A Review of Sean Carroll’s 2016 book
Religion in the West, admittedly, has become a problem for modern man. It is so dominated by a false literalist narrative inherited from antiquity that it explains if not excuses Carroll’s antipathy. Carroll is right. Religion’s antiquated narrative is incompatible with science. If that was his concern, he should be reassured that there are many “religionists” who acknowledge science’s authority in matters of cosmological importance and are committed to developing a new narrative that is compatible with science. Out of commitment to the poetic side of his “poetic naturalism” he might consider joining us in our efforts.
Granted that traditional religion is obsolete, we also recognize that religion has helped people cope with decline and death. Whatever other shortcomings Religion may have, it has provided “meaning” in the form of explanation and poetry. Carroll recognizes we have a right to both. But he will not entertain the possibility that religion, purged of its defects, might be the poetry his explanations are lacking.
Western Religion’s traditional “solution” of the human problem was not factual. The narrative that there is another world of “spirits” from which we came and to which our disembodied “souls” will return after death is pure fiction. I agree. There is no other world. There are no bodiless souls; our personalities, which are the neural reflections of the coherence and temporal identity of our material organisms, disappear when our bodies disintegrate.
We are entropic beings. We participate fully in the limitations endemic to LIFE in this exclusively material universe. The “poetic” dimension should acknowledge and address the apparent contradiction between a material energy that is instinctively programmed to live forever (and spontaneously cultivates relationships in view of that expectation) and is simultaneously destined to succumb to an organismic entropy that terminates all the relationships created during the lifespan of the organism. I may not care if I live or die, but I am not resigned to the loss of the people I love.
How does religion address this? How does it both acknowledge and confront the inherent contradiction in the human condition?
The first step is to distinguish religion’s intent from the traditional means chosen to achieve it. The means chosen, the narratives all preceded the era of modern science and therefore were inevitably imaginative in character. So, Yes! The religious narrative must be adjusted to accommodate the new knowledge. This adjustment is not complicated: pre-scientific “facts” are taken as mythic, i.e., metaphorical not literal. But myth has another dimension. The traditional myth also embodies the religious intent of the narrative; and the religious intent, I contend, may remain true even after the discreditation of the literal story.
Let’s make this concrete: The biblical book of Genesis contains the Judaic myth of creation. Until the modern era people believed that this was a literal account. We now know, however, that the earth and life on it was not the intentional, purposeful work of an omnipotent humanoid Craftsman; it was the self-elaboration of matter occurring over fourteen billion years. The ancient authors were probably well aware that they were making up a story. But it was a story that made sense according to their lights and it projected their religious intent: Creation implied “Will.” Humankind and the world in which it found itself was the product of intention, choice, love.
The intent of the biblical authors was to ground religion in relationship. Effectively what that meant was that the quest for secure existence, which is the objective of the conatus, found its ultimate answer in the benevolence of the source of existence. Were they right? Obviously they were wrong about the cosmological facts; but were they also wrong about the intent: the claim that Creation was a product of “Will,” a project of love, and that just being alive meant you were already in a reciprocal relationship with your existential source? Does the familiar, the relational, the human, the interpersonal, truly characterize existence, or is “being human” with its focus on relationship an anomaly, a freak of nature, an idiosyncrasy that needs to be sheltered under blankets of denial from a harsh mechanical universe that has no idea what we are talking about?
Consider: from our analysis in section 2 of this essay, we know that matter is alive and appetitive. Unless you are prepared to insist that something entirely new … something entirely other than the matter present, entered the scene and ruptured the linear continuity of what had been steadily evolving since the initial expansion, the appearance of LIFE has to be understood as the emergence of what was there all along, a step in a process that was already underway. There is enough evidence to make it reasonable if not compelling that the fundamental indicator of life — the instinct for self-preservation — had been operative analogously at all phases of matter’s appearance, even at the sub-atomic, atomic and molecular levels. Conatus is the desire to live, to survive. No matter how primitive the level in which it is found, LIFE is the desire to continue living, being-here: LIFE is intrinsically, inherently, “Will” in the sense that Arthur Schopenhauer used the word:
For Schopenhauer, this is not the principle of self-consciousness and rationally-infused will, but is rather what he simply calls “Will” — a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge at the foundation of our instinctual drives, and at the foundational being of everything. Schopenhauer’s originality does not reside in his characterization of the world as Will, or as act — for we encounter this position in Fichte’s philosophy — but in the conception of Will as being devoid of rationality or intellect.
As living forms evolved, the way they manifested their conatus evolved along with them. Primitive cellular behavior developed new strategies of survival that included multicellularity with its necessary internal lockstep collaboration among individual cells along with an external communitarianism connecting members of the same species to one another for securing food, defending against predators and having partners for reproduction. Eventually consciousness evolved into intelligence and “Will” came to include purpose and intentionality as we humans understand and use the word. None of these later developments, however, represented an interruption in the fundamental thrust of the conatus, established at the first moments of matter’s existence: the will to be-here.
Religion projects that relationship is the foundational underpinning of all reality. Before the scientific era, that assumption was extrapolated from humankind’s experience of its own relationality and creativity, and it was expressed by imagining a “humanoid” deity who chose to create the world as his artisanal product the way a human Craftsman would — intentionally.
Later, in Greek hands, Jewish belief in a humanoid “God” became part of a wider assumption that something other than matter existed in the universe. Platonic Greeks posited an invisible substance called “spirit” that was alive, intelligent and could never die. The theory was called “dualism” because it imagined that there were two completely distinct and opposed substances in the world: matter and spirit. It had been falsely assumed that we humans were “spirit” and belonged to another world, a world of spirits, and that we were pathetically alone with our rational intelligence in this world made of matter. But we now know that there is no such “thing” as spirit and there is no “other” world.
When “spirit” disappeared as the source of LIFE, “God,” who was assumed to be spirit, disappeared with it. Matter, without spirit, was orphaned in the reductionist universe and was assumed to be inert, passive, mechanical and utterly devoid of life. It meant that relationship lost its rationale. Religion, without a philosophical foundation in “spirit,” could not conjure a cosmic “relationship” out of nothing.
But I have a different view. Yes, we are matter, and only matter, the material offspring of this material universe; but rather than eliminating, I maintain that being matter revalidates our spontaneous option for relationship because “Will” is not grounded in rational “spirit” — it is grounded in living matter.
LIFE on earth displays a remarkable homogeneity. I see in protozoa and other primitive forms the very same instincts that drive my own conatus. The LIFE we share is similar in all of us and suggests not only the same origination but an ongoing activation of the same energy. The active commonality immediately evokes a single source and matrix without specifying what that source is or how the participation occurs. The only LIFE that exists has been passed on. LIFE, it seems, can only arise from LIFE. Just by recognizing that there is a LIFE-source whose essential appetitive energy all living things autonomously and simultaneously activate as our respective conatus, is sufficient to ground what I mean by religion. We are one thing by reason of LIFE.
Religion comprises the symbolic structures that serve as vehicle for the human relationship to all the participants in this family, including its existential source and matrix. I contend that it is absolutely appropriate to relate to LIFE; LIFE, after all, is responsible for what we are … and that we are-here … even though it is not exclusively human, and in fact cannot be said to reside anywhere but in the places where it is observed functioning, i.e., in all things made of matter including us. We know LIFE when we see it. It is, as far as we can tell, exactly as universally immanent as it appears. It can legitimately be characterized as it is seen functioning: an integrative tendency in unconnected atoms and molecules, a vegetative force in plants, a sentient and mobile dynamism in animals, and a conscious intelligent drive in human beings. It is also, as we saw in section 2, hierarchically ordered: each level of emergence incorporates and builds out from the level(s) that went before. No one way of being alive can be said to take priority over others, so none can be said to be secondary, caused, or the result of delusion.
LIFE is also, indisputably, as a posteriori as it appears. In other words, while LIFE as a dormant potential naturally preceded its perceptible emergence in living things, its actual activation was the work of the existing agent or agents — those particular cells — that first became aware of that potential and appropriated for themselves their power to live, i.e., to “will” to be-here. For it seems indisputable that at the moment that LIFE emerged some proto-cell or complex molecule had to morph into a self-embracing organism capable of self-directed behavior focused on self-sustenance, self-preservation and self-transcending reproduction.
Before we go any further I would like to clarify what exactly our conclusions are saying, and what they are not.
- This is absolutely not an attempt to prove the existence of the traditional imaginary “God” of supernatural theism. That “God” was an individual transcendent humanoid entity who created the universe and intervenes in it at will to change the course of cosmic and human history. He was believed to communicate with humankind through “revelation” and interpersonal contact. There is no such “God” and this study is not an attempt to conjure “him” into existence, much less to validate the assertions made by those “religions” which claim to be the privileged recipient of his revelations and the executor of his will.
- We are simply trying to describe LIFE across the entire spectrum of living things by identifying its fundamental characteristics, and we have determined that they are a self-embrace manifested in the conatus — the desire to live — the “Will” to be-here which transcends death through reproduction and lives on in progeny. “Will” characterizes LIFE proportionately at all levels of its manifestations.
- The conatus is recognizable as an appetite for existential continuation which approximates to desire and will. The organism knows itself to be a “self.” The conatus is an intentionality bound to conscious identity whereby the living entity in question displays a self-interest in its own existential continuity through self-sustenance, self-defense and reproduction. It is a self-embrace.
- Using abductive reasoning the clear and undeniable presence of the conatus at all levels and all phases of living complexity evokes the concept of a common source and universal presence with an inferential certitude.24 There is no claim, however, that the word “source” gives us any information beyond the bare abstract notion itself. The best explanation for the universal activation of the homogeneous conatus across earth’s entire biota, and plausibly in all of matter, is a common source and continuous matrix.
- LIFE is matrix. There is no evidence that the alleged “source” is a separate independent organism or entity with a unique or singular identity of its own, much less that it is rational and purposeful. There is nothing to suggest that LIFE is not identical with, or at least indistinguishable from, the living organisms where it is currently being actuated exactly as we observe it. The only information about LIFE that we have is where we see it functioning and what we see it doing: it is an appetite that resides with equal intensity and equal autonomy in all living material organisms proportionate to the level of sophistication of their behavior and their interaction with the world around them.
I hope these clarifications are enough to establish the bare simplicity of what I consider a compelling conclusion: that the LIFE we perceive in ourselves and in all living things includes the notion of existential will or intent allowing for relationship among all living things including LIFE’s source. The desire for the existential continuity (survival) of self through progeny is an intrinsic and universal property of LIFE whereby it reaches out to living things beyond itself, making LIFE at all levels and between levels intrinsically relational.
The implications of these conclusions for the human being are profound, for it means that our natural inclination toward relationship as our primary valence with the world around us finds itself validated in a cosmic milieu and an endless future trajectory, for we are nothing but living matter and we shall always be. LIFE and its reproductive (genetic) relationships absolutely defines what we are because it characterizes everything that has emerged and evolved from the material energy that is this earth. I contend it is appropriate to pursue a grateful engaged relationship to this LIFE in which we “live and move and have our being” because we are genetically related to it biologically and intentionally. For, while there is no indication that LIFE is an individual entity capable of reciprocation, our instinct to be grateful is not unreasonable because of the clear indications of intentionality — “Will” — in matter’s living energy wherever it is found, and retrospectively in its source. The notion of endless existential continuity that intentionally embraces all future progeny is intrinsic to LIFE. As the offspring and actuators of that “Will,” we exist enveloped in its pro-creative embrace. We are a chosen thing. We are part of a project of love and our very organisms are programmed to further that enterprise.