Invisible cows on top of a mountain – a load of bull or has religion got it down pat?

On a trek to the summit of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Andy Martin comes upon a sign that has him questioning the very existence of the divine, and the bovine, and wonders have the 'invisible cows' really taken over the world?

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On a recent trip to Hawaii I was halfway up a mountain when I saw a road sign that screamed: “BEWARE OF INVISIBLE COWS!”

And I just want to say, I love the invisible cows, really I do. But before I come to the invisible part, I had better just fill in the visible part of the equation. What is the tallest mountain in the world? No, it isn’t Everest. The correct answer – handy for the next pub quiz  – is Mauna Kea in Hawaii. What?! Yep. Hawaii is not all palm trees and big waves. In essence it’s a whole bunch of volcanoes poking up through the Pacific like periscopes. Some are active, notably on Hawaii island itself.

Also known as The Big Island, this is where Mauna Kea is. And I’ve ascended to its summit. In a four-by-four, I should add: rather precariously, increasingly anxious about blowouts and deeply concerned that my flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirt weren’t going to be adequate when I finally got out – they weren’t. Note I don’t say the “highest” mountain but the “tallest.” Crucial difference. Much of Mauna Kea is below sea level. The 14,000ft above the Pacific is still quite something. Your head will spin with hypoxia – gasping for oxygen – by the time you get to the top. From there telescopes cased in spherical white observatories peer into the dark recesses of the universe, hoovering up wandering photons as they meander through time and space.

But as I say, halfway up the tallest mountain in the world, on my way to the stars, unless I was hallucinating at the time, I saw that road sign – not something you’ll find on the M25. Needless to say, I had a good look out for the invisible cows. Didn’t see one. And I suppose that’s the point – by definition, you are not going to see them because as soon as you do, they become visible cows and the invisible ones cunningly eclipse themselves all over again.

I wouldn’t normally have been overly concerned with them but once I saw that sign I was convinced they were about somewhere. Chewing the invisible cud and inaudibly mooing. Surely somewhere, just around the next bend, over the next rise. Hang on, turn around; did I just miss one? Such are the thoughts that pass through your mind around 10,000ft high and beyond; in my experience, anyway.

‘Cowmandment’: there is more to this sign than doesn’t meet the eye (Flickr/Jtu)

Imagine, I said to myself, that there are all these invisible cows out there somewhere, charging about. Or, perhaps, only one almighty and immortal Invisible Cow, which somehow contains all the others. And further suppose that there are these visible guys roaming about known as the Herdsmen. They claim to know where the invisible cows are exactly. And what is needed to keep them happy to avert a stampede that would crush us all under their horrible, invisible hooves. And therefore telling the rest of us how to behave, what to do and above all what Thou Shalt Not do, just in order to placate the great Invisible Ones.

So that in this entirely hypothetical scenario these imaginary herdsmen are actually herding human beings around; the visible kind, as much as the invisible species they reckon they are tending to. Well, if you could imagine that, wouldn’t it be terrible? Or just ridiculous? And wouldn’t it feel like a tremendous hoax, to have everyone drive this way and that all on account of cows that we never get to see or even hear from? Ah yes, say the Herdsmen, but every now and then one among our number gets to see the great Eternal Cow way up there on the mountainside, and we report back from time to time with messages from the Invisible realm. Listen: “Moooo”. Thus spake the Invisible Cow.

Such was the nightmarish vision that came to me on Mauna Kea. Lucky I was only dreaming.

And then finally I take my head out of the telescope, come spinning back down to earth, and head straight for the nearest Starbucks, “And lo!”  as they say in the King James, what do I find? Behold, the invisible cows really have taken over the world after all, in the form of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other sundry religions. And the Herdsmen really are telling people how to behave.

Spot one? On the ascent to the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano is a signpost warning of ‘invisible cows’ (Shutterstock)

I can’t help noticing back on terra firma,that it is the female half of the world’s population that is being told how to behave, what to wear, how to have their hair cut, who to have sex with (and how, if at all), and above all that they should obey the other half of humanity (i.e. men, who oddly enough tend to dominate the ranks of the Herdsmen – not too many Herdswomen on the mountaintop, you’ll find). And this is all on account of the invisible cows. You have to revere them, or worship them, and bow down before them. Pray to them. Avert your gaze, ye heathen, from the Invisible One! Turns out that the Herdsmen are mainly herding us; the human herd.

A cynical thought occurs to me that if Adam, having been booted out of the Garden of Eden, wanted to come up with a way to control what Eve was getting up to, and make sure she was still available for regular trysts, then this idea of an invisible God ruling the world and tilting it in favour of guys, would be a terrific wheeze, an ingenious system for exerting dominion over womankind. “For the things which are seen are temporal,” as it says in Second Corinthians “but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 

I just want to ask one little question: what if, in reality, there are no invisible cows? I haven’t seen any, with or without a telescope. Cue letters of outrage from ardent members of the Invisible Cows Fan Club. And especially from the Herdsmen, the priests and imams and ayatollahs of the world. Obviously, you poor benighted fool, you can’t actually see them! That is the whole point. That would spoil everything if you could. But I was reminded of this fundamental issue recently when my son Jack. We were discussing, in a considered, meditative mood, the sad prevalence of scams in the world, when he said: “I think it is safer to assume that everyone is lying about everything all the time. Everything is a lie.” 

It’s a reasonable position. Jack is never going to be too disappointed. It’s broadly the position known as scepticism. The problem is it’s practically impossible to be evenhandedly sceptical about absolutely everything. You find yourself having to believe in one thing in order to disbelieve in something else. Scepticism, I suspect, is discriminatory and inegalitarian: “I believe this but not that”. Perhaps all human conflict begins there. I believe in cucumbers but not courgettes; coconuts but not pomegranates. The great agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell said, if you want to be really-really sceptical, you don’t say, “There is a dog”. You say: “I see a canoid patch of colour.” Maybe the dog isn’t real? I could be deluded. But even then you still believe in “I”.

Asked how he would explain his lack of faith to God were the two to meet, Russell reportedly said: “Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence.” Good answer but of course, as in the case of the invisible cows, it is the very lack of evidence that makes it so deeply appealing, almost irresistible. It is the secret source of the cows’ immense power, the simple fact that they are never around.

We are living in the age of the “Matrix” mentality. Everything you think is real must be an illusion. Which one of us has not at some point been convinced that the world must be a bad dream from which we will surely wake up any time now. Trump won’t be there any more, or Farage, and so on. They were just transitory by-products of overeating or over-drinking. Or they were sent to test you. This is just an experiment, like an exam. If you pass this world will vanish completely to be replaced by a better one. Timeless, spotless, ethically enhanced. Like pure mathematics, nothing but circles and triangles and a shed load of virgins.

Here in Cape Town, where I am staying for a couple of days, I am at a desk in a house once inhabited by the late, great writer André Brink, surrounded by books he has written. I am perfectly capable of conjuring up in my head the ghost of Brink himself; the ghosts of Christmas past and to come, or London, or New York, or Mauna Kea. In fact, trying to concentrate on the here and now is practically impossible. There is nothing mysterious about this, or metaphysical.

The pope (aka the herdsman) greeting his flock (Getty)

There is no metaphysics, nothing that is completely beyond or removed from physics. As the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out everyone is really an empiricist at heart, and all those far-flung and unattainable figments of our minds are simply variations on the chimera, a hybrid assembly of stuff that you can actually see or hear. To make a unicorn, for example, you simply take a horse (always white, I believe), and add on a horn. Or forget the horn and give it some wings instead. Thus Pegasus. Easy.

Hence art, hence science, hence religion. Things which are not seen. They’re in your head, delicately poised between synapses, like angels dancing on the head of a pin. Just an extension or an extrapolation of the things that are seen. All those invisible cows: what are they, finally? Only cows on whom we have conferred invisibility. 

Nietzsche may have said “God is dead” but he was kidding. His more serious statement in Twilight of the Idols was: “We shall never get rid of God because we still believe in grammar.” I think he meant that God is inherent in language and thought. Words, symbols, have objective correlatives, don’t they? “Dog” corresponds to dog. Thus “God”, logically, corresponds to God.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. But there are still conspiracies. And so far as I can work out this is the greatest conspiracy in the history of the universe, so far, way beyond Watergate or Trump and the Kremlin hackocracy, to have people believing in invisible sacred cows, and getting them completely tied up in knots on account of it. A conspiracy concocted over long millennia by priests and philosophers and saints and monks and mystics and fakirs and popes and visionaries. All of them dedicated to conjuring up the presence of the absent. But therefore, by the same token, the absence of the present. 

As I said above, I love invisible cows. I love to read the Bible and the Koran and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They are epic poems, or a tapestry of various poems woven together. But poems are not laws. Which, so far as I understand, is what the Enlightenment was all about. Voltaire and co were simply saying: we are never going to get rid of invisible cows. How can you cull the invisible? But let us not have invisible cows ruling the world, that’s all. Or handing down cowmandments from up a mountain.