The second of my five religions, Zen Buddhism, came about entirely as a consequence of a famous tale you allude to in your wonderful letter. The library at the University of Manchester, where I studied until gaining my Masters degree, was a wonderful resource for me during my time as a student. Although I do not remember the details, I read something about the Last Patriarch’s teachings there, and it went something like this:
The nun Wu Jincang once asked Huineng to explain passages of the Nirvana Sutra to her. Huineng couldn't read, and he asked her to read the passages aloud. Astonished that the revered Zen master could neither read nor write, Jincang wondered how Huineng could understand the teachings. Huineng replied: “Words are not truth. Truth is like the moon, and words are like my finger. I can point to the moon with my finger, but my finger is not the moon. Do you need my finger to see the moon?”
I spent a great deal of time that night meditating upon the gloriously full moon, a little about my finger, and a great deal about the space in between. Space. The space between. The space beyond. When I could be any or all of these, I went to bed. I thought to myself: How arbitrary it is that we should see ourselves as the finger, and as not-the-moon, when we might just as well consider ourselves the spaces in between – since without that, we could never be not-anything!
This lunar encounter served me well until about five years later I hit a terrifying crisis of identity when I lost faith in any ability to use words to communicate at all. I began to fray at the edges… If everyone’s words were their own symbols, how could we ever manage to communicate? Did we? Or were we just braying at each other at random, each one watching a different play on the stage we had been thrown together upon? I was a practicing Discordian at the time, getting my religious community fix from a cabal of strange and wonderful folks who had come upon the journey into chaos with me. We were all wrapped up in our own strange adventures. That was always the risk of leaving the clearly marked paths behind… of being set adrift, becoming a nomad. And we are all becoming nomads these days.
With a flair for the Biblical inherited from the time when Christianity was my only religion, I spent forty days and forty nights hitchhiking across the country, staying with friends. Upon my return, I left Manchester and moved to London, where I began working as a professional videogame designer. I had the honour of working with Sir Terry Pratchett – although not a knight of the realm in those days! – and indeed spent a launch party sat next to him and his agent, Colin Smythe, having a marvellous chat about writing and publishing. Alas, I was young and cocky, too arrogant to truly appreciate how much that night was to come to mean to me. My first book came into print soon afterwards.
Years later, Wittgenstein helped me make sense of my problem with words. He was long gone, of course, but he left his words behind, which meant I could listen to him even if he could not hear me. He made clear how words could be understood as belonging to the many different games of language: the meaning of the word was its use within the game it was deployed within. (“I don’t buy that” means one thing in a courtroom; quite another in a shop.) That meant if you wanted to be sure you were using the words correctly, you had to know which game you were playing. That’s precisely the problem with what you call the God NoGod argument: two very different games are being played that just happen to have identical rules. But once you realise that, once you take that idea aboard, you risk being set adrift from living life in one particular way – you risk becoming a nomad.
Peter Lamarque, perhaps Britain’s greatest living aesthetician, awoke in me a whole new way of riding Wittgenstein’s thought when he expressed how beneath it all was the concept of a practice, of lived practices. At which point, Isabelle Stenger’s idea of an ecology of practices, as a manifold of games, or (as I put it in Chaos Ethics) a multiverse, was the only way to understand our mutual predicament. This multiverse, or pluriverse as William James also puts it, is an idea I develop from Michael Moorcock, who – rather amazingly – is also origin of the use of ‘multiverse’ to mark the physicist’s imagined plurality of universes, a quaintly nontheological reverie if ever there was one. Yet at least one of my Discordian friends speaks of having personally experienced this physical multiverse… Should I treat him differently from those who speak of God, or the Goddess, or even of the Universe? What does a nomad do confronted with any singular way of being? What kind of reply is: there are other ways…
Thank you for the letter, and your continued friendship, albeit of the nomadic, disembodied kind where we have never met in the flesh. I place more stock on flesh these days, but then, I also have a great deal of faith in words.
With unlimited love,
Any and all replies are welcomed, whether in the comments, or via a blog.
Over at the marvellously eclectic Zenpundit, Charles Cameron sends me a blog letter that mashes together my recent lightweight post on atheology with my recent featherweight post on No Man’s Sky. Written in what Charles terms a “poetico-philosophical” language, it combines Borges’ Library of Babel, the Zen koan about the moon, and apophatic theology. Here’s an extract:
The marks, the comma and period, I am habituated to. They are articulation points among the bare bones of the letters, bodying them out into words, langue, langue, language – again, fire and insight, but also scratches, pecked out with pen, keyboard or chisel – but space.
And I was reading about this game, No Man’s Sky, this game gaming space, deep space, as the books within Borges’ book, within Borges and now shared out among us, game all possible verbal coherences with all possible incoherences, all partials, wholes, and almost nothings, an “a” that may be word or mark, an ‘o” that may close the book, galaxy, universe, be zero, lack sound or howl fury.. and those illimitable periods, commas, spaces.
You can read the entirety of Charles’ No Man’s Sky over at Zenpundit. It feels difficult to adequately respond to something written in this style, but in the spirit of the Republic of Bloggers, I will give it a go…
You might have noticed a little game came out recently called No Man’s Sky. If you didn’t, you must be trawling a different part of the internet from me because I have been invaded, cajoled, frustrated, and panhandled by No Man’s Sky ads so much at this point that I’m pretty committed to not buying it. Mind you, I had already swayed against since it’s not at all what I wanted – which is just a slightly more polished Noctis. For those of you looking to read something about No Man’s Sky, however, here’s the roundup:
- Don’t know what the game is? Start with Gareth Damian Martin’s rather reasonable review, which is let down by never mentioning Noctis.
- Heard about its technical problems? Well the developers say that “Less than one percent” of players have reported issues. They mean ‘have raised a support ticket’. Most players report issues by bitching into Twitter.
- Lewie Procter, on the other hand, complains about the “lack of multiplayer”, which was at least (he says) implied, if not outright promised.
- Brendan Caldwell skips straight to ballistic and wades in with accusations of “broken promises”.
- Brendan Keogh offers a counter-Brendan, trying to drum up sanity from the internet.
- …and the same kind of “seriously you guys?” with a lot more amusing swearing can be found in Rob’s rambling retort.
- Lastly, if (like me) you just wish No Man’s Sky was actually a buffed-up Noctis, there’s Dylan Roberts’ piece, Before No Man’s Sky there was Noctis, which might explain why that was what I personally wanted.
Is the opening image from No Man’s Sky or Noctis? Actually, neither, it’s Frig’s mock ups of Noctis V, the sequel that doesn’t exist, as posted to Anynowhere. If you’re making a Noctis-style game, please do let me know, because No Man’s Sky just isn’t Noctis enough for my tastes.
Cross-posted from ihobo.com.
As part of my work on the lineages of player practices, I’m beavering away on a five part serial looking at game inventories. It was originally going to be just one post entitled The Joy of Sets, but it has predictably spun out of control and has turned into a bigger project. I will be taking pairs of games and looking at the lineage connections between them, which is not simply a matter of saying what influenced what directly. For instance, Notch never played Dungeon Master to my knowledge – but the design of Minecraft inherits almost the entirety of its inventory practices from it. This will be my big serial for this year, and I hope to kick it off soon. Stay tuned!
Cross posted from ihobo.com.
Contains ideas some atheists may find offensive.
A well-known joke states that since every religion involves disbelieving the gods of other religions, atheism merely involves disbelieving just one more god. The profound truth upon which this joke relies is that atheism is necessarily theology, and as such, does not involve an escape from religious practices, but merely their transformation into yet another form.
This is one of the great oddities of the European diaspora: the presumption that the atheist is the person who has successfully freed themselves of religion. For many, this is essentially their definition of the term, which is thus the source of the valorisation making atheism an appealing identity to adopt. Those who count themselves as an atheist (of the Christian kind, at least) tend to underestimate the extent to which their thought depends upon the thought practices of the very religion they wish most fervently to distance themselves from. This does not make atheism a religion as such; it utterly fails to sustain a community of care, for a start. Rather, it draws a historical connection between individual atheists and the religions they are rejecting – the most common form of atheism today being a rejection of all things Christian, with all other religions taken as mere variations on Christianity.
This odd qualification – the idea of a Christian-flavoured atheist – reads strangely for precisely the reason that the joke works: the concept of religion it relies upon is dependent upon the form of theology that emerges out of European Christianity, and thus from the philosophy of Plato that influenced it. Not coincidentally, this is also the theology that gave rise to the contemporary sciences (and also their valorisation as the nebulous omnicapable ungod Science). It is the equation of religion with belief, understood as the acceptance of propositions without evidence, and this is a very particular and peculiar kind of theology.
We will find no such propositional theology among Buddhist atheists, such as the Dalai Lama, nor among those of the Hindu traditions, whether or not their path involves bakhti, or devotional worship. And it is not entirely clear what a Shinto practitioner would make of any of this. Similarly, if we look at the relationship between what we now term religion around the Mediterranean prior to Christianity, we find that the different gods were not competing propositions, but merely a pool of different names for the same entities, and this never quite managed to generate a contradiction until emperors made themselves gods-on-earth and spoiled the game for everyone.
It is the peculiar legacy of the core traditions of the Abrahamic faiths (and I exclude here traditions like Sufi Islam, which straddles between the God of Abraham and the Dharmic faiths) to risk founding theological thought upon the assumption that our god is the only real god. The story of Bel and the Dragon in the Judaic sacred texts (apocryphal to Christians) is precisely a forensic investigation at to why Bel (or Baal) is not a god. This scripture is the first detective story, the Sherlock Holmes mythos millennia before its time. Yet to equate this kind of exclusionary theology with all religions is terribly misleading. What’s more, the success of Christianity – or better yet what Kierkegaard called Christendom – is precisely an artefact of the sheer success of this theology, and a reminder of precisely why our sciences were able to grow out of it.
The question of what kind of atheist someone might be when they claim this identity is thus far more complex than it originally appears, in part because of the sheer historical influence of theology in European culture. For many atheists, the rationality of their atheological position depends upon whether god (and even more so God) is a proposition (equivalently: a hypothesis) and therefore whether that proposition is true, meaning, existing in reality (itself a perverse understanding of theology). In such cases there can be little doubt that the people in question are still practicing a variation on the kind of deistic theology well-known to the men and women of the Enlightenment and the centuries thereafter.
The kind of critique I am advancing here entails an uncovering of the practices of thought entailed in personal identities that thrive on distancing from religion – and this is almost completely obscured by the idea that you must be either a theist or an atheist or agnostic. It is in no way natural from, say, Hindu theology to understand matters this way (nor is it in any way accurate to consider those particular traditions to be polytheistic, i.e. as comprising of a set of gods instead of one God). The three way split is only the false choice between the theist presupposing a certain theology and thus requiring theodicy (i.e. the problem of how God allows evil); the atheist presupposing the failure of theodicy and thus requiring atheology; or playing this game without conclusion for the agnostic. The entire framework here is Christian theology.
Thus anyone for whom the joke about disbelieving just one more god adequately works, not just as a joke but as a mission statement, is necessarily engaged in theological practices that are resolutely and inescapably Christian in their origin and nature. Christian-atheist would be a misleading term, but perhaps achristian atheist is not far from the mark. To reject theology entirely requires a very different capacity, and is what I suspect motivates so many deep thinkers today to focus instead upon ontology, which is effectively non-theology. There is no complete rejection to be found here, only various kinds of righteousness to be generated by different kinds of allegiance or conversion, and various forms of non-participation, whether secular or otherwise.
Over a century ago, Nietzsche remarked that “the complete and definitive victory of atheism might free mankind of this whole feeling of guilty indebtedness toward its origin” – and I suppose he was right, but not in the way that he intended. For what has emerged instead, which Nietzsche would have reviled, is a kind of widespread willed ignorance concerning how most atheological thought comes to reach any kind of conclusion about god-concepts. Disbelieving ‘just one more god’ is not rejecting theology: it is just another version of Christendom’s insistence upon a single mandatory theology. Both the religious and the non-religious can do better.
Also in the same post, a 'call for allies' outlining my research interests and inviting collaboration from all and sundry on the topics of Player Practices, Philosophy of Imagination, and Multiverse/Pluriverse/Ecology of Practices. If that's you, take a look and get in touch.
5. Max Stirner The Ego and its Own (1844)
Nominated by J. Moesgaard
The last of the nominated books to clear 10,000 hits, Moesgaard remarks that it is “largely unknown but a fantastic rejection of ideology in favour of radical personal freedom.” The introduction to the first English language edition of the book in 1907 goes further than this, and remarks that “the memory of Max Stirner had been virtually extinct for an entire generation.” Stirner, however, warrants an entry in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (if not the IEP), which stresses the tremendous influence of this text upon Karl Marx’s thought. Sometimes viewed as a precursor to Nietzsche, the lasting impact of this particular book seems to have been upon contemporary anarchist thought, which has adopted it as a key text in part because of Stirner’s suggestion that the rise of egoism would ultimately result in the collapse of the State. This particular prediction seems to be in error, but Stirner’s text still has much to offer those who would side with him in considering the State apparatus an illegitimate institution.
4. Alasdair MacIntyre Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990)
Nominated by Chris Bateman
This is the book that inspired this whole whimsical endeavour, and it’s the youngest title in the countdown at a mere 26 years old. MacIntyre is one of those folks that people like to say is ‘arguably the greatest living philosopher’, although this perspective is largely espoused from inside the Catholic church that Scottish-born MacIntyre defected to in the early 1980s. The book of his that is unanimously recommended is After Virtue, which is unfortunate as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry is a deeper, wider, and less polemic title. Not only the single best commentary on Nietzsche and Foucault’s work, it’s also a flawless exposition of how their philosophy utterly undermined the foundations of the Victorian encyclopaedia – not to mention a text with profound implications for epistemology and the contemporary university. Skip the five chapters explaining the history of Christian philosophy in the 13th and 14th century if you cannot bear such things and it’s still an incredible response to the genealogical and encyclopaedic perspectives of knowledge. Include them, and you have a book that profoundly reconfigures contemporary preconceptions about just about everything.
3. José Ortega y Gasset What is Philosophy? (1929)
Nominated by Judith Stout
Ortega is far from an unknown figure in Spanish philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has an article on his life and work. However, his prolific writings make it hard for any single work to stand out from the crowd. This title was adapted from his lectures and suggests that philosophy is “the radical study of the whole universe”, while aligning his work closely to that of Heidegger. Indeed, Ortega remarks that “to live is to find oneself in the world”, adding: “Heidegger, in a very recent work of genius, has made us take notice of all the enormous significance of these words.” In Ortega’s perspective, the sciences provide a detailed analysis of aspects of things, but their specialist methodologies preclude them from dealing with universals. Philosophy, on the other hand, is also a specialist, but at the other extreme; thus Ortega paradoxically declares that “the philosopher is also a specialist, a specialist in universes.” Unafraid of metaphysics, Ortega provides in What is Philosophy? a passionate and unflinching defence of the work of philosophers.
2. John Gall Systemantics (1975)
Nominated by Bart Stewart
Although not a philosopher by either training or attribution, John Gall’s text (originally entitled General Systemantics) has profound implications for anyone pondering the functioning of all systems great and small. The short book focuses upon the way that systems fail, and contains with it what has come to be termed ‘Gall’s Law’: “A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked… A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work.” The book is structured around 32 axioms, somewhat mimicking the form of more heavyweight philosophy tomes, but remains readable throughout. If this is outside of the typical considerations of academic philosophy, it remains an illuminating (and amusing!) meditation on the failures that inevitably result from applying grandiose theories at too gargantuan a scale.
1. Gerd Buchdahl Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science (1969)
Nominated by Michael Pereira
Here, at the bottom of our Marianas Trench of philosophical obscurity lies Gerd Buchdahl, the first lecturer in history and philosophy of science at Cambridge. In this vast tome, subtitled The classical origins: Descartes to Kant, Buchdahl dismantles any suggestion that philosophy is without practical implication, and shows the intimate interconnectivity between the empirical sciences and the work of the Enlightenment philosophers. Michael Power, one of Buchdahl’s students, writes in a retrospective on the book that its “unremarkable title belies its dazzling mixture of analytical and historical insight.” Here is a text that, Powers attests, renders the often inscrutable topic of metaphysics as “a project with heart and excitement”. Buchdahl, who died in 2001, remained resolute that the sciences benefited from their exchanges with philosophy, writing in 1962 that “a critical approach to the history of science will do well to avail itself of the results of philosophical scholarship”. He left as his legacy the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, which remains the leading publication in that particular field.
More nonsense soon!