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. 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 existence — matter’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 alone … this 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. 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.