The Cosmology of ‘Things I Like’

I don’t really know what else to call it, but this is something I’ve identified among the strongly secular agnostic/atheist/humanist demographic in our western world, and it enjoys quite a vast reign among us contemporary pagans as well; even those who purport to possess and follow a less individualist historical cosmology.

The cosmology of “things I like” is simple. In lieu of having any guiding philosophical or religious principles, the default modus operandi in our culture is a kind of weak utilitarianism: we follow, pursue, honor, and make meaning around the things we like. To me, this is even worse than making meaning around that which just makes us happy, because “things I like” more easily pushes us towards making decisions in favor of that which make us happy right now in this instant at the expense of our future happiness. And of course, all bets are off about making decisions that are actually “good”.

In other words, it’s a dopamine-centered philosophy.

And it is almost impossible to make philosophical inroads with people who follow this principle because their cosmology has no reward system in place for things like delayed gratification, patience, and sometimes even, original thought. Case in point: I see this cosmology at work most in fans of pop culture who take their branded consumer interests too literally and too far. They tend to spend the vast majority of their spare time researching and socializing about their branded consumer interests of choice, they organize their hobbies, aesthetic, and decor around them, and more commonly now, this means that most of this is accomplished with their face pressed to a screen. Parents seem to rely more and more on consumer franchises to teach their children right from wrong, and these basic principles of human decency are reflected back at us through trademarked likenesses of people who never existed in either a historical or mythological sense. The “rule of cool” reigns. We are morally obligated to follow our every transitory whim. Inconvenience is the enemy.

A while back I had a conversation with a guy who was miserable to the point of severe depression about the city he lived in, which he hated for reasons he never or could not explain. In spite of being financially stable and not lacking in social relationships, he was crushed at having to wait to find a job in order to move, and had shared his misery with our small group for months. Eventually I asked him whether he had any sort of philosophical mechanism which might help sustain him during the job search, to which he answered no. He hadn’t ever thought of such a thing. I made no suggestions (though Stoicism did come to mind) and left it at that.

I know far too many people whose aesthetic sense has no rhyme or reason to it beyond the ability to produce titillation or reinforce the consumer identity – sports team logos or pop culture symbols emblazon everything from cups to furniture to the sole art on the walls of many houses I’ve been in. Coherence, let alone any sort of non-materialist cosmology just doesn’t exist.

Something I wanted to discuss in my book, but I felt would make for a better blog post, or series of blog posts, is that aesthetic is cosmology writ visible. Everything, from the icons we chose to worship at or the cushion we sit on when we pray, to the color of our walls or the style of our hair, betrays what our cosmology really is and reflects it back at us.

What do we want to convey to others? Our powers? Ourselves?

This is not to say that we should do away with our material possessions, our hobbies, our guilty pleasures or personal style. This is to ask you to consider your priorities, and order your life accordingly. Do you worship the dopamine hit? If not, then why do you continue to surround yourself with possessions and art that serve it? Why do your icons reflect aspects of contemporary life that you do not find, at the end of the day, good or holy?

Perhaps more subtle questions are in order, also.

How do you differentiate between that which you ‘like’ and that which is good, but unlikeable? How do you incorporate them into your cosmology, your life? How do you give respect to ugliness, illness, catastrophe, drudgery, and pain? Do you ignore it? Do you plaster it over with logos and an #ontrend wardrobe? Why? No, really – why?

Entropy has its place in the scheme of things, but it also has no shortage of agents or allies. If we say that we serve and revere the darkness in life, the chthonic, the pain necessary for growth, how we situate ourselves in that slice of cosmology matters. Indulging in the worst of ourselves, the cheapness, the indignity of our disconnected capitalist world, does not honor what real darkness, contraction, miasma, is. It honors nothing else but the shearing forces already at work within ourselves and our own society at large. And if your work is to uphold something else, ask yourself how the dopamine might be sneaking in.

We live in a world that is eating itself from the inside out. Tribalism, consumerism, disconnection, meaningless labor, broken relationships; everything is destroyed in its wake. All I ask is that we stop revelling in it while pretending that it is somehow separate from the tenets and cosmologies we purport to operate within as polytheists.

3 thoughts on “The Cosmology of ‘Things I Like’

  1. This is one of these areas where divination, I’ve found, is key. I may think something is “neat,” “cool,” “nice,” or whatever…but does Antinous or some other Deity agree? If They don’t, then whatever-it-is doesn’t go in Their Shrine (and often doesn’t even get obtained in the first place!); if They do, though, then sometimes no expense is spared (within my own limits, of course!) to get whatever-it-is…

    I just had this experience over the last few weeks, culminating in yesterday. One of the things I have for Antinous the Liberator is a taxidermied Pamphobeteus Antinous, commonly known as the “Bolivian blue-legged bird-eating spider” (!?!), and I obtained one a few years ago for a relatively good price, but when it arrived to me, one of its pedipalps had separated from its body in shipping. (It got installed in the Shrine anyway!) We are currently in the Sacred Nights of Antinous, and while various rituals will take place, and certain offerings will also be given, I also try to get something a bit bigger, nicer, and more extravagant–as well as more permanent–for His Shrine during this period. I had various ideas of what it should be, but all of those got either definite “no” or “not now” responses; but, another one of these spiders came up randomly, beautifully taxidermied, and for a bit more than I would have preferred to spend…and He said an enthusiastic “YES!” to that…so, the order was put in, and it arrived yesterday. I am not as afraid of spiders as I used to be, but they’re still pretty terrifying to me…and HUGE ones? Even more so. Even seeing a dead one gives me the creeps a bit…and yet here I am ordering yet another one to add to His Shrine. It arrived fine yesterday, and is much more beautiful than the last one…and absolutely horrifying at the same time.

    There should be something of the sheer holy terror of even the most benevolent of divine epiphanies present in our shrines, I think, to go along with the numinous beauty and the glorious ways in which our Deities and images of Them can also dazzle and bewilder our senses…! 😉

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  2. Interesting points! In manner ways, this comes down to one of the larger questions facing “paganism”- how real is a person’s practice? Are they LARPing? Is their religion a lifestyle brand, like Apple? Or, is their lifestyle built around their religion? Even amongst those who really try to center on the Gods, the demands of living in a culture that demands everyone have a personal brand just to get a job can tear at that center. For those who rarely, if ever, experience dopamine hits in their faith, the little brand-based hits become more attractive.

    Hmm… Perhaps this is a call for us to learn to bring more ecstatic work to the faithful?

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    1. “How real” indeed – I think for many of us, TOO many of us, religion is an escape. It IS the guilty pleasure, the fetishistic fantasy world we run to when we want a quick hit of pleasure or meaning or contrast to the otherwise inhumane and baffling workings of civic and secular life.

      But our numinous powers are also baffling. Most denizens of the modern world don’t want to find solace in an equally hostile, confusing, and ever-shifting landscape of the Other. They would rather worship Chris Hemsworth than Thor, leave offerings out for Enya instead of the Good Neighbors. I think in many ways, many pagans still harbor a seed of doubt that their powers are even real. Nihilism is a cancer as far as I’m concerned, and we’re adrift in a cultural sea of it. Chasing the dopamine is, perhaps, the only way many of even know how to construct “good” and “bad”.

      I think ecstatic work would definitely play a huge role in undermining this self-destructive cosmology. Direct experience has a way of setting you straight most times.

      Liked by 1 person

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