"I will be what I will be" - weird ontology

Mist on Christ's Pieces opp. the church on Friday

Exodus 3: 7-15

From Slavoj Žižek's preface, Bloch's Ontology of Not-Yet-Being in The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (eds Peter Thompson and  Slavoj Žižek, Duke University Press,  2013, pp. xvii-xviii).

When we want to simulate reality within an artificial (virtual, digital) medium, we do not have to go to the end; we just have to reproduce features that make the image realistic from the spectator's point of view. Say, if there is a house in the background, we do not have to construct the house's interior, since we expect that the participant will not want to enter the house, or the construction of a virtual person in this space can be limited to his exterior no need to bother with inner organs, bones, etc. We just need to install a program that will promptly fill in this gap if the participant's activity will necessitate it (say, if he will cut with a knife deep into the virtual person's body). It is like when we scroll down a long text on a computer screen: earlier and later pages do not preexist our viewing them; in the same way, when we simulate a virtual universe, the microscopic structure of objects can be left blank, and if stars on the horizon appear hazy, we need not bother to construct the way they would appear to a closer look, since nobody will go up there to take such a look at them. The truly interesting idea here is that the quantum indeterminacy which we encounter when we inquire into the tiniest components of our universe can read in exactly the same way, as a feature of the limited resolution of our simulated world, that is, as the sign of the ontological incompleteness of (what we experience as) reality itself. That is to say, let us imagine a God who is creating the world for us, its human inhabitants, to dwell in. His task "could be made easier by furnishing it only with those parts that its in-habitants need to know about. For example, the microscopic structure of the Earth's interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required. If the most distant stars are hazy, no one is ever going to get close enough to them to notice that something is amiss” (quoted by Žižek from Nicholas Fearn).
          The idea here is that God who created our universe was too lazy (or rather, he underestimated our intelligence): he thought that we would not succeed in probing into the structure of nature beyond the level of atoms, so he programmed the Matrix of the universe only to the level of its atomic structure - beyond it he left things fuzzy, like a house whose interior is not programmed in a PC [i.e. computer] game.”


Let's begin with Žižek's strange story (in which he drew upon the work of Nicholas Fearn). Žižek tells it because he is very concerned, as are we, to ensure that our philosophical and religious thinking is taking properly into account the current state and implications of our scientific knowledge. In the example we are considering he is particularly concerned about how we might deal with the very odd suggestions about the nature of reality being thrown up by those studying quantum mechanics.

For the layperson - and I am such a person - for today's purposes it is sufficient simply to know that quantum mechanics is a branch of physics which deals with physical phenomena at what is for most of us the almost unimaginably small, nanoscopic scale and that one of the chief problems that has been thrown up by quantum mechanics is how we are to interpret what has become known as the "uncertainty principle" which "prohibits us from attaining full knowledge of particles at the quantum level" and so be able to "determine the velocity AND position of a particle." This is something we either can't do or can't yet do.

The question is why can't we do it?

On the one hand Einstein thought "this principle of uncertainty proves that quantum physics does not provide a full description of reality [and] that, [therefore] there must be some unknown features missed by its conceptual apparatus."

However, on the other hand, people such as Heisenberg and Bohr thought that, on the contrary, "this incompleteness of our knowledge of quantum reality points to a strange incompleteness in quantum reality itself" (p. xvii).

Now some of you may have vaguely heard about what is called the "Copenhagen Interpretation" - well Heisenberg and Bohr's interpretation of the problem is it, and one of the stories illustrating something of it's implications is that of a very famous, controversial and often misunderstood cat, the cat with no name of it's own, Schrödinger's Cat.

Now, as Žižek points out this latter, Copenhagen, interpretation of quantum mechanics - if true - leads us to a very weird ontology. "Ontology" is simply the name given to the philosophical study of "the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations" (wiki) - in other words it's about how our world is and how it hangs together. Well, quantum mechanics suggests something pretty weird about our world and how it might be hanging together - it suggests that reality, our world is, at a certain level, incomplete.

Of course, neither Žižek, I, nor, bar a couple of people currently in the congregation here who are working professionally in this field, are in any way capable of fully understanding, let alone contributing to the solution of the matter at the scientific level.

Instead, our job as intelligent, and responsible liberal religious thinkers is to consider and think through the religious, moral and ethical consequences of such a weird ontology and try to see - if it is true - what creative, meaning, worth, and life enhancing opportunities might be suggested by it. (We achieved something similar to this in the nineteenth-century after the work of Darwin revealed the inadequacy of certain aspects of our religious understanding so I'm sure we are capable of doing something similar after Heisenberg and Bohr.) As I note every week in the order of service in doing this "we are affirming but one orthodoxy, namely, a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it."

Žižek begins, as you heard, by "imagining a God who is creating a world for us . . . to dwell in" (p. xvii). Such a kind of imagining lies, of course, at the heart of our religious culture - with a story about a supreme being who has both designed and created our world. In anybody's book (or imagination) - even the most powerful, omni, omni, omni God we can imagine - that's a huge task, one that would be made a hell of a lot easier, as Žižek notes by quoting Nicholas Fearn:

" . . . by furnishing [the world] only with those parts that its inhabitants need to know about. For example, the microscopic structure of the Earth's interior could be left blank, at least until someone decides to dig down deep enough, in which case the details could be hastily filled in as required. If the most distant stars are hazy, no one is ever going to get close enough to them to notice that something is amiss" (p. xvii-xviii).

If nothing else this way of proceeding with the world would certainly spread out the amount of work that God would need to do to create a satisfactory world for us.    

Žižek's goes on to state explicitly that the idea here is that the:

" . . . God who created our universe was too lazy (or rather, he underestimated our intelligence): he thought that we would not succeed in probing into the structure of nature beyond the level of atoms, so he programmed the Matrix of the universe only to the level of its atomic structure - beyond it he left things fuzzy, like a house whose interior is not programmed in a PC [computer] game."

Žižek notes that this story suggest that we might interpret quantum mechanics to be saying that we do, in fact, "live in a simulated universe" and that the basic idea of the movie "The Matrix" was right. In this scenario the incompleteness of our lived in world is reassuringly (or in the case of "The Matrix", paranoidly) explained by recourse to a highly technically competent God or divine-programmer who has deliberately constructed reality in this way. In the more optimistic version of this thought we don't need to worry about the incompleteness of the universe because behind the scenes there exists a complete, and perfectly good and just God will, forever, eventually fill in the blurry bits of the picture for us as we continue to explore the present limits of his or her created world.

But, Žižek asks, do we have to interpret quantum mechanics and the indeterminacy principle in this theologico-digital way?

The answer is, of course, no. But the solution suggested by Žižek, following the work of Ernst Bloch - to whom I will come in a moment, may seem to some people even more unlikely and difficult to take than the Matrix-like idea. It is to accept the ontological incompleteness of reality, God-or-Nature, itself. It strongly suggests that the world is like it is and that it hangs together as it does because of, and not in spite of, its incompleteness, its radical openness and its not-yet-ness.

It should be clear that this cuts strongly against so much of the thinking about God and reality that has predominated in our cultural traditions for many, many centuries.

But, for all that, there are indications within our tradition of thinking that have been open to the possible incompleteness and radical openness of reality or God-or-Nature. These sources may help us deal creatively and religiously with the thought that incompleteness, fuzzyiness and uncertainty may be structural qualities of reality.

In the Greek tradition we inherit perhaps the most famous example of this is found in some of the surviving philosophical fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE). He is well known, thanks particularly to Plato, as the philosopher who stressed the "flux" of all things rather than their stability (cf. Robin Waterfield, "The First Philosophers - The Presocratics and the Sophists", OUP, 2000, p. 33). Heraclitus is most famous for his saying, "It is impossible to step twice into the same river . . . it scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs" (Plutarch, "On the E at Delphi" 392b10-c3 Babbit - cited in Waterfield, p. 41).

The most powerful example of this in our Biblical tradition is the way God is named in Exodus 3. The chapter begins with the famous story of God speaking to Moses from out of the burning bush. God there describes himself as "the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". Moses then asks God, "If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?", to which God replies, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh".

In our English Bibles the Hebrew, "Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh", is generally translated as "I Am that I Am". This translation has contributed to, and fitted well with, the thought that ultimate reality or God was static - that "He" is the perfect, complete, unchanging, designer and creator of the universe. But the tense of the Hebrew (as the Rabbi and Biblical scholar W. Gunther Plaut points out) "is not clear; it could mean 'I am' or 'I will be' (or 'I shall be')" (W. Gunther Plaut, "The Torah: A modern commentary", Union of Hebrew Congregations, New York 1981, p. 405). If you take a look at the footnotes of most reputable Bible translations this fact is clearly noted.

In a general way Heraclitus and the author of Exodus are opening the door to, or actually suggesting, that God, or Nature or Reality, is not an "I am" but a "not-yet" or a "will be".

And here we come to Ernst Bloch, a key figure in my own thinking about life, the universe and everything. Peter Thompson writing about Bloch in his introduction to Bloch's important book (pub. 1968, Eng. trans. 1972) "Atheism in Christianity" notes the following:

"The 'Am' which will exist at the end of the process is not the one who sets off on the journey in the first place, but the one who arrives at his genesis at the end of the journey. In the process of becoming, Nietzsche and Bloch contend, one becomes an 'Am' which is not yet visible, not yet complete, nor even conceivable. As Arthur Rimbaud puts it in another context, 'Je suis un Autre (I *is* someone else)" (Peter Thompson's introduction to Ernst Bloch's "Atheism in Christianity", Verso Books, London 2009, p. xiii).

Now what if Bloch, Nietzsche, Heraclitus, the author of Exodus, Heisenberg and Bohr are all correct in saying reality is always-already incomplete? What real consequences exist for us?

For many, of course, a negative one is that we no longer have recourse to a fixed, stable, completely bottomed out reality. Bloch, and all the other people I have mentioned, certainly offer some kind of challenge to the idea that reality is done and dusted, that God or reality is Alpha and Omega, an ultimately unbroken circle of perfection, that in the beginning was God's perfect word and, in the end, there remains God's perfect word.

But, on the positive side, all these thinkers offer us a way to free our world, even our history, from these circular limitations of complete perfection and ultimate "finishedness". The new ontology helps us begin to see that, to cite and paraphrase the words of our final hymn, there really is always more light and truth to break forth from God, Nature or Reality. Everything in our world is unfinished, even ourselves and our history. If this is true then everything becomes truly alive with potentiality.

This speaks powerfully to our own liberal, dissenting, religious tradition's basic desire and vision about which I have spoken about a couple of times in recent months, namely, "complete spiritual freedom" - the freedom to become what we are not yet and to say along with God, or Nature/Reality, "I will be what I will be."

This new ontology may help us to recover our courage to act upon our historic radical religious and political utopian hopes and beliefs that a real possibility exists for us to create a better future for all. Our world is not fixed and closed but always-already open and unfolding. The task of making of the kingdom of heaven on earth real always-already awaits us.