Sunday 2 August 2015

The abstract conception of God - thoughts prompted by commencing Philip K Dick's "Valis"

I read quite a few Philip K Dick novels and stories back in the early 1980s, and have always regarded him as one of the very best science fiction writers - although no more than adequate as a prose artist. But I have never re-read any of his books, and indeed to some extent avoided them - as one does with effective dystopias.

Partly this was due to a very unpleasant 56 hour weekend stint as the solo doctor resident and on call in a psychiatric hospital; when I made the mistake of reading the powerful  Time Out of Joint during the gaps between clerking and treating psychotic patients.

The novel is about a man for whom the paranoid delusion of all the society being organized around him is literally true - and I found it very unsettling to read the novel then talk with people who believed themselves to be in more or less the same situation - which set me to wondering about myself... It was, altogether, a very meta-Philip K Dick situation, like being inside one of his dystopias.

What I retained from the totality of PKD was a suffocating sense of the meaninglessness of life - life in general - which was brought into awareness (but not created) by the artificiality of his technologically enwrapped (and often off-world) environments. A world where the difference between a robotic animal and a real one, between a replicant android and a human, is almost impossible to discern - a world where the animal or human is not significantly different from a robot or replicant: both equally arbitrary and mechanical.

I have just bought and begun reading Valis, a novel which was written shortly before Dick's death and which is a semi-autobiographical  account of his later years of brooding on an experience of his which was either a divine enlightenment or a psychotic break or some combination.

The events of the first chapters (which are all I have read) depict a burnt-out Californian society of the early 1970s, in which the protagonist and his circle are all ex-druggy, hippy, hedonistic types suffering from heavy casualties of extreme loneliness (existential isolation), suicide, psychosis, neurosis and nihilistic cynicism - so it is not an enjoyable read, so far!

But what is portrayed is metaphysically the avant garde of what has (minus the LSD) since become mainstream in The West. In the first place, it is the futile struggle of people who have rejected God, the soul, the afterlife etc to find meaning in a world of mortality which they have further degraded by mechanistic explanations;  but in the second place (so far) there is the almost-equally-futile attempt of people to escape from this dead-ly set of metaphysical assumptions into a very abstract conception of God.

The protagonist has (like Philip K Dick) experienced a kind of revelation - which may or may not be from God - involving a pink beam of light; and this is interpreted (so far) in terms of physicsy ideas of God as 'information'. Friends of the protagonist with 'simple' Christians faiths (a cancer patient who has a rosary beside her bed) are rejected as a faith of naive wish-fulfilment which does  not take seriously the metaphysical problem of suffering... the striving is clearly for a very pure, abstract, physics-like faith in a God who fits in with the world of computers, information, archives, science, technology, psychoactive drugs and so forth.

What seems impossible for the hero is a faith based on God as primarily our loving, heavenly Father. That simple thing seems difficult, or impossible, to picture or believe - instead the abstract God is no sooner proposed than He gets bogged down in abstract metaphysical dichotomies concerning omnipotence versus helplessness, goodness versus suffering, meaning versus meaninglessness... any solution to these problems seems contrived, arbitrary and unconvincing.

So on the one hand there is the visceral  nature of human (or animal) suffering - a friend plans and kills herself calmly and without passion, a friend's cat runs out under the wheel of a car and is crushed, a friend dies after pain, blindness, deafness from cancer and radio-/ chemo-therapy and so on... While pitted against this is a very abstract, intellectual, information-theory, pink light beaming across the void type of understanding of God.

There is a gross mismatch between the nature of the problem, and the search for a solution. The proper answer, which is to understand God not a a set of abstract metaphysical properties but as our Father, and other people as His children and our siblings, and other things in the environment as being alive-like-us (rather than us being dead-like-them)... the protagonist is pre-immunized against these obvious and effective and satisfying answers and explanations as being too obvious, too simple, too much in conformity with what we would most wish.

The frame for explanation has narrowed from eternity to... well not even to the span of the mortal life of Men; rather it has narrowed to the span of the mortal life of one single consciousness... Then this assumed frame (a frame which was not really possible, and certainly not mainstream, until very recently in human history - and only in a minority of people and situations) has been accepted as utterly compelling - and any other frame is regarded as simply childish and stupid...

How could this happen? How could such a very socially and historically contingent world view ever be supposed to be entailed so strongly that to deny it is seen as foolish and unintelligent and weak?

What evidence is there that the people who adhere to the atomistic, alienated nihilism of the 1970s drug-devastated Californian milieu have a superior wisdom and insight almost all humans who dwelt in other times and places?

There is a truly cosmic level of arrogance, of pride, about all this - is there not? Combined with a truly cosmic level of condescension that amounts to despising almost everybody, everywhere and at all points of history.

In sum, a staggering degree of evil.

Yet, this evil metaphysical system spread from California to the rest of the West, where it now rules supreme and is enforced upon us a million times every day at every level of public discourse from the government, civil administration and legal system down through education and health care to the all pervasive mass media and casual human interactions.

PKD was certainly a canary in the coalmine, with respect to noticing and describing and diagnosing. I will be very interested to see whether he was able to solve - through the course of this novel - the deep problems he so acutely experienced; but I fear that he will not. Simply because he was looking in the wrong place, and had ruled-out or rejected the right place.

The one place where he would not search happened to be the place the answer was hidden - because he already 'knew' the answer and had rejected it. Indeed the whole edifice of evil PKC depicts was built upon this prior rejection.

And the evil was experienced as inescapable precisely because - given that a priori rejection - the evil was inescapable; just as you cannot escape from a burning building if you have already decided that the fire escape is the one and only route that leads nowhere.



Desert Rat said...

This notion of God omits the great fact of His reality namely that He is real, personal, intimately involved with us and holds such love for each of us in such a degree as to bring even the most hardened among us, once this is actually experienced, to fall to our knees and profess our love, gratitude, respect and adoration for Him.

Over the past few days I have experienced real suffering. I suffered physical pain of an intensity never before experienced by me. During all of it I was somehow directed to persons and places that could, and did, directly deal with this. There were times I was completely wrapped around that pain - that nothing else seemed real. But through it all I never once felt alone or abandoned. I felt that presence always with me, guiding me, reassuring me, comforting me.

Humans expect God to comply with their standards. There shouldn't be pain and suffering. There shouldn't be injustice, brutality or abuse. What is missing from their understanding is that this mortal life is test of faith, hope, endurance, mercy, sacrifice, compassion, our willingness to serve one another. It is easy to see mortal life as a senseless ordeal of constant loss interspersed with periods of suffering and capped off by death and oblivion. All to no purpose. If we pay attention to what we are experiencing and why and manage to see it as not just the mechanisms of the physical universe slamming up against us but as a method of teaching and strengthening those characteristics of godliness that can, and do, bring hope, peace, even serenity to us even in the midst of intense suffering then life does, indeed, make sense. Mortal life is not the be all, end all of existence. It is but a stage in our development toward something greater, truer, purer.

That the nihilistic narcissism you describe has so pervaded certain swathes of humanity is true tragedy. But it is also necessary as a true test. To hold to God, to faith and trust and hope and exercise compassion and goodwill in the midst of all this is what is needed and wanted by Our Father.

Nicholas Fulford said...

It has been years since I read Valis, and no doubt with your prompting I will revisit it.

One you may like is, "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer". It was PKD's last novel and is more general fiction than speculative.

While it has also been years since I read this book, I remember it as one of his most interesting explorations.

drizzz said...

After writing Valis, PKD seemed to keep writing the same book over and over. Personally, I enjoyed Radio Free Albemuth the most.

Unknown said...

What seems impossible for the hero is a faith based on God as primarily our loving, heavenly Father.

I don't think that you've read all the way to the end of the story.

I won't spoil the surprise, but you should not judge the end of the book based on the beginning.

Anonymous said...

PKD was pretty inconsistent. But he was on to something, of a somewhat different nature than you identify, in my poorly informed opinion.

The idea with Dick is frequently multiple layers of reality. What seems to be reality is not. If what seems to be reality is bad, as it usually is with him, then what really is reality might be better.

He doesn't answer this question directly, he only hints at it, but the underlying reality is apparently is something from the rule of right to the kingdom of God.

Bruce Charlton said...

Commenters... I thought I made pretty clear that these thoughts were based on *commencing* the novel? That's all. It's not a critique of the novel or the novelist.

Anonymous said...

"The idea with Dick is frequently multiple layers of reality."

It's possible that this relates to Dick's deep interest in Neoplatonism.