Just because …

Sam Harris, neuroscientist, avowed atheist, writes a book that proposes a “spirituality without religion” that leads to selflessness and universal love … E.O.Wilson, biologist, avowed atheist, writes book after book in which he calls on the innate sensibilities of human beings, without self-interest, to recognize the intrinsic value of the natural world and work to prevent the degradation of the environment and the extinction of its species … Noam Chomsky, linguist, philosopher, political activist, appeals to justice and respect for truth, beyond any short-term benefit to the responder, to counter the lies and distortions adduced by the wealthy and powerful to justify their depredation of the poor and defenseless.

Obviously these efforts share a common perspective; all make their appeals in absolute terms. They assume the independent value of what they are calling for.  All seem to hang their arguments on a sky-hook … or better, on no hook at all. There is no “because” that lies beyond the direct recognition of value in se. Even though in each case human benefits are present and are called on for added motivation, the fundamental appeal, remarkably, is not to self-interest nor to the good of society.  Their goals are presented as good in themselves, and those that pursue them, as ready to ignore their own needs in the effort.

We could fairly say that if these three thinkers were pressed to tell us why we should respond to their concerns they might each answer, “just because … .” There is no reason beyond itself.  Judging from their popularity, it also seems that the ordinary person has no problem understanding what they are saying.   And it’s interesting that those who oppose them do so by calling for alternative solutions but they never question their premises.

In philosophical terms, however, this is extraordinary, because in philosophy what is required are reasons — grounds, explanations, justifications. You must have a reason “why.”  Either something is valid in itself, or there must be something else on which its validity depends.  If it’s not of benefit to us, why should we pursue selflessness … have respect and awe for nature … struggle for justice and equality for others?  Why?

We should also note another common feature: they simultaneously ignore religion.  Harris and Wilson explicitly espouse “atheism” not just privately as a personal preference, but as an intrinsic require­ment of their endeavors.  It implies that they think there is something about mainstream religion that militates against the very things they consider important.

Some progressives who share their goals criticize them on both counts.  You can’t say “just because …”. You can’t sustain a finite value without having it grounded in something truly absolute.  These goals will be wishful thinking, they warn, unless they are justified by an ultimate ground, beyond which there is no appeal.  These critics I’m referring to are theists. They claim that there is a “reason,” and it is “God.”  They claim there is no way that these values could possibly be their own justification.  “God,” they say, wants these goals as intensely as their supporters.

I emphasize “theist” here because the point of view just presented is exclusive to that position. “Theism” is a very specific belief system that undergirds the religions of the West.  Theism believes there is a “God”-person who has certain specific characteristics:

  • this “God” is separate from everything else that exists.  “God” is transcendent; “God” and ceation have absolutely nothing in common.  There is no prior “substance” of any kind that both “God” and the universe could possibly share.  It is above and beyond human nature to share “God’s” life; any such participation is supernatural and relies on God’s initiative alone.
  • this “God” freely chose to create the world out of nothing. Creation was a selected preference, an act of a rational mind that thinks and wills. “God” thoughtfully, intentionally designed the world, its laws and its processes, including evolution.
  • thinking and choosing are rational acts; “God” therefore is a “person” not unlike you and me in that respect, and we persons can interact with one another. “God” commands me, and I must obey “him.” “He” loves me, I am told, and in time I may come to love “him.”
  • since this “God” had the power to create “he” also has the power for creation’s ongoing management. This is called “providence” and it means that nothing happens that “God” has not willed or at least permitted. “God” is capable of suspending the laws of nature to suit his purpose. “Praying” for miracles is a valid part of the relationship to this “God,” and “he” may respond favorably. This is the “God” who has revealed himself in the Bible.

Progressive theists claim that this “God” is fully supportive of the premises and goals proposed by the authors mentioned above.  “God,” theists say, created the world to reflect and display “his” perfections.  The universe is an imitation in miniature, as it were, and we humans are “God’s” image and likeness.  Naturally “God” “wills” that his reflection be respected, and the reason we respond spontaneously to these appeals is because of our adumbration that the divine nature and will are embedded in creation.

An alternative view

I categorically deny there is any such entity.  And if I am right, then there is no way that “God” as conceived by supernatural theists can be the real reason why we should pursue selflessness, environmental protection and social justice.

To try to refute the theists at the level of their premises would mean insisting that there is no such “God.”  But I think taking that route would deflect the discussion.  It would involve repeating the arguments that I have offered over and over again that the theist imagery just limned above is hopelessly anthropomorphic even by the standards of mediaeval philosophy.  I would rather come at the question from a different angle altogether.  Let’s give it the form of “what if” — a thought experiment:

what if the insistence of our activist-authors and the spontaneous agreement of their followers (and opponents) about the in se value of these struggles is true?  What are the conditions that would make that possible?  What must be there in order to provide the sufficient and necessary ground for such an hypothesis to be true?  With this approach the issue does not shift focus to the question of whether a traditionally imagined person called “God” exists, but whether there is anything real that grounds and guarantees the value-independence of the projects these men propose.  In other words, is the sense of intrinsic value which they all assume and with which all seem to agree, even their opponents, purely illusory … or even worse, is it a cynical projection adduced to avoid admitting the necessary justifications that would eventually lead to “God” as the theists argument intends … or is it grounded in something real?  And if the latter, what is it and how does the grounding occur?

My argument: First, there is the observable widespread fact that ordinary people, without recourse to either philosophy or religion, spontaneously respond with agreement to the unconditional appeal of these men.  They do not seem to want or require a deeper ground.  They do not ask, “why should I pursue a life of selfless love?” or “why should I respect the environment and protect it?” or “why should we prevent the powerful from exploiting the defenseless?” they rather appear to recognize the absolute intrinsic value of these goals whether or not they are of particular benefit to us (the fact that they actually are of benefit, is secondary). And the author-activists who are trying to generate interest in these matters clearly do not feel compelled to offer any justification beyond the presentation of the problem or the goal itself.  What’s salient here is that these men are all philosophers and quite capable of providing a deeper foundation if they felt one was needed.  Apparently they do not think so.

I agree with them. And that brings us to the second leg of my argument:  and that is the corroborative force of the worldview that I have proposed in my books and essays over the last 15 years, which for want of a better term is called pan-entheism.[1]  In this view “God” is not a rational person-entity separate from the universe who designed and willed it into existence.  There is no such “God.”  What in the past was referred to as “God” is for me the unknown well-spring of evolving material energy — existence as we know it — to which our conatus is necessarily bound and related intrinsically, intimately and dependently because we are made of it. It is the ground of all value, because it is all there is.

The material energy that we have in common is simultaneously the origin and goal of our hunger for existence. At no point are we “other” than it, though the form in which we possess it — as reproduced and reproducing organisms located on the time-line of evolution — is not identical with the totality of existence nor with its almost infinite range of creative abilities.  Our own powers are limited to work and reproduction; our individual organisms are not originating nor do they endure.  The form that material energy has taken as us will dissolve and our energy will be assumed by other forms.  We are temporarily identifiable forms within a homogeneous whole, like vortices — whirlpools — in a moving river; we are distinct but not separate.

“Value” is grounded in existence which is identical with material energy.  The human “sense of the sacred” is an irrepressible reaction springing from our  conatus — the limitless hunger for existence generated by our perishing organisms which find themselves immersed in matter’s energy as sponges in the sea.  The recognition that we are, within and without, submerged in the very existence to which we are appetitively bound by the material of which we are made, generates awe and a sense of oneness.  All our endeavors — i.e., the work we do during our time under the sun — are attempts to modify the conditions of our immersion in order to secure, prolong and enhance the existence enjoyed by our organisms.  Value is rooted in existencematter’s transcendently creative energy — not in some other world, or the will and command of some person who lives in that other world.  Value is intrinsic to everything that exists here and to every endeavor launched here that attempts to protect and improve it.  It is all a function of matter’s energy.

In such a context, the sense of absolute independent value that Harris, Wilson, Chomsky bring to these projects, which is reflected in their refusal to offer some other ground to justify their appeal, becomes completely intelligible. It also supports my rejection of the theist “God” of Western religions who is imagined as belonging to another world and whose “will” determines our moral response.  Even when this imaginary “God” happens to will and command what we know is good and right, the fact that the motivation elicited is obedience to “his” will and not our recognition of intrinsic value, saps the autonomous responsibility we have to that in which we “live and move and have our being.”  It treats us as immature.  And let’s be clear: what the theist “God” wills and commands has not always been what is good and right.  The interpretation of “his” will is under the exclusive  control of self-appointed agents — this church, this holy book, this televangelist, this pope — who determine what “his” will is for us, some claim infallibly. Some of those interpretations have resulted in “God” willing and commanding pogroms of Jews, crusades against Moslems and heretics, inquisitions, the slaughter and enslavement of primitive peoples, not to mention the everyday distortions of a morality premised on the demonizing of matter especially as found in human bodies. 

So we see that pan-entheism can support and explain the sense of independent value in play here.  A transcendent materialism provides the theoretical underpinning for the pursuit of projects that would otherwise have flown beneath the radar of a conventional morality dependent on the “will” of a legislating “God.” Pan-entheism grounds a new morality which does not refer back to an imaginary divine “person” in another world who must be obeyed under pain of punishment, but rather to the actual human persons who live in this one, calling on their connatural connection with the existence in which they “live and move and have their being” to drive and focus their behavioral response — not out of fear of punishment, but out of love for what they themselves are, the creative energy of matter of which all things are made.  We are stewards of creation, not because some “God” gave us the mandate, but because it’s what we are — we are matter, and we are driven by the very energy of which all things are constructed and activated. WE ARE THAT!.

Finally, do we need to go over again the refutation of the anthropomorphic “God” imagined by the religious poets of the ancient near east? I believe science has thoroughly done that.  I would just like to point out one central contradiction in the position of the supernatural theists that usually goes unnoticed:  This supposedly insuperably transcendent “God,” who is so beyond nature in every way that any contact must be totally supernatural, and necessarily a miraculous and gratuitous intervention taken on the divine initiative alonethis same transcendent “God” is also said to have created the world and us in it in his own image and likeness … a mirror reflection of his “perfections” and inner nature.  Creation, theists claim, was not simply a display of limitless power, it was by every account an imitation. Nature, therefore, at least in this sub-narrative, is in “God” the way a work of art always remains “in” the artist.  And for mediaeval philosophers, the assertion that “God” has nothing in common with creation flies in the face of the conclusions of their “science”: our very existence is a share in the one eternal Act of existence, esse in se subsistens, which is “God.”  Thus, theism is internally inconsistent.

It is because the material universe itself is the source and residence of all value that we humans, ignoring the distracting indirections coming from another imaginary world, can respond spontaneously, directly and without hesitation or need for permission, to the work that is our destiny under the sun.

[1] I do not like the term pan-entheism which is defined as “the belief that the universe exists in God.” It is still built on “God.”  Since I insist the word and concept “God” and its cognates are hopelessly anthropomorphic, I do not propose trying to give them new meaning, for I think that at this point in history it is impossible, but that they be dropped altogether.  Just using the word reduces the meaning ultimately to theism. The problem is, we have not yet agreed on a word that evokes the new meaning.  For the sake of at least pointing toward the general ideological area to which my concept belongs, pan-entheism can function temporarily as a placeholder, so long as it is understood to be inadequate.

26 comments on “Just because …

  1. jorisheise says:

    Two responses or three come to my mind: Your argument, as you probably know, is a re-play of the Epicurean philosophy (or viewpoint) especially as played out in De Rerum Natura of Lucretius and subsequent thinkers. It enjoys a significant standing within the realm of theological philosophy, and I personally find much validity in it. I speak as one well versed in the mythological poetry of the ancient Near East (and other locales adjacent). A follower of Jesus–in some ways akin to the way that Mahatma Gandhi agreed that he was a “christian” as well as a Hindu, etc.–I take a different tack, respectful of yours, but less adverse about the “obedience” and “reward and punishment” aspect of religion. Jesus, in my view, pointed us towards actions rather than philosophy, towards what we do with what we got, rather than religious obedience, towards involvement and choices within existing creation more than “obedience” to religious rules and “reward and punishment.” He was aware, for instance, that Judaism in his time [and ours] does not “believe in an after-life.” He speaks of the Kingdom of heaven in the present tense, explicitly remarks that the “kingdom of Heaven is “within” (a nicely ambiguous word here), and–in my opinion–like yours–tends to see intrinsic results of moral choices (pure of heart…see God). Finally, my “religion” is fundamentally threefold–to see a Creator (who seems in the end, akin to your view of “god”), to live–secondly–the absolute, intrinsic necessity of appreciating our status and role as a human being in a human world-wide family, and third to listen to something I see little of in your presentation, but may well be obvious elsewhere–attention to my own individual spirit–conscience, consciousness, motives, peace, etc. which–again going back to Classical times–may or may not be part of a Jungian World-spirit (nous), but which may or may not be a Personal Spirit.

  2. Brian Coyne says:

    I love your thinking, Tony. While mine is similar I always find your posts extend my own thinking a bit further. I’ve long thought that what upsets the neo-atheists is not the concept of God per se, or in the sort of description you’re exploring, but it is the kindergarten-level concept of “God” presenting as some ‘magician in the sky’ — the one who ascended like some sort of modern space rocket into space at the Ascension into heaven.

    What your argument essentially boils down to is a questioning of the nature of God — it is theology itself. What seems to get up the noses of the neo-atheists, and it gets up mine as well, is this picture of God constantly presented by some of our conservative confreres and our leaders of this picture of some “Being” sitting up at Master Control somewhere in the universe directing evolution and the outcome of history. I think a more satisfactory picture is that we (sentient creation) are in some way an expression of the “Divine Mind”, and intimately in relationship with this “Divine Mind”. One of the few absolutes in creation is the freedom given to sentient life and we help shape the future of history and evolution. Our contributions are welcomed and respected absolutely by the “Divine Mind” and even when we make abysmal decisions which, for example, destroy our habitat. When we make mistakes in our thinking this “Divine Mind” does not appear to “reach down” and intervene to correct our mistakes but rather evolution continues and this Mystery we try to compress into labels like “God”, or the “Divine Mind”, just works within the new conditions created by our decisions. In other words, our decisions play a critical part in the unfolding of history AND any “Divine Plan of Creation” — and this “Divine Mind” respects that absolutely. This is very different a picture to that presented by the mainstream Christian religions of a “busy-body God” constantly cutting across the freedoms freely gifted to sentient creation.

    Brian Coyne

  3. I am missing something or you are.The atheist does not need a why. The given is human and material existence. Its continuance is what we expect. Life seeks life or the continuance of the species. The question of why is raised by the human mind. Put that aside, preservation of the species is given as an in itself. Procreation goes on because the material seeks some form of continuance. The why is not a question to the reproductive process. But think you again for stimulating thought patterns.
    I look for a day long after our death in which the human race will develop the ability to speak of the divine in a non-gendered vocabulary. Peace

    • Tony Equale says:

      Generally we accuse “atheists” of having no reason to do anything that’s not in one’s own self-interest, proximately or remotely. That’s their “why.” I bring these three cases forward as examples of a very spontaneous and unreflexive assumption that there is absolute value here and that even if self-interest were not functioning, the goals are important in themselves. Wilson in particular speaks of the intrinsic value of species other than ours, and calls for its acknowledgement. That is the point I am getting at. The assumption of stand-alone validity implies a metaphysical ultimacy to matter that is consonant with pan-entheism.

      Also I fail to get your point about procreation. The reproductive act does not need a reason for motivation, but respecting species other than our own does. The fact that so many people respond positively to Wilson’s appeal implies an appreciation of the material world that has been absent from theist dualism through the two millennia of its reign in Western Christianity. I contend it implies pan-entheism.

  4. theotheri says:

    Tony – I agree completely that we need a new vocabulary. “Pan-entheism” is an intellectual-sounding word with little meaning for most people without a background in theology or philosophy. “Avowed aetheist” is hardly a positive statement, and “Just because” rather lacks the power to stir emotions. “God,” on the other hand, carries with it not only a complete metaphysic but even an assumed physics, with presumptions about time and space and matter and the after-life. Which is why I personally have discovered the need to discard the entire theological dictionary – everything from God, sacred, holy, heavenly, sanctified, blessed, redemption, mystic, sin – even prayer – the lot are all contaminated for me. Not everybody’s responses are quite so extreme, but I do think those words carry distorting baggage for almost everyone. Do the pagans, by any chance, have any words we could use?

    But deeper than a need for new words, I think, is the need to learn to live in this universe of energy/matter, one without the Platonic appendage. We need to learn to listen to our responses to this world. We need to learn to trust our pleasure in both giving and receiving kindness, we need to value the joy we experience in beauty, in creativity, in exuberance, in love. We need to get over a sense of guilt for finding others sexual stimulating. We need to learn to teach our children not to hit other children, not to lie, not to steal, not because God says it’s a sin, or to “wait until Daddy comes home,” but because kindness is something we ourselves enjoy. We might even teach our children to enjoy the taste of chocolate! Without the complication of guilt, we might learn more easily how to eat and drink in such a way that we actually feel better in the long run, rather than pursuing short term gratification with the inevitable resulting guilt and self-loathing that so often comes attached.

    • tonyequale says:


      Thanks for that reminder. The direct embrace of the emotional and relational implications of what we are learning is really the point of it all. Some of us continue on in our nerdy point of view … a kind of intellectual addiction that robs the present moment of its human depth … and we need to be brought back to earth. The intellectual is NOT what it is all about; it would be a shame if we turned this on its head too, like we did with everything else for millennia.

      So, thank you, profoundly.


      • theotheri says:

        Tony, Like you, I was socialized as a Catholic, and for many years thought that thinking was the height of human achievement. Feelings just got in the way, and were the cop-out of those unable or unwilling to think through the challenges of life.

        But I find digging oneself out of the box of intellectualized Christianity is a complex business. The Catholic hierarchy, above all, seems to have misunderstood the provisional nature of science ever since Gallileo, and by the same token, has also misunderstood the true nature of faith it purports to proclaim. The resulting conflict between science and religion means that the experiential and emotional have been denigrated too often by both religious professionals and scientists who should know better. The arts, music, the absolute essential importance of the personal have all been relegated to second place, even in our great universities.

        We need the intellectual every bit as much as we need the emotional. The intellectual has the wherewithall to profoundly change our emotional responses, often for the better. In my own field, for instance, psychology often explains behavior that in the past would have been castigated and severely punished. Now we can sometimes appreciate the existence of mental illness, or even simply individual differences with their inevitable corresponding limitations. Geniuses, for example, are often brilliant in some fields, and literally morons in others.

        Nonetheless, you do make the point, the importance of which I am still discovering as I make my way through my 70’s, that ultimately, we need more than sterile intellectual doctrine or principles to plumb the full richness of being human.

        I too thank you for the contribution you have made to my appreciation of this essential insight. It makes all the difference.


    • leonkrier says:


      I agree entirely with your comment especially regarding theological language. However, where do we go from here? This is our challenge, namely, to begin sketching where the new language might emerge. I don’t think there is a single emergent point, but the research in neuroscience may offer us such a starting point. Why? Neuroscience is studying the nature of experience especially human experience… what is actually going on in the brain and our entire organic system and environment when we say we experience this or that whether that’s consciousness, self , ego, choice, beauty, awesomeness, etc. What is out-there and what is going on in the brain itself? “We” are our “brains.” Our brains are set in the context of the rest of our biological system. As Anthony Cashmore says “biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics; as living systems we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals.”

      See A. Cashmore:


      This invites us be humble and honest about who and what we are. This then forms the basis for choosing the language to describe and express what our “living system” is pursuing.

      Neuroesthetics is also helping in this regard. There are many researchers in this field. One artist who has taken up the cause is Garry Kennard, a British and London-based artist whose essays are enlightening in this regard; here’s a sample comment:

      If only we were as careful with our use of language as scientists are with their
      practical work, things might be clearer, although some scientists are the worst
      of all at this projection of beauty onto matter. They should admit that when
      they describe an object – a galaxy, an amino acid molecule, a virus – as wonderful
      or beautiful, they are projecting their emotional responses onto their
      perceptions of the object, but act as if these attributes resided in its
      material form as qualities to be observed. On the contrary, things ‘out there’
      have no qualities, in the same sense that light has no colour – no colour that
      is, until it is registered in the human brain. What may be sensually attractive
      or beautiful to our particularly evolved senses is a meaningless bundle of
      quarks and charm particles, the fundamental nature of which we know nothing,
      residing in a space of which we know nothing. Let us not then say ‘wonder-full’
      nor ‘beauty-full’ of a form which engenders these emotions within our nervous
      systems. ‘The Horse Head Nebula is a wonderful and beautiful thing’. No. ‘The
      horse head nebula fills me with a sense of wonder and beauty’.
      See Garry Kennard:

      I am hopeful that as this research in both neuroscience and neuroesthetics develops we will become more informed about the nature of human experience and begin finding a more congruent language to communicate our materialistic, naturalistic, monistic and transitory presence in the universe. My hunch is that a more minimalistic style is probably best at this stage of understanding.

      Again, thank you as always for your comments.


      • tonyequale says:

        Reductionism is a solipsist trap

        Leon says he wants to “anti-intellectualize” language, a process he calls minimalizing. Those are the words he uses but I hear him saying something else. He is actually calling for as intense an intellectualization as we’ve ever had, but he wants it to be scientistic, not philosophical nor religio-poetic. Leon is a stone mechanistic reductionist and wants to reduce everything to what his guru Cashmore so clearly declares: “as living systems we are nothing more than a bag of chemicals.”

        Our thought systems end up being necessarily circular because we live in a circle of existence from which there is no escape. We are material organisms in a material universe and we perceive what is matter’s creative energy with matter’s creative energy. WE ARE THAT! We are real existing material entities perceiving and reacting to real existing material entities. Rather than define ourselves in terms of our perceptive appropriation of the totality in which we are immersed, Leon and his friends would have us think we are locked into some cerebral chamber, an upper room with no windows or doors, where we end up drowning in our own excrement because there is no opening to the outside world. The reality is otherwise. There is no cerebral chamber. We are living in the great outdoors from the moment of birth because we are matter swimming in an infinite ocean of matter. Our esthetic exhuberance is a material reaction to material configurations that generate exhuberance in our material organism. We are organically linked in an interactive relationship with our surroundings in which the experience is the simultaneous product of ourselves and our surroundings because we are both made of the same homogeneous material … the same stuff. Experience is only one thing … a gestalt —a whole constructed by the mutual interaction … Experience is a valid “objective” contact with reality because the material that is being experienced evolved the material that is doing the experiencing. We are talking about one thing here.

        It is not the experience of some separate “bag of chemicals” tasting and experiencing its own chemicals, never knowing anything besides itself. Mechanistic reductionism is solipsism: the condition of being locked into yourself … captive in the dungeon of your “brain” with no access to the world outside, thinking you are only looking at yourself. It is the very definition of insanity. This “bag of chemicals” happens to be floating in a chemical soup of which in fact it is an evolved derivative. Chemicals know chemicals when they see them, for they know themselves. The knowledge is valid and inescapably objective.

        We are not locked into our heads, but we are locked into this material universe which we know “like the back of our hand” for WE ARE THAT.

      • theotheri says:

        Leon — I agree with Cashmore’s view that we are a bag of chemicals. What I do not agree with is his view that “we are nothing more than” that bag. This disagreement is not based on theological or philosophical arguments but on science. Because the “nothing more than” argument is left with questions that are profound. I’m sure you would agree that there is a rather substantial difference between that bag of chemicals and your spouse or child, or even the flower in the vase. I most certainly cannot replace either that flower or my husband with a couple of hundred dollars worth of chemicals.

        What, then, is the difference between them? Cashmore says that biological systems obey the laws of chemistry and physics. I think it would be more accurate to say that biological systems do not disobey the laws of chemistry and physics. As the Gestalt philosophers pointed out more than a hundred years ago, “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.” What we see in the laws of science is that as an organization becomes more complex, additional laws emerge. So biologists do not simply apply the laws of chemistry to their study of plants and animals, They have added their own discoveries that reflect the laws of living organisms. In fact, the fundamental unsolved conundrum within physics & chemistry themselves is that the world of particle physics seems to be governed by a completely different set of laws than those found in the Standard Model.

        I personally think that Cashmore’s problem, like those of most reductionists, goes back to the early foundations of science when scientists were trying to assure the Roman Catholic Church that they were not interfering with the sphere of the church’s authority. At that point, as you no doubt know, the church was not adverse to enforcing its views of the world order by means that make ISIL’s methods today look almost tame.

        So the scientists agreed that they had nothing to say about spiritual matters, which included the supposed spark of life called the soul. Matter was therefore inert, lifeless, moved only by the push of another object. Newton found it necessary to add the force of gravity to his theory, but the essential role of this strange, apparently non-impact force, was ignored for centuries, and even I was taught as a teenager that Newton’s theory sees the universe as totally mechanistic, a giant clock, or three dimensional billiard table, as it were, in which balls moved around only when they were hit by other balls. But Newton’s theory is not mechanistic. It is ordered, it is lawful. But not mechanistic.

        We know now from modern physics that matter is not inert, but dynamic. We still don’t understand how it happens, but Einstein at least gave us the mathematical equation demonstrating the relationship between energy and matter. Things might look to us as if they have not changed for even as long as millions of years, but we know now they are seething piles of energy that is never quiescent.

        I totally support the work of the neuroscientists, I believe consciousness is absolutely dependent on a functioning brain. Neuroscience has already taught us a lot and we are certainly going to learn more. But although it will undoubtedly demonstrate that thought is dependent on a functioning brain, it does not promise to throw any light on how a brain can produce something as seemingly immaterial as thought. It’s very much like the problem of energy & matter. We might believe in it; we might one day even develop mathematical equations to predict it. But that is not the same thing as understanding. It may be, as Stephen Hawking says, that the larger becomes our circle of knowledge, the larger and deeper becomes the circle of questions about this universe of which we are a part. And that includes this amazing, incredible thing we experience as consciousness.

        I am a scientist, and it is through the lens of science that I personally experience the greatest sense of awe, and why I can’t bear contaminating that awe with words like “sacred,” or “divine.”

        But I think Cashmore’s version of science is out-of-date. The alternative to “god” is not the dead hand of reductionism, what seems to me the blindness of the “nothing more than” theories. I understand that for many centuries this seemed to be the only alternative to religious explanations. But today it is not. Today it is science that is offering many of us a glimpse of the awe and joy and wonder of what we are and the universe of which we are a part.

        I don’t know if I have made any sense. My disagreement with you takes a slightly different approach from the one I see Tony has taken to your comment. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had a serious exchange with a committed reductionist, and if Tony has no objections, I should love to hear your own response to my thoughts on this.


  5. saluman73 says:

    Joris, Brian,Joseph, Leon, and above all, Tony and Terry, I have been reading your comments several times over now, and I want to thank you for sharing these brilliant thoughts. We are struggling mightily for a better understanding of ” our mother, ourselves: the universe.” If we didn’t have this human self-awareness of ours, we would simply live, enjoy, and die like all the rest of the living “creatures ?”, “beings?”, “gravitational bodies?” in the universe. But we are blessed? with our human consciousness and we keep needing to know whom or what to thank for this unbearable beauty and/or chaos we experience every day.
    Terry, you struck me with your comment: “it is through the lens of science that I personally experience the greatest sense of awe, and why I can’t bear contaminating that awe with words like “sacred,” or “divine.”
    And now after 85 years of this I have to find a whole new way of saying it.
    Sal Umana

  6. leonkrier says:


    Since Tony has a penchant for labeling me and basically engaging in aggressive personal attacks (cf 12/12), I agree that it is best for him to grant permission for me to respond to your request for further dialogue. It is hard to comment on his comments; I don’t basically comprehend what he is saying amidst the lather. I’ve not commented on his blog for nearly two years because of his stance toward me. But I thought I’d give it one more try. So, if he gives permission, I will make an attempt to respond given your sincere effort to dialogue. If this permission is not granted, maybe you and I can find another way to communicate. Thanks. Leon

    • saluman73 says:

      Leon, Please share your thoughts with all of us. We are all strugging to move ahead in this new age. It’s not whether we agree or disagree, but whether we share who we are. We are all parts of a whole, we are all relationships to the Oneness of being. We have nowhere else to go.

    • theotheri says:

      Leon – Oh I’m so glad to hear from you I too was concerned that Tony might feel that a dialogue between the two of us didn’t not belong on his blog, but he dropped me a note saying that we don’t need his permission to respond to someone on the comments page.

      I think we are both psychologists, aren’t we? If so, although we may or may not ultimately agree, I suspect that we may be apt to approach these issues with a fair amount of common ground. I’m really looking forward to exchanging views with you. Terry

    • tonyequale says:


      I ask you and all the participants in this multi-logue to review my recent response to you, and tell me in what way I made any personal attack … unless you insist that any robust disagreement, which includes identifying your worldview as reductionist is a personal attack.

      Your request for permission is ridiculous; it appears to me to be a way for you to continue to characterize my disagreements with your opinions as ad hominem, and I wish you would stop.

      Your “one more try” is another snide aside, because you directed your comment as you are doing now to Terry instead of to me. Your refusal to talk to me directly is provocative, and I wish you would stop that as well.

      Make your response to Terry, Leon, but don’t forget, this is an open mike. We are all listening and have a right to comment.


      • theotheri says:

        Tony & Leon — All right you two – you both know that the readers of this blog are not interested in participating in a personal spat. I know I certainly am not. I think we need to assume that we are each doing our best to communicate to the best of our abilities, which, unfortunately, are not always fully understood by everyone or even up to the task. We are all incomplete, all subject to misunderstanding and being misunderstood. We all need to keep remembering that, even when we feel personally assaulted.

        This is not my blog, but if either of you want to work out your difficulties with the other’s approach in this forum, rather than in private exchanges, I’m not interested.

        I hope you don’t, though. I think this is a stimulating, informed, extremely valuable blog that is a marvellous place to exchange different points of view – and even to gain some valuable insights. I know I have.


  7. leonkrier says:

    Tony, Terry, Sal, Joseph, Brian, Joris, etc.

    My apologies first off for the length of my comments, but under the circumstances, I find it necessary.

    May my efforts to comment with respect for all and make a positive contribution be entirely fulfilled.

    Although I oppose arguments from “credentialism,” I would like to share something of my background as context for what I subsequently share.

    Yes, Terry, you and I have something in common regarding psychology. I have a PhD in counseling and am a Licensed psychotherapist (LPC). After 18 years, I retired and began working in Case Management and have done so for the past 17 years. I have worked in an Acute Hospital for 15 of those years and have had to confront the human struggle every day I work and try to be of assistance to patients and their loved ones.

    My employer requires that I keep my license active to stay employed. In 2011, the State of Colorado implemented legislation requiring 40 hours of Continuing Professional Development every two years in order to qualify for license renewal. 2011 – 2013 I focused significantly on Medical Ethics; one consequence was doing a PowerPoint presentation on the history of the Hippocratic Oath. For the period 2013 – 2015, I have focused upon Neuroscience and Neuroethetics. I have read extensively in this area and have been particularly interested in how Neuroscience is now a major influence in psychotherapy. One major author is Daniel Seigel’s The Developing Mind. I have taken an all day workshop by Bonnie Badenock, PhD entitled: “Attachment & Emotional Regulation: Brain Based Therapy & Practical Neuroscience.” I did a half-day program through The Love & Trauma Center focusing on Neuroscience & Addiction Recovery. In November, I will be taking an all day workshop by Bessel van der Kolk, MD entitled “Trauma, Attachment & Neuroscience.” This is all to say that neuroscience research is having a major impact on how people are being psychotherapeutically treated today. When I was in practice, I was doing a balancing act between Object Relations and Cognitive Behavioral theories. Insurance reimbursement did not have patience with the former and paid only for the latter. This is all to say that although not an active psychotherapist, I remain intensely invested in what is the human experience, whether that is at home with my wife or visiting with friends or serving people when they’ve had a hip replacement, a kidney transplant or are faced with hospice care.

    Neuroesthetics has been important to me because I’ve had a life-long interest in art and architecture. I was a docent for the City of Denver’s public art department for 4 years and also did PowerPoint programs on classical art and architecture for community organizations. I am a member of the ICAA (Institute for Classical Art and Architecture) for the past 3 years participating in monthly architectural tours. I also do oil painting. The nature of the artistic experience is indeed fascinating and Neuroesthetics as promoted by Semir Zeki, Alan T Marty and alia is a service to the appreciation of art and architecture. None of the vitality and passion of art is lost by engaging in Neuroesthetics but helps us to understand how art fits into the evolution of the brain and especially the brain of homo sapiens. If one reads the articles by Garry Kennard, it is hard to understand why one would object to Neuroesthetics as denigrating and impersonalizing one’s aesthetic response to the universe that is found in poetry and other art forms. As one researcher has said “Artists were the first neuroscientists.” They had an intuitive understanding of what people would respond to.

    This is a long prologue to the issue at hand, namely, REDUCTIONISM.

    1) Am I “anti-intellectualizing” in the name of “Minimalism?”

    I used the word “Minimalism” in the sense that it is used in reference to art and architecture. It is a legitimate form of expression of what one experiences albeit it “minimally.” It was just a suggestion, a hunch, not a thorough going agenda.

    2) Is Cashmore my “guru?”

    This is the first article I’ve read by him so calling Cashmore my “guru” seems a bit of an overreach. However, if I read several more of his provocative articles, I’ll set up a little shrine to him and burn incense.

    3) “Leon and his friends would have us locked in some cerebral chamber, an upper room without windows and doors….”

    Well, this is a gratuitous assertion. Granted my knowledge of neuroscience is rather limited but the researchers, practitioners, artists who I have studied do not hold this viewpoint at all. Read someone like Alan T Marty’s “Neurobiology and the Art of Walking in Paris” and this judgment about locked in a cerebral chamber could not be further from the truth. Read The Brain by Michael O’Shea and learn how memories especially long term memories are formed; this section is worth the price of the book alone. Knowing how my memories are formed doesn’t lessen the fact that I cherish a whole host of life-time events. In fact, the nature of the research is all about the interaction between the brain and the world in which the brain functions. It is not locked inside itself; it is immensely sensitive to its determinative genes, its environment and stochastic events. The whole purpose of doing fMRI is study how the brain is reacting to its environment. Neuroesthetics is, for example, exploring the possibility that the artistic response is rooted in the necessity of identifying edible and nutritional food sources under the pressures to survive.

    4) “bag of chemicals”

    Yes, I love my chemicals… AND I take them everyday.

    20 years before I read The Mystery of Matter I had figured out that matter and energy are basically convertible. I have made numerous efforts to understand Einstein’s Theories of Special and General Relativity and E=MC2. I’ve read S. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time & The Universe in a Nutshell. I have read books on evolution including The Origin of Species. I would say that for a layperson vis-a-vis science, I am fairly well versed in basic concepts but continually work to be more enlightened. That we are a “bag of chemicals” is an admittedly leash-tugging effort to get people’s attention. The Law of Physics and the Law of Chemistry that govern this “bag of chemicals” are understood in the context of Quantum Mechanics and all the laws of the universe as Peter Atkins in his Four Laws That Drive the Universe has laid out. None of the folks I’m familiar with hold to a mechanical building blocks, a Cartesian res extensa, worldview. I certainly don’t. To say that I’m a “stone mechanistic reductionist” based upon one quote from one article is again an overreach. Although such a label is a 7 course meal to eat let alone digest, I leave it to you and others to make that judgment. For me, it has little relevance; it’s a pigeon-hole that serves to dismiss rather than understand.

    So, what is my worldview?

    This has to be brief given the length of my comments already.

    * I’m a naturalist, materialist, monist and do not grant any “exceptionalism” to homo sapiens.

    * I’m an atheist. I see this term not as a noun, but as a mode of exploration driven by the scientific method and especially evidence-based assertions.

    * I affirm that matter and energy are one dynamic unity.

    * I am included in the 13% of Americans who accept, affirm and commit to a naturalistic, Darwinian explanation of the evolution of the universe.

    However, whether beast or bird, lion or lamb, chimp or a next-door-chump, we all have emerged out of the same evolutionary process. Therefore, the lion and the lamb have consciousness, make decisions, are aware of their environment and respond. Home sapiens likewise has an emerged consciousness with characteristics of decision-making and interactive with the environment. Some of these characteristics like self, ego, reflection, language, personality, person, purpose, meaning are indeed outcomes of evolution, are outcomes of that now notorious “bag of chemicals.” Today, there is a fierce battle going on regarding “human exceptionalism.,” namely, somehow, we, humans, are essentially different than the lion and the lamb. I say we are not.

    On any given day in the hospital were I work, you can see how the “bag of chemicals” that make up the brain is severely disturbed by amyloid plaque destroying not only bodily functions, e.g., forgetting how to swallow, but also “stealing” the “personality” of the patient. Does this mean that they’re any less valued by the hospital? Certainly not! But it is the reality of the brain. There are a litany of medications used everyday that change people’s state of consciousness, either temporarily or permanently (if they keep taking the medications). Consciousness, self, ego, personality, meaning, purpose are all subject to the invasion of medications. But this is also true of social and cultural influences as well as lifestyle determinants such as addiction that shape the brain and its characteristics.

    I am not disturbed by acknowledging that I and my beloved wife are a “bag of chemicals” and all that implies. We have loved each other for 40 years. We have loving families and cherished friends. We live our lives with purpose, meaning and dignity and have had our share of adventures and vital involvements even as we age. (I continue to work as mentioned above. In my evaluations, I’m affirmed for the smile… and sense of humor I bring to our team and the patients). When we die, we’ll be cremated and be “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” literally. We don’t need an afterlife. Life has been good and we’lll say goodbye to each other and our loved ones with a profound sense of gratitude. So we embrace the bird and the beast and celebrate that they and we have been the “wild life.” We simply know that those cherished human characteristics of consciousness are transitory, ephemeral and most likely illusory. They serve our evolutionary needs which include making life worth living.

    Thanks to all for encouraging me to comment and I thank you also for taking the time to listen… I am open to comments.



  8. Frank Lawlor says:


    A long while ago, when I was still incredibly young, but did not know it, I would drive our pre-teen daughter to school every morning before catching my commuter train into New York City. It was only on those drives that I heard the latest popular music. I still hear the beat of Madonna belting out “A Material Girl”. My nerdy reaction was, “OK, material, but opposed to what, spiritual?” In the years since then, this question has only become more culturally important. For our society in general the material is still an “inferior” level of existence and the self-improvement gurus urge their followers to achieve their “higher selves” by living some version of “personal spirituality”. Perhaps our species cannot bear the idea that we humans cannot stand the humiliation of being material. The idea of being “made in the image and likeness of God” somehow sustains our self-created position at the pinnacle of reality. We are “gods”, not in some nuanced Panentheistic sense, but in an idolatrous sense. It is all an interesting case of self delusion.

    Modern science did not invent the idea that, despite our obvious gifts of consciousness, humor, analytic prowess, artistic creativity, and persisting tendency to seek self extinction, we are material. We are material, living in and originating from a material universe. A primary bit of data, accessible to scientist and artist and poet and plumber and farmer is the very obvious fact that matter can complexify to life and life can complexify to consciousness. The implications of this are many. One possibility is that this is completely a biochemical problem. Another is that this is a consequence of a basic property of matter expressed at a certain level of complexity in the evolutionary process.

    The astonishing success of Newton in reducing the motions of apples, stars and planets to a few mathematical “Laws of Nature” was what led science to the generalization that everything that happens in “Nature” is totally determined. If all of the physical variables in every interaction can be identified, categorized and mathematically expressed as laws of nature, then every outcome can be predicted with absolute accuracy. This has been the “Holy Grail” of science since Newton. Its expression in our “Age of the Quantum” is given by the Physical Cosmologist who today can confidently assert that: Among the infinitude of “Parallel Universes” in which various physical constants can vary randomly, there exists a universe identical to our own in which there was a scientist who did exactly as Newton, Einstein, Bohr, and even I did and am doing (including writing this statement). cf “The Hidden Reality”by B. Greene. Reductionism and determinism are not dead. However, this extreme is no longer the norm among scientists. I would suggest as related reading: “Impossibility: The limits of science and the science of limits” John Barrow.

    We now live in a scientific milieu in which there is an ongoing dispute about whether or not the basic components of reality are particles, or alternately, “Quantum Fields” (in which case no particles exist, neither electron or photon or graviton). In this view, replete with mathematical equations and a bunch of Nobel prizes, a limited number of fields or “properties of space” account for all of reality. cf “Fields of Color” by Brooks. Therefore, if the most fundamental problem remains under intense scrutiny, it is no surprise that such a common phenomenon as consciousness remains at the common sense level as a property arising at some basic level of matter itself.

    Tony E. – thanks again for again pushing us, your readers to probe, read and think more widely and deeply than we might otherwise do.

    Frank Lawlor

    • theotheri says:

      Frank – I just want to say thank you for suggesting that readers might read Brooks “Fields of Color,” and Barrow’s “Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits.” I am just finishing Brooks, and as a cognitive psychologist am eagerly looking forward to reading Barrow.
      Terry (aka The Other I)

  9. jorisheise says:

    Such a rich conversation! I sit at the feet of a plethora of gurus! Many dimensions here–and clearly elements of truth–in my opinion–in all of them. As a tiny trace element can be crucial to a living being, whether to maintain its life or to kill it, these elements of truth–in this case, I believe just enhance all of our lives. Several things seem worth responding to:.

    The modern–I stress the “modern”–atheists tend to self-describe as explorers, seekers, inquisitive, and open, as opposed to denying, negating and the like. I appreciate that, and think it may be the greatest contribution to theology–the “god I don’t believe in, but still looking….”

    Secondly, I return to my premise–a Jesus-one–that it is in doing rather than “belief” that we achieve something of value, however exceptional or unexceptional a human may be. Cf. The dispute between the Pope and Cardinal Burke. In my opinion, therefore–except for raw hubris and some American Republicans–the”exceptionality” does not amount to a hill of beans. …and words are always inadequate.

    Third, illusions have a reality–whether we speak of a mirage on the road, a dream at night, a “definition” of God, a film on the screen, or the universe with its myriad dimensions. Or: illusions have a value–the mirage on the road teaching us, for example, that light bends…, and movies providing something that is not–not–just atoms dancing on a screen and photons into my eyes.

    Fourth–along with Karen Armstrong’s view of the Great Transformation circa 550 B.C.E. I believe that we are in a period of vast and deep cultural change, insisting that the Roman Catholic tradition in 100 years or so will be virtually unrecognizable, though faithful to Jesus. I believe that the Trinitarian view found at Nicaea points to a reality–psychological, historical, theological and mostly practical that much of history has missed–the dimensions of time–in physical creation, in humanity, and in awareness.

  10. theotheri says:

    First and most of all, may I add my thanks to Tony, and to all of the above for the comments that, to my great surprise, have given me a whole new perspective on the question of reductionism. Despite the smoke, there is a great deal of light. I have never really studied this question from any perspective outside of psychology with a dash of philosophy, and listening to the thoughts of accomplished theologians, philosophers, biologists, physicists, and other social scientists reminds me that I am very much one of the blind men standing around the proverbial elephant. In that context, it’s quite surprising what we seem to have in common.

    Unless I’m mistaken (it does happen occasionally), we are all pretty much agreed that we belong in this material universe, are products of its evolution. But this universe to which we all belong, this matter of which we are made, is dynamic, not the inert passive blobs so many of us were taught characterized matter. Einstein I think is the one who finally slammed that door shut.

    Frank Lawlor suggested that perhaps many people have rejected this view of our material substance because “we cannot bear the humiliation.” As a psychologist I used to hypothesize something similar – are people too afraid? too ignorant? even too bigoted? But if you turn it around, there is a deep validity to a refusal to accept that we are merely material objects, if one does not recognize just how dynamic, how fantastic, how incredible matter/energy is. That “bag of chemicals,” as Leon put it, is not a put-down as I thought he meant. It’s a proud proclamation of belonging! We are not a table of billiard balls merely waiting to be knocked about with only an illusion of self-direction and consequent responsibility.

    Well, I don’t think we are, and that perhaps gets us back to the issue of reductionism and determinism, which may be at the heart of this whole discussion. Ultimately we may succeed in explaining consciousness as a biochemical matter or – my hunch – a property of matter expressed at a certain level of complexity. But that might not be the fundamental issue. It may rather be the question of determinism. We are limited by the nature of our brains, of our bodies, of our environment, by our opportunities and experience. But are we totally determined by them? Do we have any choice in the direction we go? in the behaviors in which we engage?

    In truth we don’t know the limits of our freedom, even our own . It’s one of my few acts of faith that we can make choices. I don’t always have the choices I want. But I believe (emphasis on the word believe) that I am never without a choice.

    Again, thank you. I can’t tell you how energizing and supportive I have found this discussion.


    • jorisheise says:

      The wrench, Terry, in determinism is all the probability (Heisenberg et al.). It is so prevalent. Quarks and other “material/energy” things pop up and split and become virtual and resume “reality”–and it just seems hard to fit a determinism into that. Maybe a very bright psycho-physicist can. (I recall a book some 30 years ago by a prominent psychologist–it had “freedom” in the title–that essentially denied free will. It was unsettling because I could not answer it…does anyone recall that book?)

      • theotheri says:

        Well, Joris, if I understand the problem of determinism in the context of probability correctly, the way out for those committed to determinism is to separate predictability and determinism. In other words, from that perspective, everything may be determined down to the last particle (or field if there aren’t any particles), but we might not be able to predict it. At least not within the context of our present understanding of Heisenberg et al.

        But my understanding of some of quantum theory is nil, so don’t take my understanding too seriously. I recently read an explanation of why Hawking thinks black holes emit a very low level of radiation. It talked about particles on the edge deciding if they should become real and stay on the outside of the hole. I haven’t the vaguest idea what this means. How does a particle that doesn’t exist decide if it should become real? I doubt it is gibberish to physicists though.

        So if anybody reading this comment can translate it for a middling thinker like me to understand, I would be thrilled.

      • jorisheise says:

        Quick answer, trying to stay within the talking circumference of the original offering: My first response was: Hey, that is a great distinction, but one reflection it still wobbles. If “determined,” it suggest strongly as passive (or middle) voice–something is “determining” the unpredictability of quantum particles–their virtual and/or real wave/quantum state (which can be both at the same time!) still challenges who or what determines all that unpredictability. God? (this last is a tease, of course)

  11. leonkrier says:

    Yes, I, too, am enjoying and benefiting from the above comments.

    Yes, “Determinism” is possibly the pivotal issue. I would just suggest the following article: “A Quantum Hypothesis of Brain Function and Consciousness.” It is a worthwhile read, but it’s speculation about RHS (Real Human Soul) undermines its line of argumentation in my opinion. So far, attempts by others, Bohm, Penrose, et alia to take a Quantum approach to consciousness have apparently failed to hold up under critical analysis.



  12. saluman73 says:

    Dear All, It has indeed been a fascinating week of article by Tony with comments.We are flying through the universe perhaps faster than the speed of light. The multilogue (sic, according to Tony), is addictive. I thank you all and hope you will keep flying, but please slow it down enough for us earthlings to keep up. At the risk of being accused by Tony of reductionism, I see our multilogue as an emerging struggle between atheism and humanism. Most of us have given up on the G/d we grew up with as unknowable, whether that he is, or what she is. So we are left with humanism. We kind of know THAT we exist, but how or what or who we are? Remember “Quis, quid,ubi, quibus auxiliis, cur, quomodo, quando, from our first studies in logic? We are now, in this so-called “new age” wondering what the hell we are. I have thought for years with Teilhard that we are “evolution conscious of itself.” So it is fascinating to watch you youngsters )(I’m 85),
    dealing in such obscure and profound, and sometimes almost silly speculations about human consciousness. But that’s who we are. We are human, of the humus, and it’s a joy to listen to us.
    Sal Umana (of the humus)

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