What is the purpose of it all? Why do you make such contradictory demands of us? Why do you punish us for doing what you compel us to do? Why have you put us here, in this labyrinthine place, with all its manifold temptations and opportunities for error, its blind alleys and paths to pain, which we are bound sooner or later to follow? Nothing could be clearer than the taste of fresh water in our mouths, or more direct than the light that strikes at our eyes from so many angles; why then should your ways and motives and the expectations you ultimately have of us be left in such obscurity?
I know, I know, there are those among us who say that the mystery I complain about is itself a central part of the scheme you have painstakingly worked out on our behalf. In a sense I agree with them, as I shall make clear below; but not for the reasons they advance. They argue that if things were made as straightforward as I wish them to be, if we understood your purposes wholly and felt only those impulses which you wish us to feel, the result would be not an accretion to our dignity but a derogation of it. We would be no better than automata, then, tied to a will which was not our own, knowing nothing of the spiritual merit to be gained only by those who overcome hardship and pain. It is precisely in bestowing on us the possibility, indeed the inevitability, of falling into sin and error that you have shown how much you love and honour us.
In certain moods I find this argument quite compelling; in others ... well, merely ingenious. The same is true of some of the other speculations about your nature and ours, and about the relations existing between you and ourselves, which are voiced by the more thoughtful of us. For we debate these matters incessantly, as you must know; a babble of conjecture, supplication, complaint, prayer and accusation constantly skirls to the white, distant heaven above us; it sounds so loudly in my ears I sometimes wonder at your patience in putting up with it. Especially as a single, informed word from you, the word which you alone can utter, would settle our fierce and pathetic arguments, once for all, and so put an end to the racket.
For example, there are friends of mine who insist that you are not one, but many; they are convinced that there are innumerable gods at work above us, some of whom are benign and well disposed to us, and others not; and that our fortunes depend entirely on whose hands we happen to fall into at any moment. Whereupon opponents of this view cry out that if there were in fact a multitude of gods in heaven, with varying degrees of power and ill-defined spheres of influence, they would always be at war with one another, and their rages would surely soon tear the world apart. There are also those who admit, as I do, that you are one and solitary in your power; but they go on to add that this very fact proves you to be irremediably evil by nature. You delight in the pain you inflict on us, they say; it cannot be otherwise; therefore we must conclude that you have every intention of continuing to inflict it, for ever.
Or could it be that we ourselves have created you, and not, as common sense would seem to suggest, that we are your creation? This view, too, has its upholders among us. They argue that all your apparent comings and goings in our lives are nothing but a figment of our imagination, a kind of collective delusion; and that everything we see and experience – walls, cages, passageways, light, litter, tasks, rewards, punishments, noise, silence and all the rest – is the result not of some grandiose, divine plan but simply ‘happens’, as they say, and will go on happening in random fashion until the end of time.
A hard doctrine! Almost as hard to understand as that which claims that the pity you feel for us once led you, the mightiest of beings, to become one of us: to take on yourself the humiliation of our physical existence, and to go willingly through all the pains we have to endure. To what end? So that, knowing you to have shared your nature with ours, we might hope to share ours with you; knowing that you ask nothing of us which you are not prepared to ask of yourself, we should never again feel ourselves to be alone and abandoned in the world. Many, many of my fellows have pressed this belief on me, and have presented me with a variety of what they are convinced are signs and traditions in witness of its truth. I would like to join them in their faith; but I have a twofold difficulty with it. First, I find it impossible to believe you would ever have so humbled yourself as to assume our flesh and blood, our tails and whiskers. Second, even if you did – where’s the consolation in it? Why should it make me feel better to know that you have suffered as we do? If anything, it makes me feel worse. I have no wish to see you suffer. I would rather spare you our pain than share it with you, and it baffles me to think that you should not have felt the same about us. That is, if palliation of our lot is what you had in mind.
Which brings me, at last, to the request or proposition I wish to make. As you will have guessed by now, I flatter myself that my own idea of what you want of us is more sophisticated than those I have just been describing. Please don’t think, though, that this means I am puffed up with pride about it. On the contrary. I am as ready now as I have ever been to prostrate myself before you and to acknowledge unbegrudgingly the power you have over us. You make the light shine at the beginning of every day, and you plunge us into darkness every night; you give us the food we eat and the water we drink; your hands pluck us up – now this one, now that one, according to your whim – to carry out the tasks you assign to us. But does making an acknowledgment of this kind compel me to believe that our spiritual and material welfare is your prime concern? Alas, the evidence is against it. Or am I to think, then, that you take a positive pleasure in our frantic scurryings hither and thither, our shudders and yelps of pain, our pathetic hopings that this time or the next time we will be spared the tests you have designed for us, and that someone else, anyone else, will be chosen instead? By no means. And if you neither pity us nor enjoy our sufferings, should we conclude that you are simply indifferent to how we perform? Your constant preoccupation with us argues against that too.
So what is left? Well, even or especially when I am most bruised and stupefied by what you have chosen to do to me, I try to cling to the insight I have lately acquired into your reasons for behaving as you do. It can be put down in few enough words, however far-reaching its implications may be. My belief is that you are experimenting with us.
It must be so. No other explanation has any real plausibility. Look at what you do. You pick me up, you put me down, you make me turn left, turn right, turn left again, and then you reward me with a morsel of food, or even, on some very special days, with a female on heat – moist, compliant, grateful, just as I like them. The very next day, in the same place, I turn left, turn right, turn left again; and what do I get? A stunning blow, an electric shock right on my tender nose, a contraction of my whole body that seems to hurl me backwards, through a suddenly charred and waterless world. Later, how much later I can never know, I wake to a smell of singeing, and find myself sprawled ignominiously on a metal plate, among those labyrinthine walls. And you, bending over me, picking me up, returning me to my usual place among my fellows.
None of the other explanations of this bizarre way of behaving – your way of behaving, I mean, not mine – fits the case as well as this one. You are using us to find out something about the world, perhaps even something about yourself, which you do not yet know. Am I right? Can you deny it?
I beg you not to misunderstand me. I don’t begrudge you your authority over us (and it would help me little enough if I did). So far from objecting to being used in this way, I believe we should feel ourselves privileged to be part of an enquiry as abstruse and yet as intimate as the one you are evidently conducting. All I object to is your secrecy. I ask no more of you than that you should take us into your confidence. Let us know firmly and unambiguously that that is indeed the purpose we are serving, and we would rejoice in it. What we can’t abide is the apparent randomness and pointlessness of our suffering, the lack of meaning to it, a world which makes no sense. Even now, confident though I am about the conclusion I have come to, I can never be wholly sure of it unless you confirm it for me; still more would my colleagues have reason to doubt it. Remove that doubt and I shall be not just your slave, but your willing slave, your co-operative slave; and the same would be true of all my friends.
Naturally, I understand some of the misgivings that may have held you back until now. Perhaps you thought that an exercise of the kind you are carrying out would be wholly beyond our comprehension. Much more important, no doubt, must have been your fear that if we came to recognise ourselves as participants, living instruments, in a great experiment, this would in itself influence our behaviour and thus affect or even falsify the results you are hoping to achieve. (The problem of reflexivity, you might be disposed to call it.) Well, having gone as far as I have in making this proposal, I must go further still, and offer you some methodological advice. It seems to me that as long as we do not know what exactly you are looking for, our knowledge that we are participating in such an enquiry simply cannot affect its outcome.
I am not asking you to divulge to us the secret of what you are ultimately hoping to discover by making use of us and all our blunderings. That, I can see, would be most improper. But in the name of your white coat and delicate, five-fingered hands, I implore you to fulfil this much more modest request. Tell me I have guessed right, and then take me, O Lord, take me at any time to meet your thunderbolts.