One might have thought ancient pagan religion was over and done with, and I’ve written about the profound ways in which the new paganism differs from the old. Yet one cannot help but be struck by the fact that despite these great differences, the ancient pagan motifs keep coming back in new guises. In a previous post I called attention to the resurfacing of the old demigod motif – for the lowbrow, in superhero fiction, for the highbrow, in the transhumanist movement. Here’s another re-emergent motif: Gnosticism.
The ancient Gnostic heresy conceived the world we know not as the wise creation of a God who knows His creation intimately, but as the ignorant creation of a demiurge, who was itself an emanation of a deity who has no knowledge of us at all. The material realm in which we dwell is not what it appears to be, but an illusion, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection, shot through with error. Only a few know the Secret.
That was long ago. But in one form or another, the mystique of the Secret has overshadowed many eras, and its finds favor again in our own.
Take political philosophy. According to the Straussian movement, all the great thinkers are supposed to have veiled their true meaning in deceptive words, lest the vulgar be disturbed. This movement splits into several wings, one of which, influenced by Nietzsche, has it that the deepest truth is that we are cut off from deepest truth. It would seem to follow that the philosophical life is not the life of seeking truth, but the life of going through the motions thereof.
Or take biology. According to a view popularized by zoologist Richard Dawkins, “We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Philosopher Michael Ruse and entomologist E.O. Wilson argue that for this reason, much of what we think about reality, especially ethics and the belief in God, is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to co-operate.” They do not seem to notice that if their view of how our minds work is true, then it is hard to see why it shouldn’t also apply to belief in logic, causality, and genetic determinism.
At the other end of the cultural ladder, the mystique of the Secret is one of the most pervasive tropes in speculative fiction. It comes in many flavors, but they all have that Orphic tang. One of them has it that the whole universe is a simulation running on a big computer. But the universe in which the computer exists is itself a simulation, running on yet another computer. And so on through universe after universe, simulation after simulation, virtual machine after virtual machine, and the original machine doesn’t even know about us. So the great question for the characters who find out the Secret is whether to go on living in a flawed virtuality, or try to hack into the source code. Which is a little like supposing that the notes in a musical composition could rewrite the score.
Some read this sort of thing with all of the seriousness of religion. Others read it for amusement -- but we should not underestimate the power of our amusements to shape how we view the world.