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Chaosmos: Does religious ritual have to preserve humanity from chaos and entropy?

Recently I came across a theological post that struck me with fascination but one that, I concluded, was ultimately erroneous (the original article can be found here). The argument purports that the practice of liturgy is necessary to preserve humanity from the onrush of chaos. More specifically, the author David Gelernter notes that the second law of thermodynamics “helps to write a commentary on religion”. He claims additionally, more boldly this time, given the Second Law, science must therefore sit “at the feet of religion”. Although this statement is obscurely unclear, he implies that religion must defy the “onrush of chaos”, the propensity of the universe to run down. Or again, the entropy of the universe naturally moves towards chaos, disorder, and “mixed-upness”. To be sanctified then, according to Gelernter, is to separate “the forward-tumbling chaos of ordinary time” from the rest of existence.

Although the argument is provocative, if not at least interesting, there is plenty of scientific evidence and theoretical speculation that is pointing in a divergent direction. The claim presented here, as follows, argues that order or cosmos presupposes chaos, what we can describe as chaosmology, to use a Joycean phrase. A brief theological interpretation is attempted here in response to the aforementioned post, but the present argument will go much further in elaborating the distinct contribution of systems theory and the idea that systems, structures or existent entities in general require some degree of unsystematic, unstructured or unrepresentable substance as their necessary condition of possibility. (For what I consider a more persuasive account of theological ‘becoming’ see Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep, or related posts here and here).

A central axiom of dynamic systems theory is the notion that order emerges from and even presupposes chaos. In fact, even once constituted, chaos continues to circulate within identifiable and ordered entities as a vital force to the continuation of those very identities. Indeed, it is the very lifeblood or life-force of existent individuals. To be desiccated of these ‘crowned anarchies’ or ‘nomadic distributions’, to employ the terminology of Deleuze, identifiable entities would in effect – metaphorically – bleed out and die, or as Deleuze puts it, collapse into the immobile fascist body.

To use an example of Deleuze’s, the becoming of sedimentary rock is a process that involves the transformation of heterogeneous sedimentary particles through a filtering process into consistent, homogeneous layers. In other words, the identifiable entity of sedimentary rock is recognized through a process of differentiation and differenciation in which the ‘unstructured’ flows of sediment are strained and condensed to form a critical density mass. Indeed, the formalized and structured entity of sedimentary rock presupposes as its own condition of possibility the fluid and chaotic-like substance of sedimentary particles.

This process can again be reversed, as Deleuze notes in the opening of Difference and Repetition: “The constants of one law are in turn variables of a more general law, just as the hardest rocks become soft and fluid matter on the geological scale of millions of years. So at each level, it is in relation to large, permanent natural objects that the subject of a law experiences its own powerlessness…” (p. 2). Although the case cannot be seen as readily in rocks as in living organisms, “a dynamic system involves stability, slowness, and stratified elements, while also requiring the flexibility to adapt, transform, and destabilize these very elements” (Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 221). Put simply, the synthesis and cementation of heterogeneous elements into a homogeneous, self-consistent strata can always in turn collapse back into its disparate parts.

The point is, for Deleuze and Guattari, as follows: the differentiation of unstructured, indeterminate ‘anarchic’ flows is the necessary facilitation for the possibility of various new stable and consistent forms to emerge in the cosmos. Of course, this process does not guarantee success, but no new states or determinate substances can emerge without this condition. Or to repeat Nietzsche’s claim, one must have chaos in one’s self to give birth to a dancing star.

This peculiar tendency of stable objects emerging from ostensible chaos is lucidly described in detail in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, a passage worth quoting at considerable length:

A guiding question of recent work in dynamic systems is how order – that is, the sophisticated, stable patters which are readily apparent – are able to emerge despite the second law of thermodynamics, which states that order tends to move to chaos, or that systems in disequilibrium tend to move to equilibrium.[…] To take a frequently cited example, oil, when heated, will suddenly exhibit convection rolls and vortices as it is heated and before it boils. Before the oil is heated, the oil is in an equilibrium state in which entropy is at a maximum; in other words, the oil molecules are randomly scattered throughout the container such that no order or consistency is present. One section of the container would be indistinguishable from another. We thus have chaos, or a random set of points with no identifiable order, what is called ‘equilibrium thermal chaos.’ When heated, however, the oil moves away from equilibrium, and it is under these conditions that the convection rolls and vortices appear. Once the oil is in a full boil, chaos reappears, or ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos,’ and subsequently one section of the boiling oil is indistinguishable from any other. Dynamic systems and chaos theorists will pay particular attention to far-from-equilibrium conditions, and more precisely to the order which emerges at the critical threshold between equilibrium and non-equilibrium chaos.

The far-from-equilibrium conditions which give rise to spontaneous order most often occur during what is called phase transition. A phase transition is a transition between two steady and stable equilibrium states, such as liquid and gas, or liquid and solid. As these systems approach a phase transition, they enter a far-from-equilibrium state wherein self-organized patterns tend to emerge, and at a critical point (e.g., of temperature), there is a discontinuous jump to the new phase. Related to these phase transitions, and also occurring in far-from-equilibrium conditions, is the phenomenon of bifurcations. As Ilya Priogogine and Isabelle Stengers discuss bifurcations in their well-known book Order out of Chaos, a bifurcation point arises at a critical point where a system is poised to transition and when not just one stable state but, rather, ‘two new stable solutions emerge.’ For example, at the critical point where the stable solution of a convection roll appears in the heated oil the rolling motion may assume either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction – both solutions are possible. Which solution, or which branch of the bifurcation the system will ‘choose,’ is impossible to predict: ‘How will the system choose between left and right? There is an irreducible random element; the macroscopic equation cannot predict the path the system will take … We are faced with the chance events very similar to the fall of dice.’ As the oil is heated, further bifurcations appear, rolls within rolls, in what is called a process of ‘cascading bifurcations,’ which then leads to turbulent chaos. A bifurcation diagram of such a process between ‘equilibrium thermal chaos’ and ‘non-equilibrium thermal chaos’ is surprisingly ordered, or ‘order or coherence is sandwiched between thermal chaos and non-equilibrium turbulent chaos’ (Jeffrey Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, pp. 200-201)

Self-Centered Altruism, Part II

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud writes: “under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle. This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction, the abandonment of a number of possibilities of gaining satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road (Aufschub) to pleasure”

Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, vol 18, p. 10, quoted in Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 19.

I think this is a remarkable quote, to touch again on the nature of selfish altruism. Freud’s point, while not dealing with ethical norms in particular here, is that all living is for pleasure, even if it happens to be a detour. The quote comes in a section by Derrida in Margins of Philosophy that pertains to putting the authority of the consciousness into question. Derrida argues, following both Freud and Nietzsche, that consciousness is anything but presence, what we popularly privilege subjective existence to be. On the contrary, consciousness is always the effect of “byways” and “modalities” that are not proper to it (p. 17). I take this to be of significant import in regards to altruism because it expresses that we are never fully cognizant of our true motives. There is a topography of differing forces underlying what we represent as the conscious.

If atheism is an enemy, who needs friends?

In my undergraduate studies as a theology student I had a professor recount an experience he had on an Ash Wednesday while he was attending Oxford for his Doctorate in philosophical theology. As the story roughly goes, one of his classmates approached him inquiring what he was giving up for Lent. Being the bold Lutheran that he was, my professor responded: “My piety!” This strategy of internal interrogation in Christianity seems to be similar to the effort made by Merold Westphal in “Atheism for Lent” in ‘God is Dead’ and I Don’t Feel so Good Myself.

Christians understand that there are leaps of faith involved in their beliefs, otherwise it wouldn’t be a walk of faith, but they don’t consider that faith to be arbitrary or irrational. Thus the task of apologetics is to articulate the arguments of the faith that makes sense of belief. Moreover, atheists seem to make the same effort to prove their own disbelief in the existence of God. On both sides, then, we have strategies employed to convince supporters of the internal rationale for the respective positions. However, and I believe Westphal is correct in this suggestion, “psychological, social, and moral factors play a large role in both directions” (p. 67). In other words, personal experience counts much more than rational arguments when it comes down to choosing sides. Apologetics are merely a tool to shore up some lingering doubts after the decision has already been made.

With that said, Westphal takes an interesting direction in revisiting apologetics from a perspective that deals more with praxis than doxa. For Randal Rauser, another contributing author to the work, there are factors beyond persuasive theological arguments that “make Christians look comical, dangerous, innocuous, irrelevant, and generally unpleasant” (p. 135). Some prime factors that make Christians appear ridiculous include the following: church roadside signs with trite captions, pedophile priests, white-suited televangelists, Christian bumper stickers, disinterest in social justice, life coach pastors offering motivational messages, blind nationalism, kitsch art, and Bible action figures. What Christianity needs then is not more reason giving but more skepticism.

A good place to start this pruning process is with the masters of suspicion. According to these figures, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, we should be more suspicious of theistic belief because there is always something more basic to the motives and reasons than we externally give credence to. As we will see, the manifest meaning of faith can be a “lofty disguise” in which we deceive ourselves from the “actual operative motives” determining our actions (p. 70). Starting with Freud, religious beliefs work as disguised wish fulfillments. “What we would like is a God at our disposal, a powerful father figure who will take care of us, protect us from the indifference of nature’s forces, including both death and the rigid demands of society and culture” (p. 72). Therefore, according to Freud, we project our own desires onto an idol in order to justify and legitimatize our behavior. For Marx, on the other hand, it is ideology that provides this legitimizing role for society. “So moral, legal, metaphysical, and religious ideologies come onto the scene to provide theoretical justification of the political-economic system” (pp. 73-4). In brief, Marx suspects that the true function of the will of God is merely to justify the beneficiaries of exploitation and consol its victims. This ideology, after all, weakens the impetus of those exploited to rebel. Nietzsche’s suspicion of religion is different still. According to his popular “slave morality”, “slaves have no power, physical or social, with which to punish their oppressors, thereby wreaking their revenge and satisfying their resentment. So they use the only weapon available to them: language. They call their masters ‘evil’” (p. 76). Therefore, when believers speak of love and justice it is merely the “dark underside” of “resentment and revenge” (p. 76). In all three of these masters of suspicion we see the unmasking of religions that use self-deception to hide from others and themselves the true motivations of their beliefs and actions.

Where Westphal gets interesting is that he applies these hermeneutics of suspicion to Christianity itself. As moderns, we are really good at practicing critique on others, but “its proper function may be to practice it upon ourselves in a kind of Lenten self-examination” (p. 71). This is, however, not original with Westphal. Of course theologians have always been cross-examining their own tradition, but the prophets, Jesus and the apostles practiced internal investigation of their faith. To read the masters of suspicion, or atheism for that matter, for Lent is “to let ourselves, individually and collectively, be cross-examined so as to uncover the ways in which we are self-deceived about the social function of our piety” (p. 75). In the story I opened with, it seems that my professor was undertaking this precise task.

However, and Westphal ends with this caution, suspicion can easily become an end-in-itself which leads to cynicism, despair, and hate. Doubtless, religiosity has had a historical knack for putting divine stamps of approval on atrocities, but it has also played a significant role in resisting injustice. “Religion, it would appear, is Janus-faced. It can be used to do the devil’s work, and it can function as a prophetic critique of social sin” (p. 74).

Lions and Children and Fanaticism, Oh My!

Although contemporary philosophers and religious fundamentalists appear to be bitter enemies, Meillassoux has aptly shown that they are more like friends than foes; they are but two sides of the same coin. That is because philosophy still asks important questions such as “why is the world thus and not otherwise?”, “where do we come from?” and “why do we exist?” but admits there is in fact no solution to such problems. Metaphysical questions such as these cannot be answered, they say, because our thought is intrinsically limited and inadequate to the task. Therefore, the questions remain but are surrounded by mystery and enigmas rather than clarity.

The remarkable outcome of this situation is a renewed recourse to superstition. Since it is still believed that there must be ineffable reasons underlying all things, some sort of constant absolute that escapes our intelligence, religiosity in all its forms has stepped into the gap. This is what Meillassoux has termed a “see-sawing between metaphysics and fideism.”

This scenario is not unlike the Nietzschean passage from Lion to Child that Žižek has commented on in The Parallax View. It reads as such:

[I]t is not yet possible for us, caught as we are in the web of the reflective attitude of nihilism, to enter the ‘innocence of becoming,’ the full life beyond justification; all we can do is engage in ‘self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness,’ that is, bring the moralistic will-to-truth to its self-cancellation, because aware of the truth about will-to-truth itself (that it is an illusion of and for the weak). We ‘cannot create new values,’ we can only be the Lion who, in an outburst of active nihilism, clears the table and thus ‘creates freedom for new creation’; it is after us that the Child will appear who will mark ‘a new Beginning, a sacred Yes’ (p. 43)

Žižek’s point is the same as Meillassoux’s: the critique of metaphysics (the “attitude of nihilism”) can only clear the table of dogmatism. However, in its wake, this space-clearing gesture provides an opening for “new beginnings,” “new creations” and “new values;” viz., Nietzsche’s will-to-power. The only viable gesture left after radical doubt, in other words, is a just do it spontaneity that is “not covered by any rational consideration.” This “innocent” child-like wager (read becoming) is a “fundamental practico-ethical decision about what kind of life one wants to commit oneself to” that is founded on nothing other than radical irrationality; what Badiou calls “anti-philosophy” and attributes to the legacy of both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. What Žižek fails to miss, it seems, and the possibility that Meillassoux suggests, is that these post-metaphysical choices include the most menacing ones. In the simplest possible terms: all professions of faith whatsoever are legitimated, even the worst forms of violence that are divinely sanctioned for an elect few. Meillassoux insists, rather, that we can indeed answer the aforementioned metaphysical questions with affirmative solutions to avoid fideistic outbreaks while simultaneously steering clear of a regression to dogmatism:

As a result, metaphysical problems are revealed always to have been genuine problems, since they do admit of a solution. But their resolution depends on one precise and highly constraining condition – that we begin to understand that in reply to those metaphysical questions that ask why the world is thus and not otherwise, the response ‘for no reason’ is a genuine answer. Instead of laughing or smiling at questions like ‘Where do we come from?’, “why do we exist?’, we should ponder instead the remarkable fact that the replies ‘From nothing. For nothing’ really are answers, thereby realizing that these really were questions – and excellent ones at that. There is no longer a mystery, not because there is no longer a problem, but because there is no longer a reason (After Finitude, 110)

Revaluing the abject

In lieu of my recent post on the transvaluation of the abject in Kristeva (here) I thought I’d provide some further background and examples to this approach to overturning moral idiosyncrasies of the status quo. The term ‘transvaluation,’ of course, was popularized by Nietzsche’s revolutionizing of ethics. Rather than take for granted preestablished judgments of what counted as good and evil Nietzsche began by asking new questions about assumptions that preceding philosophers had accepted as incontrovertible facts. His most famous and enduring example of this was in On The Genealogy of Morals, the resentment attitude of Christian morality. Nietzsche believed that religion on the whole, but Christianity in particular, resented excellence and had a strong antagonism against greatness. He attributed this predisposition for mediocrity to the conviction of priests that a certain leveling of human desires and passions was the equivalent of holiness. This happened historically, according to Nietzsche, by way of the weak resenting the powerful and subsequently interpreting meekness as a virtue in order to justify their lowly position rather than strive for greatness themselves. In other words, religion inverted traditional values of excellence and creativity since they couldn’t achieve such ends themselves. Therefore, what Nietzsche’s “transvaluation” of morality does, in a sense, is aright what has been previously been turned upside-down by malicious means.

Nietzsche’s example is perhaps the most abstract judgment of morality but serves as a useful tool in applying to more specific examples. Take Žižek’s example for instance. The penis performs the most base function, that of urination. Such expulsion of defiling fluids is as close as you get to the abject of human existence. On the other hand, the penis also functions as the most pleasurable organ in the body; the site of orgasm. Žižek’s point is that the same object in consideration is simultaneously valued and deplored in two extreme limits.  (Although I cannot locate the exact quote in The Parallax View that I’m thinking of, his example is pretty simple—even if a bit obscene). Theologically this is akin to the cross of Christ. The hanging corpse of God from a tree is perhaps the most ignoble image imaginable, but for Christians it is paradoxically the most redemptive. The death of God enigmatically means the salvation of humanity. The point of both examples is to show how abject objects can simultaneously be exalted.

In one of my more favorite quotes by Deleuze and Guattari from A Thousand Plateaus F. Scott Fitzgerald is evoked as a figure who revalues morals.  

Fitzgerald: Perhaps fifty percent of our friends and relations will tell you in good faith that it was my drinking that drove Zelda mad, and the other half would assure you that it was her madness that drove me to drink. Neither of these judgments means much of anything. These two groups of friends and relations would be unanimous in saying that each of us would have been much better off without the other. The irony is that we have never been more in love with each other in all of our lives. She loves the alcohol on my lips. I cherish her most extravagant hallucinations (pp. 206)

In this passage and the surrounding text Deleuze and Guattari argue for a simulacrum of Nietzsche’s “transvaluation”: what they name as “a new acceptance” and “a new happiness.” For them, what Fitzgerald undertakes in his opposition to the judgments of his friends and friends is an entirely different value criterion about his relation with Zelda. He cherishes the strain, and supposedly she does too. In other sections Deleuze and Guattari go so far as to measure despair, morose and breaking as successes. In all examples they are revaluing what is generally taken as contemptible.