anthropomorphism or metaphor 


n order to sustain the premise of a “personal” deity, religion has always presented “God” in anthro­pomorphic terms.  How is anthropomorphism different from metaphor?  Anthropomorphism is a literal error. It believes that “God” actually wills, commands, judges, provides, gets angry, is insulted, rewards and punishes, responds to prayer.  Metaphor does not.  Metaphor knows that it does not know.  Instead, it creates a symbol that encourages the direction of our relationship to “God.”                   

Metaphor is a symbol, as “myth” is a symbol.  Myth is not literal, scientific, historical … it is poetry: a story, a legend, a song, a ritual, an icon, designed to evoke a human response to the interpreted intentionality of the mysterium tremendum.                       

An example:  “Love” is generally believed to be a literal characteristic of “God.”  After all, didn’t New Testament “John” say in his epistle “God is love“?  But it is not literal.  Even by scholastic standards it is a metaphor, because, while it validly refers to feelings that we humans have, it does not literally denote what is happening on the part of “God.”  Let’s look at this more closely.

 The word “love” refers to a human phenomenon that implies desire for union between two individuals which may or may not be fulfilled. “God,” according to traditional theology, desires nothing because “he” has everything, lacks nothing, and exists in a state of unalloyed bliss.  No further union need be achieved because the total union between “God” and all things is the pre-condition of our very existence itself.  According to Aquinas, “God” “loves” himself, and us in himself. Therefore the word “love” is not properly applied to “God.”  Metaphorically, however, it is a helpful tool for us humans for it focuses our relationship toward “God.” It encourages us to love “God” who, as the source of our existence, is obviously “benevolent” toward us in a most intimate and necessary way.  But note that even the word “benevolent” itself hardly qualifies as a more adequate descriptor, because it stands at the same distance from the reality. It is also a metaphor. From our point of view, we say “God” is benevolent because we are the recipient of his “being,” but “God” feels no benevolence for us, for from “his” point of view there is nothing there but “his” own being with which “he” is already united.  According to classic theology, we are part of “God’s” being, and generosity is of the “essence” of God.  God cannot help being generous.  It’s not a choice.  “He” doesn’t even “notice” that we are there or that “he” is being generous.  For “God” to “notice” us would mean his having two different concepts; and that, according to essentialist theology, is impossible. “God” is utterly simple, “He” thinks and wills only one thing — “him”self.

      You may not like it.  But this is classic Thomism.  Most people are not aware of this.  It was never part of normal preaching.  Dismissed as esoteric, or avoided as dangerous, these “doctrines” were effectively gutted, or ignored in favor of simplistic anthropomorphisms that the “ordinary” people could understand.                  

metaphors change

 One of the results of understanding our speech about “God” as we are proposing in this study is that metaphors change as required by the relationship. Those who use metaphor are not bound by the word and concept because they know its purpose is to describe the relationship, not the object.

 This is important.  Let’s take another common metaphor for “God,” — father.  Those women and men who were abused by their fathers may have had the word “father” seriously and perhaps fatally compromised for them.  But since they know it is a metaphor, no one can say to them “you have to use that word.”  The word is only a tool … and as with any tool that no longer works, you put it down and pick up another. “God” is every bit as clearly and adequately (and inadequately and unclearly) denoted by “Mother” or “Brother” or “Principle of Organization of the Cosmos,” or “the living dynamism of material energy” as by “father.” The reality in question is so transcendent, so far beyond our essentialist concepts of any kind, that new imagery can be chosen and new metaphors created to express and maintain the focus of the relationship.   God is not a father.  It might have been Jesus’ favorite term, but it is still a metaphor; it is not literal.  Failure to realize that led ultimately to the dogmatic exaggerations at Nicaea.

 This is the sufficient and necessary ground for a sincere and universal mutual respect among all religious traditions. Catholicism will not accept that, because it takes its descriptors of “God” as literal fact, not metaphor. … and that is the problem.  Taking a metaphor literally is the source of anthropomorphism.

 The words are fluid and relative … and the “thing” — in this case “God” — is unknown … what is central and guiding is the relationship. The existential relationship is understood from within, because we directly experience existence, material energy, which is our bodies, our selves.  But “what” we are related to (the source of our existence, material energy), and “how” existence is sustained (the self-embrace, the conatus) is not clearly “known” even though it is my very self and therefore somatically (bodily) and thoroughly understood!


Understanding as opposed to “knowledge” is also true for a relationship between human beings.  When I say I “know” my wife, for example, I don’t mean concep­tual knowledge … some sort of scientific or literal definition. I mean I know “what she’s like.” It is in and through the relationship that I understand her … not through scientific, psychological or medical data.  It is not her height, weight, age, body temperature, blood pressure, medical records, … even psychiatrists’ reports … that tell me who she is. For words to describe the person as apprehended in the relationship, I have recourse to poetry and poetic symbols — metaphor

 I may write one poem in which I call her a butterfly … and then in another a soaring eagle.  As a matter of literal fact, she is neither. The relationship is clearly understood with­out words but it creates words — metaphors — to express itself … and to express itself ever anew because of new circumstances, or new depths of the relationship … or new insights into the significance of words and images.

 Now let’s apply that analogy to religion. The relationship in this case is to “God” … But really … what is “God”?  We don’t know.  The only thing we know is how we are related: I am existentially dependent on what I call “God.”  I express the relationship in metaphor. The metaphors are chosen to express my understanding of the relationship.  Religions are com­munity poems, stories, legends, myths, about an unknown reality whose existential self-donation is our very selves. This relation­ship is rightly called apophatic, mean­ing that there are no words that literally apply … not because the thing we’re talking about is not real, … or that we are not in touch with or not aware of it, but because it is not a “thing out there.” It is a relationship I connaturally experience as myself!  In this particular relationship, the common transactional element — “what” we (“God” and I) hold in common — is the existence of the particular configuration of material energy that is me.  My physical presence in the world, such as I am, is for me the primary metaphor for “God.”

 We should not be surprised that something as intimate and all embracing as our relationship to our very own existence should have been mythicized and poetized and ritualized and celebrated in thousands of different ways around the globe.  Paul said “all the peoples grope after” this unknown God.  But we don’t have to look very far, he adds, it’s near to each of us … for  it is where we live and move and have our being.

 matter’s energy and the words of religion

 The “thing” humankind has called “God” is revealed through an existential relationship that objectively sustains us.  What “thing,” then, in our experience, actually provides us with our existence and our sense of the sacred?  That “thing” is not a thing at all, I submit, but the process we know as universal material energy; and we know it quite well.  Material energy is a self-donating dynamism entirely sufficient to account for our existence as well as the existence of everything, its associated conatus (drive to survive), its sustaining matrix and our sense of the sacred.

 At the risk of blurring a clarity of expression that I have worked hard to establish in this study, let me say once and for all for those who are confused about my position: it’s not that there is no “God” … it’s that “God” is so utterly different from the way our tradition has encouraged us to ima­gine “him,” that we cannot easily make the adjustments necessary to accommodate what we are learning.  And I want immediately to declare that the first adjustment may be to stop using the word “God” because it conjures something that is not and cannot be.  I am referring, of course, to the anthropomorphic imagery taken from the “Book.”

 “God” is not rational because “he” does not act for “reasons.”  “He” is exactly as our teacher described “him,” like the sun that shines equally on the just and the unjust … enlivening our bodies even as “he” enlivens the viruses and cancers, the tectonic forces and weather cycles that may kill us. There is a non-rational, universal self-donation, a kind of a helpless uncontrolled loving availability, an absolute generosity that makes absolutely no sense to us even though we exist by it and live immersed in it.  Yet, if we allow ourselves to think about it, we may realize that while it is not-rational, we do understand it … it is simply an exponential version of the way we relate to our own children and the other people we love.  Intense love is, in a sense we all understand, helpless.  We cave in to the beloved … as Solomon’s poet noticed … as if before “an army set in battle array.” 

 I claim that all along, throughout the entire intellectual history of western christianity, all we have ever known is our relationship of existential dependency on and participation in material energy … and essentialist metaphysics with its “God” as “ideal being” was the attempt to translate that empirical reality into the dualisms of ancient Greece and Imperial Rome.  It is not just a coincidence that the traditional essentialist relationships parallel those of cosmo-ontology.  They called matter’s energy, “being,” and mis-took it as rational thought, idea and “mental spirit.”  But there was nothing else but a self-transcending material energy that those erroneous categories could possibly have been attempting to describe … because it’s the only reality out there!  Matter produced “mind,” mind did not produce matter.  That’s what reveals what matter is.

But daring to say that, doesn’t entirely solve our problem.  We still have to decide what to do with these ancient words. They are our tradition, the tracks of our people in the search for the fountain that wells up our life.  We cherish them as symbols of our journey even though we cannot allow them to dominate the facts.  We cannot ignore the skewing effect the word “God” with its anthropomorphisms will have on our vision of reality. “God” should be used in objective discourse only if accompanied by unambiguous clarifications.  If even for the schoolmen, “God” is not the way we have been encouraged to imagine “him” by our religion, it will be even more so for those who embrace the philosophy proposed in this study. For cosmo-ontology “the sacred” is the living dynamism of material energy, posses­sed by and activated in all things.

The suggestion that matter’s energy may itself be only a metaphor for something unknowable that lies beyond it, I personally think is a redundancy.  But I have no objection for those who feel they need to imagine it in those terms, except to say this: it must never be used to re-construct an anthropomorphic other-worldly “God.”  Whatever stands behind material energy, no matter how transcendent, generous and self-emptying, must still be material energy.

 So, religion and our “transcendent materialism” are ultimately compatible … although it will be a religion purified of those elements that are incompatible with the facts.  “God” has a right to be what “he” is.  And we have the right to extol our relationship to our “God,” in which we live and move and have our being, with the richest most powerful poetry we can distill from hearts inebriated with the joy of life.  We inherited great poetry from our tradition; it’s time we contributed some of our own.

 theology and “spirituality”

 I also want to be careful here to separate theology from “spirituality.”  The word “spirituality” carries a connotation I am not comfortable with.  It obviously derives from the historical belief in the superiority of an alleged “spirit” over the “flesh.”  There is no “spirit,” and so I mean no such thing. 

An acceptable definition for me would be this: Spirituality is the affective relational attitude assumed toward the source of existence, and from there the “program” of personal development that one may use for grounding and fo­cus­ing that affect.  Such a program is clearly a work of the imagination because we do not “see” the source of our existence, except in its elaborated forms.  But all good poetry is a work of the imagination … it is not “inaccurate” for being poetry.  Good poetry is quite precise, and communal poetry like religion should refine and modify itself over time under the guiding influence of our knowledge of reality.  How good our poetry is, is up to us.

Spirituality will naturally have an “objective” or scientific side.  And the objective side is what I mean by theology.  Theology uses our knowledge of reality to evaluate the metaphors that guide our relational energies toward that in which “we live and move and have our being.” Theology must deal in facts.  Theology is the interface between the facts and our religious poetry.  Some will prefer to eschew all metaphors in the pursuit of a relationship that they realize has been severely distorted by past imagery wedded to religion’s erstwhile function as social cement and based on an ancient, obsolete “science.”  But theology functions here as well.  It is the ground and justification of contemplative silence.

 Whether this spirituality is expressed in the well known metaphors of our tradition … or left to new poetic realizations that emerge in the crash of events … or treated with an awe filled silence … is up to us.  I would only insist that in all cases the “theological” or objective side be grounded in science and with a philosophical interpretative tool, like cos­mo-ontology, germane to science. Religious imagery that alludes to other “facts” may be used metaphorically for spirituality but not for theology, and certainly not in place of science.  Religion has no “facts.”

 This study has not been about spirituality. It has been about philosophy and the hints that analysis has given us about theology. Theology has to do with clarifying religious words and religious imagery, and what I challenge are the anthropomorphisms that are used, not for spirituality, but as theological “facts” whose non-reality makes them dysfunctional for faith.  (note: This use of the word faith with the strikeout will be the focus of the next chapter.  The strikeout is simply a reminder that we are not talking about anything supernatural.)

 Certain individual thinkers throughout western history have proposed imagery about “God” that is different from our inherited anthropomorphisms. These visionaries, like Johannes Eckhart and Baruch Spinoza, have also supported a pan-en-theist view of reality; they are well known and need no introduction from me.  But, in my opinion, as much as I am inspired by their work, I believe it is dangerous simply to accept that “God exists” on their terms, for they lived before the time of modern science.  I say this because their naïve use of the word “God,” despite their best intentions, runs the risk of re-estab­lishing the same anthropomorphic ima­ge­ry … which will tend to be hijacked by the same self-serving ethnocentric religious organizations, feeding the same personal patho­logies and prolonging the same political and social inequities as always.  This is not necessarily so, but the risk is great and I would prevent it if I could.  Can our sense of the sacred live without (the word) “God”?

 Our traditional western religions stemming from the anthropomor­phisms of the “Book” have tended to produce believers who are individualistic, authoritarian, elitist, ethnnocentric, male-do­mi­nating, anti-somatic, judgmental, guilt-ridden, self-destruc­tive and violently intolerant of other traditions. Those who have avoi­ded those pitfalls have done so by selectively choosing among doctrines and doctrinal interpretations based on their own sense of humanity.  We must realize that the doctrines of our own tradition do not necessarily challenge those pathological attitudes and can even be cited in support of them. If the reader does not recognize these anti-human defects, this aspect of the argument will make no sense. I’m saying that unless spirituality changes on its objective, theological side, guided by science and theology, nothing will change, and ultimately we will be “like those who look into a mirror and walk away … and forget what they saw.”

 un-knowing: faith is not belief

 The word “God” and its entourage of associated notions has been expropriated by “religion,” and unless religion’s erroneous definitions are de­toxi­fied and made digestible by metaphor, they will contaminate our thinking and make an adult relationship to the sacred matrix impossible. This, I am sure, will draw a line in the sand … separating “believers” from non-believers.  But the authentic religious quest, I have insisted all along, is not “belief, but, faithrelationship.  “Belief” projects a multitude of “facts” that are just not there.  It pretends to have a “know­ledge” of “God.”  But no such knowledge exists, because no such separate entity exists. “God” is not other than us and the material matrix from which we emerged.  We cannot objectify it, and so we cannot “know” it. I claim we have an intimate and absolutely certain understanding of existence because it is what we are, and therefore we can relate to it. Our very bodies were spawned by it and function on its energies.  Science gives us knowledge of it, but what it means to us is something we already understand internally and express in poetry.  Existence — our fleshed existence — is “God.” This understanding challenges our archaic beliefs, but not faith.  Faith offers no new facts to mystify and delude us.  Faith “un-knows” because it cannot objectify existence.  But it understands that existence is not-other and cannot be lost.  It operates within the context of the facts as our science and intelligence reveal them.  Faith doesn’t know something science doesn’t, but it understands those facts in a way that opens to a loving reliance on existence as it really is.  Existence is called in this study “the energy of matter,” and in other places by other people with other metaphors like “natura naturans,” “the Cloud of Unknowing,” “The Dark Night,” “sunyata-emptiness” or even “non-being.  These semantic equations work in all directions: “God” is the “symbol” our culture has devised for the matrix in which we exist.

 There are many who have little respect for the understanding that comes through somatic experience. Rather than understand that they belong to existence and surrender to the maddening passionate entanglements and sweet sorrow that material belonging entails, they would prefer to “believe,” on the authority of others, questionable “facts” which promise to “save” them from having to embrace this turbid raucous mother that gave them birth. They cling to those beliefs as if they were shekels allowing them to buy their way out of this world without actually dying.  They harbor the illusion that they came out of nowhere … are part of nothing … belong to no one … and will exist as their individual “selves” in a placid eternity unencumbered by any connection to this struggling family of bumbling, self-cen­tered matter. 

 At the other extreme, there are those who would eschew the sacred altogether simply because they have discovered that the literalisms of their childhood religion do not harmonize with scientific facts. Some even go so far as to deny their sense of the sacred in a futile effort to dodge the overpowering impact of the numinous embedded in the transcendent creativity of matter … on spectacular display in their own flesh.

We carry a sacred treasure in vessels of clay.  It is the mystery of matter … our matter, our bodies. This treasure needs to be cherished for what it is and not what our ancient fantasies imagined it was. It is our surrender to our integral place in the living material dynamism of suffering existence, the groaning mother whose creative emptiness endlessly gives birth to this astonishing universe … our bodies … our selves.





 God as “person”

 If matter’s energy is taken to be “God,” one of the things it will entail is the re-concep­tu­a­lization of the notion of “person” as applied to “God.” 

I have been accused of “impersonalizing God.” But the reader should be aware, this is not a new problem.  It has been a traditional point of tension in western religious thought since before the advent of Christianity.  Aristotle’s “God,” who was the scholoastic model, was a cosmic force that related to no one.  In the Middle Ages, theologians who defined “God” as “being,” had the problem of understanding how such a “God” might be a “person” in the ordinary sense of the term. The “God of the Book,” on the other hand, was said to interact with people in ways that Aristotle would call anthropomorphic. To mis-apply the word “person” justi­fies anthropomorphism, and essentialist philosophy is in a dilemma because, in theory, it eschews anthropomorphism.  Aristotle would never call “God” a person.  Why did Thomas?            

Aquinas used the analogy of being to support the claim that God was a “person.” His reasoning went like this: because we, finite spirits, are per­sons by reason of our powers of intellect and will, “God,” an infinite spirit, could not be anything less. Therefore “God” must have intellect and will and must be a “person.” 

But consider: “persons,” in our experience, are flesh and blood individuals that interact through episodic contacts characterized by constant change and modulation. We relate to persons through the interpretation of their changing intentionality. Thomas’ “God” does not do that, either going or coming. Aquinas himself claimed that God’s “providence” was complete in the natural order. “Miracles,” stock-in-trade for the Church that of course he would never deny, he still insisted had to have been foreseen and pre-programmed from all eternity, because “God” cannot change.  How does one interact “personally” with a changeless God?   And how does that “God” interact with us?        

For mediaeval theologians, the super-essential character of the notion of “God” derived from the traditional static concept of being. In fact, claiming that God was “Being” meant that “God” was not an entity definable and delimited over against other entities, and therefore not an individual in the normal sense of that word.  If “God” is not a separate entity, how could “he” be capable of interaction with other entities … how could “he” be a “person” as we understand it?  The point is, “he” wasn’t.  For Aquinas “he” was a “person” by abstract definition, not by human experience.

We have to recognize that the empirical absence of any verifiable interaction with “God” even in the experience of believers, corroborates the drift of this discussion: if “God” is a “person,” it is not as we experience and understand that term.  One might think that the mystics, of all people, would have opposed that statement, but as we shall see shortly, they confirm it.

Besides, even the highly abstract Thomist definition of “person” as possessing intellect and will, is unworkable on its own terms.  For Aquinas, there is no distinction in God between intellect and will. God is Being, and being is “one” and metaphysically “simple.”  There is no multiplicity of any kind.  All attributes and activities of God are the same as his “essence” … and his essence is simply “to exist.”  So to be, to will, to think, to create, to provide, etc., (any “attribute” that one can imagine of “God,”) are all one and the same act.  There is only one single selfsame act in which God exists and embraces “himself” eternally.  “God,” by traditional scholastic standards, does not have intellect and will as we under­stand the terms. Therefore Thomas’ abstract definition must be “tweaked” to fit the anthropomorphic imagery of the “Book.” To call “God” a “person” under these circumstances is utterly misleading because “God” doesn’t do what we expect “persons” to do, and what “the Book” says he does.  People are not interested in some irrelevant abstraction; they expect a “person” to hear, feel, understand and respond like a person.       

So, for mediaeval theology, calling “God” a person is a metaphysical abstraction — a formality.  We can relate to “God,” but we have to admit that we have absolutely no idea what “God” relating to us might mean. The only part of this relationship that we experience is the one-dimen­sion­al benevolence made manifest in our own existence.  

 The upshot is that scholasticism provides no more support for the creating, micro-managing, providential personal “God” of the “Book” than does the cosmo-ontology we have elaborated in The Mystery of Matter. Whatever modern science knows of “creation” and “providence,” is sufficiently and necessarily explained as the evolutionary dynamism of matter’s energy.  There is no need for any other agency.  What this means is that taking “God” to be material energy sets up the same austere, exclusively existential relationship between the human organism and “God” as the identification of “God” with the scholastic concept of “being.”  In each case, when the analysis is complete, it turns out that, in the practical order, it is more accurate for us to say that “God” is not a person, than that “he” is.  If the term “person” is used without the clarifications that effectively neutralize the term, it will necessarily create a profound misunderstanding and false expectations.    If in our times “God” has become a term of derision and absurdity, I believe this is the cause of it.

the church

 Historically the Catholic Church made no effort to correct this anthropomorphism and in fact encouraged it.  It was understandable. The Church lived off its alleged power to assuage, cajole and in other ways “control” God.  But, it is only a “God” who changes his mind, can be placated and prayed to, that could keep the Church in “business.”  And it is only a “God” who has a “will” and gives commands, and expects to be obeyed or will punish the disobedient, that can be an effective whip for social cohesion.  Such a relational, changeable, multi-dimen­sional, rational, anthropomorphic “God,” however, every bit as much for essentialist philosophy as for the cosmo-ontology pre­sented in this study, does not exist. Let me repeat: that “God” does not exist! neither for Thomas nor for me.  Both systems insist: as far as human experience is concerned, “God” is, practically speaking, impersonal; all claims to the contrary are products of human imagination. To use the word “person” of “God” is a sheer abstract conceptual formality.  It has no relational significance whatsoever, not for “providence” and not for prayer. In recent years I have heard people call a devastating earthquake or tsunami visited on poor people “unintelligible.” The use of that word implies some failure of justice or compassion; it betrays the deeply damaging anthropomorphisms that continue to contaminate our thinking about “God.” Natural events are perfectly intelligible. One could only call them “unintelligible” if one thought a rational intelligence — “God” — inexplicably willed or permitted them to happen.                    

“Material energy,” existence, generates exactly the same conceptual relationships as essentialist “being.” The self-embrace of existence that we can palpably experience in our conatus derives from a foundational existential dynamism, a property of the material substrate itself. That dynamism accounts for the communitarian persistence on display in every emergent form of existence.  The attempt to relate to this substrate — what many see as an impersonal force — is no different from trying to relate to the essentialists’ “God-Being” who is, by scholastic standards, equally non-relational, changeless, unidimensional — from the point of view of human experience, in other words, impersonal.

 the mystics and a “personal” God

 Contrary to popular opinion, this “impersonal” dimension is confirmed in practice by the mystics of all traditions.  This seems counter-intuitive; so let’s look at it briefly.

The pursuit of mystical experience has always been something of an elite, esoteric or even parallel religious project. It went beyond mere religious practice.  The original goal of the mystic in almost all cases was to make direct personal contact with the very source of the sacred itself.  If “God” were a “person” the mystics would be the first to tell us about it.  What, in fact, do they say?

 The mystics’ advice, according to its most articulate practitioners, was to avoid relating to “God” as a person … and in the east, was explicitly non-theist.  Most people are not aware of this.  Evidence for it, however, is ubiquitous in their writings although it takes many forms and may emerge only in the final stages of an arduous and extended personal program.  Allow me to illustrate with some examples. 

In the East, contemplative practice was expressly defined by the Buddha from the start as a non-theist and even anti-theist endeavor.  It was definitely not a relationship to a god, much less a personal god.  The original doctrine, known as Theravada Buddhism, carried forward in later centuries by Mahayana systems, bracketed the traditional Hindu gods. The Buddha taught that it was the illusory belief in the ability to achieve a personal existential permanence that was responsible for the unnecessary anthropogenic aggravation of the suffering that is endemic to existence. Belief in the gods, with the reward and punishment, eternal life and happiness allegedly pro­mised by them, was a prime symptom of this illusion.

 …the immortality of the soul through appeasement of the gods by prayer and ritual … have no place in the Buddha’s teaching. …[1]    Absent from all these [Buddhist] systems is any notion corresponding to the God of the monotheistic religions … the idea of a personal relationship with an absolute being in another, transcendent world is foreign to Buddhism.[2] 

 In the West, the “religions of the Book” presented the source of the sacred as a personal “God” whose anthropomorphic characteristics were initially brought over from the “Book” to contemplative practice.  Hence in these religions the relationship was first conceived in “personal” terms as between two lovers (The Song of Solomon, Jalal-al-din Rumi, John of the Cross) tending historically in Christianity to focus on the personality of a divine Jesus as a loving companion (Thomas à Kempis).

 In the case of Christianity, the overwhelming influence of the personalist anthropomorphic imagery and rigid doctrinal formulas about “God” imposed with terrifying severity by a violently inquisitorial church, prevented any open rejection of the doctrine of a personal God as Buddhism did.  But, within the range of possibilities available, adept contemplatives, without openly challenging the doctrine, separated themselves in the practical order from the imagery and pursuit of a personal relationship with God.  Re­gardless of how laden with expressions of “perso­nal love” their journey began, Christian mystics eventually came around to describing a relationship in which the “personal” dimension was muted, relegated to superfluous status and eventually ignored altogether.  

 As with the Buddhists, most of these ascetics were focused on practice and did not draw “doctrinal” conclusions from their experience. Christian mystics tended to find “God” in the simple acceptance of the “divine” depths of their own existence and the uneventful routines of everyday life.

Some few, however, did have “theological” interests and attempted to translate their experience into “philosophical” terms. This penchant often got them into serious trouble. Christian mysticism as proposed by John Scotus Eriúgena (d. 877), followed in the footsteps of the earlier Greek Cappadocian Fathers and Pseudo-Dionysius. Eriúgena called “God” natura naturans and the cosmic order natura naturata, God’s “theophany.”  This identification of “God” with “nature” infuriated the authorities 350 years after his death and he was condemned along with other more contemporary “pantheists” at the IV Lateran Council (1215). There seemed to be no “statute of limitations” for the Inquisition:  bones were ordered dug up and burned. 

 Elsewhere Eriugena asserts that God is the ‘essence of all things’ (essentia omnium) and the ‘form of all things’ (forma omnium). In the thirteenth century, expressions such as these led to the accusation of heresy, i.e. that Eriugena is collapsing the difference between God and creation.[3]

 Christian mystical writers of the early 14th century, Marguerite Porete and Johannes Eckhart, who manifest a mutual influence be­tween themselves, both speak about “transcending religion.” Margue­rite was the inheritor of the mystical tradition of the feminist Beguines. She says she came to see that the scriptural “commandments” and growth in ascetical practice were “obstacles” in the sense of being early partial goals that must be transcended. The mature mystic, she says, has no goals whatsoever, no aspira­tions, no ascetical or prayer practices because she is no longer “traveling toward God,” … she exists in a state of complete union, and all imagined interaction has ceased. 

  The soul … no longer seeks God through penitence, nor through any sacrament of Holy Church; not through thoughts, nor through words, nor through works; … not through justice nor through mercy …

… such a soul neither desires nor despises poverty nor tribulation, neither mass nor sermon, neither fast nor prayer, and gives to nature all that is necessary without remorse of conscience.  But such a nature is so well ordered through the trans­formation of the unity of Love, to whom the will of the soul is conjoined, that nature demands nothing that is prohibited.[4]

The fact that a human being, body and soul, should consider itself “part of God” and therefore beyond obedience and other acts of relating to God “as other” was more than the inquisition would tolerate.  When she refused to retract her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, she was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, for “pantheism,” naturally.

 Johannes Eckhart, a renowned Dominican theologian and venerable elder of his order in Germany, might have been a secret disciple of Marguerite, according to historians, because their doctrines are so similar.  He taught that the soul has to “get beyond God, to the Godhead beyond the Trinity” — unconditioned being. “God,” he said, and “Trinity” were terms of religion. They are human terms that represent our projections and do not denote the “Godhead.” 

 The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything.  But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that.  … Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, for unconditioned being is above God and all distinctions.[5] 

 The “Godhead,” he says, is pure simple lim­pid “being,” the goal of a “breakthrough” that marks the ultimate identity of souls who realize that they are an intimate part of “being,” and that thay are as they were before birth when, as Eckhart says, “I wanted what I was, and I was what I wanted.”  Contact with “God” is had in the depths of the soul in a pre-existing and un­earned unity where the “being” of each is meshed and indistinguishable for eternity.  It is not ecstatic.  It is the simple experience of oneself, but understood as ab­sorbed in the “being” of “God.” Eckhart was condemned in 1329 two years after he had died of natural causes, thus deftly avoiding the fate of his Beguine mentor.

 Spanish Carmelite mystics of the 16th century, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila produced writings that claimed to lead to a unity with God that goes beyond visions, feelings or interest in a supernatural world.

 For John the goal is simply the darkness of “faith.”  Search for “supernatural” experience is explicitly rejected because:

 “[God] has laid down rational and natural limits for man’s governance; wherefore to desire to pass beyond them is not lawful, and to seek out and attain to anything by supernatural means is to go beyond these natural limits.”[6]  “They are unnecessary” …  “To desire to commune with God by such means is a most perilous thing.”[7]

 These individuals were thoroughly immersed in the ordinary routines of life and, by their own assessment, completely uninterested in any ecstatic condition, visions, feelings, “mystical experiences,” or consolations. In fact, their break­through, it seems, from what they said in their books, was that one had absolutely to avoid pursuing any such extraordinary experiences. And the point was not just “achieve­ment by non-pursuit.”  They were very clear about it: “God” was not to be found there.  Their advice is that “per­fec­tion” consists in the awareness of the presence of God in all things and at all moments. One touches “God” through faith alone. Extraordinary experience is not the mystic’s quest.  Nothing superna­tural or “other-worldly” is required. 

 St Teresa of Avila for her part was most emphatic: even the afterlife becomes unimportant, since immersion in God will be no greater then than it is here and now.[8]  

All these great mystics were in the apophatic tradition, which means their theology was grounded in the unknowability of God.  I distinguish them from lesser “spiritual writers” like Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century who fostered an imaginary relationship with a “Jesus-as-a-personal-friend.”  However, given the Church’s insistence on its unique power to mediate authentic contact with God, the compatibility of The Imitation of Christ with the Catholic claim of the “real presence” in the Eucharist, insured that minor figures like à Kempis would be officially promoted over the great mystics.  As late as the 1960’s The Imitation of Christ was read daily to seminarians during their entire time of training.  Not even the gospels were treated with such deference.  Like most Catholics, seminarians were unaware of the great mystics.  Discouraged from reading them by the ecclesiastical authorities, most knew nothing of their counsels.

 Conventional religion is “other-worldly”

 The views of the great mystics stand in stark contrast with the world-view promoted by conventional christian religion which is quintessentially “other worldly” and based on the interventionist power of a personal deity who dwells an another world.  In the West, this connection includes the necessary role of the Church.  Any happiness experienced on earth, “this world,” is ephemeral, vanishing.  The only true happiness is to be found after death in that other world where the human being really belongs.  For the partisans of traditional religion, if there were no fear of punishment after death, what could possibly motivate moral behavior?  Moreover, if there were no other world, where would God reside? He is clearly not present in ours.

 The mystics saw things differently. There is nothing really “mystical” about their program.  What they are saying is that, by whatever long and circuitous journey, they all eventually arrived at a vision of “God” characterized by a quiet familial embrace of themselves and everything around them … because everything is the outward display of the presence of “God.” Their “doctrine” would be completely compatible with our cosmo-ontology and a transcendent material energy.  Teresa and John believed themselves to be in a deep relationship to a “God-person,” but even so, their own experience led them away from seeking any personal interaction with “God.”  This “discovery” about the already existent union of “God” and creation (or, in their terms, “God” and the “soul”) was so important that they felt driven to share it with others, and so produced the great mystical literature that we cherish so highly.  I cite their work as “theological” testimony, not devotional hyperbole.  Christians, however, having been warned by the Church that they are “potentially dangerous,” generally do not read them.

I offer the testimony of these women and men as examples from our own tradition that seem completely compatible, and even tend to confirm, the conclusions of our study. Religion does not need an anthropomorphic “God” to function … even at the highest levels.

[1] Takeuchi Yoshinori, ed., Buddhist Spirituality, Crossroads, NY, 1997, p.10.

[2] ibid. p.xxiii.

[3] Dermot Moran, “John Scottus Eriugena”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[4] Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, tr Babinsky, NY Paulist Press 1993, ch 9 & 85

[5] Johannes Eckhart, sermon: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, in Walshe, Eckhart, German Sermons, London, Watkiins, 1979 vol 2, p.275

[6] John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, tr. Peers, NY Image, 1958, Bk II, ch 21,1 p.189

[7] ibid, 7 p.193

[8] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Seventh Mansion, chapter III.

religion (I)



 For me, the point of The Mystery of Matter was to update the traditional metaphysics that I was formed in. That has meant, effectively, to make a philosophical attempt at plumbing the nature of reality.  Ambitious?  Believe me, this was not my choice, and I was reluctant to take it on.  But I was driven by a tradition that had filled my brain not just with religious beliefs, but with a philosophical vision of the very nature of reality that supported those beliefsIf I was going to re-evaluate my tradition, I would have to do it on all fronts. That meant, like it or not, dealing with the questions traditional scholastic metaphysics proposed to answerYou may not agree with my conclusions, but, if you are from my tradition, I’ll wager that you understand what prompted these efforts.

 What came of all that? The study has concluded that existence is a ho­mo­geneous material energy whose self-embrace and communitarian ela­bo­ra­tions have grown into ev­ery­thing there is, like an immense tree.  The religion in which I was educated, however, was synchro­nized to a high degree with traditional greco-mediaeval essentialist dualism which was associated with a scientific view of material reality that is obsolete and discarded.  I have described essentialism ad nauseam in these pages.  This epilogue will explore the impact the shift to the process cosmo-ontology presented here will have on the “religion” essentialism was conjured to support.  

 religion and “the other world”

 Traditional philosophy assigned religion a commanding role in human life based on norms established in another world — a world of “spirit.”  Our new understanding is that there is no such other world populated by entities not made of material energy.  What does that mean for religion? Partial answers to that question have appeared scattered throughout the book and I want to try to pull them together in this epilogue. 

 First, there’s a starting point: Human life is permeated by what I have been calling a “sense of the sacred” — religion’s perennial source. Religion has declared this human feeling to be implanted by “God,” and therefore its exclusive domain. As a matter of observable fact, however, the sense of the sacred is found everywhere, directed at a variety of revered objects and practices that have almost nothing in common with one another except the dynamism itself. It is also important to emphasize that much of what is considered “sacred” is not directly connected with “God” or religion. But the phenomenon, even though it is virtually universal, remains unexplained.  Any proposal that there is an obvious objective numinous source for this sense of the sacred is routinely denied by analysts, even religious ones:

Let us first of all delimit the significance of the term “sacred.” … the experience of the sacred bears upon a zone that is intermediate between God and the profane in the everyday sense.  The sacred is that which an individual experiences as being in the depths of his or her own existence ...[1]

 The position taken in this study is that “the sense of the sacred” is the human resonance of the conatus sese conservandi; it is an echo of the urge to self preservation which is the constitutive self embrace of existence.  Here’s how I see that connection: The irrepressible urge to survive is necessarily accompanied by (identical with, inseparable from) an intense love of one’s own existence. The conatus is innate in us, and by all evidence all animal life as well.  The “existent self” is the source and primary sacred object … and then, in varying degrees of intensity, the term is later applied to all those things — people, forces, substances, practices, social constructions — that are perceived to protect and promote, directly or indirectly, that existence.  There is no “God” immediately evoked by these feelings. 

 As a direct corollary, the “drive to survive” in humans elicits a connatural cooperative disposition called “altruism” by Darwin and other evolutionists.  It is also found among the animals and it only appears to run counter to the self-pre­ser­ving dynamism of an individualist conatus, for the individual can only survive in community. Community is necessary for survival. Love of the community — making the community “sacred” — is simply the recognition of that necessity.

 The self-embrace of existence achieves its goal, survival, by collectivizing. This communitarian strategy, constitutive of even the most primitive elements of matter, was repeated on every occasion that material energy produced a new emergent form.  This existential self-embrace through cumulative collectivization is the fundamental dynamic in all constructions of ma­­­terial energy.  It was selected because it makes survival possible. It accounts for cooperation in living organisms — and cooperation is the sine qua non condition for the formation of human society beyond the instinctive bonds of family and clan.       

Humans have a long period of infant and youth dependency; that means we are reared in a context where the inability of the individual to survive on his/her own is foundational for an originating psychological self-identi­fication. Even after the achievement of maturity, the essential role of the community in human survival remains paramount and serves to confirm its continued centrality in human life. 

 The community, religion and “God”

 The human community takes the individuals’ conatus and its “sense of the sacred” and generates religion as the metaphorical (symbolic) vehicle of group survival. Human society, the ultimate guarantor of individual survival, and therefore a necessary locus of the sense of the sacred, projects its needs as sacred responsibilities onto its individual members through religion. In our tradition, ethical and ritual de­mands are promulgated to the members in the form of commandments given by a “God” who is imagined as a human person. Religion, consistent with its origin in the conatus, is the attribution of existential significance to particular myths, rituals and moral codes that elicit behavior of believed expediency to the survival community, and in so doing creates an implied vision of the connectedness of all reality. In this regard religions are similar the world over. The relationships are expressed in symbol, myth.  In the West, religion’s central “myth” is a personal “God.”     

What does the study we have been making tell us about “God”?  The first problem has to do with words — specifically the word “God.”  If I ask, “is there a “God”? just by using the word “God,” I have already pre­defined what I am looking for, because in our culture that word comes loaded with imagery and associated ideas.  That imagery is from “the Book,” the narratives and poetry of an ancient pre-scientific people, and is completely anthropomorphic.

 It was precisely to avoid the pre-emptions lurking in the term, that I have chosen to begin with the commonly observed phenomenon of the “sense of the sacred” and work backward to the source “necessary and suffi­cient” to explain it, whatever it may be.  Whether that source should have the word “God” applied to it involves assessing the distorting effects derived from its origins in “the Book.” That identification is moot and requires further discussion. Any other procedure, to my mind, risks begging the question.

 In The Mystery of Matter we concluded that the sense of the sacred derives from our impulse for self-preservation which in turn springs from the very nature of the material elements of which we are constructed.  I be­lieve that is as far as we can go scientifically and philosophically.  Matter’s energy, the homogeneous substrate of the entire universe, that “stuff” from which all forces, energies, valences, properties, particles, as well as their composite structures, however complicated and “spiritual,” have sprung, is existence.  It can be validly de­scribed as that in which we live and move and have our being.

 I am aware that particular phrase is not neutral.  It was used by Paul in his speech on the “Unknown God” at the Areópagus in Athens.[2]  Be that as it may, the description, according to this study, is scientifically valid.  I may personally decide that I will accept the identity with Paul’s traditional description that it implies.  But that is my choice.  For the semantic reasons already mentioned, this study will not say that material energy is “God.”  But it does recognize a certain compatibility with traditional philosophical conceptualizations:   Material energy is (1) neither created nor destroyed; (2) it is the creative source of every construction and organism in the universe; (3) it is the matrix in which all things “live and move and have their being;” (4) we can relate to it in trust and (5) it is the exclusive source, proximate and remote, of the sense of the sacredThe free decision to conflate material energy with the traditional language surrounding “God,” while theoretically compatible with the vision of MM, is a choice, not a conclusion. 

 The problems surrounding the term, which we have mentioned, mean that such a choice will entail some caveats. Our traditional “doctrines” are imbued with the archaic scientific world-view in which they were born.  That world-view is scientifically false and philosophically untenable. I limit myself to saying that the traditional poetic descrip­tors may validly be applied to matter’s energy as metaphor if done with due regard to the controlling data.  The fundamental facts, however, must always rule: I am related to matter’s energy as to the source of my existence, my conatus, and from there my sense of the sacred.   Any contrary vision embedded in the religious poetry traditionally used to evoke it, if it is retained, must be adjusted accordingly.

 There is no problem with religion as poetic metaphor.  In fact I believe the kind of poetry we call “religion” is essential if our sense of the sacred is to have its full creative human effect.  The problem is that religion generally does not project its constructions as poetic metaphor but rather as scientific fact.  Such an insistence is destructive not only of science, but also of the power of religious expression.  A religion that calls its mythic constructions “fact” stifles thought and opens itself — rightly — to ridicule and rejection. It simultaneously robs “myth” of its power to bring light and life. The combination in our “modern” era of an arrogant reductionist scientism and a religion that offers a set of parallel “facts” whose existence it pontificates by pure groundless fiat, has been fatal.  We in the west live in a state of spiritual impoverishment in part because, except for rare exceptions, religion refuses to apply its sacred song to the real world.

 That there is a personal “God”-entity who designed and created the universe and all its forms and features by rational choice, is not a fact.  That there was an “Original Sin” responsible for humankind’s universal enmity with “God,” human “concupiscence” and the loss of a natural immortality, is not a fact.  That the man Jesus was the “God”-entity defined by traditional western notions, biblical imagery and perennial philosophy, is not a fact.  To claim anything else, in my opinion, is to disregard the solid discoveries of science and history, embrace the ideological components of an ancient imperial theocracy, feed disdain for the human organism, promote ethnic self-aggran­dize­ment, religious bigotry and a world where religion is used to justify genocide.

I contend that religion has no “facts.”  What it has (and can lose) is the poetic power to make richly human our relationship to that in which “we live and move and have our being,” — creative reality as uncovered and articulated by the science of our times.

[1] Antoine Vergote, In Search of a Philosophical Anthropology, tr Muldoon, Louvain, Louvain U. Press 1996, p. 206.

[2] Acts 17:28.  The Jerusalem Bible, Garden City, Doubleday, 1966, fn “t” on page 231 of the NT in referring to that particular phrase says: “Expression suggested by the poet Epimenides of Cnossos (6th c. BC).” The origin of the phrase is not “christian.”


Transcendent Materialism


In Sweet Dreams 2007 (SD), Daniel Dennett answers his critics.  But his attempts to show that human consciousness is not distinguishable from zombies and robots, explain why he has been so heavily criticized.  His efforts imply that “matter,” even in the human brain, is inert, mechanical … utterly devoid of life.  Dennett’s reductionist illustrations do not even come from biology or chemistry, they come from physics alone.  All his “thought experiments” are based on the paradigm of computer programming.  


The “computer model” of the human brain, it must be acknowledged, is not a fact; it is science fiction.  No one really knows how the brain functions.  And yet, basing himself solely on such a model, he claims to draw conclusions about human consciousness and experience.  It’s hard to see how this analysis doesn’t reproduce exactly what he claims to reject:  a “greedy reductionism” that sees all non physical phenomena as illusion. Dennett’s version of materialism, I believe, leaves him no other choice.  A dead, inert matter does not square with the emergence of life or with the human experience of a world of meaning.  


We humans live in a plane of meaning, a symbolic world that we have created for ourselves.  The human realities that we call culture, which include language, ethics, politics, art and poetry of all kinds, which includes religion, are the products and vehicles of meaning.  Meaning is an exclusively human phenomenon.  It is not a biological “thing” but it has, over time, hard-wired its symbol-making requirements into the human brain.  Dennett’s view of human consciousness defended in SD assumes a cerebral substrate that is similar to computer circuitry.  Such a barren image almost begs to be supplemented by a Cartesian “second substance” to account for meaning.  He fights back against that tooth and nail.  I agree with him; there is no “spirit.”  But the battle he wages, in my opinion, is born of his faulty definition of matter.  He himself summoned forth and now struggles to cast out, the spiritual daemon that always accompanies an inert matter. 


He calls his theories “thought experiments” instead of what they are … fantasies.  His omniscient robo-zombie is a metaphor.  We do not know how matter pulls its rabbits out of the universal hat.  By saying that they are not distinguishable from robotics, he implies that those functions are entirely exhausted at all levels in the laws and properties studied by physics.  It does not explain what we experience … it rather explains it away.  Despite his earlier claims to the contrary, if you embrace his vision, you must conclude that your conscious experience, and its symbolic products, are somehow an illusion. 


A different approach


I believe one can be thoroughly materialist and understand things very differently.  If we assume that what we see before us is what is really there, then we don’t need “thought experiments” employing robots.  We can let reality itself provide the imagery that illustrates what matter really is.  I claim that what matter does right before our eyes tells us what matter isHow it does what it does is another question.  Dennett, however, has decided that matter is to be judged by how it does things, not what it does.  Let me clarify the distinction:  What matter does is to produce emergent forms of life on earth, and in humans the ability to recognize their own powers of recognition, and produce the symbols we call culture.  How it does this is through mechanisms of astonishing complexity composed entirely of more primitive forms of matter.  The salient point is that how matter works does not necessarily establish the limits of what it is, or what it is capable of doing.


Let’s flesh this out.  If the existence of material mechanisms proves matter is only mechanical and inert, then matter is something different from the way we perceive it.  We experience matter as alive in its emer­gent forms and in human activity cognitively penetrating.  Dennett’s image of the zombie and the robot implies it is not, and he goes to great lengths to explain why we only think it is. 


The facts, as he presents them, are these: unconscious neurons, linked in phalanxes, and firing in the human brain, activated by a sensory input originating outside the organism, somehow produce not only consciousness (recognition and meaning) but a subject — a self.  How do we get from billions of unconscious cells and their bio-chemi­cal reactions to the conscious self when there seems to be no organic center of consciousness in between … no “soul,” no “pineal gland” or other cerebral structure where the self and its power of recognition resides and oversees the process? 


Put this way, the question emphasizes the direct, virtually unmediated relationship between mindless mechanism and the apparently intelligent behavior it produces.  Consciousness and self are the product of vast numbers of unconscious automatons — cerebral neurons.  Physically and metaphysically speaking, there is nothing else there but unconscious constituents … where does a conscious self come from? 


Dennett claims the “self” comes exclusively from “narrative.”  It is a story we tell ourselves.  Ancient humans, he says, discovered words, and began to communicate with one another about common concerns — survival.  Language is the key.  In trying to explain its motivations to others the human organism becomes aware of itself.  What emerges from this narrative is the self.  The self does not exist as a separate “thing” either organically or spiritually.  It is the product of human symbolic communication, a result of culture; it is mediated by language and occurs within a language community.  I find this view illuminating and I am inclined to agree with it in many respects, but not in all, as I will explain.

One of Dennett’s many critics reacted to his explanation this way:


… There is no internal witness, no central recognizer of meaning, and no self other than an abstract “Center of Narrative Gravity” which is itself nothing but a convenient fiction.  … For Dennett, it is not a case of the emperor having no clothes.  It is rather that the clothes have no emperor. (Voorhees, 2000, cited in SD, p.146).


The self and “narrative”


We have to go deeper and wider.  Cognitive science isn’t the only discipline in play here; for the phenomenon of “self” is not only humanEvery living thing similarly manifests symptoms of being a “self,” certainly not with our level of consciousness, but just as certainly aware of its own distinct and appropriated individuality.  This is true wherever we find life. 


The interpretation of common features that are found across a multitude of disciplines belongs to philosophy, not to positive science.  Dennett’s “narrative” explains “self” as a virtual reality emerging from processes emitted by human neurons firing in the human brain.  But what about the “self” which is evident in my cat “Toni” (yes, yes, narcissism has no limits!) who not only recognizes that I give her food and let her in out of the cold, but also manipulates me emotionally in between and well in advance of the moments of required service?  There is no language or feline community in her case.  What about the deer who exhibit a conversion of external stimuli into reactive self-awareness that is close to instantaneous.  No narrative here either.  What of the flies, whose brains are smaller than a grain of sand, that desperately struggle for freedom in the spider’s trap?  And then there are the protozoa that move toward food and away from enemies. These last have no brains at all, not even one “computerized” neuron, and certainly no narrative.  How do we explain their “sense of self”?  And finally the tree, the bush, the plant who do not transfer the nutrients and energy they have mined to any other organism but themselves.  They are also individuals.  This sense of “self” they all exhibit … where does it come from?


“Narrative” may richly characterize the phenomenon in its human apparition, but it doesn’t explain it in others, and that means it is probably not the ultimate ground in us either.  The universal extent of “subjectivity” is a clue to where the solution lies.  For IF the phenomenon of the self is found everywhere, the source of “selfness” must exist not only before human narrative and before the evolved nervous systems of the higher animals … it must exist even prior to the pyramid of terrestrial life itself. 

I ask rhetorically: Wherever could that be?


Self as subject of existential energy


I propose that the gravity-like “organismic individuality” we experience in living things, is in fact, an expression of a universal, ever-present property of every particle of matter itself.  It is not something welded to or added to matter, nor is it a “result” of matter’s mechanism, or the emergent forms that evolve from it.  I believe this “existentially thirsty” particle-based individuality is as intrinsic to matter as a dimension like length is to any extended thing.  Material particles are energetically driven to survive by aggregating and integrating with other like particles.  Matter is intrinsically communitarian. This energy, I maintain, is not merely a characteristic, it is the very nature of all material reality … and material reality is all there is.  Material energy is an existential dynamism that creates the arrow of time by insisting on existing through self-complex­i­fi­cation. 


It is indisputable that all living things are driven to survive.  IF there is a dynamism, a drive, it has to bear reference to a center.  A drive cannot be anchored in nothing.  If there is a drive, something must be driven.  That, I claim, is the primordial source of “subjectivity” in the universe.  It is rooted in matter itself.  


 In a final step, as this existentially self-orientated matter complexifies in its emergent forms, the original elements submerge their individuality in the unity of the newly evolved individual.  An example: at the atomic and chemical level, protons with their electrons coalesce to become oxygen in the heart of stars.  Two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen become water.  Water looks nothing like either of its components.  Are we deceived?  Is water not wet …?  That new “thing,” then, is the cumulative gathering of the energy-generated “subjectivity” of its de-individuated components.  The ensuing composite is a molecule of water; it is no longer either gas.  It is a new individual re-invented as a function of the integration of its parts.  This submergence of the individuality of the components in the single identity of the composite is an invariable feature of every example of emergence — whether living or not — throughout cosmic space and time.  It is a physical thing that is repeated at the chemical, and biological levels, and virtually at the sociological level.


To those who would say that the drive has no center, I would answer in that case it would have to be borne by the whole as a whole.  IF everything (as opposed to every thing) is the “driven,” then everything would have remained eternally as it is.  There would have been no change, no evolution, because there is no gradient — no differentiation — within an absolutely homogeneous totality.  Existential change (evolution) occurs because one part of the whole finds a way to transcend its current state by integrating with others.  And that can happen only because each particle bears the burden of the drive to survive. 


This scenario is completely different from Dennett’s, but in my opinion, it is more faithful to the evidence.  Material energy in itself — in all its states, whether primitive or highly developed — is a living dynamism, an existential self-embrace that manifests its potential in evolutionary emergence and the virtual realities of human culture.  The cosmo-ontological basis for emergence and “meaning” on the human plane, therefore, is to be found prior to the mechanisms that matter utilizes for its magic tricks.  This energy is naturally creative.  It produces new things … and new behaviors that emanate from those new things.  This version of materialism I call “transcendent materialism.”


My vision is not only compatible with what science has discovered, it also squares with reality as we experience it.   Dennett’s does not … that is why he has had almost two decades of vigorous reaction to his robotic metaphors.  People disagree with him vehemently not because they believe in the existence of “spirit,” — his critics are cognitive scientists — but because it is not the way we experience things.  He will counter that we experience the sun rising and setting, too, and our experience has been proven to misrepresent where the motion actually resides.  Reality, he declares triumphantly, is counter-intuitive.  But the examples don’t match.  Heliocentrism is a proven fact.  And once the reality of the spinning earth circling the sun is explained and understood, people can readily imagine it and they adjust.  Both are views of physical motion.  In the case of Dennett’s zombies and robopeople, however, there has been no adjustment because, besides there being no proof, the examples do not ring true to human experience.  We experience an abyss of difference between life and non-life.  To say that life is simply our way of mis-perceiv­ing the random fluctuations of a dead matter is a prejudicial interpretation of a “fact” that is still waiting to be discovered.  Dennett’s dismissive explanations of a lush and profoundly engaging human experience simply do not “compute.”


By my premises, a charged material energy, innately characterized by the drive to survive, has produced all the mechanisms and combinations necessary for its “purposes” (to continue existing).  These “mechanisms” in my view, may turn out to be the very same that Dennett claims science will discover at some time in the future.  How matter does things doesn’t affect my case, because the nature of matter precedes its operation and explains subjectivity.  What it does takes priority over and guides how it does it.  A richly human virtual “self” may emerge from the mechanism of narrative, but all mechanisms are grounded in the primordial “subjectivity” that is the anchor of the survival drive.


Of oaks and acorns


Dennett implies that mechanisms exist because matter is inertly mechanical.  But that’s a non-sequitur.  There is nothing that precludes the possibility that a primitive “intentionality to exist” — the very energy of matter itself as I have been defining it — may be what is responsible for producing the mechanisms that accomplish its goal.  This hypothesis does not constitute a teleology, because the word “intentionality” here is a metaphor.  There is no “purpose” involved.  I am not talking about a choice or a plan; and by “subjectivity” I do not mean a consciousness of any kind.  It is a blind, non-rational, mono-focused, paroxysmal self-embrace — an urge that is locked on survivalHow can I be so sure what it’s like?  Because not only do I see it all around me in every living thing, but I have it in myself, and so do you.  I am a specimen of matter’s energy and I know how this involuntary reflex for self-preservation functions in me.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with my mind or my will … or my species!  It functions even if I am in a coma.  It is similar to a myriad of other tasks that are accomplished by the organic substrate of my body mindlessly, apart from any input of knowledge or intention on my part.  It is an urge … and it dominates.  It is everywhere, observable in all living things and, I claim, explains the creative transcendence we see in evolutionary emergence at pre-life levels.  Spinoza called it the conatus sese conservandi, “the urge for self-preservation,” and everything obeys it.  In our universe, conatus rules.  It explains everything.  


Dennett’s thin and brittle matter has to explain away life and consciousness and art and culture as an illusion of some type — some form of misperception on our part, like the way we misperceived the motion of the earth as the rising of the sun.  This is emphatically true of the “realities” of human culture — the meanings and poetic “narratives” that we have used for eons to construct the intentional human world in which we live.  Matter has done this.  How could matter even randomly stumble upon a combination of its own constituent elements capable of conjuring a symbolic universe unless it possessed the potential that would allow it to happen.  With this hypothesis we are closer to a simple one-factor, Ockham-approved solution than we are with Dennett’s tin-man “zombie” that just looks like it’s alive and capable of creating art … but can’t really tell, and doesn’t care


An ironic twist is that Dennett’s arguments run in both directions.  If he can claim that the perceptions of a zombie or a robot cannot be distinguished from what we experience as living sentient organisms, then the reverse is also true.  There is nothing that proves that life cannot be present in the elements of mindless mechanisms and in potentia even before its observable emergence.  The presence of mechanism does not prove that the mechanism did not materialize under the intense pressure of an existential self-embrace — the drive to survive.


Some may respond by saying I have simply retro-fitted primitive matter with a dualist “spirit” that I deny to its later versions.  But I believe the objection comes from a “dualist” projection.  The objectors cannot get past the apparent inertness of matter.  Despite my clearly defining dynamic matter as one single unalloyed thing, they imagine “life” as a separate “something” glued onto or injected into an inert matter.  But any such imagery is gratuitous.  There is no evidence for it.  It is a result of the internalization of the Platonic-Cartesian spirit-matter paradigm.  A mechanistic view of matter like Dennett’s is a direct heir of that dualism.  Historically the existence of “spirit” implied the existence of an inert matter.  But they are correlates, so the inverse is true as well.  Start with an inert matter and you evoke its siamese twin.  I believe Dennett is trapped by this dualism; he chose the reductionist side of the coin and vainly tries to recover lost unity by exterminating the other side.  It won’t work, and besides, it’s not necessary.  The living unity of reality is primordial and doesn’t need to be proven.  There is no “spirit.”  Matter is exclusively responsible for what it has become.  What you see is what is really there.


To the argument that physics sees no evidence of the presence of this energy in unevolved matter, I ask, how then do you explain the atomic integrations that produced the elegant table of the elements all of which express their own unique properties even though built only of primitive sub-atomic particles; how do you explain the emergence of molecules, from simple to complex to self-replicating, to viruses, none of which a bio-chemist would call alive and all of which are increasing complexifications and manifestations of a cumulative individuality … and absolutely necessary to the later emergence of “life?


Here’s an analogy (but please note, it’s only an analogy):  the forest floor under a large oak tree is strewn with thousands of acorns.  What sign of life do you see?  They are like stones.  Cut one open and it’s still like a stone.  You will see nothing until you know the “code,” i.e., the mechanism of transformation  The “code” is acorn + moist earth + sufficient warmth + sunlight + time.  All those variables must be there for the equation to work, and an acorn will emerge into an oak sapling, otherwise it remains as dead as a stone.  But, an acorn is not really a stone.  Try using the “code” with a real stone, and nothing happens.  Universal matter is one thing or the other.  Dennett says it is like a stone.  I say it is like an acorn.  But then he has to explain how this stunning raucous spectacle of life and human artistry we see right before our eyes is not pure illusion.

The potential, like the oak in the stony acorn, is an energy that was always there — it is a real potential … for a reality … that does not yet exist.  


The ultimate question  


We have been able to identify the existence of a universal, creative conatus as the source of every emergent thing in the universe and the ground of subjectivity and human culture.


But the characteristic primitiveness of this universal “urge,” no less present in the most insignificant quark or electron as in myself, seems to bear no similarity to what our ancient religious “narratives” projected.  In the West, our ancestors imagined themselves spawned by a personal Parent, like us in every way except for the extent of “his” power.  This “God” observed the unfolding sequence of events and reacted as we imagined he might.  He was internally in touch with our hopes and fears.  He was powerful to intervene for us, but he had his own needs which served as conditions for his help and would reward or punish us accordingly.  Such narratives mimicked human parental and authority relationships.  It was natural.


But we have learned that the force responsible for our human life is not like a parent at all.  It is very primitive … as primitive and undeveloped as anything we have ever encountered on this earth … and it is “cyclopean,” one-eyed … mono-focused and to us, mindless.  It is more like a seed than a “person.”  The fact that these primitive bundles of energy have over eons and eons complexified to elaborate “mind” in humans as the current pinnacle of a vast pyramid of emergent forms, is as baffling as it is astonishing.  We spontaneously look for “mind” in the elemental building blocks themselves.  It is as natural as believing that we were brought into this world by a parent.


This is a conundrum.  I love being human, and having my friends and family, and all the things I do under the sun.  I am naturally grateful for what has made this all possible.  But it seems I cannot relate to material energy because what material energy has become in me now can only relate interpersonally … and material energy, as far as I can see, is not a person … and yet, I am a person.


All emergent forms are only and always made of the same primitive constituents.  Evolution does not mean that primitive matter creates something else, like a new kind of matter — life from non-lifeRather, evolution means that matter such as it is, has morphed its own primitive driven self into a new form and function, for there is nothing present in any emergent form that is anything other than the same primitive components. Thus all “things” in the material universe are emergent forms of the very same dynamic origins.  The universe is like an organism … and what it has become in us, is what we experience as ourselves.  We are nothing but material energy … and we are human beings.


Matter is unfathomable as mechanism alone.  We and what we do are real.  The fact that the human organism is simply pristine matter means that existentially energized matter has the potential for being human.  You can’t argue forward from potential to product — from “cause to effect.”  But once the end product is realized, it is a tautology to reason from the effect back to the potential.  If matter became something, it had to have been capable of becoming that something.  That is what continues to evoke in us the sense that matter is a mystery — meaning precisely what the ancient Greek word mysterion meant: a layered, multidimensional reality where you step into one dimension and you suddenly find yourself in another or many others … like a set of Russian dolls. 


So we continue to grope after what we are.  When we look into the past, however,  we don’t see a recognizable parent but rather a self-transcending energy that we humans understand thoroughly: a potential, a power, realized in us — matter with meaning.  We understand meaning; it’s our stock-in-trade, and we create symbols to work with it.  “Parent” is a metaphor, an evocative human symbol that means not what physics says about quarks and gluons at the beginning of time, but what they became — what they (we) really are here and now — human quarks and gluons.  The most important legacy of materialism is that if humans are matter then matter is thoroughly human. Yes indeed, we are dealing with counter-intuitive misperceptions: … we think we are looking at quark-gluon mechanisms and they are actually human beings. 

            What else are we looking at that we might not see?



Tony Equale

Dec 5, 2010