Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Look at Pantheism

Why not split the difference between the traditional forms of theism and atheism? By traditional theism I mean the worldview featuring the personal, transcendent, benevolent “omni-everything” deity. By traditional atheism I mean the materialist/physicalist worldview (essentially “billiard balls all the way down”).

I make the following two observations:

1. The most compelling arguments atheists make against traditional theism have little or no force against a deity which lacks some of the usual attributes of being, say, personal, transcendent, and omnipotent. I’m thinking of the argument from evil as well as the general argument from the absence of evidence for ad hoc supernatural interventions.

2. The most compelling arguments made against materialist atheism point to a need for “something more” but they don’t require a deity with all those classic attributes. Here I have in mind the arguments from the irreducibility of first-person experience and intentionality and a modified version of the Thomist cosmological argument (the existence of things requires a unifying ground or force).

I’d also note that, in my opinion, religious experiences provide authentic evidence which points toward theism, but they don’t provide much support for specific religions (I’m skeptical that a person who never heard of Jesus would ever have an explicitly Christian religious vision).

So, what about pantheism? Pantheism is the idea that God is identical with nature or the universe, or alternatively God is a ubiquitous force or presence uniting entities in the universe. What God is not is a person or being distinct from the world. I thought this SEP article on pantheism by Michael Levine provided a fine, sympathetic summary.

His article shows that a difficulty with pantheism is that (not surprisingly) there are many versions, and it appears that few have been fleshed out in detail. There doesn’t seem to have been a leading figure in Western thought who was a pantheist since Spinoza (Levine lists some figures who are “possible” pantheists). So there is no metaphysical program to sign on to. On the other hand it seems pantheism is an idea which is all too easy to invoke in a fuzzy new-age way.

Actually, I would highlight two issues which need to be addressed. First, and to me most important, what problems does pantheism help us solve? Specifically, what are the metaphysical features which improve on the perceived limitations of atheism without broaching the problems of classical theism? The second issue is a question about why the worldview entails invoking something divine. What makes it a religious as well as a philosophical worldview?

To bring out the issues, let’s look at a particular simplified version of pantheism which identifies God with the natural world (with no further detail). On the first issue, one would have to say this worldview adds no “metaphysical value” to a naturalist philosophy which lacks God. On the second issue, it begs the question of why it would make sense to treat the natural world as something divine. What type of religious practice (worship or prayer) makes sense if there really is nothing supernatural? Traditional theists have understandably criticized this sort of pantheism as atheism with window dressing.

It seems to me it may be possible to form a more successful version of pantheism to address these issues. In the article, Levine highlights the concept of unity as something important to pantheism. Let me sketch something building on this concept. Perhaps God/World has two modes of presentation. The entities and properties studied through third-person investigations are one mode. The second mode is a unifying force which binds and connects individuals in the world-network and also endows them with the gift of first-person experience (minimal for simple entities, robust for humans). So, we’ve given the God/World some features beyond the usual worldview of naturalism, and also have a mode of existence (a uniting “world-mind”) which may be worthy of religious feeling. Obviously this sketch leaves many unanswered questions. What accounts for the dual modes? Is it a monistic system or really a dualism? Is the ontology one of substance, like Spinoza’s, or not? What are the implications for ethics, etc.?

Given the deficiencies in both poles of the traditional theism-atheism debate, these seem to be ideas and questions worth exploring.

One last note on a variation of pantheism: that is, panentheism. This is the idea that while our world is part of God, it does not exhaust God. God extends beyond our world. Given that even physicists speak more and more about multiple universes and/or dimensions, it seems reasonable to think that God could be a repository of many real or possible worlds, of which ours is a particular manifestation.


Kagehi said...

Interesting. If not for the fact that many ways exist to artifically generate religious experiences, a number of them having nothing to do with drugs, I might almost agree with you. But all evidence from real studies seems to imply that religious experiences are either a) mistaken orgasms during prayers or b) the part of the brain responsible for clear perceptions of causality shutting down during the same. In other words, in the artifically induced state, you are as likely to decide that 'you' personally moved a feather with your mind, as that the wind or God, did it. The capacity to differentiate your own thoughts from what is happening around you is impaired. Some people beceome convinced they have 'psychic gifts', others that spirits or angels and talking to them and still other that they 'feel' God. And much like the people who exist, whose brain are miswired to the point where reading, hearing or even seeing letters, object or entire words causes them to percieve a color ( ), some people are wired to experience so called 'spiritual' things more often. They are no more 'real' than thinking 'z' is 'orange', like on the link I gave. But such people can't stop experiencing them, anymore than a Synesthesic can avoid seeing orange when reading z. But, its a malfunction, not something 'real'.

I suspect also, that since meditation, prayer and mind altering drugs where 'all' very common from the very beginning of religion, artifically induced 'religious experiences' have been so common it would have been impossible to avoid 'evidence' for what ever the people in each groups 'thought' was doing things. And that's the point. What people 'think' is responsible for the universe is always what they 'percieve' when in these states. Global consciousness, you 'feel' connected to all things. God, you 'feel' the presence of an entity. Believe in magic, you 'feel' your connection to the world and how 'your' mind changes it. And so on. Its no more 'proof' of God than drunking too much is proof of talking pink elephants.

I am afraid the two worlds are only getting 'less' compatible, the more we know about how our minds work, not more. And as usually, the theists are trying their damndest to refute verifiable and repeatable evidence that their perceptions are in error, by claiming 'we' are the ones not getting it. After all, they can't refute the facts, just insist we are interpretting them wrong.

Anonymous said...

I really still don't see the point of pantheism. In, in the end, just posits the word "God" as a synonym of the word "universe" or "world". To give it some sort of substance, you have to posit the existence of some "unifying force", which we have no evidence for.

By the way, the best critique of the materialist perspective is "the need for 'something more'"? Materialism may not be as emotionally satisfying as theist worldviews but that has not bearing, pro or con, on its truth.

Steve said...

Hi Kahegi. Thanks for your comment. I think the fact that religious experiences could be artificially induced is indeed good evidence that there probably isn't much reliable evidence to be found in their contents. I have thought that it was interesting and suggestive that they are so ubiquitous across time and cultures.

Hi Tanooki Joe. I think it's possible that even if one accepted a worldview like I sketched it might be just an "option" to engage it in a religious as opposed to a non-religious way.

But to your second point: please note I didn't try to refute materialism in this particular post. Elsewhere I have spent a good deal of time on it. The key insight I had which started me looking beyond materialism/physicalism was regarding first person experience. I think that while our first person experience is inextricably linked to and dependent on brain states, the third-person analyis of brain states (and their physical make-up) will not exhaustively explain the existence of first person experience. That is one reason why I think a full explanation of world requires "something more".

Anonymous said...

Fair enough. The comment wasn't so much directed at you so much as those who argue against materialism solely on its emotional merits. I don't really agree with you that the physical make-up of the brain can't necessarily explain our first-person experiences. Our knowledge of how the brain may one day advance to the point where we can. Perhaps it won't. The "something more" is an extra entity that has no evidence for it, and from a skeptical viewpoint I cannot endorse it until it does. Of course, I applaud your philosophical inquiry. Good luck with your thoughts on your "something more". ;)

Steve said...

Thanks very much. - Steve

Anonymous said...

Naturally pantheism doesnt further the argument of origin. It does however provide a possible logical conclusion to dispove the role of religious based worshiping. Personally knowing that I am a descendant of origin, helps me to remove one form of creation, that relating to Gods own origin. Simplifying this also helps me to understand that everything is part of me in the grand scheme and this is a far more comforting view than praying to a God. PS: someone said something above about a "unifying force" and about a lack of evidence... well, arent we all made of matter? Besides evidence seems hardly relevant when no one has any. Just my oppinions im 14 anyway so dont lecture me if I missed something :D

Steve said...

Anon: thanks for your comment. I think those are some good thoughts. Best regards, - Steve Esser