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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Natura Pura, the Horror Vacui, and Our Estrangement from the Real

from Robert Fludd, 'Utrisque Cosmi Historia...' (1617-1621)

In The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics, I argued that natura pura, a nature absolutely outside of God’s grace, is an impossibility, even though theologians and philosophers from the early modern period to our current moment have held it to be true. However, I would now like to modify that assertion. That is because AI and other productions of the computer revolution, or so they seem to me, are as close to pure nature as is possible. I do not believe they are absolutely outside of God’s grace (nothing could be), but, at least in many cases, they are as far away from it as is possible. Bestowed with a capacity for “intelligence,” AI and its iterations participate, at best, in the being and consciousness of their creators just as any other creative works do; but because of this “intelligence” (which is in truth a simulacrum of intelligence) which takes on a “life” of its own (in movements across the internet in the case of viruses or bots, for example) it likewise imitates human agency (though far more efficient) and influences people far more intrusively (if, in general, subconsciously) than can a poem or a musical work, even in virtual form. What is the “world” in which AI operates? We all use it, all participate in it—but what is it? What, as Heidegger would say, is it in its essence? Does it even have a reality? Does it belong in any way to a natural order? AI’s distance from a natural order is precisely what implicates it in the virtual reality of natura pura.

What I am inquiring into here is the phenomenology of AI. What are we present to when in the presence of an AI? When we are present to a poem, a musical work, liturgy, or the natural beauty of a sunset, for example, we are simultaneously present to a presence “behind” it which illuminates both the phenomenon and its beholder and awakens one to a consciousness of another, potentially of the Other. But what are we present to in the presence of AI?

I would even suggest that the rage and tribalism so characteristic of social media (which so often degenerates into “anti-social media”) are intrinsic to the virtual medium itself. That is to say that a “connection” (which is not a true connection) to the unreal produces an inner disturbance that results in a kind of anxiety (or at least angst) which is then projected back into the medium of the unreal (and also onto the Real). If the medium is disconnected from the Real, it nevertheless interfaces with our consciousness as if it were real. Our consciousness, then, engages with the unreal as if it were the Real, further distancing us from the Real and entrapping us ever more deeply in the unreal world—like Sophia in the Gnostic mythos.

Furthermore, our virtual experiences (what a strange term) can also be considered from the point-of-view of two conceptually different but phenomenologically congruent ideas: the horror vacui characteristic of much primitive and medieval art and aesthetics and Edmund Husserl’s observations on intentional experiences and their contents.

The idea of the horror vacui (fear of empty space) consists in the simple notion that to leave a space unoccupied or empty (especially in art) is to invite (or at least risk) demonic participation in the work.[1] Thus, for example, in medieval illuminated manuscripts, especially those created in Ireland, every space is filled in with detail. A similar notion is at work in medieval and Renaissance magical practices: the drawing of the magic circle, for example, both protects the magician from malefic interference while simultaneously allowing him to call spiritual beings forth (or at least that was how it was supposed to work). The space is filled and set apart from chaos. Another example of the horror vacui appears in the medieval belief in the “noonday demon,” the spirit of temptation to sloth, avarice, and so forth that rushes in when prayer and work (ora et labora) momentarily leave the monk alone. Is not the internet such an empty space? And while social media or Google searches or even online banking may occupy us with somewhat meaningful (or at least necessary) occupation, is it not also true that that most of our time on the internet is taken up with the noonday demon of (post)modern acedia—only now extended to 24/7 (as Jonathan Crary[2] so astutely observes)? And are we not also compelled to ask ourselves what the spiritual impulse is behind such a phenomenon? “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves; everything is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.”[3] I don’t think any aspect of human culture or endeavor is void of spiritual participation, even of those spirits that would like to convince us no spirits exist.

In addition, the idea of the horror vacui seems to have some relationship to Plato’s belief that the world soul informs the entire Cosmos. The horror vacui, that is, points to the anti-type of the world soul (Sophia): natura pura, in other words. The idea of God’s absolute absence from any part of his Creation is truly a cause for horror.

When applying Husserl’s concept of intentional experiences and their contents to “virtual experiences,” on the other hand, we find ourselves in a very different world. Husserl uses the example of a cigarette box: even though we can see (or imagine) only one perspective of the box at a time, our imagination fills in the details about that which is not available as percept.[4] This is the content. But what is it that is not available to our perception in the case of the virtual experience? I would suggest that we automatically assume that it is not unlike that which we experience of objects of content in the “real world.” But that is a false and easily, even dangerously, deceptive assumption. In written content—say an email or other electronic communication from a friend or associate—we perceive the being behind the content. But as we cycle through the myriad number of contents available to us in virtual platforms—news stories, video, translation, and so forth, running the span from institutional and bureaucratic data-gathering to popular entertainment to pornography to critical analysis to high art—that which is invisible is less obvious to us. As a result, we simply accept a content as given—but given by whom? by what? And we accept it as it presents itself to us. But what is it in its essence?

On the other hand, it is also incumbent upon us to ask just what these virtual environments are doing to us, not only physically and mentally, but also spiritually. At the very least, we all know, either intuitively or from experience, that overexposure to these virtual environments is not good for us. We have also been warned—by the very people who designed some of these platforms—that they were designed with tech addiction in mind and with the intention to monetize our attention and, more nefariously, with the aim of social manipulation and control. [5] Again: what are these things in their essence? Curiously enough, the theosophy of the early modern German mystic Jacob Boehme offers us a way to think about our current predicament.[6]

For Boehme, the fallen world in which live and move and have our being is characterized by darkness and light, strife and love, permutations and manifestations of the realms of Satan and Sophia, realms that interpenetrate in our experience (though not in their actuality). Sophia, according to Boehme, wishes to bring us to regeneration in Christ and seeks to awaken us to our true being in God; whereas Satan offers us fear, selfishness, rage, stagnation, doubt, confusion, and death. Sophia and Ahriman offer us two different ways of seeing, two different ways of being. One, however, takes intentionality and the activity of the ego; while the other relies on an absence of intentionality and a surrender of the ego to materialism and technics. Needless to say, Boehme lived long before the Industrial Revolution, let alone the Information Age; yet his picture of things illuminates our current situation perfectly.

Sophia calls us to a true recognition of the Real. A good place to start, then, is in the Creation, through which the glory of its maker shines:

So the Matter of this World, as also the Stars and Elements, must not be looked upon, as if God was not therein. His Eternal Wisdom and Virtue [or Power] has formed itself with the Fiat in all Things, and he Himself is the Master-Workman; and all Things went forth in the Fiat, everything in its own Essence, Virtue and Property…. Thus every Essence became visible, and God manifested his manifold Virtue with the manifold Herbs, Plants, and Trees, so that every one that does look upon them, may see the eternal Power, Virtue, and Wisdom of God therein; if he be born of God, he may know in every Spire of Grass, his Creator in whom he lives.[7]

Such an attention to nature, however, must needs be contemplative: without a contemplative engagement with the world, we may be unware of the splendor that shines through the Creation and therefore unable to discern its source, though such an experience bursting through unexpectedly cannot be discounted. (It’s happened before.)

Unfortunately, even many Christians (as well as those of other faiths) have such an extraordinarily buffered relationship to nature that even the possibility of such a sophianic theophany remains almost unimaginable. This is particularly the case with the unfortunate dualism that often infects religious thinking, even Christian religious thinking, as if Creation is “not our real home” and “heaven” is. This fundamentalist and Gnostic way of thinking compromises religious being-in-the-world to a profound degree, and to our shame. Creation is our real home: acting as if it is not is one of the sources of the cavalier, utilitarian, and abusive manner in which we treat it. Even though we often confuse the World of Sophia with the World of Ahriman—certainly a repercussion of the Fall—let us not be led astray into believing Creation is simply some waystation or proving ground we have to put up with prior to our entrance into the Kingdom. The Kingdom is not “over there” or “yet to be.” The Kingdom is at hand (Matt 3:2); it is always/already present. If the Creation were not fundamental to salvation, it would by no means be groaning for regeneration (Romans 8:22). The Lord says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 22:1). Why bother making them new, if they’re merely perfunctory, created only to be discarded?

clip from Alex Garland's Ex Machina (2015)

This is an excerpt from Michael Martin's Transfiguration: Notes toward the Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything, due this Fall from Angelico Press.

[1] See, for example, Babette Hellemans, “Horror Vacui: Evil in the Incarnated World of the Bibles Moralisées” in Demons and the Devil in Ancient and Medieval Christianity, ed. by Nienke Vos and Willemien Otten, Supplements to Vigilae Christianae (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011), 231–48.

[2] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso, 2013).

[3] “To the Public,” Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman with notes by Harold Bloom, revised edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

[4] Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume II, trans. J. N. Findlay, ed. Dermot Moran (1970; reprt., London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 123–27.

[5] See Olivia Solon, “Ex-Facebook President Sean Parker: Site Made to Exploit Human ‘Vulnerability,’” The Guardian (9 November 2017) Accessed 28 June 2018.

[6] See the chapter entitled “Jacob Boehme’s Sophianic Intuitions” in The Submerged Reality.

[7] Jacob Boehme, The Three Principles of the Divine Essence: Of the Eternal Dark, Light, and Temporary World… [trans. John Sparrow] (1648; reprt., Chicago, IL: Yogi Publication Society, 1909), 76–77.

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