I. Man as Potentiality
“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing -- a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process -- an integral function of the universe.”
-Buckminster Fuller, I Seem to be a Verb
Humans do not have a nature except for their ability to change it. We collectively constitute the species whose essence lies in its existence, a pure potentiality in the shape of an animal. Our form is woefully devoid of any content, and this is not because of some inability to fulfill our supposed functions, but because potentiality, by definition, cannot be comprised of a definite substance (even eventually) without destroying itself and transforming into its opposite. This notion is commonly expressed in all the cynical banalities about the putative impossibility of human happiness -- cliches which are unable or unwilling to comprehend the “joy with no outlet” with which each human is blessed. To fulfill man’s potential would also be to abolish it.
II. God as Potentiality Fulfilled
“...the primary essence has not matter; for it is fulfillment (ἐντελέχεια)."
-Aristotle, Metaphysics (Book XII, Chapter 8)
The flaw of every theism is to imagine god, paradoxically, as a potentiality fulfilled -- hence the hackneyed idea that “man has made god in his idealized image.” For the ancients, this fulfillment represented the finalized potential of humankind. If god represents humanity perfected, then the aporias which arise in such a being are not due to a logical gap, but an historical one: man historically mistook his own potential as being completable. By giving a face and a name to god, man damned himself for all time to the pursuit of an impossibility, worship of a content for which there is no mode of attainment. This is why ancient Judaism, although it gave all sorts of characteristics to its god and therefore made the same mistake as every other theism, refrained, at least, from speaking his name. This is also why Humanism, and then Old Hegelianism, remained essentially theistic movements: although they elevated man to the level of a deity, deified-man was still specified and sculpted into stagnant artifacts.
GLOSS α: Potentiality cannot itself contain anything actual whatsoever: actuality only arises as a fulfillment of a potentiality, as a potentiality’s completion. Hence, insofar as the form of man is potentiality, this form cannot attain any definite content. Happiness, for man, therefore cannot be gained by achieving whatever goal, but only through the very act of achieving, and therefore through his existence as such (one might fancy that if man were a painting, he would be a work of abstract expressionism). This is the main contribution made by the German school of existentialism.
GLOSS β: It was Jean-Paul Sartre who originally misinterpreted the pronouncements of German existentialism. Existence does not precede essence, as if, in the process of living, of being-there, one is eventually to reach some essential finality at which point they could finally rest in perfection. Rather, as Martin Heidegger has noted in Being and Time, Das ‘Wesen’ des Daseins liegt in seiner Existenz, which should be properly rendered as: the 'essence' of a being-which-is-there lies in its ek-sistence. And insofar as man’s ontological modality is being-there, the essence of his way of being is his very act of existing (this latter statement says so much while appearing to say so little). His essence is always already grasped, yet eternally out of reach. This is man’s peculiar curse and his only chance for experiencing real joy.
III. Man as God
“...the mere fact that I exist and have within me an idea of a most perfect being, that is, God, provides a very clear proof that God indeed exists.”
-Rene Descartes, Meditations
God, for the present age, must therefore be turned on his head and reimagined as a potentiality not merely unfulfilled but unfulfillable. If this is really the true nature of god, then only man himself can be indicated as an example of any sort of deity. The supposed arrogance of such a statement is vindicated by the fact that man is the only animal who is able to imagine god, and hence the only animal which is truly godly. In this light, Descartes’s proclamations on the existence of god (which have been ridiculed almost universally) must be reexamined: that humans can imagine a perfect being does not prove that such a being must exist somewhere out of sight, but rather proves the excellence and divine nature of our own thought here and now. Descartes’s argument is therefore revealed as correct, with the only caveat being that god does not exist outside of us, but finds his seat in human subjectivity and potentiality itself. And the process of History continues to prove our divine nature: we can now travel and communicate more quickly than Hermes, wage wars more destructively than Ares, harvest crops more efficiently than Demeter. It is as if man is on a quest to produce everything from nothing; however, the fact that this journey must always remain in progress (its realization being impossible) does not reveal a pathetic weakness but on the contrary defines divinity itself.
GLOSS: It should come as no surprise that the first existentialists felt the need to posit the death of God before beginning their philosophical endeavors. Even Soren Kierkegaard, whom some regard as a theologian more than a philosopher, admits that his belief in God constitutes a “leap of faith.” Only in this sense is Kierkegaard’s philosophy cowardly, or at least contradictory: upon unlocking, at last, the gates which enclose the thrill of existence, he locks them shut again in a final moment of sheer Angst and throws away the key, nonetheless still imagining himself positioned at some sort of divine threshold. So much for Either / Or. An absurdist, like Camus, he attempts to resuscitate his forsaken God and, in failing to do so, deludedly wheels around His dead, johnny-gowned corpse. On this point, the truly brave existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche could not deviate more.
IV. Artificial Selection
“If two men were to eat nuts together, and the one liked only the shell, the other only the kernel, one may say that they match one another well. What the world rejects, casts away, despises, namely the sacrificed man, the kernel -- precisely upon that God sets the greatest store, and treasures it with greater zeal than does the world that which it loves with the greatest passion.”
Soren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon “Christendom”
"Let us therefore trust the eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion too!"
Mikhail Bakunin, "The Reaction in Germany"
The universe was not created from nothing; rather, the concept of “nothing” only arose because of the being of the universe. Conversely, the ability for humans to conceive of negativity demonstrates their very ability to create something from nothing: by definition, there cannot be a no-thing -- yet we nevertheless conjured up its concept (a pure concept which therefore must find its seat a priori in the human mind). That this concept is pure and a priori perfectly reveals the godliness of human potentiality: negation is the modality of man which brings about nothing from something, which is, to say the same thing, the ability to bring about something from nothing. The conscious destruction of the possibility of natural selection for humankind (which has already been largely accomplished) furthermore signifies our mastery and ownership of negation itself, and represents that with the birth of contemporary humanity came the end of Prehistory. Negation does not define the being of the world. Rather, humans define the being of the world in terms of negation.
GLOSS α: Many authors have theorized about what alien life might look like. There is a peculiar paranoia in this field: the alien is always imagined as incomprehensibly intelligent, and much further evolved. However, there is an end in the process of natural selection, and it occurs at that moment when nature, for all intents and purposes, is “conquered” and artificial selection is undertaken by that species upon which only natural selection acted previously. Man, insofar as he has essentially reached this stage, is therefore the highest form biology can take (this is not to imply that other organisms could not also reach an equal stage in natural evolution; but they could never go beyond it). An alien species could only ever be technologically ahead of us, but not biologically more advanced.
GLOSS β: The laws of conservation tell us that negation is not a facet of the physical world. There does not exist an entity that can be materially annihilated, properly speaking. Negation can therefore only arise as a metaphysical concept. This is why it took a relatively long time for the concept of “zero” to enter into studies of arithmetic. This is also why G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy can only be understood as a metaphysical system, and why it is only speciously related to Charles Darwin’s biological theories of natural selection. Although Geist self-negates, it is never annihilated. One can say that the being of the world itself is negative only if said being involves merely the metaphysical aspects of the world. In pursuing artificial selection, man does not materially annihilate anything, but he metaphysically changes everything.
“Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you."
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
-Romans 8:8-9 and 8:18
“Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the Earth.”
For the secular age, faith is analogous to blind belief, to conviction without reason. Faith is often contrasted with science; yet science functions at its core by means of the faith it has in its own axioms, which cannot themselves be proven, as Kurt Godel has shown with his incompleteness theorems (remember that Godel remained a strong believer in a personal god throughout his life): hence John D. Barrow is able to write that mathematics “is the only religion that can prove itself to be one” (The Artful Universe). Faith must be maintained in the face of systems which cannot prove their own consistency. Otherwise, in an ironic twist, the concept of truth itself would need to be abandoned. Faith in man-as-god merely implies the belief (floating groundlessly, by necessity) in the infinite potentiality of each individual, the indefatigable ability to overcome oneself. Only in this way can Christianity and the thought of Nietzsche be reconciled. Christ’s sympathy for the meek in no way contradicts a desire for greatness: suffering through misfortune in order to overcome oneself is in fact the definition of passion (note that “passion” comes from the Latin pati “to suffer, to endure”). Man’s divine grandiosity can only be revealed by his very meekness.
GLOSS: Kurt Godel has shown that no consistent system can also be complete, and that no complete system can be consistent. A consistent system can never be complete because it can never express the consistency of itself. If it did express such consistency, it would reach completion but immediately run into self-referential paradoxes, thus disrupting its supposed consistency. Any consistent system of science (in the sense of the German Wissenschaft, “knowledgehood,” or the Latin sciens, “knowing”) therefore requires faith from its adherents -- faith in its very consistency. Without said faith, one cannot begin to gain knowledge through it. Hence, faith is revealed as a fundamentally scientific concept, rather than a religious one: science, as systematic pursuit of knowledge, is a fundamental prerequisite of religion. One must always have faith that one’s scientific system of choice is consistent.
VI. Beyond Secularism
"A truth isn't a view on the world but what binds us to it in an irreducible way. A truth isn't something we hold but something that carries us."
-Julien Coupat, The Coming Insurrection
“From the ruin of Heaven, man fell into the ruins of his own world.... I have little to choose between the doubtful pleasure of being mystified and the tedium of contemplating a reality which does not concern me, a reality I have no grasp on: isn't this the old lie reconditioned, the ultimate stage of mystification?”
-Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life
Secularism is not the lack of religion, but a religion of lack: while positively affirming man as an unfulfillable potentiality -- as god --, it simultaneously deprives this potentiality of any outlet. Yet insofar as secularism underlies the age of nihilism in which we currently find ourselves (in the same way that Christianity grounded the medieval period), it can only be regarded as a transitory religion, one which does not take on a life of its own but rather functions as a prolonged interrogative and, conversely, as a sort of anti-mystery (ἀντί-μυστήρια) of which each person, however unwilling, is always already an initiate (μύστης). Answering this question-without-mystery, this question which is a secret to no one, is the present mystical (μυστικός) task of humanity. If there is any sense in defining secularism as the absence of religion, it is revealed in the fact that secularism involves a refusal to bind-fast (religere, from which we derive the term "religion") to anything -- hence the secular skeptic, who attempts to tear asunder every truth while finding none of his own. In moving beyond secularism, man must find again his passions, truths which he refuses to give up despite any suffering he might be forced to endure. The only figure adequate for representing the coming post-secular humanity is therefore the martyr, a figure in which, again, Christianity and the thought of Nietzsche coincide. As the pagan emperors martyred Christians, and as Christians martyred heretics, secularism martyrs martyrdom itself. Sacrifice not of livestock to Zeus nor of myrrh to Christ but of oneself to oneself (i.e. to one's own truths) will be the rite of the cults of passion to come.
GLOSS α: Each age of human history is grounded, at least in part, by a religion, that is, by a set of beliefs to which the humans of that age bind-fast. Each age also produces artifacts by the excavation of which anthropologists might come to understand said religion.
One might say, for example, that ancient Greece and Rome were grounded by what is commonly termed “paganism,” an etymologically pejorative term, but one which will do here. The open, spacious halls of the Parthenon, with its sophisticated sculptures and its happy, everlasting columns, were the unconscious creative work of a people who held a sort of naive openness, generosity, and liberality engendered by the polytheistic aspects of their religion.
Meanwhile, the massive, gothic spires of Christian temples conveyed the sublime seriousness of their pious creators. Always looking towards God, their Cathedrals reached into the heavens, evangelizing every passerby with a curious mix of terror and sanctity.
And then there are the temples of today: enormous, glass skyscrapers -- those towers of Babel whose inhabitants do “not understand one another’s speech” --, looming sports stadiums, trendy art museums, and shopping malls. Nothing but neutrality, coldness, rationality, and a disgusting, neon pulchritude -- all the main features of secular nihilism.
GLOSS β: That the essence of our (f)act of being-there is existence does not imply the impossibility of finding any outlet to that existence, despite its technical lack of content. What is essential to each person’s being-there is their existence, with all of its peculiarities and turns of fate, with all of its bliss and distress, with its history just as much as its present and future; what is essential is each choice, but also each fact of being-there (for example, one’s dialect, hometown, or favorite food -- each of which can never authentically be considered a choice); and what is essential is the very play between choice and the given circumstances, which is the only activity capable of providing joy, even if it often results in a miserable inauthenticity and even if, regardless, it can never attain to any concrete end. Imagining existence as empty merely because it lacks identifiable content represents the prosaic ugliness of nihilism, and defines its fundamental enterprise.