This is the sixth in a series of articles analyzing the lyrics from the 1993 Carcass album “Heartwork”.
This Mortal Coil
Tearing down the walls
Breaching frontiers, unlocking the gates
To a new world disorder
A fresh balance of terror, the equilibrium of hate/
All flesh entwined, in the equality of pain
Archaic nescience unleashed
Entrenched, a bitter legacy
Tempered in mental scars
All flesh entwined in mortal equality
Tangled mortal coil
Twisted and warped
Tangled mortal coil
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding. During the mechanical ages, we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace….Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.”
If we are not here in the traditional sense, then where are we? If our world has transformed from one of fragmented nations to a global village, what does that mean for us, the humans that inhabit such a world? Today’s human is locked into a nearly constant struggle for identity, attempting to at once be an individualized autonomous self and an interconnected part of an ever-shrinking world. We are engaged in a process of knocking down many of the walls that for generations have kept us separate. In this moment of great potential, one is left to wonder whether we will seize the opportunity for global embrace or build a new set of seemingly insurmountable walls. This question is the echo of our footstep as we wander headlong into the new frontier.
If the self is no longer locked in its corporeal shell and has, indeed, reached through the boundaries of the body and into the never-ending stratosphere, what does that really mean for us? After all, I look at myself in the mirror and am still contained in a structure remarkably similar to that once inhabited by my ancestors. Yet, my mind and spirit reach out beyond the fleshy walls of the Self and live an all-at-once, timeless existence in the technological superstructure that is fast becoming our world. Or, more precisely, what does it mean that these ideas are flowing out of my mind, through, my fingers, through the ethers, into your brain almost simultaneously and yet I’ve barely moved? It is not as simple as thinking things have changed from one form to another. Rather, it is significant to understand that we are both individualized fragmented bodies and the all of the universe. We are currently living in an age where we are consistently faced with being two things that seemingly cannot inhabit the same space. How can a thing be finite and infinite at the same time? More importantly for our purposes, how does a being reconcile the contradictions and stresses that arise from living in multiple realities in the same moment?
There is no easy answer for this. The lyrics to this song are a reflection of the pain one might believe itself to feel when coming to terms with a question of this size and scope. The quest for identity under such bizarre conditions could well lead someone to a feeling of being enraged and overwhelmed. It’s not hard to imagine the “archaic nescience unleashed” to be the hand of the Self reaching back through time clutching at any answer that spares us the uncertainty of not being able to fully comprehend the world. The coil on which Shakespeare so eloquently described us as living upon does not, upon first glance, seem built for multi-dimensional travel. The connection of seven billion spines seems to be an inexplicable tangle from which we can never escape, but is it?
Maybe trying to find an answer is the larger problem we face. If we believe in the need for a solution, we must also believe in the existence of the problem. Maybe all there is to do is to call the thing what it is. The world offers us an impossible contradiction. Even in the confusion created by this idea, we are still given the power to say, “Yes, both are true in this moment.” Is it impossible? Yes. But so too are the bizarre terms of our existence. There is no rational context under which we can properly understand what it means to be alive. In stopping the search and accepting an answer that defies all we think we know, we might well be able to begin understanding a question whose vastness reaches beyond eternity and whose minuteness is less than the size of one atom of our physical body.
Globalization, on some level, is a metaphorical magnification of the quest for spiritual identity faced by all humans. It is the human condition writ large in a way that can be directly observed by anyone willing to ponder the meaning of the Self. It broadcasts the eloquence of our contradiction in a way that is both tangible and boundless. While our immediate reaction to the question may be fear, it also offers a sublime opportunity for self-awareness. This form of awareness may feel like a curse at times, but it is a gift of the highest order. It is nothing less than a window into the deepest recesses of our communal soul.
The Year is 2223. Reverend Scott E. Pippen the 29th stands in front of his congregation of 24,000 with his arms raised high in the air. He is a tall man, about 6 feet 8. He is wearing a gown with the number 23 embroidered on the front in gold. He is up on a stage with a golden basketball hoop mounted behind him. A hush falls over the capacity crowd.
“Today, I’d like to talk to you about greatness. Many religions have valued different things over the years. Some of the religions praised self-restraint, while others loved commitment and dedication. These qualities can be very good things, but their followers seemed to miss the bigger point. Trying really hard is not enough. In order to truly be worthy of God’s love you must win!”
“AMEN!!!!” screams a parishioner.
“The people of olden times used to worship martyrs! Do you believe it? They would cast their lot with people who tried really hard….but lost! Those martyrs were great men, but they couldn’t figure out how to triumph over evil. Sure, they would say that some of their martyrs rose from the dead, but many people had trouble believing that part. There wasn’t enough proof. Maybe they were successful, but they weren’t able to pull it off on the big stage! I mean, most messiahs wouldn’t make it in the NBA as a 12th man for the New Jersey Nets. For years, we could only choose between this losing messiah, that losing messiah or sometimes a messiah that hadn’t even shown up yet! Can you believe it people?”
“NO!!!!!” shouted the crowd wildly.
“Thankfully, on February 17th, 1963, that holiest of days, Michael Jordan was born in a barn in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Jordan was a good player, but certainly not the messiah we know him as today. Everyone by now has heard the story of how he was cut from his High School basketball team. This was the first in a series of setbacks for His Airness, but each time he was given an obstacle, he learned how to climb over it and most importantly HOW…..TO…….WIN!!!!!!”
The crowd bursts into thunderous applause.
“When Georgetown tried to slow him down in the 1982 NCAA Final…HE WON! When the Pistons and Celtics stopped him early in his career he came back and….HE WON!!!! When the Knicks attacked and beat him game after game he rose up and….HE WON!!!!!! When Jordan retired for the third time, after his sixth NBA title everyone thought that was finished. Then, as a 60 year old man, Jordan returned to the NBA and led the Chicago Bulls to four more titles. Age tried to beat him down but…..HE WON!!!!!”
“JUST DO IT!!!!” screams the crowd.
“Those old-fashioned religions used to talk about an afterlife. They were preaching the gospel of weakness. Today, we know that the dead are just quitters! When Jordan turned 100 he proclaimed that he would never die. He went up to his basketball court built on the side of the greatest mountaintop and that is where he is still today. No one has talked to him in years, but he has promised that one day he will not only return to us, but return to the NBA. One day, when you go to your weekend sports temple to show your commitment to God and your home team he will emerge from the tunnel and HE…..WILL……PLAY………….AGAIN!!!!!!!!”
“YES!!!!!” “JUST DO IT!!!!!!” “AMEN!!!!!!”
“Those old fashioned religions told you that God loved everyone. Jordan taught us that they were wrong! The truth is that GOD LOVES A WINNER! You prove your devotion to him not by being beaten down by the opponent but though VICTORY! God has no time for losers. He will not give you a trophy just for competing. He has no time for lesser men. He is not going to hold your hand and tell you it is okay to fail. God values results! The simple truth is that God Hates Losers!!!!”
“PREACH IT!!!!” JUST DO IT!!!!”
“Jordan came to save us all from the pain and humiliation of losing. Whenever there is someone buying a pair of His Sneakers….HE’LL BE THERE! Whenever there is a team the overcomes the evil of losing….HE’LL BE THERE! And when we buy His shoes and praise His name and WHEN WE WIN……….HE’LL………BE……….THERE…..……TOOOOOO!”
The crowd erupts into a screaming, howling frenzy.
“And now I present to you the top ranked choir in the entire world….The beautiful and talented Jordan-Airs!!!!!!”
The choir begins to sing and basketball players in different throwback Jordan uniforms dunk golden basketballs into the hoop above the stage…
“To The Temple of Jordan Our Savior Went One Day,
And We Read That Phil The Baptist Met Him There,
And When Jordan Scored 60 in the Finals Versus Philly
The Mighty Power of God Filled The Air.
I’m On My Way
To The Temple of Jordan
Were Going To Win
At The Temple of Jordan
And Victory Will Cleanse My Soul”
The presumption that we can understand the universe seems to be the single most absurd belief that human beings have formulated. Part of the problem with the question seems to hinge on how the word “understand” is interpreted. For the purposes of this article I will be using the word in a similar way that Robert Heinlein uses the word “grok” in his book Stranger in a Strange Land. To grok something is to comprehend something with all of one’s being. I can understand that human beings have 10 fingers, but I grok what it means to have and be able to use those fingers myself. They are a part of me and I know them to be incontrovertibly true. I understand my fingers in a pre-verbal, visceral way that can’t and doesn’t need to be explained. When someone watches a game of basketball they may understand that the goal is to put the ball in the hoop or that they have to dribble when moving or the fact that there are two sets of five different players on the court, etc. If you asked a person who knew this whether they understand the game, they would probably say “yes”. However, they certainly do not grok the game in its fullness. They do not know what its like to make an impossible shot or look up at an official for a brief second with the anticipation of a charge or blocking foul or to dive on the floor for a loose ball or any of the millions of possible experiences that could exist in a basketball game. They may hear the words but they don’t feel the music.
This problem of “understanding” relates to how our culture and many others tend to interpret the EVERYTHING. Often, humans are given two choices as if they reflected the only possible paths to groking the EVERYTHING in its fullness. We get a choice of science/reason/rational thinking or faith/spirituality/belief. I find neither of these answers to be helpful. Science has brought us many creations and understandings over the years. Scientists have given language to experiences like gravity. This language has allowed us to change how we perceive life. Without these understandings, many of the wonderful things that exist in our world (everything from flight to the internet) would not exist. Reason has brought us to heights never dreamed of by our forefathers. It has also brought us terrors never before imagined (germ warfare, nuclear annihilation). For my purposes, neither of these points is relevant to the question. Science has brought us to a place where we never believed we could be and the power of its creation has made us think that its potential for discovery is as infinite. I believe that science has limits. Heinlein gets the limits of science perfectly when Valentine Michael Smith (the protagonist in Stranger in a Strange Land) asks “How can you grok a desert by counting its grains of sand?” Science can create marvelous tools to manage parts of the physical world, but to grok it in its fullness there seems to be a need for something more. The explanation that love or joy or sorrow are nothing more than a few synapses firing in different directions seems woefully inadequate to explain us, let alone the interplay of billions of sentient creatures. There must be more.
But is that “something more” a belief in something beyond our understanding (a higher power?). Many people believe that God is an all-powerful; omniscient being that controls the universe. But if God is all-powerful and omniscient how could flawed, miniscule beings ever expect to understand anything about this God? How can we possibly grok something that is admittedly beyond our understanding? The idea itself seems bizarre. People often chalk up experiences to being “part of God’s great plan”. But, if we don’t completely understand what God’s plan for us is how can we possibly understand that an action is part of the plan? Why do those of faith assume that there is a greater reason for the things they do not understand? Maybe there is and maybe they are right but how would they know? We are given a scant few highly conflicting religious texts. Can it really be assumed that everything a person needs to know about the universe can be summed up in the Bible or another religious text? Many people believe this. I think the mistake in this is to assume that this thing can be understood using a book. One book, millions of books, cannot sum the EVERYTHING up. It is still greater than the whole of human knowledge, let alone the contents of one book. Belief often seems to function as a great off switch in the mind. We see something so beautiful or horrible or absurd that the mind says “Uncle!” and we give ourselves over to a belief that there must be some meaning to it that we are missing. But, how do we know that anything actually has a meaning? We can hope, we can wish, we can pray, but we can never know. We just chalk it up to an act of God or the workings of spirits that we can never conclusively prove to anyone including ourselves.
What troubles me about faith is not its deferment to a higher power but its willingness to concede truths to those who have come before or us or to books written before our time. Sometimes I wonder if the worship of God is merely the worship of the past. Maybe we are just harkening back to an illusory time where a more pious people than ourselves who knew more than us were able to connect with some great force in the sky and reveal its truths. Some religious folks look back to Moses or Jesus or Mohammad or a cast of many other characters and assume that they knew enough not only to understand their world but also to understand ours. I have a hard time believing that any person can possibly understand the world they are thrust into. The thought that a person who walked the earth 2000 years ago can not only understand his world but also understand mine seems highly unlikely. What if they are right? It doesn’t really matter because I can NEVER know for certain.
The “central” question faced by human beings is not spiritual or scientific but epistemological. How can we ever really know what we know or that we even know it? We are given limited and barbaric tools, our senses, in which to meet the world. These senses are easily fooled and can be manipulated by inside or outside forces. Yet I can’t even say for certain that anything is an illusion. If I spent a hundred lifetimes, I don’t know if I could grok in fullness the experiences that take place in one moment in one American town. And yet, somehow, humans feel it possible to understand the wholeness of everything. Science and religion fail to give the correct answer because they are asking the wrong question. The question is often posed as “How can we understand the universe?” (….and we get to choose between spirit and reason or some hybrid of both). The question should be “Can we understand the universe?” I simply don’t know that we are capable of this understanding. If we are capable of this feat of comprehension I don’t know that we can ever, for certain, know that we are capable of it. How would we know? What is our point of reference? How would we ever no for sure that our beliefs are not based on illusions or misinterpretations? We don’t know for certain and, yet, so many of our institutions, be they religious or secular, function on the belief that we know for certain how things are going to work out if we take certain actions or do things a special way. This belief pervades our churches, our hospitals, our schools and our homes. Our value judgments, our morality and our understandings are constantly shaded with the haughty taint of false understanding. Really, we know next to nothing. Maybe the only thing it is possible for us to completely understand about the universe is that we don’t understand the universe.
I was asked this question recently during a discussion about morality with a friend of mine. I do not believe that there is an objective meaning to life and this was his way of countering my argument. At first, I didn’t really take the question seriously and I laughed it off as a weird reductio ad absurdum argument meant to link my lack of belief to the worst possible outcomes. It is not the first time I have been asked this question in this context and I began to wonder why I felt the question was ridiculous. For the purposes of this article, I really don’t want to debate my feelings on objective meaning. It is a much larger topic that I feel deserves considerably more explanation than I am ready to give. However, I feel there is a basic misunderstanding in this question that is worth addressing on it’s own.
The questions strikes me as a silly one because I don’t see what one thing has to do with the other. I am not clear about how Proposition A (There is no meaning in life) leads one to Proposition B (I should go around killing people). The argument makes about as much sense as saying “If you don’t believe there is any ice cream, why don’t you just go around killing people?” Why does the lack of basic meaning imply that people would commit violent acts towards one another? Where is the causal link between violence and the lack of meaning? Proposition A is a stand alone idea. It doesn’t lead to anything. It simply is.
The implication at the center of this idea is that the only thing that keeps human beings from running around causing severe harm to one another is the belief that there is some reason for everything. The deeper idea in the point my friend made was that without meaning, humans are nothing more than bloodthirsty animals that will do whatever they want, whenever they want. This is an extremely Hobbsean conception of what people are. I have a hard time believing that humans without meaning would find nothing better to do with their time then kill other humans. This view of humans, when held up to the light, seems quite vacant of truth. There are many secular humanists, atheists and nihilists who live their lives not believing in objective meaning without causing significant harm to others around them. Violence is something used by people of many different belief systems. There have been Christian murderers, Muslim murderers, Atheist murderers and so on.
I think part of the problem with the question is the assumption of direct correlation between belief and action. A person’s beliefs may help to define their actions, but we are never sure how. A person may believe strongly in a universe with objective meaning and choose to manifest that belief in the form of violence against people who think differently (The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of this) or they may choose to take that belief and manifest it in the form of non-violent protest (Martin Luther King would be a good representative of this). I don’t think we know what drove these people to act as they did. There is often an assumption that humans are basically machines. If you input this belief into the machine a specific set of actions will be waiting on the other end of the conveyor belt. The truth is that we have no idea what believing in certain things leads to. We know that we believe them, that’s all.
A good lens to see this question through is David Hume’s Problem of Induction argument. Hume argued that we can never convincingly prove that A will lead to B. We may assume that every time we flip the light switch on the room will light up, but on some occasions (power outages, blown fuses, unexplained failure) the room will not become illuminated. We may think that if a person has a certain set of values and beliefs they will turn out a certain way, but there are nearly limitless examples throughout history of times when that hasn’t happened. There is no such thing as a sure thing. We never know in advance how a set of beliefs is going to effect a person’s actions. We cannot accurately predict the future thus we never know what believing in certain things is going to lead to.
There is a troubling dynamic in this answer for those who are raising children. If we can’t convincingly know what the beliefs we are teaching our children are going to lead to, how are we supposed to raise them? My wife and I are currently raising two young children, so this question is a very serious one for me. As a parent, one of the most difficult realities that you are faced with is the understanding that you may do a great job teaching your children to love and respect the people around them and they still may turn out to be humans who take actions that appear angry, violent and anti-social. Humans are filled with complexities are impossible to completely understand. We can read the all of the “right” books, make the “correct” sacrifices and do what we think are the right things and we are still given no assurances. All we as parents can do is love our children no matter who they become. I don’t want my children to learn right and wrong, I want them to learn that we live in a world that has extreme shades of grey. I want them to learn to cause as little harm to others as possible (be it real harm or perceived harm). We do what we can and we hope for the best whatever that may be.
Lately, I have found myself more and more interested in the Christian idea of hell. Maybe it’s the awful chill of winter. Maybe I’ve been listening to a bit too much black metal. I’m not quite clear what has put me on this mental course, but I have spent a good amount of time thinking about what it would actually be like to be in hell. I don’t even really believe that hell exists. I am not completely against the idea, but I accept that I have no way of possibly proving its existence or non-existence to myself, so I just figure I’ll find out after I die. That is not the part that really interests me. What I want to know is what, assuming that hell is real, would torment a human for eternity.
In the Book of Matthew, we are warned to “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” To be honest, I find this quote a bit odd. This implies that we take our body with us to hell. If this is true, one must wonder what that thing in the casket back there on earth is. Is that a wax replica of us at the funeral while the real body goes to hell? Is your body snatched out of the coffin and sent to hell the minute you enter the ground? (But then, what happens if they dig you up?) Does God duplicate our body and send that one to hell while the real one is on earth? Is the body I am currently in an illusion and my real body somewhere in the ethers waiting for judgment? In that case, can I blame the illusion body for the sins committed on earth? After all, the earth body did the things I am getting sent to hell for. As the eloquent, renowned philosopher Silkk The Shocker once said, “It ain’t my fault!!!”
If it is just your soul in hell, that opens up another can of worms. I can specifically tell you that the conditions of hell would be awful on my body, but I can’t predict what extreme heat would do to my soul. No part of the Bible mentions the soul having nerves, so why should we expect that it would feel pain in the way the body does? If it is physical, it is capable of feeling physical pain, but I have not often heard the soul described as a physical thing. It is usually thought to be a spiritual entity independent of the flesh. Most descriptions of the soul are of the ghost in the machine variety, where the soul is a non-physical being that steers our body around then hops out when the body is no longer sentient.
In order to move forward with this line of questioning, I’ll pick the most likely scenario, which is that the soul just recreates your body once you get to hell. There is no reference to this happening in the Bible, but this explanation gets my body in hell, which for the purposes of this argument, is where I want it. Then, we run into another problem. Revelation says that you shall be tormented “forever and ever”. If hell is supposed to be eternal, how can the body and soul be destroyed? I mean, once you are destroyed isn’t that it for you? If the torment of hell is supposed to be eternal, how can it be that you are destroyed? Revelation refers to hell as “a second death“, but what happens after the second time you die. Do you continue to go to new hell after new hell? Do you die and wake up again?
Let’s assume that my body and soul are now in hell which is described in the book of Revelation as being “the lake of fire and brimstone”. I think that would be really terrible…for a while. The thought of an extended amount of time in extreme heat is an awful thought. 20, 30 years would be gruesomely terrible. 100, 200 years would be worse. But, after some point, wouldn’t I just get used to it? I mean, the thought of eternal fire is terrible, but eternity is a long time. My immediate reaction would be a period of unbridled misery. But, after a while, wouldn’t I forget what normal earth temperature felt like and become hardened to the torrid warmth? After a period of time, wouldn’t I get used to the pain? I don’t think this would happen right away, but we are talking about eternity here! Even if time is different between hell and earth, there has to be some point where a person accepts their surroundings, no matter how miserable. To understand this phenomenon, imagine a thought experiment where from the age of 15 to the age of 100 a person named Bob was awakened by a right hook to the face thrown by Mike Tyson. Day after day, Bob is waylaid by a vicious shot the skull from the former champ. The first 10 or 20 years of this would be awful, but after some period of time wouldn’t Bob simply adjust and accept the beating as the way things are supposed to be. Bob would be able to brace himself and would build up a tolerance to this sort of abuse. Any brief survey of history would lead one to believe that humans have the miraculous ability to adjust to nearly any set of awful circumstances.
Another problem with hell as it’s currently constituted is that going to hell actually removes one of the most dreadful aspects of being alive…. death. In hell, one doesn’t really seem to have a rational reason to fear death. The terror that humans feel from never knowing for certain what the afterlife is has been removed. Dying in hell would be a relief to many who are stuck there. Endless, painless silence would seem to be a good deal better than eternal torture.
There are some basic structural problems with the idea of hell that I cannot quite reconcile. I’d like to believe that whole thing is just an idea created by humans to scare people into doing good, but maybe that is not true. However, if it is real, you have to question its effectiveness. I really have to wonder if it is the most efficient possible use of a sinner’s afterlife.