The Last Illusion

Brian Eno, in an interview from 1995:

[INTERVIEWER:] On the [Nerve Net] album jacket you have a number of terms describing the music. One of those terms is “Godless.”

[ENO:] I’m an atheist, and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is someone knows what is going on. That’s the last illusion. Nearly everyone has that illusion somewhere, and it manifests not only in the terms of the idea that there is a god but that knows what’s going on but that the planets know what’s going on. Astrology is part of the last illusion. The obsession with health is part of the last illusion, the idea that there’s that if only we could spend time on it and sit down and stop being unreasonable with each other we’d all find that there was a structure and a solution underlying plan to it all, for most people the short answer to that is God.

Well, what I want to indicate by that word godless is not only god in the religious sense but I am trying to accept and enjoy the idea that we never will reach that condition of agreement of certainty, that actually we’re unanchored, we’re floating around, and we’re actually guessing. That’s what we’re doing. Everyone is making guesses, and trying to make the best of it, watching what happens and being empirical about it. There won’t be a plan, so godless, like most of those words, have a lot of resonance for me.

The last illusion has a lot of resonance for me too. (Although I don’t use the word “godless” — there’s irony in saying that it’s illusory to believe someone knows what’s going on immediately after declaring yourself an atheist.)

The last illusion is alluring. It’s scary to live unmoored, doing our best with what little information we have on hand. It’s scary to accept responsibility for failures — and successes. It’s scary to be uncertain. So much more comforting to buy into an exculpatory narrative — especially when everyone else is buying too.

And yet, the ultimate cost for such comfort is agency. The more we blame the stars, the gods, the Man, the system, [pick your favorite -ism], or whatever external abstract force for how things turn out, the less compelled we are to plumb our personal role in the matter. By surrendering to pre-packaged explanations, we risk atrophying the one thing we can control: our ability to sense and respond, to evolve.

Which isn’t to say those external forces aren’t real. Some are significant factors in how things turn out. Ideologies have a track record of creating horrible suffering in the world. But they’re not real in the same sense that damned table you stubbed your toe on is real. They’re abstractions — models for interpreting reality.

You can choose how to frame your experiences. Few things have a greater impact on the quality of your life (and the lives of people around you) than the models you adopt. And anyone who claims to have the ultimate model is peddling an illusion. A molder, not a dancer. Caveat emptor.

Godless: An Unpublished Interview With Brian Eno