language: all language aims at a description of totality. All language is generated by the effect of the transcendent self upon the empirical self. Language, however, we cannot repeat it too often, is tied to the empirical self and the empirical world. Thus language embodies, incarnates the tension of the finite-infinite at the heart of the self. The self is constituted by this tension, so its language necessarily has to reflect it. It is for this reason that language (and therefore the awareness of any particular self) is always changing. The self is, by definition, change, as is the world. The tension between the finite and the infinite in the self allows no rest to language but bursts it open in a ever-renewed destruction of all claimed orthodoxy. Destroyed formalisms are then re-constituted at a higher level of complexity: this process of destruction and creation is intrinsic to the development of language which is tied to the development of the self which is tied to the expanding consciousness of the world that is the essence of the human.
Language, as the third reality located between self and world is a mediator not only between self and world, but also between empirical self and transcendent self on the one hand and between empirical and transcendent worlds, on the other.
Experience has to be divided into four zones, not to say four worlds; they are: foreworld - by which is meant the empirical world -; hindworld - by this is meant the empirical self -; midworld - by this is meant all forms of expression-; and hyperworld - by this is meant both the transcendent self and transcendent world and the commerce between them. These two latter are as inseparable as empirical self and empirical world; but in contradistinction to these latter, transcendent self and transcendent world cannot be distinguished except artificially. Although the transcendent self is part of our self, there is no ‘mineness’ clinging to it: it is objective, i.e. indistinguishable from world.
If we wish to grasp the self we could say this: The conscious self is a mere membrane, a membrane stretched between the finite and the infinite, a membrane so diaphanous as to lack any imaginable substance. The self is a mere relation: ultimately the relation of finite to infinite. And yet, the self is the node at which God grows into Creation. But not many would be helped by this.
Time-boundedness and therefore finitude only exist in the human consciousness because of the tension between infinite transcendent self and empirical self, or between hyperworld and hindworld. Thus conceptions of finitude, whether of time, space, substance of whatever, only exist in our consciousness by virtue of their opposite in the transcendent self. We can only understand time as an infinite series of units (seconds, minutes, years or what have you); and such a series is only comprehensible by virtue of being infinitely extendible, as is the system of integers, by further additions. Fantasies about understanding how time and space ‘came into being’ at the Big Bang or at some other moment are just science fiction, nothing more than a bit of fun - or else evidence of an astounding naiveté.
All use of the formalisms of the empirical self is bedevilled by the same contradictory aim: the desire to entrap the infinite in the finite, whether it be in natural language, maths, music, architecture, painting or any other medium. The so-called abstracting activity of the human intellect is simply the desire to make the undetermined determined, the infinite finite, the eternal time-bound. The so-called ‘ideal’ is in part an issue of the same striving. The so-called ‘laws of nature’ arise in our theories from the same striving. We cling to notions of perfect and complete comprehensibility only because such fantasies are permitted by language. It is the empirical self with its manipulation of the empirical world that creates language to document its organisation of the world; it is then this language that creates the delusion that there are such things as finite things and determined things
The entire religious and intellectual quest of man – and man’s intellectual quest is fundamentally religious, or at least metaphysical – is directed towards the same goal and driven by the same urge: to make the awareness of the infinity of the self and of the world comprehensible in terms of the finite empirical self and empirical world. This striving is, of course, vain; but it is ever-renewed and constitutes both the essence of mental life and the source of the renewal, differentiation and evolution of all the formalisms available to us. In this, our creativity resembles that of nature. All our language is a skirting the edge of infinity, a trembling on the boundary between the order of finitude and the chaos of infinity. For this reason it is full of paradox, paradox that is intrinsic to language and to its self-referential character, a character which is derived from the intrinsically self-referential nature of consciousness. Our consciousness of ourselves, as finite and yet infinite, generates the conflict; and this conflict is that which is most characteristic of us.
The conflict works itself out in one of two ways in human culture: there are those selves who wish, to an ever greater extent, to see the infinite in terms of the finite. Their striving is to reduce the complexity of the infinite to the simplest elements of the finite and empirical. There are those, by contrast, whose striving is the opposite of this: they wish to see the finite in terms of the infinite and lay ever greater stress upon total, metaphysical accounts of the physical phenomena they perceive in which something – call it ‘God’, ‘intelligence’ or something – remains undetermined while determining the whole. These two types of mind strike sparks off each other and their work is mutually beneficial and fecundating. They are, as it were, the male and female principles in cultural evolution. They generate reductivist and holistic conceptions of reality, materialist and idealist conceptions, finite or infinite universes, mortal or immortal souls, gods, material universes, godless universes, god-imbued universes, spiritual universe and so on.... The entire intellectual drama of the human race is fed by their battles. Like everything in the universe, we humans are at war with ourselves; and the tension of that warfare is the essence of our creativity. To believe that there is some ultimate resolution to it, some final state of certain knowledge, is to be guilty of touching naïveté.
Let me declare my position, since it is impossible for it not to be evident in every production of a mind: I consider that those who wish to give precedence to the infinite, in the mind and in the world, are on a rising path of consciousness (at least they have space in which to grow!); while those who wish to abolish the infinite in determinism and materialism are on a descending path towards unconsciousness (because their strivings lead to terminal immobility). The former wish to conform themselves to the order of reality; the latter wish to conform reality to themselves. The former are strictly speaking the more rational, while often being castigated as irrational (for how could one fail to conform oneself to reality?). The latter are strictly speaking irrational (for how could they possibly stand up against the whole universe?) while appearing the most rational. But this is because in our culture, the word ‘rational’ has more to do with the application of the narrow rigour of the scientific method than it should and the scientific method tends towards the immobility and sterility of mechanistic materialism, since it is essentially reductive. The type of mind that sees its language as absolutely authoritative and as tending to deliver absolute and definitive ‘truth’ is substantially the most common form of scientific mind, and such minds long to abolish infinity from the self and from the world.
To wish to remove the infinite from self and world, and from the creation of language, is to desire a wholly determined, wholly defined, wholly mechanical system in which the distinctions between self, world and language disappear altogether because they become subordinated to a repetitive banality, to the repetitive sterility of absolute stability and predictability. Some such vision has been declared to portray the ultimate fate of the universe – by those who strive to realise it. The notion of thermodynamic heat death of the universe is such a notion invented by such minds. We do not have to be persuaded by it, since it is merely the product of a particular style of mind and as with all such one-sided and distorted beliefs no more than a function of a particular idiom of language.
The wish to maintain the infinite in self, world and in the evolution of language is not only logically legitimate (removing it is logically illegitimate for the simple reason that induction can never reach an end, any more than logic can reach a final, unquestionable basis for its assumptions and modes of inference) but also by far the more optimistic attitude for a human being. The universe ceaselessly evolves to fill the infinite (possibility space) with forms. To contemplate this and to see the entire process as in some way co-ordinated, is the essence of the religious attitude to the world. Belief that it is not co-ordinated is ultimately linked to the wish of the rational ego to co-ordinate it, i.e. the wish to be God.
So whereas the behaviourist, positivist conception of the self and attitude to the world was an attempt to abolish the self altogether (and thus the distinction between self, world and language) and to replace it with a simple collection of objects, contemplated by no consciousness (a nonsensical conception, by the way), putting the infinite back into human consciousness and the world sees the collaboration between self and world as an infinite process of creative change mediated by language. This is a far more comfortable universe for beings such as us than the monolithic block-universe, in which nothing happens, of the reductionist scientists. Such a monolithic block universe was tried out by Parmenides in the fifth century before Jesus. It is remarkable that so many members of the scientific community show off their historical and philosophical naiveté by their tendency to repeat the errors of such a distant past. The paradoxes of the old sage and of his disciple Zeno show that they were not as naive as many modern scientists.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Why are we so interested in each other? The theory of egoism would seem to suggest that we are only interested in ourselves as individuals, in number one; and there is some truth in that. But it is not the whole truth. Far from it! The more exclusive our concentration upon ourselves, the more dissatisfied we become. The more selfless we become, the more fulfilled we are as persons. We find ourselves ultimately sterile and uninspiring if we cannot compare ourselves to others and act upon the comparison. Essentially what interests us is the contrast between ourselves and others. And our interest in that contrast is infinite. Why are we so interested in everyone? (That is to say, insofar as we as persons have not succumbed to the terrible, creeping paralysis of what Kierkegaard called ‘spiritlessness’, what could also be called ‘functionalisation’.) It is because our interest in others is infinite. It is because the universal is the principal intellectual category of interest to us; and this is true when we think of ourselves or when we think of known individuals. We are as creatures capable of imagining ourselves as fulfilling all the potential of the whole human race; and indeed we can only be interested in ourselves insofar as we see ourselves as possessing this capability. When we resign ourselves to being a tiny, limited, local, parochial individual, with just this small set of capabilities and just this small range of experience, we begin to sink into spiritlessness. It may, indeed, not be a question of resignation at all, but sometimes merely of self-satisfaction. When we identify ourselves with just this one function, just this one hobby, just this one daily routine, just this one persona and desire no more, we can be interested no more in our fellows and we are as good as dead. As long as we are alive and developing as selves, however, our self is infinite and can only be satisfied by imagining itself as fulfilling all the potential of the human race and more. This is why we are so fascinated by our own kind: the variety is enormous and it corresponds to the expansionary potential of our own self. Inevitably in such expansion, the self reveals itself to be deeply paradoxical. Said Walt Whitman: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. (I am wide, I contain multitudes.)’ If you don’t understand what he meant, you are probably dead. The capacity of human beings to identify with other human and indeed non-human beings is staggering. The mimic who reproduces before us, with the minimum of disguise, the persona of another in convincing detail, the mannerisms, the foibles, the tics, the speech patterns and so on, is producing this effect of mimesis, not by simple copying, but by identification. One has to begin to wonder, therefore, whether the parrot is not simply ‘parroting’ what it hears, but rather producing the sounds it hears, intelligently understood, by identification. There are people who have astonishing sensitivity to the consciousness of animals and can empathise with them to an amazing degree, horse-whisperers and dog-whisperers and so on. One has to ask oneself whether this too is not a result of identification. If it is how is all this self-identification of the human and non-human world with other beings possible? The answer that Hermann Hesse, for example, gave to this question is that we all have greater or lesser access to aspects of the universal psyche and more specifically to the universal memory. We tend to think of individuals of any species as isolated units, cut off from all but their own experience. This is surely wrong. Individuals are only relatively speaking individuals. They are only relatively speaking separate. In actual fact no identifiable individual is ultimately separate from the entire movement of reality as a single whole, from what physicist David Bohm called the ‘holomovement’. Each individual is as it were a sort of vortex on the vast river of Being that seems to flow from past to future. (I say ‘seems’ here, because although the individual beings move from past to future, Being, itself does not move, since it is timeless.) There are moments, however, when individuals become aware of their status as local manifestations of the entire movement of the phenomenal cosmos. At such times they are aware that their individuality is that of the vortex or eddy in the river. It is impossible to separate the eddy from the flow – you can not take it away from the river; similarly, it is impossible to separate the individual from the flowing ocean of reality or Being. Since this the case, it is reasonable to postulate that reality as a whole possesses memory. This memory of Being is acquired by individuals, but independent of them. At times, then, the universal memory re-enters the consciousness of the individual and suffuses it with a sense of its own universality. It is at such moments that the feats of identification between individual and other become possible. Some individuals possess this ability to a much higher degree than others. Some possess it to a very precise degree, with reference to other individuals or even to individuals of other species. But it is the awareness of the infinity of the universal memory into which the experience of every creature, and probably every identifiable unit of reality, plunges it that is at the heart of the human awareness of the infinity of the self; and it is this that provides our conscious interest in all other individuals, human or not.

For the religious, the essence of sin is egoism, surely? Why? The refusal to accept divine revelation is the only possibility open to consciousness apart from faith, where ‘faith’ means that the personality is rooted, not in the immediate ego-awareness, but in the universal objective psyche, part of which is the universal memory. For the religious, whatever is not of faith is sin – that means that the ego can only bring about its own destruction if it insists on the exclusive validity of its own little authority. It should be obvious to every individual that the individual, alone, is nothing at all. The individual only has substance by contrast with others. To assert that the ego-awareness is ultimately authoritative and of ultimate value, to deny that the personality, the mind, the intellect, the self, in short, is rooted in a psychic realm that transcends the ego in every possible respect, is to miss out on the richness of the mind and to sink into separation from the deepest sources of the mind, of which the brain is only one. That missing out is what is meant by ‘sin’. Functionalisation performs this feat and brings about what Kierkegaard calls ‘spiritlessness’. Both are a kind of death. The egoist is dead without being aware of it. The individual who insists upon the unique authority of the ego is similarly dead, without necessarily being aware of it. Individuals such as Richard Dawkins, who admit only the authority of the rational ego, are dead without being aware of it.
Once one has realised that there are only two possible ways of structuring consciousness - egoism or faith - then everything else slips into place. One either recognises that one is as psychically dependent as one is physically dependent on something far vaster, older and more powerful than oneself (physically, on the whole configuration of all the matter in the universe, psychically on the psychic equivalent of all the matter in the universe); or else one denies this dependence outright and insists that one is dependent upon nothing and no-one but one’s own rational will and one’s desires (there are those who believe that one controls one’s desires). Of course you may say that there are an infinity of positions between these two extremes: dependence upon society, the group, the family, mankind, or whatever. But I have simply pushed these sorts of dependence to the limit, for each of them is contained in a more voluminous kind of dependence. And each sort of dependence is negated by a particular kind of assertion of independence. The essence of the religious consciousness (not all faith arises from religious consciousness) is the abandonment of the illusion of ego-independence and the rooting of the personality in the universal psychic. The notion of ‘God’ is no more than the awareness that the personality is thus rooted in an infinite, objective source of all reality. The essence of atheism, of the Dawkins variety for example, is the inability to understand the futility of ego-independence; it is analogous to the incapacity of the tone-deaf or to those who have a tin ear for poetry. In the grand scheme of things no doubt the human race requires the extreme focus that is provided by the ego-obsessed in their autistic drive to comprehend all of reality with their own immediate ego-resources. But in the end, it will always be the religious consciousness that triumphs, because this alone can motivate, this alone can provide the kind of desires that yield large-scale human projects.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Is there anything in human life corresponding to the ancient notion of sin; and - a closely related question - is there anything corresponding to the notion of redemption? The atheistic Existentialists could not believe in sin, since there was no God-given essence of human life from which to depart into a supposedly reprobate state. If they were going to be strictly consistent, they would have had to assert that any type of human life is as good as any other, or as bad, for there is no way of judging between them. But they did not do this. On the contrary, they made it their business to provide a means of choosing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ human lives. They called these ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ human lives. The notion of ‘authenticity’ as used by the atheistic Existentialists covers up much that is of a potentially theological nature. ‘Guilt’ is a concept much used by the atheistic Existentialists, and guiltiness - for what else is sin? - is attributed by them to the whole human race and to every individual in it.
So if there is no essence of human nature and no standard, therefore, by which to measure departures from the optimum human life, how can any judgement be made at all, how can any distinction be made between the type of life led by one individual or another? How can I be true to myself, i.e., ‘authentic’ if there is no structure to that self to which I am to be true? The answer is, of course, that very much is smuggled in to the notion of ‘authenticity’, so much, in fact, that human nature begins to acquire something very much like an essence after all. The need for commitment (to some self-selected cause, surely, rather than to one’s own nose-pickings, say?) is already the beginning of a definition of what constitutes the human essence. But much else follows in notions such as ‘concern’, ‘bad faith’ etc. These notions are in fact impossible without assuming a fundamental feature of human nature, even if that feature be no more than an infinitely malleable set of strategies – for example, humanity’s potentially intimate relatedness to the whole of the surrounding cosmos, starting with its immediate environment and the things and people within that.
In pronouncing human nature lacking in essence, the atheistic Existentialists (by which is meant the Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean branch of Existentialist thought as opposed to the Kierkegaardian branch) were anxious to do one very important thing: they were concerned to get away from the over-claustrophobic and ultimately death-dealing definitions of human nature dreamed up both by traditional religion and by reductionist science. But it must be said that they ended up insisting too much. To characterise the essential features of human nature by words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘nothingness’ is very laudable, since it avoids getting one’s own human nature into a straight jacket; but in fact nothing of importance has been said, or everything has been too briefly said. The words ‘freedom’ and ‘nothingness’ are left completely undefined for a very good reason: they seem to allow to humanity every possibility. They also avoid those richly fecund but vague God-words and soul-words, with their essentialist baggage attached. But in the nothingness and the freedom, God and the soul are still lurking, though not necessarily in their essentialist forms. The loud protestations of the atheistic Existentialists are no more than an abolition of the anthropomorphic God of popular Christianity with his very human designs on the universe.
‘Inauthenticity’ or bad faith is in fact sin and ‘authenticity’ or being true to oneself is in fact redemption. Let us make no bones about that. Inauthenticity is getting one’s humanity wrong, authenticity is getting it right. And we mean here absolutely wrong and absolutely right, wrong and right in the context of the whole universe, not just wrong and right in the context of a tiny, parochial corner of it. The atheistic Existentialists, while protesting the absence of absolute standards of right and wrong wanted nevertheless to universalise their notions of authenticity and inauthenticity. It is obvious from their choice of vocabulary - just look at La Chute by Camus and the self-condemnatory moral outrage of its ‘juge-pénitent’ - that the concept of sin was uppermost in their minds and therefore, by implication, the concept of redemption.
The atheistic Existentialists knew all about the relation between the soul and God. Sartre knew in great detail about the soul’s desire to become God - that was the fundamental ‘uselessness’ of the human’s driving passion – but they were resistant to attributing metaphysical reality to such a God and for one very good reason: they would have had to proceed to some sort of definition, whereas they wished to preserve the infinite indeterminacy of the ‘freedom’ and ‘nothingness’ of the soul. Now these attributes are nothing if not divine, since they suggest infinite potential, infinite capability.
Existential guilt is a feature of non-knowing. We don’t know who or what we are for the simple reason that ‘knowing’ implies for us almost the same as ‘seeing’ or ‘touching’. We wish to know ourselves in as unambivalent a way as we know our own artefacts, the things we make ourselves. We wish to define ourselves in terms only of what we can perceive about ourselves. This is evident in our wish to see ourselves as only a brain, a brain on legs, endowed with various support mechanisms, but essentially a brain - a handfast object which can be seen to function like a machine, taken to pieces like a machine and, perhaps, put together like a machine.
Yet we know that if we do this, if we define ourselves as the brain we now understand, let us say, as fully as we understand our pocket-calculator, we know that we will not have got to the bottom of ourselves because of the problem of the nothingness of our self. That’s the problem: we are essentially indefinable, infinite nothings. Our consciousness is strung between complete nescience, complete nothingness, infinite unknowing, on the one hand, and the desire for god-like complete certainty about ourselves and everything else, i.e., omniscience, on the other.
We want to define ourselves in terms only of ourselves and our own experience of ourselves, ourselves as objects of sense-experience. However, the self-referential problem which that creates is insuperable. The brain which knows itself is already beyond itself and it cannot therefore be the brain alone which knows itself. Imagine the absurdity of this: a computer powerful enough to design and manufacture other computers more powerful than itself that would redesign and remanufacture itself to be more powerful and do yet more complex things. The human ego in its desire to understand itself is guilty of similar absurdities in the way it thinks about itself. The human being aware of his nothingness, his infinite indefinability, can do only two things: he can choose to know himself completely and absolutely, as a brain, for example, and accept the absolute sterility of that position; or he can define himself in terms of something else, something greater than himself: the unknowable intelligent universe, or the unknowable God, for example.
Guilt is precisely not knowing who or what one is, seeing no sense or meaning in oneself or one’s world and being unable to commit oneself to any view either of oneself or of one’s world. One is therefore left without any identity at all; and in a creature for which identity is paramount that creates anxiety. One is no-one; yet one is conscious of being someone. That creates anxiety and the anxiety generates guilt. One is in a state of sin because of one’s lack of definition, one’s lack of identity. One can define oneself in terms of prevailing fashions, conventions, moral codes, religious beliefs and so on. But this would only compound the guilt because one would be becoming what one is not, one would be inauthentic. One can define oneself in terms of one’s nothingness, but that is only to compound the guilt, which arises from lack of identity. One can claim that one knows oneself fully, as a brain or some other mechanism resembling one of our artefacts, but the guilt remains because such strategies ultimately fail to convince.
The solution to guilt is therefore the Kierkegaardian ability to see oneself as subsidiary, partial, finite, imperfect and as being entirely dependent on the superordinate being which is the universe one doesn’t and can’t understand but which gave rise to one in the first place. One can see oneself as being entirely dependent upon the source of one’s life and intelligence (neither of which one can understand); and one can attribute to this source all the perfections which one lacks: complete self-understanding, complete power over one’s self, complete knowledge of the universe (which cannot be less than the ability to reproduce the universe, or re-create it) and so on until one has given it all the traditional attributes of God.
The essence of sin is to consider the personality, one’s own or that of another individual, in terms of functionality alone; this is analogous to Kant’s thoughts about treating human nature as a means and not as an end in itself; that is to say objectifying and dehumanising the human. The functional man or woman is wholly interchangeable with another person whose function is the same, just as machines which do identical tasks are interchangeable. Since functional persons are interchangeable, they have no distinct identity beyond the function. Their value, hence, is entirely determined by the efficiency with which they perform the function. If a task is to be done and two functional persons are available to do it, the choice between them is simple: it depends on efficiency alone. The less efficient functional person is therefore dispensable, disposable and can be thrown away.
Thus do guilt or ‘sin’ and redemption arise in every situation of human life.